BOSTON — This year signaled great change in city leadership, with the end of an era at City Hall and the beginning of a new page in Boston mayoral politics.
David Scharfenberg joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to take a look back at the legacy of the urban mechanic, Thomas Menino, and a look ahead to the Walsh administration.
Host Bob Oakes: The biggest announcement this year in city politics came in March, when Mayor Thomas Menino announced that after 20 years, he would not be running for re-election. An entire generation of Bostonians have known only one mayor. What did this signify for the city?
David Scharfenberg: This was a big moment. Tom Menino was Boston’s longest serving mayor. He saw us through some high points — I’m thinking of two or three Red Sox victories — and some lows as well, the Boston Marathon bombings being the lowest. He was kind of an odd fit for this increasingly cosmopolitan city, but a reminder of the city’s kind of blue collar neighborhood roots.
What do you think Mayor Menino’s lasting legacy will be?
He’s famous for being the urban mechanic, but he really presided over a pretty transformational period in the city’s history. We had a development boom with the business community, we had population growth, we had young people coming back to the city, “empty nesters” buying up condos in the South End and Back Bay and beyond, and with that came some problems of inequality and affordability. Part of this transformation is a part of the city’s natural strengths: we’ve got a lot of history here, we have some strong universities, some strong hospitals. But part of it was really him. The innovation district really captures both of those things. It was built on our natural strengths on science and technology, but it really got a firm push from the mayor as well.
Where do you see Mayor-elect Marty Walsh and Mayor Menino overlapping, and where do you see departures between the two?
They both bring a blue collar sensibility to the job. Tom Menino came out of Hyde Park, Marty Walsh out of Dorchester. They both spent many years in government and politics, and I think they both have a real belief in the power of government to transform. That’s something that brings them together.
But there are real differences. Menino was kind of famous for having his fingers in everything and for being a bit of a micromanager at times. Walsh is aiming to run a more open, inclusive, decentralized City Hall. We will see how the considerable powers of the mayoralty inherited from Menino sit with the new mayor after he’s been in the office for a while.
What do you think the central challenge of the Walsh administration might be?
Marty Walsh ran on a platform of tackling poverty, he talked a lot about racial inequality and addressing that. For me, I think that is going to be the most interesting question of the Walsh administration: Does this focus on poverty and inequality remain? Or does he get subsumed by contract negotiations and snow removal and the like? And if he does remain focused on poverty and inequality, what can do he do to address it? What can he do to tackle the unfinished business of a city on the rise?
One of the big questions in the business community regarding the unfinished work of Boston is whether Walsh will continue the building boom in the Innovation District and elsewhere in the city, and whether development will be pushed out to many of the neighborhoods, which is what many in those neighborhoods want and expect from Marty Walsh. Where do you think he’s headed along those lines?
I think we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Boston Redevelopment Authority. That agency has a lot of power over development in the city, both downtown and beyond. He spoke in his campaign of a real shake up there, of adding more transparency, and decentralizing power a bit. I think that could be a forum for this conflict we’re talking about — between a candidate who spoke of greater equality, of empowering the neighborhoods, and of a downtown that’s really churning right now and wants to keep churning. So we’ll see where he goes with that.