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Celebrating the life of Kevin White

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  February 1, 2012 03:12 PM

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By Fred Salvucci

To understand the transformation that Kevin White brought to our city, you have to look back and remember how profoundly destructive and self-hating the city politics and policies of the 1950s and 1960s were, and the dramatic infusion of energy and self-confidence Kevin White instilled in the city.

In the early 1950s and 1960s, much of the culture and momentum of the "New Boston" was about destroying the Old Boston with a wrecking ball. The eradication of the West End and New York Streets neighborhoods, severing the connection of Charlestown from its waterfront with the Tobin Bridge and the city from the North End and Waterfront and the sea with the elevated Central Artery, the intrusions of the Bowker overpass into the Back Bay and Fens, and of Storrow Drive into the Esplanade, were destructive at a scale hard to imagine today. Depriving the people of East Boston of the magnificent Olmstead-designed Wood Island Park and obliterating Madison Park in Roxbury were destructive of the very soul of these neighborhoods. The heart of Boston's abolitionist history -- the old Brattle Bookstore -- was destroyed without leaving a trace.

More destructions were scheduled: the Inner Belt Highway and I-95 were to tear through Hyde Park, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, and the Fens between the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts; the discontinuation of the Old Colony Rail service to the South Shore was to be followed by wrecking the landmark South Station, eliminating commuter rail service to the Back Bay and North Station; the Science Park and Lechmere Green Line were slated for destruction.

Incredibly, these massive disruptions of the city fabric had been promoted and celebrated by the city government of that period. Entire neighborhoods and ethnic groups were excluded from the political life of the city. You had to look very hard to find a person of color, an Italian, a Jewish person, or a woman, in the Boston city government of the early 1960s. Young people were treated as unimportant. After a teenage scuffle in the 1950s, the city suspended use of municipal buildings for "record hops" for close to a decade!

Kevin White didn't change this urban disaster in a programmatic way, but in a symbolic and celebratory flurry of actions. Instituting "Summer Thing," Kathy Kane's brilliant citywide celebration of performing arts, spoke volumes. Performances of opera in city parks, boxing matches in city squares, rock music, and art said that all the left-out neighborhoods and social groups matter, and the city cared about us! Some of us remember when the new Mayor's opening of city government and jobs to people of color resulted in his being called "Mayor Black."

On the theory that actions speak louder than words, names began to appear in city decision-making roles like Bruce Bolling, "Jeep" Jones, and Paul Parks; Barney Frank, Ira Jackson, Olins, Rosenblum, Schwartz, Shadrawy, Weinberg; Kathy Kane, Emily Lloyd, Nancy Huntington, Joanne Prevost, Micho Spring, and Ann Finacune; Anzalone, Cassazza, Forgione, and Vitagliano -- and a Police Commissioner named Di Grazia.

The Mayor's instinctive brilliance in grasping at performances by James Brown and the Rolling Stones to maintain the public peace is legend, but the overwhelming subliminal theme from this new mayor was that young people, including their taste in music -- matter, and are part of this city. The Little City Hall network and youth activity commission established connections and communication, and delivered a mayor committed to fight for his city, successfully fighting the scheduled invasion of Interstate highways into the city's neighborhoods. As the political advertisement of the 1971 campaign celebrated: "Logan Airport had plans to tear up East Boston -- Kevin White tore up those plans." When the Tregor Decision threatened to disrupt the social fabric of the city with huge property tax increases in the residential neighborhoods and decreases in business taxes, Kevin responded with the successful classification amendment drive -- an impossible dream then; an established practice today.

The investment in Quincy Market was not the first new investment in downtown Boston. But it was the first investment that celebrated the value of the Old Boston in creating a new economy. That is why Quincy Market will always be Kevin's gift to the city -- a huge political risk at the time; conventional wisdom today.
The visit of the Tall Ships, and the "return" of the Queen of England to Boston were brilliant ways to celebrate our historic link to the sea, and our worthiness to be a world-class city.

And there was busing. Some urged the mayor to use his charisma and leadership skills to convince people that busing would be good for the education of our kids and for the city. Others argued that spending millions busing kids out of their neighborhoods to equally under-performing schools in other neighborhoods was a crazy waste of money that would undermine support for the schools, hurt education, and set back relations among the ethnic groups of the city, and urged Kevin to convince Judge Garrity to abandon the idea.

Kevin believed that his responsibility was to recognize that he couldn't succeed at either task, and that his responsibility was to prevent the rancor and anger of the issue from endangering the safety of the kids and the city, and he worked tirelessly, and thanklessly, to keep the peace. I believe that he delivered beyond the limits of his health and strength, with substantial damage to his political standing from all sides. But he did deliver.

Some have raised the criticism that Kevin eventually became the "Downtown Mayor" he had defeated. I believe that criticism misunderstands Kevin's contribution. He was always fighting for the entire city, including its downtown economy. Fighting to stop I-95 and the Inner Belt from destroying neighborhoods, and saving commuter rail services to Back Bay and South and North Stations were complementary parts of a winning strategy that has served both downtown and the neighborhoods, but it was a battle that Kevin had to win without the help of the downtown business community.

Kevin's real gift to the city and all of its neighborhoods is the gift of rising expectations. The belief that all of us matter, and deserve to be included in city politics and policy making, makes it much harder for the mayor to run the city, but is an invaluable gift and legacy to all the people of this city. Leaders raise expectations, sometimes beyond their capacity to deliver, risking their political support for the greater good. "Anti-leaders" lower expectations so that they can always deliver. Kevin was a true leader, and the rising expectations he unleashed are still benefiting the city.

Each of us who had the privilege of working for this great mayor has our own memories of him, of both his incredible willingness to take a chance on young people with crazy ideas, and support us. He was the first, and for a long time the only, significant elected official to support the removal of the elevated Central Artery. We also all remember his knack for rapping us on the knuckles to remind us who was boss. But mostly, I remember a mayor who became a second father to me, who I will miss incredibly.

Fred Salvucci was a transportation adviser to Kevin White and later served as state transportation secretary.

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