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The Kevin White era: a neighborhood perspective

Kevin White reached the end of his tenure as mayor of Boston in 1984, and the last 28 years have done little to change the thumbnail biography. Widely hailed as a visionary who did so much to reshape and revitalize downtown Boston, he inspires admiration, sympathy—and no small measure of criticism—for his dealings with the surrounding neighborhoods in the grip of polarization and dramatic change.

But White’s reputation as the downtown innovator who often clashed with Boston’s sometimes contentious grassroots elements overshadows the way he reshaped Boston’s neighborhoods. Even when the results were unsatisfactory, similar ideas would re-emerge later, sometimes applied more successfully with a different cast of leaders and political climate.

When White won his first term in 1967, the city’s racial divide was already sharply defined. The city’s economy and population were still in decline. Though two previous mayors — John Hynes and John Collins— were pushing the city toward a “New Boston,” the side effects on surrounding neighborhoods were sometimes neglect, disruption, or displacement.

With the renewal of Quincy Market in the 1970’s and developments along the Boston waterfront, White helped redefine the city as a new, post-industrial hub for a knowledge and visitor economy.

“The thing that people forget is that Boston was really on its knees,” said Larry DiCara, an attorney who served on the Boston City Council from 1972 to 1981. “He refused to accept that and looked beyond where we were to where we could be,” said DiCara. “And made a lot of people mad in the process.”

DiCara says White’s refashioning of Quincy Market as a visitor portal helped lay groundwork for other changes in the Boston landscape, from the depression of the Central Artery to the creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

For White’s immediate predecessor, John Collins, the vision of a “New Boston” also included an express route between downtown and the suburbs – the multi-lane extension of Route I-95 that was supposed to cut all the way from Readville to Lower Roxbury. The extension was later dropped by Gov. Francis Sargent, partly because of grassroots opposition.

Sargent took a stand against the highway in 1970, when he and Kevin White were running for governor. The former state representative from the South End, Mel King, credits the decision to the power of community action, but he also credits White for joining ranks against the highway.

By April of 1987, more than three years after White had left office, the path of the proposed highway would be the new route for a depressed Orange Line. Though commuters from Dudley Square lost a quick ride to downtown Boston, the relocation had some advantages – from more sunlight on Washington Street to the creation of a new Southwest Corridor Park, joining neighborhoods that used to be divided by two sets of rail lines above street level.

Said Fred Salvucci, White’s transportation advisor and later architect of the Big Dig, “It’s a major achievement of Kevin’s that continues to benefit the city, in my view.”

White’s tenure overlapped with the development of community health centers in medically under-served neighborhoods. These were also products of community action, but their incubation required help from City Hall. During the same time, there were also grassroots initiatives coming from non-profits in social services, from the earliest versions of community development organizations, and from neighborhood leaders at community centers, launched by White as community schools.

The most crucial problems with city leadership were the public schools. White correctly insisted that his control over education was limited by the powers of the Boston School Committee, which had resisted pressures for voluntary desegregation. But King says White should have done more about concerns over education being raised by parents and leaders in the black community. As the city went down the path to desegregation under a federal court order, there would also be friction between the mayor’s office and predominantly white neighborhoods.

Boston election results showed signs of that friction: Though a Republican, Sargent won his election for governor by carrying Boston and its heavily Democratic electorate. White enjoyed more solid backing – if with lower turnouts – from Boston’s black and liberal voters, and he is remembered for a cast of appointments that was markedly more diverse than its predecessors. But the racial split among voters would register dramatically once again in the 1976 presidential primary, when the top vote-getter among Democrats in Boston was the notorious foe of desegregation, former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Later in the same year, two years into the turbulence of court-ordered desegregation, White tried to increase his leverage over the school system through a proposal for charter reform that was placed before the City Council in December. By including district seats, the reforms were advanced as a way to allow more diversity among city officeholders on the School Committee and City Council. At the time, both bodies were all-white and remained that way until the election of 1977. But, with scant backing from any community, White’s modified version of the recommendations from a charter reform commission was widely denounced as a power grab.

As it turned out, some of the ideas in charter reform would be adopted within little more than a decade. Voters approved a mostly district-seat City Council and School Committee in 1981. The elected School Committee would finally be abolished, in a campaign led by White’s avowedly populist successor, Ray Flynn.

The turbulence around the schools overshadowed other areas where Boston’s elected officials had to be pushed by grassroots pressure or legal challenges. One example was public housing. A lawsuit by tenants over deplorable conditions resulted in the Boston Housing Authority being placed in receivership. There was also a lawsuit over alleged racial bias in the distribution of community development money from the federal government.

Another area that required court intervention was the city’s assessing of property values. White did mitigate the burden on homeowners throughout the city, thanks to his 1978 referendum campaign to allow higher tax rates on commercial property. But, before the tax classification campaign, the city lagged in reflecting the loss of values in neighborhoods the most severely affected by disinvestment and abrupt racial turnover. In response, Fair Share organized tax abatement campaigns and staged confrontational actions, including a bus trip to the home of a deputy mayor in the suburbs.

Even when the intent was to benefit the neighborhoods – through Infill Housing or access to mortgages for people of color under the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG), the results were often blighted properties or vacant lots. Years later, some of the same affordable housing goals would be approached more effectively through cooperation between City Hall and non-profit developers more attuned to their neighborhoods.

Though White is lauded as a neighborhood ally against Logan Airport expansion and the aborted plan for I-95, his administration was also criticized when urban renewal plans went too far as a force of displacement. In the South End, renewal meant a new infusion of investment and neighborhood pride in 19th century brownstones, but there would have been even more displacement of black and Latino residents if not for grassroots campaigns leading to affordable housing at Villa Victoria and Tent City.

It can be said that there were similar struggles at the time in other cities. And White’s task was sometimes made more difficult by a climate of distrust and polarization at the grassroots level. Making the job even more difficult was statewide referendum that imposed a cap on property taxes in 1980 – only a few years after a spike in taxes in response to a budget shortfall caused largely in connection with desegregation. And before the vote on Proposition 2½, taxpayers also became rate-payers, funding a new agency doing a sorely needed upgrade of the city’s water and sewer system.

When former Governor Michael Dukakis tried to head off the voter rebellion by tapping the state surplus for aid to cities and towns, White absorbed the allotment for Boston without passing on savings to the taxpayers. It’s impossible to say whether acting differently would have kept “Proposition 2½” from passing. But when the necessary budget cuts took effect the following year, the closings of police stations, fire stations, and schools meant even more strains in White’s relationship with the neighborhoods.

By White’s last term, there was a noticeable fall-off in the quality of some appointees at Little City Halls. His earliest ambassadors to the neighborhoods included Fred Salvucci and Kirk O’Donnell, who later became a top aide to former US Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill. In White’s last term, Jack Williams, the city’s neighborhood liaison for development, was caught up in a shake-down over a proposed project in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner.

Between the top-down flow of money from Washington, and the norms of governance at the time, White may have decided the best way to be more effective was to increase leverage for his agenda by building a machine. If the current mayor, Thomas Menino, credits results to partnerships –often developed over long periods of time –White’s tenure was more characterized by crises and pressures for swift action.

But there were times when White tapped connections and showed openness to ideas of other people – as when he followed up on the suggestion by City Councillor Tom Atkins to minimize violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The city’s relative calm, in contrast with other cities around the country, has been widely credited to White’s managing to have a Boston Garden performance by James Brown telecast live on WGHB-TV.

In his last term, White did turn attention to neighborhood regeneration in parts of his “Plan for Boston” and through a new effort to combat hate crimes. He also gave approval to an early version of a policy for more residents, women, and people of color to get jobs on major development projects in the city.  City officials would be prodded for many years to put more teeth in a policy that originated in grassroots activism and gained momentum in Mel King’s first run for mayor in 1979.

If White failed to meet the goals of his neighborhood vision, he did lay a path for development with more results under the next two mayors, as was the case with Blue Hill Avenue. Even when pursuing goals of their own – Flynn along Dudley Street and Codman Square, Menino in Dudley Square and the South Boston waterfront – the parallel with White is hard to miss.

In judging White’s performance and legacy, it would be a mistake to overlook the role of Boston’s grassroots leaders as agents of vision and power. There were times when White showed his respect for that role. And that may have been done in grandest fashion at White’s last inauguration, when he took the oath of office with city councillors on the stage of the Strand Theatre, an old movie palace trying to make a comeback in Uphams Corner.

Chris Lovett is the news director and anchor of BNN-TV’s Neighborhood Network News and a Dorchester native who has covered local news for more than 40 years. This article originally appeared on his blog, CivicBoston.blogspot.com.