Martin F. Nolan

Menino’s small wins can add up to a lasting legacy

Some of Boston’s most important projects in 21st century are unglamorous and unsung, items that play to the mayor’s strength as an urban mechanic. Some of Boston’s most important projects in 21st century are unglamorous and unsung, items that play to the mayor’s strength as an urban mechanic. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Martin F. Nolan
January 3, 2010

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AT 10 A.M. tomorrow, Thomas M. Menino will take his oath of office in Faneuil Hall, the 1742 marketplace that elegantly frames the view from the mayor’s office he has occupied since 1993. Within his gaze stand two predecessors in enduring bronze: Kevin White, whose four consecutive terms Menino has surpassed; and James Michael Curley, who served as mayor in four different decades. (Curley’s attempt at a fifth term failed in 1949, the last time voters ousted an incumbent mayor of Boston.)

White and Curley tested the patience of their constituents by running for statewide office, as did Mayors John Fitzgerald, Maurice Tobin, and John Collins. From the start, Menino’s self-awareness never included a suburban strategy. “Do you want it in blood? I have no ambitions for higher office. You can either be mayor or campaign for something else, but you can’t do both real well,’’ he said after his election in 1993. On that celebratory day, he also promised to serve “only two terms and that’s it for me,’’ a moment of rashness voters have thrice forgiven, most recently on Nov. 3, when he won 57 percent of the vote against his challenger, Michael Flaherty.

Inaugurations are all about change, but the economy affects what can change. Inaugurations are all about expectations, but richer Bostonians have different expectations from poorer Bostonians. And Menino has to be mayor of all the people.

At 67, Menino is not likely to change his personality. He may be thin-skinned, having been called many names, but he doesn’t mind being called “urban mechanic’’ or “ubiquitous.’’ He’s short-tempered, too, but that can be an asset in his roving, constant examination of the delivery of city services.

In his historic fifth term, Menino must accommodate the rich and the poor, homeowners and renters, condo dwellers and public housing tenants, longtime residents and newcomers, including those aggressively alert urban activists, early gentrifiers who resent gentrification by others. Like every mayor, he faces a dramatically changed urban economy.

Lewis Mumford, the 20th-century urban philosopher, once said, “Each generation writes its own biography in the buildings it creates.’’ One of Mumford’s favorite architects, Daniel Burnham, admonished architects and planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.’’ Yet as any city resident knows, the economy influences everything. Burnham’s final commission was Filene’s department store in Boston in 1912. His Beaux-Arts design now stands hauntingly empty, bare ruined choirs where late sweet ambitions sang.

In 1870, Boston was one of the world’s wealthiest cities; its population of 250,000 doubled by the end of the 19th century. In 1893, a financial “panic,’’ as depressions and recessions were then called, stunted Boston’s growth. Some thought that not such a bad result, including Mumford. In 1957, he told a Boston College citizens seminar that the 1890s “left you with fewer skyscrapers, with fewer new buildings, with fewer new economic enterprises than were created in other cities like New York and Chicago. . . . If Boston had been prosperous, Boston would have been uninhabitable by now.’’

Yet sour economic times have not been an obstacle to all public improvements. Two years after the panic of 1893, the Boston Public Library opened in all its Florentine glory, emblazoned with the motto, “Free To All.’’ In the 1890s, Boston started digging America’s first subway system, which opened in 1898. At the nadir of the Great Depression, in 1931, Mayor Curley opened the L Street bath house in South Boston, with its proclamation, “Cleanliness of Body Is Due Reverence to God.’’

In today’s slowly recovering economy, new offices and new condo towers, iconic or not, will be difficult to finance. The most important projects of the 21st century are less grand and less grandiose. They include fighting violent crime, maintaining neighborhood health centers, improving public schools, helping renters and first-time homebuyers, tending and enlivening public parks, plus other chores unglamorous and unsung. Sometimes little plans have no magic but make more sense. This list plays to Menino’s strength; these issues may matter less in upscale, downtown areas where voters share the distress of many suburbanites at Menino’s lack of eloquence and what they see as his limited vision.

In the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Charlestown precincts he lost to Flaherty, Menino may be found wanting. Several millennia of precedent, however, support the mathematics of the mayor’s political strategy. In 461 BC, Pericles, running for mayor of Athens, decided to be the mayor of the neighborhoods, not the mayor of downtown. The rest is history.

Martin F. Nolan worked for the Globe from 1961 to 2001.

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