After five terms and 20 years, Boston’s longest-serving mayor is leaving the political arena. We talked to him about legacies, elocution and, of course, city parking.
The longest-serving mayor in Boston history, Thomas M. Menino will turn 71 on Dec. 27 and end his record-breaking tenure a couple of weeks later. A lifelong resident of Hyde Park, he graduated from UMass Boston with a degree in community planning while serving as a city councilor. In March of 1993, President Clinton named Menino’s predecessor, Ray Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and Menino took office as acting mayor until he was elected that November. Nicknamed “Mumbles” by the media for his Boston accent, he’s also been called the “Urban Mechanic.” Characterized by a focus on education and child welfare, his tenure has created vibrant neighborhoods, economic opportunity across ethnic and social lines, increased accessibility to health care, environmental initiatives and social progress. He and his wife, Angela, live in the Readville section of Hyde Park and dote on their two children and six grandchildren.
Two things. Both are intangible. One is how the city works much better today than it did when I came into office. We had a huge problem from 1973 on. We were a racially divided city. We’re much better today—not perfect, but everyone gets along much better, and we don’t have the nonsense we used to. I’m very proud of that. The other piece is education and our children. We’ve made a lot of gains. Again, not perfect, but we’re much better. When I became mayor, the schools were vastly underenrolled. Now they’re overenrolled. I once had to go to a job fair in Florida to recruit teachers. We went to Panama for math teachers. This year, we had 3,000 applicants for 300 jobs. So it’s a city where people want to raise their children again.
Of course. Until every child has the opportunity for a college education if they want it. There’s always room for improvement. But you have to consider: We take in every kid who walks through our door. The kids who can’t speak English, the severely handicapped, everyone. That’s our responsibility.
The human factor. How we’ve helped people. If we’re doing that, we’re doing our job.
Being in the neighborhoods. Talking to people. Learning from them. As mayor, you’re sometimes isolated. You’re in this office, with these big walls. I enjoyed being out listening to criticisms, ideas.
We’re both a big city and a small city. We take a lot of things personally. We get to know each other and get involved in each other’s lives. And at the same time, we have an outsized influence in the world.
Oh, easy. The media.
You realize I’m going to transcribe this and sometimes it’s hard to understand what you’re saying.
[Laughs] There really isn’t anything odious about it.
Nah! I love that! I used to do 14 events in a day…
I relished that! It got my energy up. Once again, it’s people. I guess the only thing I haven’t liked were people who tried to use me or the administration for selfish ends. That drives me right up a wall, and I can see right through it. I can see it now, as I’m about to leave office, people trying to use me to do certain things that I will not allow them to do. Just because I’m leaving. I’m the same guy today that I was when I took office.
I don’t want anything named after me. It’s not about me. It’s about the people of the city.
The ahhhhts [exaggerating his accent]. They’re a major part of the city, and I’ve loved helping some of those groups out, but I’m not just talking about arts organizations. The artists, too. I remember when the Piano Factory residents were going to be evicted. I was down there. I remember the days when all the artists lived in Fort Point Channel illegally. We winked and blinked at ’em. Now they’re million-dollar apartments. We have to have places in the city where artists can live and work.
Three most pressing things the new mayor has to deal with?
Well, we have to continue the progress we’re making in the Boston Public Schools. The finances of the city are obviously very important, because when the finances work, the city works. You can’t borrow Peter to pay Paul. You can’t use one-time revenue to plug holes, because the next year, what are you going to do? And jobs. Helping people to create job opportunities. You’ve got to give the people hope and opportunity.
One of the things I don’t think I’ve done a good job of is moving traffic in this city. It drives me up the wall. There are a lot of different reasons why what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, but good luck to the new mayor. Boston’s an old city. It’s not laid out neatly. It’s surrounded by water. It’s very difficult to get traffic moving.
Parking is good, and it’s a curse, also. In the small business districts, you hear from the business owners, “We have no pahhkin’…”
[Laughs] They complain about it. Then I ask, “Where do you park?” And they say, “Oh, in front of my store.” I’m thinking, “You’re taking up that parking space for eight or 10 hours a day? Find someplace else!” So you have to educate people about how to improve the situation.
Is it expensive some places? Sure! I see parking for $50. It’s expensive. So how do you deal with that? Park someplace less convenient. Use public transportation. There are limits to what can be done. You can’t mess with the architectural integrity of the city. Boston is the most European-looking of American cities, and that’s important. We’re not all high-rises with five levels of underground parking, and I’ve stopped some buildings for that reason. The great architecture we have can’t be replaced. I call them “pickets to heaven,” cause they’re all the same. Straight up, with nothing around them. You can’t lose places like Post Office Square, the North End, Beacon Hill, Charlestown, Roxbury… you can’t allow that to deteriorate for parking or any other reason, or we end up looking like any other city in America.
Ever take offense at the nickname “Mumbles”?
No. I’m me. I’m not anything special. People have tried to coach me on delivery, but I’m just me. It’s one of my strongest traits.
President Clinton was fun to be with. I’ll tell you a funny story about him. He and Ted Kennedy were here announcing a crime bill, and Clinton goes, “We’ll get something to eat. My staff’ll take care of it.” So I ask his staff where we’re going, and they say to a hotel. I said, “I’m not going with you unless we go to a neighborhood place.” “Oh, no, we can’t. It’s the president of the United States.” So I said, “I’m not going with you.” So they ask the president, and he says, “Whatever the mayor wants, we’re gonna do.” So we ended up at Mike’s City Diner in the South End. It’s Teddy, me, the president and some of his staff. Afterward, the bill comes. Teddy has no money. Clinton has no money. Old me pays the bill, because they don’t carry money. So the following week, I’m going to breakfast at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in the South End with Al Gore. I said, “Before we go in, do you have any money?” He asked why. I said, “Last week, your partner stiffed me.”
[Dimitris] Avramopoulos, the mayor of Athens, Greece. He’s good guy. We got along well. Now he’s defense minister. I keep in touch.
Oh, no! This is the ugliest building in the city. The Financial Times called it the ugliest building in America, or maybe even the world. I won’t miss the building. I’ll miss the people.
No. Because she thinks I’ll be home all the time. But Angela will be somewhat happy because she doesn’t love the spotlight. She did say to me, “You have to be out of the house at 9 o’clock. You’ve gotta go someplace. I don’t care where, but you can’t hang around the house.”
A good Italian restaurant. I can’t name names. Besides that, I’d take them for a walk, because this is the ultimate walking city. We have something no other city does. It was created first by the settlers and only later by city planners. It’s authentic and human-scaled. And we haven’t allowed our developers to tear down a lot of it. Some, yes, but most of it’s still authentic.
I don’t hold grudges. The people who say I hold grudges are the ones who do. If I did, I wouldn’t talk to anybody. Just because I tell you how I feel doesn’t mean I dislike you. I’m trying to be honest.
9/11, obviously, but there’ve been lots of others. The Marathon bombing. When the Rev. Williams died because we raided the wrong apartment. The important thing is how we recover. This is a very strong city.
I’ll give you three: Being a good listener. Accepting criticism. Being a good learner. I’ve been here 20 years. I learned something different every day.
You don’t know everything.
Not your political friends. Outside folks, who will give a new fresh approach to what’s going on.
Well, we’ve got to watch out for the rising sea level. We’re already dealing with some of that stuff. The new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital over in Charlestown put all their mechanicals on the roof in case of flood or high water. That’s a biggie.
If I’d told you 40 years ago that you’d be the city’s longest-serving mayor, what would you have said?
When I first got elected, the newspaper said, “This mayor’s not gonna last four years. He can’t speak. He’s not good-lookin’. He doesn’t listen to people.” I beat ’em on at least one count. I’m not good lookin’. My articulation of words isn’t perfect. But I do listen to people.
Not after I became mayor. Why would I want to be governor? Even if there was the possibility of becoming a U.S. senator, you’re talking about a six-year term, locked away in Washington. Being mayor is the best job in the world. Most of those guys never get to talk to their constituents. I used to go to four coffee shops a day, and I don’t drink coffee. It was just to hear what people had to say.
Absolutely. I got my education on gay marriage from a friend I used to walk with. He’s a real Archie Bunker type. One morning, same-sex marriage came up, and I said, “What do you think?” He said, “Why shouldn’t two people who love each other be able to get married?” This is a very old-school guy. I live in Hyde Park, traditionally one of the most conservative neighborhoods in the city. I didn’t get one iota of grief about my stance on gay marriage. Not one bit.
They told me it was a bad move when I refused to march, but I’m the mayor of all the people. You exclude one, you exclude everyone. So I didn’t do it.
Yeah. You haven’t heard the last from me.
Prominent citizens reflect on the mayor who defined an era.
“I think about all the kids who love books and read with confidence because Mayor Menino made an investment in them. His Read Boston program is just part of a legacy of lifting people up—particularly kids—who can tell that he really cares about them and wants them to succeed.”
—Lisa Hughes, CBS news anchor, WBZ TV 4
“Mayor Menino recognized the important role that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and all the other great cultural institutions play in the fabric of our city. From renaming Huntington Avenue ‘Avenue of the Arts’ in 1998 to his participation in the dedication ceremony of the Museum’s Art of the Americas Wing in 2010, he has been a friend to the arts. It was important to Tom that all residents of Boston have the opportunity to experience great artistic treasures.”
—Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts
“It’s hard to imagine Boston without Tom Menino as mayor. No one loves this city and her people more, or is more excited about her future. Mayor Menino has been a tremendous leader. I thank him for his extraordinary and tireless service to the people of Boston, and look forward to leaning on his wisdom for many more years to come.”
—Governor Deval Patrick
“Mayor Menino is not only OF the people of Boston, but more importantly always FOR the people of Boston.”
—Steve Belkin, businessman and philanthropist
“From the moment I met Tom Menino, it was clear he was totally devoted to the city and to the charities and people that are trying to make things better. Every conversation I ever had with Tom always revolved around doing good things for other people, never himself.”
—Wyc Grousbeck, co-owner, Boston Celtics
“A seemingly improbable choice to become mayor, City Councilor Thomas Menino emerged onto the political stage sweeping into the office by automatic appointment and now 20 years later leaves with the almost unheard of approval rating of 72 percent of Bostonians and thoughts of all; what will the city be like without his leadership?”
—David Mugar, businessman and philanthropist
“Tommy could be as cuddly as a teddy bear, or as ferocious as a caged angry tiger, depending on the issue and what side of it he was on. That’s what makes him great.”
—Patrick Lyons, co-Owner, Lyons group