50 years of pols and paper chases: Tales from inside City Hall
Fifty years after City Hall opened upon the rambunctious ruins of old Scollay Square, the Brutalist landmark remains divisive.
Architects have praised it as a bold achievement. A nationwide poll of architects and historians once hailed the building as the sixth-greatest in all US history.
But the public is still ambivalent, even hostile: Many regard the $26 million structure (it formally opened to the public on Feb. 10, 1969) as a cold, unwelcoming, ugly concrete fortress. The city’s planned $60 million makeover of City Hall Plaza is seen as a major step to soften that image.
One way to view the structure on this milestone is through the eyes of those who have seen its history unfold in real time. With that in mind, the Globe asked four reporters who once worked in the newspaper’s City Hall bureau to recount a favorite memory of their tenure.
City Hall reporter 1975-77; bureau chief, 1982-83
Robinson later led the Spotlight Team’s investigation that uncovered the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal and is currently
Covering City Hall, which I did twice, was a blast. By that I mean a blast of cold air. Because the press room — on the 7th floor in the ’70s and on the 9th floor thereafter, was frigid in winter. And also sweltering in summer. One could open the windows, but the wind would blow papers everywhere.
Also, keeping what you were doing to yourself was quite a challenge. When I first went to City Hall in 1975, we shared an L-shaped room with the outgunned Boston Herald reporters. At one point, we discovered a Herald reporter was rifling through our trash after we left to try to glean what we were working on. After that, we took our trash with us!
On the 9th floor, our office — by then our office alone — abutted an office of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. My desk, from which I was doing a story about the federal corruption investigation of Mayor Kevin H. White, was up against the wall.
Some weeks later, a source in the BRA let us know that two BRA planners who had desks on the other side of the wall were quite fully aware of our reporting — but that they weren’t diming us out because they were appalled by the alleged corruption.
Of course, in the end the US attorney — and future governor — William F. Weld, came up empty-handed. Of course, the BRA employees who could hear through the walls probably knew that, too.
City Hall reporter 1988-1990
Howe is a senior adviser at Denterlein, a Boston strategic communications consulting firm.
They tried to bury us in 45,000 pieces of paper — but we defied them and got the story out.
That’s my favorite memory of working in the City Hall Bureau in the Ray Flynn administration.
Covering City Hall is a lot like covering the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. There is one, and only one, source of news that matters, and that is the mayor, and the mayor has extraordinary power to defund, punish, fire, and otherwise render miserable anyone who criticizes the mayor or releases information the mayor does not want released.
To be a City Hall reporter and break any big administration news other than authorized mayoral handouts requires constant digging and sometimes a bit of hand-to-hand combat.
After brainstorming with the legendary Brian C. Mooney and Steve Marantz, my bureau mates at the time, I came up with an idea of trying to find out: What happens when people call the mayor’s hotline, 635-4500, and ask to have a pothole filled or abandoned car towed or something else? Do different neighborhoods get faster or slower response? Does Beacon Hill get better service than Mattapan Square?
We submitted a public records request to get an electronic record of every complaint called in to the city in the years 1987 and 1988. Donald A. Gillis, Mayor Flynn’s director of neighborhood services, stalled, and stalled, and stalled some more, and after months finally complied ... by having an aide roll in a cart containing a 12-foot-high stack of papers. Forty five thousand records, all printed out on computer paper.
Gillis actually got the Boston Herald to write a “Pols and Politics” item about what a clever practical joke they’d played on the Globe to thwart our efforts to get the records.
But then we went to work. With a lot of help from Brian and Steve, and co-ops Linda Gallant and Cathy Liu, we read through and marked up every one of the 45,000 records to categorize them by neighborhood, type of complaint, and how quickly the complaint got resolved, if ever. Globe IT whizzes Gina Maniscalco and Stuart Gardner wrote a program to crunch the data.
The story ran on the front page of the Sunday Globe on Sept. 23, 1990: Abandoned cars sat for almost twice as long on Roxbury and South End streets as Allston-Brighton. Burned-out streetlights in South Boston, the mayor’s neighborhood, got fixed three times as fast as those in Roslindale. Thirty days elapsed before a One Way sign in Dorchester turned the wrong way by vandals got repaired.
Ultimately, this was not a story that sent anyone to jail. But it got a huge response from city residents and taxpayers. The City Council summoned Flynn to answer questions about the wildly varying response times.
And getting to write the sidebar story about how Don Gillis and his team had tried — and failed — to stymie us from doing the story?
That was a good day for the Globe’s City Hall bureau.
bureau chief 2006-2009
Slack covers the Department of Veterans Affairs for USA Today.
One of the more colorful memories I have of covering City Hall was just how much Thomas Menino hated it. He loved being mayor but not the building that came with the job.
The man who would become the city’s longest-serving mayor had plans. Many of them. He held an idea competition in 1994 to remake the windswept brick desert known as City Hall Plaza. Two years later, he floated moving city government to Post Office Square, and in 1998, he actually earmarked $250,000 for a study on moving it elsewhere, but then decided the market conditions weren’t favorable.
By the time I arrived to cover City Hall in 2003, his feelings hadn’t changed, and in 2006, after I had become the Globe’s City Hall bureau chief, Menino thought he had it licked — he would sell it and build a shimmering center of city government on the redeveloping South Boston waterfront. Calling the project “The Gateway to Boston at the Harborside,” he said the new edifice would recall the city’s maritime history.
This idea elicited all manner of speculation about what price the existing City Hall would fetch, if it would sell at all, and, of course, complaints, because, well, Boston.
“It is ugly, but it’s just something that’s always been there,” one native Bostonian told us at the time. “That’s like trying to rip down Fenway Park.”
Alas, the great recession prompted Menino to put those plans on ice. So the great concrete behemoth once derided as “the crate that Faneuil Hall came in” lives on. Congrats. Or something.
Ryan is a member of the Globe’s Spotlight Team.
Boston City Hall stands like a concrete dictator that dominates an often lonely, windswept red brick plaza. The hulking building looks more like a fallout shelter than a seat of government where the halls can be so dour that even the top floor can feel like a musty basement. Picture a squat but unyielding mountain, which is perhaps a fitting symbol for the mayors who have a near monopoly on power in municipal government.
On my first day covering City Hall, Mayor Thomas M. Menino took the oath of office for his fifth term. Boston has a habit of electing mayors for not just a term, but a generation. Menino seemed as much of a permanent, unmovable fixture as the building he ruled.
But I was there the day Boston City Hall moved. It was just before 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011. I was typing at my desk on the 9th floor when the building shuddered. I looked up. In my window, the blinds had begun to sway. Waves sloshed back and forth in the 5-gallon jug atop my water cooler. The floor — that unmovable slab concrete floor — trembled.
It was an earthquake.
I rushed outside. Thousands of office workers flooded City Hall Plaza. I followed a crowd to Devonshire Street, where a jumble of people held their smartphones aloft to photograph what appeared to be earthquake damage. Firefighters raced to the scene to investigate reports that two old buildings had leaned into each other. The buildings now touched.
But firefighters quickly ferreted out the facts — the buildings had always touched. There was no damage. The earthquake emanated from Virginia and Boston got little more than a good scare.
Eventually, I made my way back to City Hall. The building — all that unmovable concrete — looked the same. But somehow, it felt a little less unyielding, perhaps even less permanent.
Nineteen months later, Menino stood in Faneuil Hall and announced his retirement, setting the stage for the first open race for mayor in a generation. Menino’s decision not to run for a sixth term had nothing to do with the earthquake, but it evoked a similar feel. The unmovable had moved.
Not long after Mayor Martin J. Walsh took office, City Hall shuddered again. I was at my office on the 9th floor. Seven floors below on the mezzanine, a clerk heard a roar that sounded like a car had been dropped in the lobby. Others described it as the sound of bricks breaking.
A 40-foot section of tile floor had suddenly buckled, opening a crack that ran from the birth certificate counter, past the death certificates, and to a stairwell. I wrote at the time that in his bid for mayor, Walsh (like Menino) pledged to tear down City Hall. The break in the floor was not the work of the mayor trying to make good on a campaign promise. The official explanation was that concrete underneath the floor tiles had expanded and contracted.
But I always thought it was something more. Perhaps the fissure was a natural consequence of growing pains of a new administration. Or more likely, a fault line ripped open the floor because of the new political order at City Hall.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.