Before Tom Menino took over the reins of city hall, Boston’s national reputation for contentious race relations hung over the city persistently. That reputation lingered even after he left office in 2013. But the reality is race relations did change under Menino’s watch — and some say for the better.

For Tom Menino, there was nothing in Boston’s DNA more essential than it’s neighborhoods.

"The strength of Boston is really the neighborhoods of Boston," he said.

But it was Boston’s parochial neighborhoods that also gave the city it’s long-lasting notoriety for bigotry; a reputation grounded in fierce opposition to school desegregation through busing 40 years ago. Enough already, the mayor told WGBH in a 2004 interview.

"It’s about what the media continually wants to beat the drum on 'Boston is a racist city,'" he said. "We’re not perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were. Bill Russell said to me in May, 'Mayor I’ll do anything I can for you because Boston when I was here in the 60's was a racist city. It’s not a racist city today.' It’s the one thing that drives me the craziest the most. I go around the city and see how people live.”

Where some saw Boston’s neighborhoods as symbols of division, Menino saw all 23 neighborhoods as home.

"He was here all the time," said Leverett Wing, a Community mobilizer in Asian communities who worked closely with Mayor Menino. "He would come to all the community dinners and he would always go on about the feeling of family and the feeling of community in Chinatown."

And Mayor Menino could often be found across town in Roxbury, talking politics and sports at one of his favorite cafés, which is run by a nonprofit group that assists the poor.

"Him and Angela, the Mrs., were avid supporters of Haley House," said manager Jeremy Thompson.

From his perch behind the counter at the Haley House Café and Community Center in Dudley Sq., Thompson watches a parade of customers of all hues walk through these doors. And one of his best customers over the years, he says, was Tom Menino, who helped direct funds to this center for one of its key missions.

"He championed underprivileged people," Thompson said. "People who couldn’t fend for themselves — men and women who were homeless, refugees, men and women coming home from prison. And he loved that our mission was to leave nobody behind."

People like Christopher Johnson, who’s helping clean up at the end of the day.

"I've been at the Haley House for almost two years but I just came home from federal prison," Johnson said.

Johnson says between the time he left Boston and the time he returned, the city had changed.

"I was away in New York and Kentucky for a while, so a lot of the news about Menino and his job here, I heard some complaints and I heard some props," he said. "I’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of people are more open to different things now than they were years ago."

A lot of the openness is due to gentrification, such that it is not unusual to see people of various ethnicities moving into neighborhoods like Roxbury and densely populated Chinatown. But Karen Chin, of the Chinese Progressive Association, asked months ago what happens to those moving out.

"Where are people going to go?" she asked. "There aren’t really many places that people can move to."

It was a major question that Menino faced during his administration: How do you build up the city economically without displacing less-well off people of color and working class whites?

"If I had the answer to that question I would be a superstar," Menino said. "How do you continue to build affordability in housing? But it seems to me that people want to live in our neighborhoods. They want to live in in our city. They want to live in Roxbury, in Jamaica Plain, they want to live in Dorchester; but we have an issue of how do you build affordable housing?

With federal funds slashed for affordable housing during most of his 20 years in office, Menino SAID that the problem could at least be ameliorated on a local level by offering incentives to developers to create mixed income apartments. .Leverett Wing says this was helpful to his community:

"With him, with some of the decisions he made, some of the zoning and some of the help he gave to some of the development we have in Chinatown, we now have the Metropolitan, a 24-story, mixed-used building which is now an anchor for a lot of folks who were forced out of Chinatown when the Big Dig came.

Thompson also saw positive changes where he lives.

"Even the transformation of my development from a brick development to a nice welcoming wood tenement where people can feel comfortable, like they actually live in homes," he said. "He wanted people to feel proud of where they live."

Besides housing and development, Menino also ushered in new polices affecting race relations in employment, and supported affirmative action.

In 1998, the mayor clashed openly with city council president James Kelly, who had introduced a plan to scrap affirmative action in the police and fire departments. But City Councilor Charles Yancey complained during Menino’s watch that he failed to adequately diversify a fire department that was nearly 70 percent white, and failed to promote African Americans to the highest rungs of the police department.

"Many of those districts are in predominantly people-of-color communities," Yancey said.

But some organizations, including the 10-Point Coalition, gave Menino credit for fostering better police-minority relations. However, a recent comprehensive report by the ACLU that Boston police stopped and frisked hundreds of minority youth between 2007 and 2019 has resurrected this contentious issue once again.

Menino’s record on race relations for many is stellar. Others see a mixed legacy.

"I give him a B-minus, C-plus," Thompson said. "Nobody’s perfect. He tried hard, you know, to implement and make a loving community for everybody to live in. You know, it just takes time to develop."

Roxbury activist Jamarhl Crawford would not comment on tape but said that he gave the mayor an F for everything “except for rubbing elbows.” He lamented what he called “horrible unemployment, police killings … "

Wing says progress is a balancing act. Menino lured the National Urban League conference to Boston in 2011 after the civil rights group in the 1970’s vowed never to set foot in this city. It was not just political, says Wing.

"I think it came from the heart," he said. "He himself was the first Italian-American mayor in Boston history, so he felt that himself what it was like to be an outsider."

Wing gives Menino an A for race relations.

"Not only did he appreciate the uniqueness and the fabric of each neighborhood, but he didn’t use the neighborhoods to divide people," he said. "He used the neighborhoods to try to break down silos. He was an ambassador around Boston. And he was probably the best ambassador that we’ve had in long long time."

Menino as mayor was entrusted with trying to rescue Boston from its bitter racial history, still present in the air like the acrid smell of smoke. But Boston is a less racially polarized city today — and its 23 neighborhoods, from Chinatown to Southie to Charlestown to Roxbury, are far less Balkanized.