The Menino Dialogues
JASON SCHWARTZ When you zoom out to 30,000 feet, Boston is in amazing shape. The city is booming, the population is growing, people want to move back here, and the economy is particularly well poised for the future.
RACHEL SLADE There’s nothing wrong with a booming economy. But I’m concerned about how business was conducted under Menino’s administration. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I prefer a more-egalitarian approach to leadership. His was a closed society in many ways. Some ideas got muscled through, while more-nuanced ideas of how a city should grow and operate didn’t thrive. Our school system is in dire straits, and all those people moving into the city are sending their kids to private school.
JS There’s no doubt he played favorites. But I think it’s worth noting that while lots of people got rich under Menino, he wasn’t one of them. That’s a remarkable feat for a northeastern political machine.
RS Congratulations to the mayor for not being on the take. While there have been noticeable improvements in infrastructure, there were many missed opportunities, projects that would have benefited from better cooperation and a more open approach—the Greenway, for one. He didn’t like the Turnpike Authority, for personal reasons, so he blocked developments like Columbus Center that would’ve stitched the city back together.
JS I think the same control-freak gene that led to the development issues you’re describing also made the rest of the city work really well. Menino’s attention to constituent services like trash pickup and potholes has been talked about endlessly, but when I’m in other cities, those places always look worse. Boston is incredibly clean! And all of these little things add up to creating conditions that result in people wanting to be here. We just had an awful summer, but the crime situation in Boston is good compared with other big cities.
RS Yes, there’s less crime, but we’re a smaller city that’s becoming safe for the rich and the private-school crowd.
JS Affordability is definitely a huge problem, though the city is in tremendous financial shape. If you were going to pick one thing he unequivocally did not screw up, it would be the balance sheet.
RS It doesn’t take a genius to balance a budget. Menino’s been Puritanical about spending, but that’s to feed the machine, and the machine is giving tax breaks and subsidies to major corporations that do business here. In fact, Menino’s policies starve the city of money. We’ve got Vertex, State Street, Liberty Mutual, and now Converse all reaping major tax breaks to stay here or set up shop, and I’d argue it’s hurting the city.
JS I agree, it’s a race to the bottom. But in the case of Vertex, I think it may be fair to carve out an exception, because it’s hard to argue against the value of having an anchor tenant like that in the Seaport. We all laughed at Menino when he decided that the Seaport would be the “Innovation District,” but when you got Vertex there, well, it’s actually an innovation district!
RS Okay, but what we really needed there was a neighborhood, and we’re 20 years behind on housing supply. Look, to make this city sustainable you need neighborhoods and supermarkets and livable streets. Ultimately, is Boston a good place for a complete mix of people?
JS Despite some deficiencies, I think he deserves a lot of credit for the city’s progress over the past two decades. Boston is arguably one of the best-run cities in the country, and we take a lot of it for granted. Clean streets, no union strife, no debt issues—it’s allowed a lot of good things to happen here.
For more of our look back at Mayor Menino’s time in office, check out “A Mayor in Full.”