The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

Lupo should have some insight into the inner workings of the fortress; he was allowed enormous freedom of movement within it, and got to sit in on many closed-door meetings, as he researched his book.  The impression he formed of White’s performance on busing and across the board is glowing.  Said Lupo:  “White should be remembered as the man who got the city through the worst crisis in its history – busing.  And he should be remembered too as the man who brought a spirit to the city, and who revived its neighborhoods.  If he’d done nothing but bring the word ‘neighborhood’ back into the vernacular of the city, he would still be one of the greatest mayors to serve in the history of the US.”

A generous assessment, to say the least.  As a reporter who specialized in neighborhood issues, Lupo no doubt has a soft spot for public officials who display an interest in such things.  Still and all, there can be little doubt that White’s neighborhood emphasis, which was most visible in his first administration with the creation of his Little City Hall program, was a major step forward for Boston government.  White’s predecessor, John Collins, had stressed large-scale downtown renewal during his years of leadership, and not without reason: sections of the city were badly in need of a facelift. By 1967, though, with that process well under way a backlash developing in the wake of urban renewal’s excesses (the destruction of the entire West End to make way for Charles River Park, for instance, is viewed by some Bostonians as excessive), the time was ripe for talking up neighborhoods, and White was perceptive enough to seize upon this notion in his campaign and follow through on it upon taking office.

A decade after its birth, the Little City Hall program appears likely to remain with us in some form or another, which testifies to its worthiness.  In addition, particularly in the program’s infancy, Little City Hall managers at the times played major roles in the development of administration policy.  “If it hadn’t been for the Little City Hal in Allston-Brighton,” said Lupo, “there might not have been rent control.  And if it hadn’t been for the one in East Boston, there might today be another runway at Logan.”  In each case, continual badgering of White’s downtown aides by managers in the field contributed (along, of course, with White’s perception of political profit) to the development of policy.  The East Boston case illustrates another benefit of the program: the development of talent.  It’s first manager, Fred Salvucci, would soon move on the greater things, and is today the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Transportation.

In addition to the Little City Halls (and in his second term the community schools program, new school intended for round-the-clock use by the communities in which they were built), White’s neighborhood commitment would be demonstrated by a large capital improvement program: new parks were built, as were new schools, new fire and police stations, and the street-lighting program was expanded.  “I think we’ve come a long way,” said Andy Olins, the mayor’s housing adviser, “in rebuilding the physical plant of the city, given the years where not very much was spent.”  And it had been many years: when the new English High School opened its doors in 1973, it was the first such school to do so in Boston since the Jeremiah Burke in 1939.

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