Politics

The Merchant Mayor

For years, Boston's Tom Menino has argued that retail commerce is the key to revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Other cities have begun to listen.
by | July 2001

"In the eight years I've been in office," Thomas M. Menino boasts, "we've built 12 supermarkets."

You sort of blink when he says that. It is something you don't expect to hear from the mayor of Boston--or the chief executive of any large city. Mayors love to brag about building things--schools, libraries, stadiums, community centers--but for most of them, supermarkets are, one might say, below the radar.

For Tom Menino, however, nothing is below the radar. Not if it involves neighborhood commerce. He expounds on the importance of local supermarkets as he rides along Blue Hill Avenue, through one of his city's struggling retail corridors, pausing to interrupt himself with ad hoc comments on the things he sees. He notices a freshly painted white picket fence and pronounces it good. "Those are the things that make a difference," he says. Then he observes some dingy and faded signs above a row of stores, and he scowls. "Signage," he warns, "is like a suit you put on in the morning. It's what people judge you by."

The 58-year-old Menino presides over a city that has produced many nationally famous mayors, but he is not one of them. He is neither eloquent nor irresistibly charming. "I'm not a smiler or a shaker of hands," he admitted early in his career. "It doesn't come naturally to me." He probably couldn't have been elected mayor if he hadn't inherited the job by vacancy. His profile outside of Massachusetts-- even within it, for the most part--remains low. His name is never mentioned for higher office.

Menino's critics still deride him as a "mechanic" with little interest in sweeping visions of the future. Even the compliments he attracts are a little bizarre. The Boston Globe, reflecting on Menino's near-obsession with streets, merchants and architectural detail, explained him recently as "a mayor straight out of the Middle Ages."

And yet here it is the 21st century, and his ideas suddenly seem to be sprouting up all over. Mayors in cities as diverse as Baltimore, Houston and Detroit are saying the things Menino has been saying in Boston since his first campaign for the city council in 1983: Neighborhoods are the basis of urban revival. Retail commerce is the key to neighborhood success. And government can be the catalyst that makes it all happen--but it has to happen very slowly: one fence, one sign, one supermarket at a time.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley visited Boston, toured the city with Menino and returned home to announce the creation of a "Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods" that will select 12 commercial corridors and spend more than a million dollars a year in each of them to trigger a retail comeback. Philadelphia's John Street has established an "Office of Neighborhood Transformation" and wants to float a $250 million bond issue, with much of its proceeds to be targeted at commercial improvements and site beautification. Buffalo's Anthony Masiello is seeking to create what he calls "live zones"--12 neighborhood shopping districts in which he wants to pour loans and technical help. And Houston's Lee Brown, one local newspaper columnist writes, "can't seem to utter a sentence fragment without making reference to neighborhood- oriented something or other."

Simply put, neighborhoods are hot right now, both in urban government and in politics. And although not everyone realizes it, the phenomenon can be traced straight back to Boston. "The idea that a city can have a proactive role in a neighborhood commercial district is unusual," says Emily Haber, a Menino administration official and one of the architects of Boston's program. "But it's not going to be unusual in the future."

Nobody can dispute that Boston is booming. In the past couple of years, housing prices have increased at annual rates exceeding 30 percent. Office buildings are rising on the edge of downtown in every direction. The historic districts of Back Bay and Beacon Hill are packed with visitors every evening and weekend. Neighborhoods such as Allston and Brighton, slightly seedy and worn-out a decade ago, have sprouted fashionable "urban village" shopping districts lined with restaurants, coffeehouses, bookstores and boutiques. This year's Census showed that Boston, along with a handful of other older cities, actually gained population during the past decade.

Menino didn't cause all this; he can't even claim to be the main factor. The crucial ingredients of Boston's comeback are the strong local economy, fueled by the finance and health care industries, and the declining crime rate, similar to what is going on in other cities but even more dramatic. Between 1990 and 2000, Boston's murder rate went down by 78 percent.

"Tom Menino has been mayor at a very good time in Boston's history," says Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Association, a civic watchdog group. "We got out of the red as he came in. He's had nothing but good times." The simple fact of timing, at least as much as the mayor's program, explains why he is coasting through a third-term campaign this summer with approval ratings well above 80 percent.

But even a casual visit to the city's neighborhoods shows that something more is at work: Boston's revival extends beyond the obvious areas of gentrification that exist in most big cities. Working-class neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park and Roslindale, demoralized during the busing crisis of the 1970s and vacated by many of their older residents and much of their commercial base, are looking better than they have in a generation.

These are the places that Menino has focused on from the very beginning of a political career that goes back nearly two decades. When he first ran for the city council, after working as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts Legislature, he kept his rhetoric close to home. "I have a master plan for Roslindale Square," he said. "We have to bring it back." It was a revealing platform: He didn't promise to revive the whole city, or even his district--just the neighborhood square. At that time, there were 13 pizza parlors in Roslindale but little other local-based shopping. Most of the merchants had moved to the suburbs.

Menino persuaded the city to create a "Main Street" program for Roslindale, in association with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When he became mayor in 1993, upon the departure of Ray Flynn to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Menino expanded the Main Street initiative to include 14 other Boston neighborhoods (four more have been added since).

Boston's Main Street program is not especially elaborate or expensive. Each of the neighborhoods receives about $300,000 over four years, most of it from federal Community Development Block Grants. The money goes largely to the mundane work of façade and design improvements, promotional activity and merchant recruitment.

It is no panacea. Several of the poorer districts in the program can't truthfully be said to look a great deal better or more prosperous than they did before they joined up. Still, driving through most of the 19 neighborhoods and strolling their commercial streets, one can't deny that they are showing signs of revival, and in just those small ways that the mayor likes to talk about: neat storefronts, new signs and lots of businesses that weren't there a few years ago.

Grove Hall, in the heart of the 1960s riot corridor, was a disaster area for three decades, with Boston's largest concentration of abandoned buildings. The sole supermarket was closed and turned into a welfare office. The city itself was the only significant property owner.

Grove Hall continued to receive substantial funds from the local and federal governments throughout the 1970s and '80s, but little progress was made. Residents who walked down the streets noticed new lighting and cobblestones, but "there were no shops there," recalls Howard Husock, an urban policy specialist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "You spend all this CDBG money, and you're just waiting for the lights to get broken by the Castle Hill gang."

That has changed. Last December, the first retail unit--a CVS drug store--opened in the Grove Hall Mecca, a $13 million shopping complex being built at a 5-acre site on Blue Hill Avenue, the main artery of the neighborhood. This project was financed with $1.2 million in city funds, $6.8 million in federal empowerment zone dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and $5 million from Fleet Bank. The Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corp. is the owner of the property. "This community was literally bombed-out," the corporation's president, Virginia Morrison, said on the day of the opening. "It never really came back. This neighborhood is an untapped economic resource." Later this year, a Stop and Shop supermarket will reopen at Grove Hall Mecca, 20 years after it shut down.

Jackson Square, a couple of miles to the northwest, is a community once dominated by Italians and Irish but now mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican. It has nothing as elaborate as Grove Hall Mecca to boast about. But it has changed remarkably nonetheless. Mozart Park, the focal point of the neighborhood, was largely devoid of productive life a decade ago. Now, it is jammed nearly all the time with visitors of all ages and colors, many of them stopping to buy an empanada or a fruited ice concoction from the square's most prominent merchant: Madego's pushcart, open for business throughout the day and into the evening.

The obvious reason for the revival of Jackson Square is the city's declining crime rate. "Ten years ago, we were afraid of our own neighborhood," says Tony Barros, who runs a children's clothing store and is the local Main Street program manager. "It was like living in a prison." Barros used to have to hire extra help just to escort him out safely with the proceeds at closing time.

In the early 1990s, the drug dealers began to disappear from Mozart Park, the violence tailed off, and the park came to life again. No doubt some of this would have happened without any city initiatives aimed at restoring commercial development. But many of the restaurants, beauty parlors and small groceries that have returned to Jackson Square are being supported with façade-improvement money, marketing help or other technical assistance from the Department of Neighborhood Development.

Menino's own Roslindale, after surviving nearly two decades of doldrums, has become downright chic. Coffeehouses, bakeries and Italian bistros are appearing on the commercial thoroughfares, along with boutiques and specialty shops that sport names like Ampersand, Muse and Zia. And in 1999, an independent supermarket finally opened up again in Roslindale after a decade's absence and years of negotiation. The city bought the land on which the store is located, and ultimately found a developer. "A supermarket is the focal point of a community," Menino repeated one day as he stopped by for a look at the shelves. "You need it to get the foot traffic."

There is certainly nothing new about Main Street programs or attempts to subsidize neighborhood revival. Where Menino believes previous efforts have gone wrong is in their single-minded focus on housing rather than on retail business. Community development corporations have been creating subsidized housing in low-income neighborhoods for the past 20 years in many large cities, including Boston, and for most of those years, had relatively few successes to show for the effort.

The truth is that it has been much easier to obtain funds for subsidized housing at the neighborhood level than for commercial projects. Neighborhood activists often argued that housing was merely the first step; retail business would follow along later. But it rarely did.

"You can't just do housing," Menino says. Commerce isn't the last step in a community's comeback; more often, it has to be the first step. Charlotte Golar Richie, director of Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development, echoes that view. "You can't talk about building neighborhood if you just talk housing," she insists. "What kind of a neighborhood is that?"

The other key principle of Meninoism is that stable neighborhoods and struggling ones have to be treated essentially the same way. Success has to be reinforced, not taken for granted; design and marketing tools are important in keeping relatively strong areas from declining so they can serve as role models for the weaker ones. "Some mayors go into the worst neighborhoods," he argues, "and they say, `This is our priority, and this is where we're concentrating.' I don't believe in that."

When Menino talks about preserving "healthy neighborhoods," he means middle-income areas such as Roslindale, places that have escaped from the urban endangerment list only in the past decade. He isn't referring to the really affluent sections of Boston--historic Back Bay and Beacon Hill, or even those that gentrified in the 1970s and '80s, such as parts of the South End. None of these are included in the 19 that participate in the Main Street program. And they represent the one conspicuous source of opposition to the "neighborhood" mayor and his policies.

Paradoxical as it might seem, the leading critics of Menino--and the most vocal supporters of his mayoral opponent, City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen--are concentrated in an organization called the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. Its members are less concerned with the revival of working-class Dorchester or Jamaica Plain than with what they see as over-development of the central core.

These critics tend to focus on one of the mayor's few significant economic development fiascoes so far--an agreement to build a massive complex of offices, hotels and condominiums on a 1,000-acre parcel of land along the South Boston waterfront. This was an arrangement negotiated among the city administration, developers and a small group of politically connected South Boston residents, some of whom stood to benefit personally from the deal. There was little participation on the part of the neighborhood at large.

In response to citywide anger over the project, Menino announced the creation of "Impact Advisory Groups," boards of citizens charged with monitoring future development projects to ensure that they would not disrupt surrounding neighborhoods. But this move did little to mollify the mayor's Back Bay and South End critics, and led Davis-Mullen to announce her challenge to him in April, proclaiming that Menino had failed to ensure that his development programs "benefited all the city's neighborhoods...not just the developers."

Her challenge has made little headway so far, but it serves as a reminder that "the neighborhoods" are not a political monolith, and that it's never easy to please some of them without alienating others. Indeed, tension between City Hall and at least some of the neighborhoods has influenced Boston's political climate ever since the 1950s, when the Boston Redevelopment Authority became notorious for simply bulldozing old neighborhoods to create high-rise urban renewal projects.

Every mayor since then has had to deal with this legacy. Despite backing various neighborhood-based initiatives, Menino's predecessors- -John Collins, Kevin White and Ray Flynn--ultimately were unable to overcome the long-standing resentments at the grassroots level.

So when Menino inherited the job, it still remained to be proven that a Boston mayor could claim the mantle of neighborhood champion and avoid tripping over the complexities of local political feeling. Menino sought the title in a new way--not by creating grassroots councils, or opening branch offices, or delivering populist broadsides, but by promoting local commerce. "We never had an urban plan for neighborhoods," the mayor says. "We just ignored them. I saw an opening in there."

Whether a similar opening exists right now in other cities is hard to say. But mayors increasingly seem to believe it does. They are sounding like born-again Meninoites.

"What the neighborhood people deem important," Houston's Lee Brown assured an audience recently, "that will become what's important to government." Brown's master plan for his own city involves the creation of 88 "super neighborhoods," each with a local council, a city liaison and a SNAP--a Super Neighborhood Action Plan. "If we can get our arms around a neighborhood," the mayor says, "we can improve our city."

Getting one's arms around a Houston neighborhood may not be so easy: Houston is 612 square miles, compared with Boston's 48. Some of the individual communities that make up Houston are the size of small cities in themselves. But Brown seems determined to try.

And like Menino, he seems willing to start small. This spring, Brown's "Clean Neighborhoods Program" began recruiting businesses and nonprofits to "adopt a block," each promising to maintain 500 yards of city commercial street for a two-year period.

Meanwhile, the two mayoral finalists in Los Angeles were dueling with each other over which one was the true champion of neighborhood interests. Running against a backdrop of secession threats by an entire collection of neighborhoods--the San Fernando Valley--city attorney James Hahn and former state legislator Antonio Villaraigosa each promised to be an advocate of neighborhood rights and architect of neighborhood revival.

Hahn said he would create an Office of Neighborhood Advocate and mandate that any legislation passed by the city council include a community-impact statement. "If you feel good about the street that you live on," Hahn explained, "you're going to be proud of the city you live in." Villaraigosa promised to beef up neighborhood councils, hold a citywide neighborhood congress twice a year and require that neighborhood policy positions be inserted regularly in city council minutes. When it came to a vote, on June 5, Hahn won.

In Seattle, beleaguered mayor Paul Schell launched his campaign for reelection by touting his administration's establishment of six neighborhood-based planning sectors, each with its own manager, and boasting that each sector had been responsible for long lists of transportation and lighting improvements, gardens and public art.

Why this is happening in so many places at the same moment is a largely a matter of speculation. But at a time when urban governments seem increasingly distant to local residents--especially in mega- cities such as Houston and Los Angeles--it's no surprise that leaders would seize upon neighborhood advocacy as a way to deal effectively with economic, bureaucratic and political problems at the same time.

Still, each city will require its own set of strategies. None of them is quite like Boston. In fact, none of them is anything like it. If Tom Menino is, in the words of the Boston Globe, a "medieval mayor," then Boston remains, in a certain sense, a medieval city. Its dense, compact neighborhoods are more like villages: intensely proud, loyal and turf-conscious. Public policy debate in many cities these days focuses on how to create "urban villages." Boston didn't have to create them; they were already there.

In the 1970s, as the city tore itself apart over racial issues, the stubbornness of its neighborhoods was seen as evidence that Boston was behind the times--too clannish and parochial to succeed in modern-day urban economic competition. In the past decade, however, those loyalties have been crucial in anchoring a commercial revival at the neighborhood level. Residents of Boston's neighborhoods--even immigrants newly arrived from other countries--didn't need a seminar in the importance of supporting local commerce. They just needed to have some commerce to support. Helping that process along, one tiny step at a time--amid the fortuitous circumstances of an economic boom- -has been Menino's most original and impressive accomplishment. "He wasn't choosing the big solution," says Harvard's Howard Husock. "He was putting lots of pieces together. And that's what really worked. The absence of grand ideas really helped him. It's all the sidewalk fixes that set the stage for commercial revival."

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