The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

If the neighborhoods were the initial focus of White’s construction efforts, the downtown received its share of mayoral attention beginning around 1971.  On this front, White was lucky that several of his plans never got off the ground, or got off the ground looking much different from what he had intended.  He pushed hard, for example, for Park Plaza, a plan calling for widespread demolition in the Park Square area and massive new construction that was to have included high-rise towers looming over the Public Garden.  However, as a result of intense local opposition the plan was later scaled down; then the designated developer dropped out of the picture; today it appears likely that nothing will happen in Park Square for years to come.  On the North End side of the Waterfront, the Redevelopment Authority’s first plans for White called for extensive demolition and more of those high-rise towers, but a lawsuit by residents forced a switch to more rehabilitation; today the area is booming and White takes unabashed credit.  The renovated Quincy Market, on the other hand, is the most outstanding White Success: when the developer ran into some difficulty getting sufficient financing, White stepped in and got several Boston banks to come up with the money.

Quite apart from the concrete improvements (few of which have come since a fiscal crisis gripped the city government in 1975 and ’76), many observers credit White with instilling a new pride and optimism in Boston.  “There’s a tone about this town,” says Joseph Slavet, head of the Boston Urban Observatory, “that says to a younger person or aspiring professional that this is a good place to live and work.”

“In terms of what life in the city should be like,” adds Herbert Gleason, the head of White’s law department and long-time supporter, “he’s changed people’s expectations.”  Another observer comments on White’s “superb urban taste.”

In almost all cases, the mechanisms by which White sought to create change – the Little City Halls, the community schools, the Summerthings – were new agencies that he tacked onto the existing municipal structure.  Certainly at the beginning, the mayor bubbled over with enthusiasm that was doubtless infectious, inspiring his workers to high-quality efforts.  The new agencies were a political boon to White too, breeding grounds for future loyalists and campaign workers.  But there was a negative side to this particular coin, claim many of White’s former aides; the mayor pretty much ignored many of the departments that were in existence when he took office, departments where civil service protections made shakeups difficult.  (A notable exception to this pattern was the police department, where White appointed reformer Robert diGrazia.) Yet mayoral inattention  to other departments said several former advisers, has in the long run meant that many city services have no t improved noticeably during White’s years.  And the same 1977 poll which showed the mayor with a high negative rating in the city showed much dissatisfaction among residents with the delivery of these services.

“There are two governments at City Hall,” observed a former top aide to White.  “One, presided over by (Vice-Mayor) Ed Sullivan, consists of the building department, the public works department, things like that – the civil-service-dominated line departments that have always been there.  Kevin’s attitude toward them has always been, ‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.’”

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    This article originally appeared in the July 24, 1973 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

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