Tom Menino, one of the longest-tenured big-city mayors in America, died this morning at 71. For an overview of the man and the politician, there’s no better resource today than the Boston Globe’s obituary, which you can read here. Menino was a Democrat, and not even a conservative one at that, but he was also an incredibly popular and successful mayor that Bostonians of all stripes could appreciate — I’d argue even one of his last famous acts as mayor, his ridiculous threat to keep Chick-fil-A out of the city, was a misguided extension of an important project, making Boston a more tolerant place.
The 20 years he was mayor of Boston were good years for American cities and for Massachusetts generally, but Menino deserves a lot of credit for Boston’s success. Visitors to the city now — and people who’ve only been around for a couple decades like me — often don’t realize how far the city has come. Menino took over a city that had a shrinking population, a depressed economy, and an anemic tax base. He left it one of America’s best-run cities.
He didn’t do so just by loosening the grip of government: One project that helped renew Boston, the Big Dig that buried the city’s central expressway, is of course an iconic big-government boondoggle. And Menino didn’t just help break down barriers to redevelopment; he took a very heavy hand in guiding new construction and the shifting character of the city. Famously, when plans for a new office tower in the Back Bay came to him for approval, Menino said he didn’t like the fact that it had a flat roof. So the developers came back with a model and a few different tops for the building, which they put on the mockup until Menino picked one he liked. But, while the Big Dig was a hugely expensive mess, it did work — the city is a vastly better place after it. And 111 Huntington Avenue is pretty ugly, but Menino’s vision for the city’s urban renewal is slowly succeeding, too. There are as many failures of grand visions in city government as there are in national government, but urban planning isn’t central planning — it does have to be done, and Menino did it well. Boston’s policies are hardly ideal from a conservative’s perspective, but they’ve worked better than what’s been tried in almost any other big liberal, especially Northeastern, city.
Two of the more conservative things about Menino were two of the most important things a mayor can do: He ran his budget conservatively, leaving Boston with one of the strongest bond ratings of any big American city, and he was pro-education-reform, picking two superb schools superintendents and letting them turn the city’s school system into one of America’s finest. (One notable letdown: He didn’t have a ton of success in fighting crime, but crime in Boston was never as bad as it was in other American cities. He always seemed like more of a root-causes kind of guy, and richly funded pre-K still hasn’t stopped any muggings to my knowledge, but even there, he had a conservative streak: One of his favorite causes was promoting summer youth employment.)
The issue that brought Mayor Menino onto the national radar most recently, and into the bad graces of conservatives, was his attempt to scare Chick-fil-A out of opening in the city because of the owners’ opposition to gay marriage. National conservatives scorned this as of another hint of liberal authoritarianism and some cynical local observers saw it as a sop to Boston’s gay community, a big source of support for Menino.
But, while I think Menino’s maneuver was wrong and embarrassing, it was supposed to be part of a well-intentioned, important endeavor: making Boston a tolerant and welcoming place. The 1970s busing riots made gave Boston a reputation that was worse than the reality, but there were real problems and Menino, like some other great Boston politicians, knew they had to be fixed. He generally did so with a defter touch than he tried with Chick-fil-A: Back before this was a common position, for instance, he decided not to march in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade because organizers wouldn’t let gay advocacy groups march.
Of course, Menino had something fundamentally wrong: A liberal, diverse city should tolerate a range of viewpoints and religions, and opposing gay marriage or choosing who can march in your parade isn’t bigotry. There’s a way to make the gay community feel safe and appreciated without lashing out against those who object to gay marriage. But there’s also a case that Menino was just doing his best to continue the important work of making minorities feel protected within the city he was elected to run, and got this one very wrong.
The mayor was personally aware of what intolerance feels like. He had memories of being disparaged in elementary school on the basis of his Italian heritage, and if it weren’t for the fact that the Boston city council switched from all at-large voting to having some district representatives, Menino may never have been elected, such was the strength of ethnic politics. (Citywide elections explained a good bit of the once-complete Irish dominance of Boston governance.) Liberals under the banner of tolerance have done plenty of good things for American cities, and on net, Boston is much better off for their efforts; the mayor just got this one very wrong. Menino was right to recognize tolerance as a key ingredient of urban success and that Boston needed more of it — it’s a shame he didn’t recognize that he, like some other parts of the American Left these days, had ended up harnessing the idea of tolerance to an intolerant purpose.
On a lighter note, to get a sense of just how powerful the revitalization of Boston felt, I’m going to resort to quoting former Bostonian Bill Simmons, an ESPN columnist. Here’s his take on the feeling of being home for the 2008 NBA Finals (a symbolic triumph in their own right):
The revival of the Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots mirrors something that’s happening to Boston as a whole. Quite simply, the city that I left behind in 2002 doesn’t exist anymore. . . .
Remember the reality show “The Swan,” in which someone gets an extreme makeover and tons of plastic surgery and family members stare at him or her in complete disbelief? That’s how I feel every time I come back to Boston. If there was a defining trait for the Causeway area other than the old Garden, it was the Green Line, which ran above ground (you might recall seeing the shot of the train rumbling toward the Garden before every Celtics game) and right over Causeway Street. Scattered around the area were a number of bars, including some classic ones (Harp, Sullivan’s Tap, Four’s) and a never-ending group of bars in static locations that always seemed to change names every 18 months. On paper, this seems kind of cool. In reality, it meant the tracks hung over the street, blocked every inch of sunlight and dripped smelly water every time it rained or snowed, and on top of that, you had to hear the deafening screech of the train rumbling by every few minutes.
Here’s why I’m telling you this: The Causeway of 2008 has zero in common with the Causeway of 1998. Once the construction was finished, you could have blindfolded me, spun me around a few times, dropped me in the middle of Causeway and asked me where I was, and I wouldn’t have had a clue until I noticed the Harp or Halftime Pizza, and even then, I would have been confused. You wouldn’t call the area beautiful or anything, but it’s sunny and happy, and in an implausible twist, you can stand at the old North Station stop — flanked by a ghastly and unsafe I-93 ramp once upon a time — turn toward Faneuil Hall and actually see Faneuil Hall from a distance. What was once highway ramps, bridges, “T” tracks and construction has been replaced by grass and sidewalks. . . .
Living here from day to day, it’s probably tougher to realize how much Boston has changed . . . The dramatic shift in fortunes is symbolized by one piece of turf in Beacon Hill, right next to the Storrow Drive West ramp, about a block from the top of Charles Street, formerly the home of Buzzy’s Roast Beef. For the uninitiated, Buzzy’s was the 24-hour place you went after a night of drinking for some unhealthy food; if you were lucky, you might run into a couple of girls there and strike up a conversation, only there was nowhere to go because the bars closed at 2 a.m., and besides, both parties were covered in cheese and barbecue sauce, so nothing would have happened, anyway. It was located right next to the Charles Street jail and Mass General Hospital, in a stretch of Beacon Hill that always seemed to have stabbings and muggings. As the old adage went, it was OK to stumble out of the Beacon Hill Pub and walk straight to Buzzy’s, as long as you never took a right.
Where’s Buzzy’s now? It’s in Roast Beef Heaven. The jail has been turned into a boutique hotel called The Liberty that happens to have the hottest bar in town, a place called Alibi that’s unlike any Boston scene I can remember. There’s a doorman, valets, celebrities, $12 drinks and dressed-up women hoping to hook up with rich guys, as well as an extensive line just to get into the hotel to drink upstairs in the Bar That Nobody Really Wants To Be At Because They’d Rather Be At Alibi. Back in the mid-1990s, the hottest place on Wednesday nights was the Warren Tavern in Charlestown — a relatively dark pub that didn’t have one cool thing about it other than that it was built in the 1780s and Paul Revere allegedly drank there. People waited in line for 25-30 minutes just to get inside a hot room to order some draft beer in the same place that Paul Revere allegedly ordered a draft beer. And not to sound like a grumpy old man, but we LOVED IT! Back in 1995, had you shown me a clip of the Liberty Hotel’s bar scene 13 years later, I would have kept shaking my head and saying, “No, no, no way … it’s impossible … not in Boston … no way …”
Menino isn’t this whole story, but he was a lot of it. There’s probably also something conservative about appreciating warm beer in Paul Revere’s tavern, but that part of Boston is still there — there are just plenty of places to get a cold beer, too.