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Brian McGrory

The loner and the city he loved and changed

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / January 29, 2012
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It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the rarified streets of the Back Bay were ever home to flophouses, or to grasp that outsiders ventured into the South End at their own risk after dark, or to realize that a McDonald’s, a gas station, and a lounge called the Hillbilly Ranch ever fronted the Public Garden in the space where the Four Seasons Hotel and the Heritage now proudly stand.

This is how it was when Kevin White arrived to the Boston mayoralty in 1968. Sixteen always fascinating, often tumultuous, and invariably controversial years later, he left behind a city that was profoundly and permanently changed.

White was more than a quarter century removed from power when he died in the company of his family after a long illness on Friday night. He could walk virtually unknown down Beacon Hill, through the garden, and into Copley Square, as he frequently did.

Despite the anonymity that sunset often brings, this Boston, the contemporary Boston, what White and others used to refer to as the “New Boston,’’ still carries his mark on every brick, every dream, and every plentiful promise - fulfilled and unfulfilled - that defines this town.

White is often given credit, justifiably so, for remaking the city’s skyline, for overseeing the reconstruction of Quincy Market into the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, for launching the careers of dozens of Boston’s brightest lights who saw in him a reason to dedicate themselves to civic affairs. They, in turn, have changed the city, the state, and the nation in the 28 years since White vanished swiftly and almost entirely from the public stage.

But perhaps his most critical accomplishment is a little more ethereal than any of that. When White arrived in power at just 38 years old, the first mayor to sit in what was the new City Hall, Boston still suffered the reputation as a parochial backwater forever doomed by the twin political vices of cronyism and corruption.

The two mayors before him worked hard to unshackle what they knew to be the city’s potential. John B. Hynes launched the construction of the Prudential Center, a 52-story tower, then the tallest in the world outside of New York, rising from what had been a sprawling rail yard. John Collins razed the tawdry bars and shops of Scollay Square to make way for Government Center and hired a planner, Ed Logue, who recognized possibility in every grimy block.

Say this about Boston voters: Going back more than half a century, they have a knack for electing good mayors.

White took the foundation they laid and built an entirely new city. More important, he gave Boston a new outlook. Suddenly, tourists were arriving in droves, to the point that Quincy Market was among the nation’s top attractions. The tangle of rotting piers and decrepit buildings along the waterfront gave way to gleaming buildings. Suburbanites arrived in the city’s restaurants on weekend nights. Boston was a city in transformation.

This was White’s great gift. He was a man of big plans, big personal ambitions, and big dreams, with the ability to coax others along for an unapologetically wild ride. He was also, time would show, a man of expensive tastes and sometimes questionable judgment.

Barney Frank, now a congressman, then a close aide to White, was on the phone yesterday marveling at his former boss’s ability to straddle two worlds - the old Irish political Boston from which White emerged as the son of a city politician, and the new Boston of promise and prosperity that he wanted to create.

“He broke out of the mold without destroying it,’’ Frank said. “He had a vision of a great city that was an inclusive city.’’

And it wasn’t just his ideas that seemed startling and new. White’s youthful appearance and bearing - lean and agile - and his accent, which somehow blended old Boston and the Irish working man, were like nothing the city’s political parlors had seen or heard before.

The city of the last few decades has grown accustomed to seeing its mayors sweat on behalf of its voters. Ray Flynn rode plows, appeared at fires, and paced the yellow tape at crime scenes. He cleverly held a steady stream of Saturday press conferences that led to strong play in the Sunday Globe. Tom Menino has a daily schedule that often leaves his young aides flailing - and failing - to keep up with him, rarely missing a local meeting, ribbon cutting, or tree lighting. His tight grip on even the most mundane affairs of City Hall is legend.

Kevin White was not like that. “Not a man taken to hard work’’ is how Frank put it. Rather, he dedicated himself to putting the right people in the best jobs for them, giving them room to roam and run, and supporting them in their plans and proposals. It was his role, as he saw it, to keep his eye on the bigger picture.

Sometimes that meant heading off the possibility of the kind of racial riots that plagued other cities in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but not really Boston. Other times it meant facing, with more limited effect, the spasms of violence that followed the court-ordered desegregation of city schools, a period of time that White always believed ruined his chances for higher office. Still other times it meant dealing with federal prosecutors who were sweeping through City Hall in an investigation that led to myriad indictments and convictions of administration aides. White canceled a controversial birthday party for his wife - one in which city employees were solicited for gifts.

This was the negative side of the ledger that describes a complex man governing in complicated times. All the while, though, White oversaw plans for the massive Copley Place retail, office, and hotel complex where the Back Bay meets the South End, and the transformation of the Charlestown Navy Yard. He opened Little City Halls in neighborhoods in an effort to decentralize the government, and extend his political reach.

His ambitions weren’t reserved for his city. When he didn’t want to be governor then he wanted to be president, and for a thin slice of a day in 1972, he thought he would be the Democratic nominee for vice president, but like so many of his career hopes, that also fell through.

In 1976, his mayoralty hit its pinnacle. White’s new Boston hosted a bicentennial celebration that included a massive display of Tall Ships and an historic visit by Queen Elizabeth II of England. When she arrived at a reception in White’s City Hall office, she requested a “pink gin and tonic,’’ White’s close friend, Bob Crane, would later recall. White frantically dispatched a uniformed police officer to the newly opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace to find out what went into the drink and to bring back the needed ingredients.

When the nation tuned into the festivities on TV, it caught a glimpse of a different Boston, a better Boston, where ships gleamed in the harbor, visitors packed Quincy Market, cranes rose all over the city, and Arthur Fiedler presided over a spectacular Esplanade show on the night of July Fourth.

In some metaphorical way, despite a few bumps and hurdles, it’s as if Boston never looked back after that unforgettable July. After that, it was a city where things got done.

“For the first time in decades,’’ White later recalled, “Boston looked at herself in the mirror and liked what she saw.’’

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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