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Kevin Cullen

A legacy well built

Five stories above State Street, Norman Leventhal stands in his office, a panoramic view of Boston Harbor over his shoulder.

To his right is Rowes Wharf, which he built and which remains the gold standard for waterfront development. To his left is the Marriott at Long Wharf, which he didn't build and looks like something Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu put up in Bucharest before they shot him.

And so it is framed: the corporate way or the Norman Leventhal way. The latter is vastly superior and, like its creator, has a soul.

He steps to the window and looks down at the unfinished greenway.

"It's a great city," he says. "But it could be and it should be greater."

He turns 90 today and should be golfing or sailing or acting retired. But you can't retire as a citizen, and Norman Bernard Leventhal is first and foremost a citizen.

Calling Norman Leventhal a developer is like calling Shakespeare a writer. It's accurate, but ridiculously incomplete. He built a chunk of the city, and we would be better off if he had built all of it. But landmarks, from Center Plaza opposite City Hall to the park in Post Office Square that bears his name, don't define him. He shaped this city, his city, with attitude, more than with bricks and mortar.

Bostonians are proudly pessimistic. Blame the Puritans. Blame the weather. Blame the Red Sox. Blame somebody or something. It's what we are.

Norman Leventhal got things done, got things built, got the most and best out of people, because he was somehow immune to this town's most debilitating condition: cynicism.

He is a character from a Frank Capra film. An important man who doesn't act like one. Somebody who says, and believes, he was just as happy when he was a kid, sleeping in a sweltering Dorchester attic with his brothers, as when he made his first million. He built luxury hotels, affordable housing, offices, and hospitals. He tore down an ugly garage and put a bucolic park in its place. When someone, like Muriel, his wife of 65 years, would ask why, he would say why not?

To him, anything was possible, because his life proved it. A child of Jewish immigrants -- dad from Russia, mom from Lithuania -- he grew up on Wolcott Street, where he remembers being loved, not poor.

Noting his conscientiousness, Miss McDonald, his elementary school principal, predicted, "Norman, you'll do well in life."

He graduated from Boston Latin School at 15 and was accepted at Harvard but couldn't afford the $400 tuition. Undaunted, he walked down Mass. Ave. and got into MIT. They gave him a loan.

In 1945, Muriel, whose family had a little money, loaned him $2,000 to start a construction company. He and his brother Robert were just hoping to make a living. They became successful beyond their dreams. And Norman Leventhal became as good at giving away money as he was at making it.

He was always going places, but never forgot where he came from, and so it shouldn't surpise that he loves maps. His would be one of the world's largest private map collections, except that keeping it private would mean others couldn't see it. And so the maps are in the Boston Public Library.

Some years ago, he went back to the house at 18 Wolcott St. where he grew up.

"There's a black family there now, and they were very nice to me," he says.

He built more than buildings. He built the notion that with great wealth and power comes great responsibility to those who have neither. He is, as his friend Monique Doyle Spencer put it, a Dorchester kid in a Louis suit. He is, as the old men who spoke Yiddish on Blue Hill Avenue years ago would say, a mensch.

"I am not concerned about a legacy," he says, staring out on a city that is his legacy. "I feel comfortable with what I've done."

What can you say to Norman Leventhal?

On this day, happy birthday will do.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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