Boston bids farewell to its greatest mayor

Out of America: Tom Menino bows out after 20 years of serving the city, during which he turned around its fortunes in typically unassuming style
  • @IndyVoices

I live in Washington, but Boston, I have to admit, is my favourite American city. It's a liberal, cosmopolitan metropolis, but not as overpowering as New York. It's loaded with history, via a mix of old New England and vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods. Then there's the academic leavening, from Harvard and MIT, just across the Charles river. The climate is agreeably rigorous, with virtually none of DC's appalling summer humidity. The sports teams (usually) are terrific. So forgive me if I devote this column to Tom Menino.

Aged 70 and plagued by various ailments, Menino announced last week he would not seek re-election as Boston's mayor when his current term expires at the end of this year. He wasn't what you traditionally associate with the city – and certainly not of "Brahmin" stock, the blue-blood caste, many of them descended from the first settlers who once ran Boston as their birthright.

Over the years the Brahmins were supplanted by the Irish (as in Fitzgerald and Kennedy), who from 1930 would provide every Boston mayor until Menino came along in 1993, the first Italian-American ever to hold the job. And he held it for 20 years, longer than anyone before him; longer than John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, JFK's maternal grandfather; longer even than James Michael Curley, Fitzgerald's rascally successor, who served four separate mayoral terms, during the last of which he spent five months in jail for fraud.

But Tom Menino wasn't cut from that sort of cloth. He was so popular for so long because he was unassuming. Other big city US mayors might be tipped for national office, such as New York's Michael Bloomberg (a Bostonian by birth) or Julian Castro of San Antonio, who some predict will be America's first Hispanic president. Not Menino.

Like most mayors who stick around, he developed a formidable political machine. But his never made headlines like the dynastic Daley operation in Chicago, or drew controversy akin to that attracted by Marion Barry, elected mayor four times here in Washington, the last in 1994 even after he had spent six months in federal jail for cocaine offences. Menino's biggest brush with a national issue came last year, when he vowed to keep the southern restaurant chain Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of its owner's campaign against same-sex marriage – which Massachusetts had been the first state to legalise in 2003.

Instead Menino was what one Boston writer called an "urban mechanic". He did what mayors are meant to do. He made sure that the streets were clean, snow was cleared, potholes fixed and crime was fought. He was also a great one for planting trees, in his campaign to make Boston the greenest city in America.

Above all, he believed in Boston's tapestry of neighbourhoods, "neyboods" as Menino would call them in his inimitable mumble, his mouth functioning like a silencer on a car exhaust. Menino might have shunned the national stage, but there was no ribbon-cutting too minor to attend. During his 20 years in city hall, it was estimated he had met half the entire Boston population of 625,000. "All politics is local," Tip O'Neill, the Boston Irishman who became House Speaker, once said. For Menino, politics wasn't just local. It was personal.

In the process, he presided over the transformation of the city. The Boston he took over was licking its wounds over the collapse of the dotcom boom. The one he will hand on to his successor is a gleaming powerhouse that recovered from the 2008 economic and financial crash as quickly as anywhere in the country.

It didn't do Menino any harm that he was around when the sports teams he so ostentatiously supported went on a tear. In the space of a decade, Boston won championships in all four major US sports, an unprecedented feat. The Celtics won the NBA title; the Bruins lifted ice hockey's Stanley Cup, while the Patriots were winning the Super Bowl every other year. Best of all, the Red Sox in 2004 overcame the hated New York Yankees on their way to the World Series, finally breaking the curse supposedly hanging over the team since 1918.

Menino's weird way with words was also an asset. His thick Boston accent and misfiring metaphors (he once described the shortage of parking in the city as "an Alcatraz round my neck") were positively endearing. Many who dealt with Menino were so blinded by the funny talking that they missed the razor-sharp political mind behind it.

All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell once said. Not Menino's. He leaves with a city's gratitude and a 75 per cent approval rating. "Just think about what I can do in nine months," he told a wildly cheering audience on Thursday in his resignation speech. "I don't need voters, anything. We can have some real fun." Tom Menino deserves it.