It’s not unusual these days to find a mayor who thinks neighborhoods are important. The era is long since past when creating a healthy city was thought to mean pouring all one’s attention into downtown.
But in many places, neighborhood development — or redevelopment — has meant just one thing: housing. Improve the housing stock, the thinking goes; make it desirable and, if possible, affordable, and the rest will take care of itself.
That’s not what Tom Menino believes. Menino, 58, who is completing his second term as mayor of Boston, is a champion of neighborhood commerce. His reasoning is deceptively simple: “You can’t have a center of a neighborhood and have vacancies and no vitality,” he says, “and then expect people to have confidence in that neighborhood.”
Over his eight years in office, Menino has doted on the little things that make city neighborhoods attractive, to the point where critics have derided him as little more than an urban “mechanic,” and the Boston Globe calls him “a mayor straight out of the Middle Ages.” Through Menino’s neighborhood “Main Street” program, Boston has spent money on the mundane work of fa?ade and design improvements, recruiting shop owners and reinforcing those already there. It has worked hard to help supermarkets open — no small achievement, to anyone who has spent time in an urban core in the past two decades — while making sure that the location of the large stores doesn’t threaten small merchants nearby. The city has spent money cleaning up parks, refurbishing schools, reorienting police to focus on neighborhood safety.
The results are obvious: Boston’s neighborhoods are showing tremendous vitality. Not just the chic, upper-middle-class communities, or the bohemian hangouts, but middle- and working-class neighborhoods such as Jackson Square, and once decrepit communities like Grove Hall.
This, too, is one of Menino’s tenets: Every neighborhood in the city needs attention. “This has to include everyone, not just the worst neighborhoods or the high-voting neighborhoods,” he says. “That doesn’t work: It doesn’t make a city complete. Everyone has to have confidence in their own little neighborhood.”
Menino is not an eloquent speaker. He’s not especially comfortable on the stump, or in front of large crowds. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Ray Flynn, he doesn’t have a national profile — in fact, he isn’t all that familiar a figure statewide — and he’s never developed the personal hold on Boston that some of his predecessors displayed. But for all that, Menino is emerging as one of Boston’s most influential chief executives, as his ideas begin to transform policy in cities far away.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley visited Boston, toured the city, and returned home to announce the creation of a Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods. Mayors in Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere are devoting a good deal of effort these days to studying Menino’s ideas and accomplishments. And Meninoism will get an even broader national airing next year, when he takes over as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In the meantime, Boston’s mayor is launching a “Back Street” initiative to accompany his neighborhood focus. His idea is that business owners who are located along the city’s side streets — the people who own the cookie factories and mechanical repair shops — need attention from the city, too. It’s all part of his belief that if you get the basics right, and in particular find ways to help the people who give cities their vivacity, the whole community will prosper. “Taking care of basic city services makes people want to stay here,” he says. “Look, the housing costs are astronomical in this city. People could sell their house here, make a large profit and relocate to a rural community. My job is to make sure they stay.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photos by Stanley Rowin