“I see Boston as neighborhoods,” Tom Menino told me during a 2009 campaign stop in Jamaica Plain. He dusted off that e-pluribus-unum quote every election to tout his well-earned rep as the mayor who loved the neighborhoods as much as downtown.
He went on to say that JP, of course, was first among equals—at least for the 90 minutes of the interview. “This community is Boston,” he said. “You’re ahead of your time here.”
Corny though it was, Menino knew the neighborhoods like nobody else, and he was right about JP, a liberal bastion whose residents pioneered everything from the city’s recycling program to same-sex marriage. Looking back, JP also was ahead of its time on Menino himself: first in embracing his vision of neighborhood-based renewal, and later in souring on his increasingly secretive and creaky administration.
Make no mistake — JP is in mourning today. JP-ers always loved that decent, hard-working Hyde Park guy Tom Menino. Mayor Menino, however, they had been slowly falling out of love with, as measured by election results and lawsuits.
When Menino kicked off his first mayoral campaign in 1993 at JP’s politically wired Doyle’s Café — which today boasts a “Menino Room” — he was a city councilor repping a big chunk of the neighborhood. Still, he wasn’t the local fave until a more liberal opponent endorsed him at a JP event. JP backed him heavily in his eventual victory, and for most of his unprecedented 20 years in office.
Menino turned out to be surprisingly progressive. His matter-of-fact support for gay rights was a big deal in JP, as were his efforts — publicly and behind-the-scenes — to support then-controversial HIV/AIDS programs. He greased the wheels for nonprofit affordable-housing developers to build crucial footholds in a gentrifying community. He expanded his landmark council achievements — city community centers and the small-business-boosting Main Streets program — in some of JP’s toughest areas; they have sustained local economies and literally saved lives.
And Menino walked his hyperlocal-first talk in JP, showing up everywhere from ribbon-cuttings to breakfasts at the legendary Sorella’s restaurant.
But over time, some of his plusses turned into minuses in the eyes of JP’s progressives. His love of hands-on public service translated into an antiquated, low-tech City Hall that made starting a local business a nightmare. His centralization of power — intended to reform city bureaucracy — morphed into a penchant for secrecy and back-room deals with favored tycoons. JP residents protested the lack of transparency on real estate deals that gentrified the neighborhood and BPS plans that shuttered local schools.
Menino crankily dismissed any criticism, no matter how patently true it was. “You should be kicked out,” he once joked nastily when I asked him about a fellow Jamaica Plain Gazette reporter being banned from a public meeting. The effect on public trust and public process in JP was corrosive. And Menino’s public appearances waned, both for health reasons and as he chose to unveil controversial proposals to downtown business groups instead.
In 2005, JP resident Maura Hennigan ran against Menino on a reformist platform. She didn’t even win the JP vote, but it was a shot across the bow from one of the city’s highest-voting neighborhoods. In the 2009 race, Menino essentially tied with young reformer Sam Yoon for the JP vote in the preliminary, and barely beat challenger Michael Flaherty there in the final. A Southie pol giving Menino a run for his JP money was a wild wake-up call.
If Menino had run again last year, it’s quite possible he would have lost in JP. As it was, his last year in office saw the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council sue the city over a luxury real estate project and criticize Menino for taking the developer’s campaign money. Such complaints bothered the ex-mayor enough to get the last word in his recent memoir.
Menino still had thousands of fans and loyalists in JP. His legacy is secure in his many programs that continue to benefit the area, and in his many protégés who now serve as JP officials with the same hands-on, neighborhoods-first ethos. His successor, Marty Walsh, won in part by pulling Menino moves like having campaign volunteers hand-clean a vacant lot in JP.
But there’s some tragedy that Menino didn’t step away sooner, before his administration began overstaying its welcome, to spend many more years enjoying the neighborhoods he helped to build.
Likewise, thousands of JP-ers are wishing they had just a little more time to say thanks to Tom Menino. Because however much it cooled on the mayor, JP remains forever grateful to the man.
John Ruch is the editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.