Mayor Menino Will See You Now
Embraces new role as BU cities initiative gears for first conference
On a recent frigid morning, Thomas Menino sits between two portable space heaters in his new Bay State Road digs, a sweeping view of the frozen Charles framed by the bay windows behind him. In his two decades as mayor of Boston (1993 to 2014), Menino (Hon.’01) moved too quickly to feel the chill—the business of running a city kept him hurtling along at a frenzied pace, and he loved it. Now, as codirector of BU’s fledgling Initiative on Cities (IoC), Boston’s longest serving mayor has the luxury of pondering and debating long-term solutions to the kind of urban challenges he knows well, from finance, infrastructure, and health care to education and environmental sustainability. Menino is eager to serve as a mentor to students (he has regular office hours and sits down to coffee with BU’s 25 Menino Scholars every Friday) and advisor to municipal leaders from around the world, and to apply his well-known gritty pragmatism and passion for issues like education and equal opportunity in a setting where he can enjoy a typical civilian’s night’s sleep.
Working with IoC codirector Graham Wilson, a College of Arts and Sciences professor and chair of political science, Menino will invite collaboration with diverse disciplines and faculty from BU and other universities. The initiative, which is affiliated with BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, kicks off on Monday, March 24, with a conference titled Leading Cities Through Crisis: Lessons from the Boston Marathon. The one-day event, being held at the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom at One Silber Way, will review the immediate response to the April 15, 2013, bombing and examine how city leaders can contribute to a swift recovery both financially and psychologically. Keynote addresses will be given by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Edward Davis, former commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Menino will close the proceedings with a talk titled Leading Boston through Crisis. The conference will also feature panel discussions on what was learned from Boston’s medical response, the role of the media in the tragedy’s aftermath, the rebirth of businesses in the affected area, and the city’s short- and long-term recovery process.
BU Today sat down with Menino to talk about his new place in academia, what makes some cities great, and his hopes for the upcoming conference.
BU Today: How do you like your new home?
Menino: It’s interesting. It’s different. Being mayor is a much faster pace; when you’re mayor, you have to make decisions right away. In academia we plan things, we think things out, trying to make a difference on policies and procedures and educate individuals about the issues out there, so we have an educated workforce out there, to make this the best city in the country. That’s what it’s all about. It’s as simple as that.
What lessons from your long experience as mayor of Boston would you most like to impart to students?
There is a perception that government isn’t working. But government is where it starts. You learn so much when you deal with people every day. You have to have those people skills to be successful in your career. What I tell people going into government is, you’re doing it because you’re helping people, and that should be your first goal—how you help them. And I hope to get the “Me” generation to think about being an “Us” generation.
Do you find that young people are cynical about government?
Yes. And I don’t blame them. With all this stuff that you read and see in the newspaper, I would be too. But government is a great place to learn about people and how things get done.
Do you have big hopes for this generation coming up?
Honestly, I’ll tell you, those who are in college are more into voluntarism than the previous generation. As mayor, I used to know a lot of the interns who worked in my office after school; they were not getting paid, they just wanted to be there. And they are volunteering in the schools, too. Can we do better? We can. But I’ve seen an improvement over the last 2 or 3 years, and I’ve seen big improvement from the previous 10 years.
What do you think makes a city great?
Its people. People make the city. Boston is a city of diversity, a city that makes us stronger than ever. The people—getting to know them—that is where all the action happens. It doesn’t happen at the state level.
How important is a mayor’s role in setting a tone for diversity and equality?
The mayor is the guy who sets the tone for the whole city. By his actions people recognize whether he is involved in the community of color. Is he involved in issues with young people? People get a perception of a mayor who cares about those problems. That’s what we should be doing. Setting that tone is not a big thing to me; that’s my job. And you have to be on the front line if tragedy happens in the neighborhood.
So the mayor’s role calls for a personal connection?
Yes. Boston is a very personal city. We’re both a big city and a small city. We are 47 square miles. Everybody knows each other. It’s incredible. It’s a city where people get along with each other. It wasn’t like that in the ’70s, but Boston has come along really strong over the last few years. That strength came out at the Marathon. We’re stronger than ever.
Will Boston be a different city forever because of the Marathon bombings?
I think that Boston matured that day. It showed its best, you know.
Can you tell us a little bit about the March 24 conference and what you’re looking forward to about it?
Well, it’s about three weeks before the Marathon. We’re bringing some of the practitioners in there to talk about how they prepared for it, what happened during it, and some of the results of it. And we will bring some survivors in and have them talk to us about what kind of service they’ve been getting, or are going through. We’ve got media folks coming from all facets of the operation, as well as hospital people and the emergency responders. We’ll have people in the business community who worked to get businesses back on line. We have, I think, a very good program for that day, to inform people, tell them what we have, and how we got there.
Will Boston’s response to the Marathon bombings be a model for other cities?
In Boston, there’s something in us that wants us to be helpful to neighbors, helpful to people in need. The folks who worked the medical tents, they were superstars. Anybody who went to a medical tent didn’t lose life. Everybody cooperated. That Friday, everyone stayed home. And that night after we made the arrest, our people were standing on street corners singing “God Bless America” and raising American flags and the Boston Common was filled with people. I got one call from the police department that said, “All the students are making all kinds of noise at Fenway about this thing. What are we going to do?” And I said, they’ve been stuck in a dorm for 12 hours, let them go. They’re not causing trouble; they’re just celebrating. One thing I saw during and after the attack is how state police, federal police, and Boston police all worked together. That really is a case study. They never worked as well together as they did on those days.
At this first and future conferences, you will be bringing together great minds to solve urban problems. Where would you begin to fix a city in crisis, like Detroit?
One of the most important things in being a mayor is understanding the finances, because if your finances work, your city works. You’re not plugging holes all the time. That is one of the things I’d start with. But beyond having a financial team, there are smaller things—the basic services, fixing the streetlights so people are safe. So you need efforts on both sides—the business side and the quality of life side. And you need to take a series of small incremental steps. You don’t have the big federal money we used to be able to throw at cities. It doesn’t exist.
What are some other things about Boston and other successful cities that make them more livable and draw people back?
I think the Hope VI program helped people who would have been in public housing, giving them the opportunity to live in decent, safe housing.
Do you think more people will choose to live in the city and raise their children here?
There are 630,000 people in Boston, the highest number in 20 years. More people are working in Boston than ever before. Hayward Place down on Washington Street is not going to be open for another year and it’s already sold out every unit. People want to be in the city; they’re coming back in. They see the advantages of living in the city. This isn’t the big, bad, ugly city it used to be. There’s so much here—the universities, museums, all those cultural attractions.
How do immigrants energize a city?
In many ways. I call these folks the new Bostonians. How can we provide them with opportunities? As mayor, I created an office just to deal with those issues. How do you educate them about what Boston’s all about? How do you get them assimilated into the mainstream of our city? English as a Second Language programs are important. But it’s also important just to make them feel comfortable while they’re here.
How do you do that?
You have events, and make sure the Cape Verdeans, the Haitians, and everyone else comes to these events together. You just get them involved. That’s all. And there’s no scientific way of doing it. It’s just a matter of treating people as people, treating them the way you want to be treated. You open the doors for them.
What kind of temperament does it take to be a good mayor?
I think you have to be a good listener. And being mayor, you have to work at it all the time. It’s not one of those jobs with a lot of pomp and circumstance. People yell at you all the time. You listen to their problems, and try to help them.
What are some of your favorite cities in the world—cities that really work?
I like what the mayor of Baltimore is doing with food and nutrition; I like what the mayor of Seattle did out in his city to promote technology, and what former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did with philanthropies. You know, Bloomberg and I started Mayors Against Illegal Guns nine years ago. It was a joint effort. The government just won’t do anything when it comes to guns. All this gibberish about how we’ve got to do something—well, it’s time to start getting on the case of the Congress, then get on the case of the president. Something has to happen about guns. I don’t want to take guns away from hunters or people in public safety. But you need the background checks, close the gun-sharing loopholes, all that, to get rid of the illegal guns.
Is this the type of problem you’ll be discussing in the initiative?
Yes, one of them.
What are some of the others?
We’ll discuss finance, economic development, jobs, and, of course, sustainability.
Can you talk about the importance of sustainability?
Boston has come a long way. But we’ve only gone so far because the problem we have in this city with sustainability is that we have scientific talk, not street talk. People don’t understand that. They don’t understand sustainability. They don’t understand concepts like carbon footprint and climate change. They say, climate change, what does that really mean? I believe this could be the issue that creates jobs for us, if we could just change the vocabulary.
Is that a public education issue too?
It’s a real public education issue. It’s important to do. Like solar panels, I think solar panels are marvelous. Now most people think, what are you putting those things up on your house for? Let me show you the energy you save and the money you save. It works. And we have great resources here at BU to work on these kinds of issues.
Do you think you need to speak to people’s wallets to instill a sense of urgency about the need for alternative energy and sustainability?
I think you need to have testimonials that people can believe in. You know, the next-door neighbor who’s got this. Like when I put solar panels on my house, a neighbor said, “How did you do it? Why did you do it?”
How much of your house’s energy is provided by solar?
A significant amount.
How long have you had solar panels?
We’ve had them on our house for over a year. We have a very aggressive program in Boston to promote solar energy, but people still think it’s a gimmick. You have to educate them that it’s not a gimmick, it’s about them saving energy for the future. It’s about saving our environment.
Safety is a major issue for people living in the city. What are some ways you can make a city safe, and how has Boston become much safer?
First of all, I didn’t make the city safe. It was education. People who are educated don’t turn to the world of violence. You have to educate the young people and make opportunities for them and show them the opportunities. Police have to work with the neighborhoods, and communities need to be involved. That’s why these crime watches we have are so important. It’s neighborhood people helping the police department with their jobs. It makes a difference.
For a city to be great, how important is it to have people of all income levels?
That is one of the biggest issues facing cities. Inequality is an issue that really faces this whole country. Now, how do we deal with that? That’s something I’d like to deal with in my new role at BU.
What are some of your ideas about that?
You need enrichment for the poor. How do you do that? You know, I haven’t got all the answers. One of the things you need to do is build apartment houses with 15 percent of the units having to be affordable. A lot of the time cities will want to build these affordable apartments off site. I say no, build them right on the same site as people paying a million dollars, or those who pay $100,000. And have the apartments look the same. Don’t put cheap stuff in the affordable ones. And also, it’s a matter of improving education, jobs, and equality of women. I started an initiative in Boston to get pay equity for women. There’s a big disparity between what a graduating male earns and what a female graduate earns.
Can you talk about the importance of parks and public spaces in making cities better?
Parks are one of the quality of life issues because they’re a place to play. If you see a nice park in a neighborhood, you’re going to take care of your own property and keep it from looking shabby. How do you do that? Well, develop private partnerships with the business community. Have these private corporations adopt some of these parks. I’ve done it in the past in Roslindale when I was city councilor, and I’ve done some in the city as mayor. But we need to get more aggressive. Let me tell you something: if you have a well-manicured city, people love it. You know, sometimes I drive down Storrow Drive and it’s shabby. It’s just overgrown because nobody’s paying attention to it. It’s these little things that make a difference. “I saw those flowers you had there.” “See how clean it was.” You know, one of the things I did as mayor was put down AstroTurf because I wanted our sports fields to be better than the suburban fields. And open space is very important, also urban community vegetable gardens. There’s one in Dorchester with 137 different lots and immigrants from all over the world own those plots. And those people might never come together any place else. But now they come together because of the urban garden. It helps build community also.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.