Sunday, March 31, 2013

The end of the Menino era...and one reason, originating in God's Country, why that era was a good one for the urban fabric (Blog Post No. 2013-4)

The big news in the Hub of the Universe over the last several days has been the decision of our long-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, to retire at the end of his fifth term rather than seek re-election this fall. Yes, you read that right - Boston has had the same man in easily the city's most powerful position for the last 20 years. It's a long run, no matter what your frame of reference might be. And there's no doubt that this mayor in particular has been powerful in a sustained and all-encompassing way that few if any present day mayors even come close to matching. It is a cliche, but also as plainly true as such things ever are, that nothing of any significance has gone on in this town while Tom Menino has been our mayor that he hasn't known about and ultimately approved of, and the bar on what qualified as "significant" was a lot lower than the out-of-town observer might first imagine.

We can all argue over the necessarily mixed bag that that kind of tight gate-keeping entails. But one fundamental concept on which it was thoroughly right from start to finish was in first preserving and then helping to flourish neighborhood business distirct across the city through the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Streets program. Blog friend and Roslindale neighbor Carter Wilkie, himself a former mayoral aide in the late 1990s, wrote an opinion piece in The Boston Globe a couple of days ago -- you can find it here -- that accurately sums up the mayor's early, pre-mayoralty insight on the value of the Main Streets program in urban neighborhood settings. In the mid-1980s, with then-councilor Menino's urging, the National Trust made Roslindale Village Main Street the first urban main streets program in the country. The principal idea behind the program was and has remained that traditional, pre-auto-dominance shopping districts -- "Main Streets" understood broadly all across the country -- need and deserve the same kind of attention to overall image and basic infrastructure that privately-owned suburban and exurban shopping centers and malls have enjoyed for decades.

After the Mayor became mayor, main streets organizations were formed all across the city, such that there are now19 main streets organization from East Boston to West Roxbury and almost everywhere in between. Their combined impact is broader than their simple numbers. Collectively, they are operative symbols of the idea that a great many places, not just the big-ticket ones (the Back Bays and Beacon Hills of the world), are worth preserving and working with and moving forward. Rosindale Square (I sympathize with the old-timers who have steadfastly refused to use the word "Village" after "Roslindale" except when absolutely required) is an extremely apt poster child for this idea. I have come to love our neighborhood's walkable and lively center, yet one could hardly call it perfect. And that's the point. A place doesn't have to be perfect to be cared for and made better. It just has to be ours.

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