Former Mayor Thomas Menino has penned a memoir about his unprecedented five terms in office, “Mayor for a New America,” that frequently mentions Jamaica Plain and its issues.
Due out Oct. 14, the book covers Menino’s service as a Hyde Park city councilor and his mayoral tenure, which ran from 1993 to early this year.
JP makes an early appearance when Menino recalls his father, Carl, spending all day at a Jackson Square car dealership haggling to get the right price.
Menino’s first government job in the 1970s made him part of a huge issue in JP and citywide: He worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) convincing businesses to move for a highway planned to cut through the city’s center. Citizen activists in JP and other neighborhoods stopped the project, which now is the Southwest Corridor park and rail line. While the highway was halted, the BRA had already torn down scores of houses and businesses.
“My vision of government was born then,” Menino writes, agreeing with highway critics. “It was the opposite of everything happening around me. Government should be about helping people, not destroying their way of life…”
Describing his 1984-1993 stint as a city councilor, Menino mentions his work on the City’s purchase of the historic Curley House mansion on the Jamaicaway, and his opposition to a planned minority-majority council district in JP. He also recounts his successful battle for the council presidency against Maura Hennigan—later a JP resident and unsuccessful mayoral opponent.
The council presidency famously put Menino into power. In 1993, then Mayor Ray Flynn left office early to become ambassador to the Vatican. As council president, Menino became acting mayor, giving him an huge leg up in that year’s election. In the book, Menino recalls how he began his mayoral campaign at the famous Doyle’s Café, “a politico haunt in Jamaica Plain.”
A lot of attention goes to Main Streets, the business promotion and historic preservation program that operates in various independent organizations around the city—including three in JP. Main Streets was Menino’s “baby,” at least in terms of using the model in inner-city neighborhoods rather than small towns. The program debuted in Roslindale in the 1980s.
“One of my tenets is that revival has to include not just the worst neighborhoods or the high-voting neighborhoods,” Menino writes. “That doesn’t work: It doesn’t make the city complete.”
Menino’s former employer, the BRA, remained intensely controversial when it became his big stick as mayor. In JP and other neighborhoods, the BRA was often criticized for back-room deals and secrecy, including Opening Meeting Law violations.
As he did while in office, Menino defends the BRA and his own iron-fisted control of it, while bashing reformers who called for a more “predictable” development process. He makes no mention that even the BRA itself this year, after an audit, admitted the agency is in “dire need of reform.”
A related issue—one that helped spark a recent Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council lawsuit against a S. Huntington Avenue development—was Menino’s closeness to favored developers who were also campaign donors. Menino acknowledges having favorite developers, but attributes that to their track records, not “pay for play.”
“Donations did not determine my decisions. They were one among many factors,” he writes.
Development debates in JP and Boston often ultimately involve gentrification and displacement. Menino writes that he was worried about those issues in the 1990s: “Boston risked becoming Manhattan…it was increasingly a city of transients.” So he focused on Boston Public Schools improvement as a way to retain the city’s middle class.
But he also remained a champion of big developers and oversaw a city whose cost of living skyrocketed to record rates. Menino writes that he wonders if the Boston of 2030 will have a place for people like his blue-collar dad or “for a plugger good with numbers like me? Or will Boston then look like Paris now, a city for the elite ringed by suburbs for those who cater to them?”
He has no particular answer, though he muses that sky-high property values are great because the property tax money can help whatever poor people might remain. “Somebody should write a book about what cities owe to rich people,” he says at one point, about Boston’s charitable wealthy donors.
Menino skips many issues that JP might like see elaborated or explained. For example, there’s no mention of his 2006 attempt to shutter public libraries here, or of the Boston Police Department’s illegal spying on JP activists for years during his term.
He does devote much attention to his controversial school reforms. Other notable issues are the Boston Marathon bombing; the redevelopment of South Boston’s waterfront and his opposition to a New England Patriots football stadium there; and the saga of Southie’s St. Patrick’s Day parade banning gay and lesbian marchers.
While the book was co-written with Jack Beatty, it authentically captures the mayor’s sense of humor, his grumbling defiance against any criticism, and his canny manipulation of the press and political foes.
It’s an easy-to-read memoir in the modern pop mode, touching on high points, settling a few scores, skipping many big topics, and usually not going very deep. It reads something like his old agenda-setting Chamber of Commerce breakfast speeches. In short, like everything else elected officials do, it’s partly a performance.
For any child of modern Boston, it’s an entertaining read, though as Menino himself writes, “But always believe an objective source over a politician. I always do.”