Michelle Wu: A New Brand for Boston

Boston’s mayors have influenced my life since I was four years old. A May baby, I had missed eligibility for kindergarten by a few days. Early on the first day of school, my mother learned that Mayor Maurice Tobin (1938-1945) had somehow gotten the eligibility date changed to accommodate his young son, with whom I apparently shared a birthdate. My mother whisked me off to the Alexander Hamilton School, got me registered, and, without any preparation, there I was – in Miss Cleary’s kindergarten – always to be pretty much the youngest in any class. Some of the friends I made at age four are friends to this day. Thanks, Mayor Tobin.

As a child, during the administrations of James Michael Curley (1946-1950) and John B Hynes (1950-1960), I became aware of city corruption when my father would complain about how the fellows doing routine inspections had their hands out for “tips” when they came to inspect the elevators at the office building he and my uncle owned on Canal Street in the then-rundown North Station area.

I learned about the city’s police from the Boston cop who doubled as a crossing guard every day, whom we all admired and called “Dick Tracy.” I learned the challenges of public transit when, as a 7th grader, I took two trolleys and two buses to get to Girls Latin – an hour each way, but the MTA worked.

In my years as a journalist, I interviewed Kevin White (1968-1984). He’d pose by the window of his office, brow furrowed, looking out and pondering the future of Boston, seeking to brand our parochial village as a world class city. White’s predecessor, John Collins (1960–1968) advanced urban renewal, including Government Center, which enhanced the value of our family-owned building. For many years, John was a regular panelist on “Five on Five,” the weekly show I produced on WCVB-TV/Channel Five and he took no small pleasure in educating me about how the city really worked. John had little use for Kevin White.

Then came “neighborhood ” Mayor Ray Flynn (1984-1993), who set about trying to heal racial divisions after the violence of the busing era. I recall evenings discussing with him how his attitude was shaped by bi-racial friendships forged on the Providence College basketball team. Flynn left to become Ambassador to the Vatican.

Then came “urban mechanic” (aka “Mumbles”) Tom Menino (1993-2014), who rebuilt the Seaport District and became the city’s longest-serving mayor. We first met when he was a staffer for State Senator Joe Timilty, assisting with hearings after the 1973 Chelsea fire.

He was succeeded by union guy and former state rep Marty Walsh (2014-2021) who built coalitions and is now in D.C. as U.S. Labor Secretary. In Walsh’s inaugural address as Mayor, he promised to expand housing. In my last conversation with him, after the laudatory Frederick Wiseman documentary “City Hall,” he took legitimate pride in what he had accomplished.

Today, after nearly two centuries of electing white guys, mostly Irish, comes the swearing-in of Michelle Wu, female, Asian, and 36 years old. In the 1990’s, I lived with my husband’s “International Boston” Initiative. A major goal was to use the city’s diversity and changing demographics more as an asset than a problem. With Wu’s election, we are now poised to do just that.

Will Wu achieve her vision? Wu campaigned as the front-runner she was, with rhetorical flourish and scant details. What kind of mayor will she be? Will she “free the T” of fares? Will she cap rents by returning to some sort of rent control? How will she solve the Mass-and-Cass crisis and the intersection of mental health and housing issues? The challenges are many, but, in her passionate and elegant speech in today’s swearing-in ceremony, she set the right tone. She hailed the growing representation of all of Boston’s communities, reminding people that this city was founded on the “revolutionary promises that things don’t have to be done as they always were,” that together we can “make a Boston for everyone.”

Many of us live in the suburbs, but the Mayor of Boston figures importantly in our lives. When we’re traveling elsewhere and are asked where we are from, chances are the answer is Boston. It is the economic driver of the region, a cultural, medical, academic and sports hub, and the birthplace of our history as a nation. We all have a vested interest in Mayor Michelle Wu’s success.

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