Thomas Menino, Boston’s first Italian-American and longest-serving mayor, died last week. “My No. 1 thing,” he said in an interview two years ago, “is bringing racial harmony to the city.” Boston was in the second year of court-ordered busing to desegregate its schools when we moved there in the fall of 1975. Each morning we watched a caravan of yellow buses, filled with black school kids and escorted by police on motorcycles, wind through streets packed with jeering white people and climb to the top of Bunker Hill, where police sharpshooters waited on the roof of Charlestown High School.
For almost a century, Charlestown had been one of Boston’s poorest, toughest and least diverse neighborhoods, almost 100% white and overwhelmingly Irish-American. Its decrepit public-housing project below the Tobin Bridge exhibited the same pathologies – high crime, single mothers, school dropouts – which Daniel Moynihan had ascribed to the black ghetto.
It was a tense time in Boston, where politics was dominated by an uneasy alliance of Irish- and Italian-Americans who pandered to the city’s long history of ethnic hatreds and fortress neighborhoods. Menino, who lived his entire life just blocks from his birth, knew firsthand that Boston’s neighborhoods are also its strength – and instead of using his own heritage as a wall against outsiders and a barrier to change, he cited it as the basis for reaching out to immigrants and minorities. He had been there too, and he recognized that Boston's diverse peoples could be harnessed for its common good.