Whatever happens in this week’s primary election, two matters are clear. One is that Mayor Menino will have an important and admirable legacy. (Have you noticed how busy he still is at getting out announcements and setting new agendas?) Two is that all the candidates who want to replace him are worthy, admirable individuals. How did we get so lucky? Maybe it’s because the two points are related.
Boston used to be a tribal city with isolated neighborhoods suspicious of one another. I remember it vividly when I arrived here in my youth, thinking I was an American. No other identity had ever been discussed in either my family or my circle of friends.
But in Boston, everyone was Italian or Irish or something else that they aggressively knew they were, mostly to the exclusion of other groups. It wasn’t romantic. It was sophomoric. That attitude became a crisis during busing. Ray Flynn, an excellent example of tribalism himself, though, actually helped soothe the irritations of that period once he became mayor.
But it was Tom Menino, bolstered by some demographics, who really accomplished the job. I remember a party in a sumptuous private house on Marlborough Street just after Menino was elected. Tommy walked up the wide staircase and looked around at grand ballroom on the second floor. Then he looked at the crowd and said something like: “I didn’t know anybody lived like this.” He said it in wonder and amusement, not envy. There was no chip on his shoulder that he hadn’t been born into such wealth. It was clear then that he would usher in a new era.
And he has. He is at every neighborhood’s celebration, most of the time surrounded by people of every stripe. He has welcomed immigrants and new citizens. He seems to relish the diversity, with more foreign-born residents and more residents born outside of Massachusetts than ever before, and he is proud that his city is one in which they want to live. Because of the demographic changes, Boston might have become less tribal anyway, but Mayor Menino’s attitude has set the standard. Other mayors in other parts of the country have not welcomed such changes in their cities. They should take a few lessons from Tommy.
We can see this inclusive attitude in the candidates for mayor. There are Irish names, Spanish names, and everything in between, but no one is trying to appeal solely to an ethnic group. Instead they are focusing on the knotty matters that require real work—schools, housing, economic development, transportation, eliminating gun violence.
The neighborhoods that once tried to isolate themselves from outside influence are now welcoming mayoral candidates who are not like them. A black woman is apparently appealing to many North Enders. An Irish guy and a Jewish guy seem to be running neck and neck in old Brahmin territory. And a black woman will host next year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, a decision made after the shortest ethnic/neighborhood squabble we’ve ever observed. It’s the America some of us have been hoping for all of our lives, and it’s occurring in our city.
I’ve decided whom I’ll be voting for today in all the elections. But if my choice for mayor doesn’t prevail, I won’t be disappointed in those who do. All of the candidates have been well-informed, thoughtful and purposeful. They’ve led interesting lives. They haven’t embarrassed us. Some candidates’ positions on important matters don’t agree with mine, but their positions are not mean or morally offensive, unlike the rabid right’s efforts to defund the food stamp program and starve American children. Besides, I don’t have to agree with everything a candidate stands for to support him or her with enthusiasm.
I have a recommendation for those mayoral hopefuls who don’t make it: Don’t go away. Keep up your involvement with politics and public matters. Let’s see more of all of you in the new Boston without Menino. This has been an uplifting mayoral campaign, and we thank you for your worthy participation.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.