He wound a path to power through countless backyard barbecues, old-fashioned bakeries, and neighborhood block parties, making him an uncommonly intimate figure in a time when urban politics and American cities have become anything but.
And when Thomas M. Menino grasped power, he did it like nobody else. He held it longer. He wielded it more forcefully. And he used it to orchestrate every last detail of the city — from the top of a tower in the Back Bay to a rattling pothole in Roslindale, at once an urban mechanic and something of a downtown monarch.
His laser-like focus on street-level minutiae provoked frequent criticism that he lacked a broader vision for a city forever trying to position itself as a world-class metropolis. But through countless disparate acts — new libraries, endless ribbon-cuttings, reclaimed parks — a new city emerged, one with a notably different look and an attitude less burdened by the darker chapters of its past.
“Sometimes we get caught up in the grandiose,” he said in 1994, shortly after taking office. “My vision is jobs, a better school system, community policing, health care. When I leave this job, I want the city to be in better shape than when I took it over.”
With his mangled syntax and swallowed words that made him an easy target for mockery, Menino seemed an unusual fit for a highly educated city. He did not get his college degree until he was 45 and entered a program that awarded him credit for his “life experience” as a city councilor.
None of it hurt his political standing or popularity. It may have actually helped, all of it adding to the image of a man who boasted he was “no fancy talker,” but would “get the job done.”
“I’m not good looking. I can’t speak well. I’m not smart. I’m driven,’’ he once said. “I have the opportunity to change people’s lives.’’
Famously thin-skinned and a notorious micromanager, he delved with relish into the greasy machinery of city government, obsessing over blown street lights, jagged potholes, and unplowed streets with an intensity that reflected his schooling as a neighborhood city councilor.
“Visionaries don’t get things done,” Menino once said.
After Kevin H. White churned out urban policy experiments and sought to raise Boston’s profile in the 1970s, and Raymond L. Flynn worked to heal racial wounds in the 1980s, Menino eschewed lofty goals in favor of brass tacks.
By dedicating himself to what he called the “fundamentals of urban life,” he brought stability to a city that had endured decades of urban renewal and racial violence.
Menino’s tangible, even visceral, connection to the electorate was all the more striking as Boston, in 2000, became a city where more than half of its residents were not white. But rather than be swept aside in neighborhoods that look less and less like him, Menino evolved beyond the parochial politics that had defined Boston for a century and earned some of his strongest support in the city’s gay, minority, and immigrant communities.
Never one for introspection, he attributed his enduring popularity in a changing city to his frantic schedule of community events. “It’s just a lot of elbow grease — being out there, talking to people and listening to them and trying to be of service to them,’’ he said in 2009 — an assertion he repeated Thursday at his Faneuil Hall address.
It all began almost by accident. An unpolished and unpretentious politician who never left his native Hyde Park, Menino became mayor when his predecessor, Flynn, was named ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Backed by a vast and vaunted political operation powered by loyal city workers, he has trounced every political challenger since, and was often feared by developers and neighborhood activists who saw in him a penchant for nursing grudges and retaliating against enemies.
In the decades Menino has held office, the city experienced a building boom, from new office towers downtown, to a shopping plaza in Roxbury. He made his biggest imprint on the city’s landscape in South Boston, where he helped turn the faded industrial waterfront into a growing area with a convention center, and now, an art museum and high-end restaurants.
Savvy developers knew the success or failure of a project often hinged on pleasing Menino.
When Edward Linde, chief executive of Boston Properties Inc., proposed building a 36-story tower in the Back Bay, Menino took one look at the architectural renderings and shook his head.
“I said, ‘Guys, flat roofs don’t make it,’ ” Menino said.Continued...