Shortly before his Oct. 30 death, former Mayor Thomas Menino penned a memoir about his unprecedented five terms in office, “Mayor for a New America,” that mentions some big issues in Mission Hill and the Longwood Medical Area.
They include two dramatic crimes: the infamous Charles Stuart murder case of 1989 and last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.
Published last month, the book covers Menino’s service as a Hyde Park city councilor and his mayoral tenure, which ran from 1993 to early this year.
Menino’s first government job in the 1970s made him part of a huge issue in Mission Hill 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 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…”
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 in Mission Hill. 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.”
Charles Stuart’s murder of his pregnant wife Carol—the most infamous piece of Mission Hill history—gets outraged treatment from Menino, who was a city councilor at the time. On Oct. 24, 1989, the couple from suburban Reading attended a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Charles then shot his wife to death in their car while parked on St. Alphonsus Street in the Mission Main public housing development. To cover up his crime, Stuart wounded himself, too. He blamed it on a “black man.”
Politicians and the media stirred hysteria. Police engaged in a sometimes brutal sweep of the neighborhood.
“One hundred officers swarmed over the Mission Main development, stopping and frisking and grilling young black men,” Menino writes.
Two innocent men were arrested, and one, Mission Main resident Willie Bennett, faced first-degree murder charges from “detectives [who] ran amok,” Menino writes. More than two months later, Charles Stuart committed suicide, and his accomplice brother confessed to the police.
Police department reforms that followed convinced him to champion “neighborhood policing” strategies and to oppose stop-and-frisks. “I would not tolerate racial profiling. You can’t police a multiracial city like an occupying army,” Menino writes.
However, the ACLU last month issued a report finding that stop-and-frisks occur regularly in Boston and have a significant racial bias.
During the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Menino was a patient at Brigham and Women’s for a broken leg. As bomb victims began pouring into the hospital, Menino describes how he braved pain and disobeyed doctors’ orders to make public appearance that later were considered a highlight of his leadership.
“My doctor advised me to stay put…Too soon to move, too risky….,” Menino writes. “‘I don’t care what you say, doc, I’m going,’ I said. My city had been attacked. I had to be out there.”
Menino’s former employer, the BRA, remained intensely controversial when it became his big stick as mayor. In Mission Hill 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.
He devotes much attention to his controversial school reforms. Other notable issues are 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.”