The City He Helped Raise

Many of us are struggling to articulate the legacy that Tom Menino left on the city of Boston—offering up lists of greatest changes, or letter grades on everything from public schools to waterfront development. But to me, the question feels like a non sequitur,  like explaining a parent’s influence by quantifying the child’s traits.

Menino was, in effect, Boston’s single parent for a crucial 20 years, during which it grew up from the 20th century city of Curley and White, to become the 21st century city still taking form. The effects of his oversight suffuse everything about Boston in some way: how neighborhoods have (and haven’t) developed; the increasingly overlapping ethnicities; the humming of new industry and innovation; the creaking progress of the schools.

At the same time, the popular myth of his omniscient control is no more true than a parent’s mistaken confidence in molding a child. Yes, Menino’s certainty that he knew best for Boston melded with the strong-mayor form of government to produce a power-wielding phenomenon. But the city of Boston, as anyone who knows it will attest, is a willful child, resistant to anyone’s advice.

Like many parents, I suspect, Menino found he had more power to prevent than compel. He had the tools to lock opponents in their room, or send developers into timeout. But he couldn’t always make them follow his dictates. He couldn’t make Frank McCourt build on the waterfront, or Arthur Winn to finish Columbus Center—or Wacko Hurley to allow LGBT groups in his parade, or the state legislature to let him close branch libraries, to name just a few of his frustrated intentions.

And, while he was self-aware in knowing what he didn’t know, he never seemed to see what he didn’t see: blind spots that included his own political upbringing. Reared in the urban machine method, he never saw why today’s sensibilities reject it. He saw no problem with patronage, favoritism, and using branches of government (Inspectional Services, Zoning Board) as tools to compel unrelated behavior. But the rapidly generation-shifting city grew increasingly unwilling to play along. That spilled to the surface in 2009 when he was unable to raise funds for a promised Martin Luther King Jr. statue, and a year later when business owners refused to cough up $1 million in “contributions” to a Downtown Crossing improvement fund.

Menino saw nothing wrong with his methods, not only because he grew up with them, but also—like many parents—because he truly believed that he knew what was best. In many respects, this was true. His insatiable appetite for gathering information, from random backyard barbeque attendees, powerful business leaders, and everyone in between, gave him a far more complete picture than the ones seen by narrow-interest opponents and even the fairest-minded detractors (including those in the media).

That belief in his own, sole ability to understand Boston’s needs justified much of his worst instincts, including his conflation of his political interests with those of the city. To him, the city needed his ongoing stewardship; efforts to bolster his political fortunes (and crush those of potential opponents) were, then, his way of doing best by the city.

And that was the thing about him: nobody could ever question his unconditional love for Boston, and his best intentions for all of its people.

That’s why even the harshest critics of his parenting methods—myself included—couldn’t help but love him back.

And it’s why his death is hitting the city much harder than his leaving office did.