IN THE PANTHEON of Boston mayors, Thomas M. Menino stood apart as a politician with a common touch and uncommon skill at overcoming obstacles. Menino was the city’s first Italian-American mayor, its longest-serving mayor, and a skillful leader who simultaneously served the causes of downtown development and neighborhood revitalization. In a telling moment, Menino rose dramatically from a wheelchair last year to rally his city after the fatal Boston Marathon bombing. Menino died at 71 on Thursday. His ability to calm and soothe a once-fractious city may be his longest-lasting legacy for Boston.
For five terms, Menino’s nuts-and-bolts approach to city policy — combined with his be-everywhere, know-everyone work ethic — offered Bostonians an opportunity to put age-old resentments aside, and to focus instead on shared concerns. Today, his loss feels all the more personal because of his remarkable ability to connect with Bostonians of all ages and backgrounds, and because he was never content to sit back and let others do the heavy lifting.
Menino’s political gifts were unconventional, to put it mildly. Famously tongue-tied, he was underestimated from an early age. In his recently published autobiography, “Mayor for a New America,” he describes the humiliation of hearing his first-grade teacher insult the intelligence of Italian-Americans. Such slights might have cultivated, in a lesser individual, an enduring sense of grievance. In Menino they instilled a strong sense of empathy with people who’ve been bullied, ignored, or counted out. Fittingly, he governed with an eye to distributive justice. Upon taking office in 1993 — and despite a fall-off in state aid to cities — he devised a plan to redeem blighted parts of Roxbury and Dorchester, home to a large segment of the city’s black and Latino residents. His emphasis on economic development in run-down areas was a key step in pushing Boston beyond the violent and chaotic period that followed a 1974 federal order to desegregate the city’s schools.
Menino had a knack for seeing around corners. He anticipated the growing economic and political clout of the city’s gay community, whose loyalty he won by refusing to march in a St. Patrick’s Day parade that excluded a gay group. He encouraged national preservationists — whose work heretofore focused on small towns — to revitalize urban commercial districts in Boston. He oversaw the merger of the public Boston City Hospital and the private Boston University Medical Center, breathing life into both. He envisioned and built a stunning park in West Roxbury on the site of a former dump. And he laid the groundwork for an Innovation District for young workers in science-based industries on the underutilized waterfront in South Boston.
Time and again, Menino also got lucky. Often described as the accidental mayor, he was serving as president of the statutorily weak Boston City Council in 1993 when former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn stepped down to become ambassador to the Vatican. Menino was in line to fill the post until a special election could be held. He parlayed his role as acting mayor into a platform to win the office in his own right. Over the next two decades, he faced no serious risk of losing his seat.
Menino had the good fortune to govern during a renaissance period for American cities. Buoyed by its world-renowned universities and medical facilities amid a vast expansion of spending on higher education and health care, Boston would probably have ranked high on the world’s economic power index with or without Menino as mayor. But he made nearly all Bostonians understand they had some stake in it.
Although he offered no grand theories of government, Menino stayed on top by staying alert to the city’s needs, large and small. He was faulted, at times, for a lack of vision; when he was first dubbed an “urban mechanic,” for his emphasis on filling potholes and picking up trash, the term wasn’t necessarily meant as a compliment. Cities, he argued years later in his memoir, are complex social systems that resist dramatic change. “Whether in the schools, public safety, housing, or neighborhood renewal, change is possible but in small pieces and in slow time,” he wrote.
Menino’s incrementalism yielded frustrating results on some issues. He never succeeded at overhauling the city’s troubled school system, but he did make gradual progress at improving student test scores and reducing the dropout rate. During a memorable State of the City address in 1996, he urged voters to “judge me harshly” if he failed to make significant improvement in the schools. They didn’t.
Nevertheless, the fruits of Menino’s exertions are palpable in neighborhoods throughout Boston, in methodical, concrete improvements in the status quo over two decades’ time. Bringing his own philosophy into the digital age, he created an Office of New Urban Mechanics, where software engineers design smartphone applications to improve the delivery of city services. In other words, a man who came of age amid discord and decline in Boston provided a bridge to a livelier, more experimental, and more optimistic era of urban living.
It would be a stretch to say that Menino lived an examined life. No one who knew him would describe him as self-revelatory. He played favorites in the development process. Like any hard-core politician, Menino rarely forgot a favor, and he harbored personal grudges. But he was absolutely committed when it came to evaluating and correcting the city’s problems.
Menino was a family man to the core, and was deeply devoted to his wife, Angela, his two children, and his six grandchildren. But Boston was his extended family. He looked for good in all its residents. Even when he was physically debilitated by advancing cancer, Menino managed to energize the city. He led a transformation. And transformations take a lot of time. Boston voters came to see what they had in Menino and gave him all the time he needed.