My interview with Kevin White

Photos © 1978, 2012 by Barbara Kennedy

One afternoon in late 1978, my future wife, Barbara Tanski, and I were ushered into a dark, comfortable room in the Parkman House, a city-owned mansion on Beacon Hill. I was a senior at Northeastern University, and I was there to interview Mayor Kevin White for the Cauldron, the school yearbook. Barbara took the photos.

As you have no doubt heard, White died on Friday night at the age of 82. The must-read is Brian Mooney’s in-depth obituary for the Boston Globe. Also outstanding is this Hub Blog post by Jay Fitzgerald, who observes that White was the best of five consecutive good mayors.

In re-reading my Cauldron piece, I’m struck by how young White was. Just 49 years old at the time of our interview, he would walk away from public life at 53, and was rarely heard from again.

My story has a few cringeworthy moments, including some structural flaws I warn my students about. I’ve fixed a few typos. Other than that, here it is, exactly as it appeared in the 1979 Cauldron.

THIS IS THE CITY:
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

The Mayor talks about his city … where it is
today and where it’ll be tomorrow

Kevin H. White sat down on a couch, balanced himself on the edge and pondered the comeback his city has made during the past five years.

“I think that a city is no different than a single individual inside of it,” he said, pausing every few words for emphasis. “You can just be depressed for so long. And there are periods in which you get hysterical and upset.”

As the 49-year-old mayor munched on cheese and crackers in the historic Parkman House on Beacon Hill, waiting for supper, he tried to explain the sense of optimism he sees infesting Boston today.

“I think that, probably, when you add in all of Vietnam, all the problems of Watergate, throw in busing — those are abnormal problems ladened on the problems of crime and taxes and those things that are normal. Then it does get you down.

“I think city people are particularly resilient and vibrant, and they can take the normal problems,” White said. “It was the abnormal problems thrown on top of them that depressed them, that gave them a sense of malaise and despondency I think hung on the town as you came in in ’74.”

***

It was a hot, muggy day in late September 1974 when the Class of 1979 arrived at Northeastern. Many students were seeing the city for the first time and had no idea what to expect.

And it was a frightening, depressing time.

One month earlier, Richard M. Nixon had ended six years of shame by resigning his presidency to the first unelected chief executive in history, Gerald R. Ford.

The Vietnam debacle was still front-page news every day. American troops were gone, but the carnage they had helped create would not come to its chaotic conclusion for another eight months.

And there was busing. Day after day, public school students — the ones that bothered to go to class, anyway — pulled knives on classmates because they were of a different color. Grown men hurled bricks at buses filled with little children. Politicians such as John Kerrigan, Louise Day Hicks and Elvira “Pixie” Palladino railed against integration and promised to run Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, the man who ordered integration, out of town. One Friday night in October, a motorcade of South Boston mothers drove up Huntington Avenue, honking their horns and hollering racial epithets.

That’s as close as racial violence ever came to Northeastern. As far as most students were concerned, that was close enough.

Many today would argue that the cynicism and bitterness of five years ago is still here. But there is little doubt that much of the fear is gone. To most people, that is reason enough to rejoice.

***

It’s a cold, rainy Saturday morning, but inside it is warm. Opera music plays in the background of the elegant St. Stephen Street townhouse, while a grand piano commands the living room. It’s not the sort of place you expect to find in the inner city, but the owner, chairman of the Fenway Project Area Committee (FenPAC), says he wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“I think many of us in this area think the city’s making a comeback,” says E. Vaughn Gulo, who grew up on Symphony Road and has lived on St. Stephen Street the past 12 years. “I’m really more upbeat about what’s going to happen in Boston than I’ve ever been in the past.

“We see improvements, we’ve been involved in improvements and we’re planning improvements,” continues Gulo, a professor of psychology in education at Northeastern. “There’s a very definite upbeat. I think it’s much more exciting now than before.”

Yet, for all Gulo’s optimism, there’s a sense that, if certain things don’t happen, Boston isn’t going to be able to make it financially. Could Boston go the way of New York and Cleveland? White believes it could unless the city can change the way in which it collects its revenue.

Boston, like many older cities, depends exclusively on property taxes for revenue. Despite the current influx of younger people who are buying property in Boston to take advantage of depressed land values, White believes there will only be a “minor temporary high” in raising property tax revenue.

White’s assessment is correct, according to the Office of Economic Research of the Massachusetts Department of Commerce and Development. Its statistics show that Boston’s population grew from 616,000 in 1965 to 638,000 in 1975.

However, the same statistics show that the population is expected to drop to 620,000 by 1980, 616,000 by 1990 and 608,000 by 2000. A city that depends as heavily on property taxes as Boston cannot afford to see its tax base dwindling.

“If you depend on property value, you’re in trouble,” said White, claiming that Boston’s tax base is lower today than it was in 1930 — the peak of the Depression. “But if you can get off it, if you can get off that intravenous feeding, you can get up and walk around.”

The solution, according to the mayor, is to reduce the property tax burden and introduce sales taxes to take advantage of Boston’s economic growth. He’s failed before. Several years ago, he attempted to tax nonresidents who work in the city, but the Legislature thwarted him. This time, however, he thinks it will be different. Residents and businesses will favor it, he said, because tourists and commuters will share the burden and because their property taxes will grow.

White citied Faneuil Hall Marketplace as an example. Although the city did all the work in restoring the historic market into what it is today, he said, the state collects many times more revenue from it than Boston does. The reason is that the state can collect sales and income taxes, while the city may take only property taxes.

Of course, Faneuil Hall Marketplace is more than just a symbol of Boston’s tax problems. During its renovation between 1976 and 1978, it became a symbol of the city’s revitalization.

The Quincy Market, North Market and South Market, as the marketplace’s three buildings are known, built by Mayor Josiah Quincy in 1826, are today the city’s most popular attraction, with thousands of people visiting the area every day.

Admirers have called it one of the crowning achievements of White’s 11-year administration. But detractors believe it symbolizes the misoriented priorities of the city government.

State Sen. Joseph P. Timilty believes that downtown expansion such as Faneuil Hall Marketplace has been achieved at the expense of the neighborhoods. Boston’s leaders “have always judged the quality of the vitality of the city by the changes in the skyline,” according to the 40-year-old Mattapan Democrat, who nearly defeated White in the 1975 mayoral election.

“Boston’s a city that’s made up of neighborhoods, and Boston’s got to understand it,” said Timilty, who is the chairman of the National Commission of Neighborhoods — a position President Carter appointed him to after Timilty helped on his 1976 campaign.

The administration frustrates neighborhood organizations, he said, because “they see it as a threat” rather than as a means of buttressing and administering neighborhood programs. He advocates involvement of private enterprise in developing jobs and housing in neighborhoods.

“We have to develop our neighborhoods as well as develop our downtown,” he said. “There’s too much government. And government has become a bastion of employment for social theorists, rather than government programs getting down to where the people can use the assets of the program.”

It is a criticism White has heard before, and he reacts angrily whenever he hears it.

“In 10 years we spent eight times more money in the neighborhoods than we did downtown, and I defy anyone to show differently,” he said, adding that his administration has built more neighborhood schools, libraries and police stations than any mayor in Boston’s history, including James Michael Curley.

“Now I’ll give you another figure,” he went on. “We spent one-on-one on downtown as against only Roxbury. That means I spent as much money in Roxbury as I spent all of downtown.” Indeed, several years ago, members of the white backlash movement dubbed him “Mayor Black” for his involvement in the black neighborhoods.

Gulo believes that, no matter what the White administration is doing elsewhere in the city, it certainly isn’t ignoring his neighborhood.

“I think the city administration has taken more note of it than it ever has in the past,” he said. “It’s a unique part of Boston. I think that through our efforts over the past four or five years, we’ve brought the attention of the city to bear so that the various problems that the entire area confronted are being addressed one way or another.”

Housing for low- and moderate-income people is being developed on Symphony Road and Westland Avenue, alleys have been widened, trees have been planted, streets have been patched up. Those are the kind of improvements Gulo cited.

But he acknowledged that the city is still plagued by a woeful lack of good housing for all classes of people. Unemployment, trash, crime, poor public education and inadequate transportation are just some of the other serious problems that must be addressed, he added.

And until those problems are taken care of, Boston will continue to lose people like Diane Whitehead and Tony Fernandez to the suburbs.

***

“I guess it bothers me more now, after I’ve lived with it for four years, in that I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to put myself in the middle of it to find out what was going on, and so, since I was looking for that, I guess it didn’t bother me. I’m ready for a quieter neighborhood, I think.”

The speaker was Diane Whitehead, 79 LA, the residence assistant at 122 St. Stephen St. Her situation is unique. She transferred to Northeastern from Colby College in Maine so she could see urban problems up close.

“I had chosen to go away from the city,” she said. “After a year, I still knew that I wanted to go into some line of social services or psychology or something related to people. And I found that I didn’t have the ability to talk easily with people anymore, because I spent so much time with academics. I mean, I made lots of friends, and it was really beautiful up there, but I was getting very, very far away from all the issues that I wanted to deal with and cope with by going into social services. It was very isolated — and insulated. I guess I was afraid of losing touch with what’s really happening.”

Although Whitehead had a small-town upbringing — her parents live in Foxborough, Mass., 25 miles south of Boston — she had spent time in the city as a youth, taking tours and working on research projects. So she was better prepared than many to handle the problems of urban living.

Still, there are some things that she’s never gotten used to.

“I think you have to learn how to deal with walking down the street and just getting remarks and comments,” she said. “You do get approached if you’re female.” The fact that she’s never been stopped or robbed doesn’t make her feel any easier. “I keep waiting for the time. It’s been this long. I think my number’s due fairly soon,” she said, adding that she rarely goes out alone at night.

“Once you start being naive,” she added, “it’s going to catch up with you at some point.”

Whitehead said she would always like to stay near the city. But how near would depend on her personal life. After she graduates, she said she would like to move to a neighborhood such as Brighton. But in five years, when she might be raising a family, she will probably leave the city altogether, she said.

Tony Fernandez, 82 E, came to Northeastern to get a degree in chemical engineering after he had already earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Florida.

“I really couldn’t find a job,” said the 32-year-old Florida native and Army veteran. “Finally, I just came to the conclusion that maybe I should go on back to school.”

Although Fernandez finds much about Boston that he likes, he quickly found something he didn’t like — crime. In September 1978, only six months after he had arrived here, he was robbed at knifepoint by two youths who accosted him in the lobby of 122 St. Stephen St., forced him up to his apartment and stole several things from him, including a family religious medal.

The youths ordered him to show up on Opera Place the next day with a brown bag full of cash. Fernandez informed the police, a stake-out was set up and one of the youths was arrested. But Fernandez never did get his stolen goods back.

He said that incident hasn’t influenced his opinion of Boston, but added he doesn’t want to live here after he graduates.

“I’ve never lived in any kind of a city like this before,” he said, although he was stationed in New York City during part of his Army hitch. “As an experience, it’s nice, but I’d kind of like to own my own house.” He added that he isn’t used to noise and air pollution, either.

Students such as Whitehead and Fernandez think that the problems of urban living may eventually force them to leave the city. But some residents feel that students, and the institutions they attend, are a major cause of problems.

Even the mayor, who says students are good for the city because they support the theater, the arts and the social scene, finds some of the problems they cause annoying. Students who live in residential areas frequently make too much noise, he said. He had especially harsh words for Northeastern students.

“That street, Huntington Avenue, is a pigpen,” he said. “I run in the Huntington YMCA every morning between 6 and maybe 8:30. And that guy with the sweeping bucket’s got that place clean at 7 in the morning. By 10, it’s chaos.”

Colleges and universities take a lot of the city’s land and don’t pay taxes, he added. Yet the state hasn’t come through with the aid to private colleges that voters approved in 1974. Instead of the colleges and the city battling, White said, they should work together to get help from the state for aid to the colleges and tax relief to the cities.

Timilty advocates an “adoption” plan, in which each university, college and hospital in the city would take the responsibility of using their expertise to develop housing, education and jobs in each of the city’s neighborhoods.

Northeastern, like all institutions, “is going to have to do more for the community that surrounds it,” he said.

But White said such a plan is already in effect for many types of services. Hospitals work with neighborhood health clinics and churches work with people, he said, adding that, during desegregation, the colleges and universities pitched in by helping the school districts improve their educational offerings.

“We didn’t know Joe [Timilty] was going to call it an adoption policy or we would have waited for him,” White said. “Now what the hell is Joe talking about?”

Gulo said he is skeptical about an adoption plan because “you can be too adopted, you can be co-opted, you can be so little adopted that you could be rejected.” If Northeastern were to adopt the Fenway, he said, it might decide to force residents out and develop more student housing.

The current Memorandum of Understanding that FenPAC and Northeastern are working under, he said, is the strongest possible basis for cooperation between an institution and a neighborhood. Under the agreement, Northeastern promises not to expand into residential areas and to eventually pull out of some residential areas in which it presently holds land.

Gulo said he sees more promise in group action FenPAC is currently negotiating with the Boston Fenway Plan, made up of 20-25 institutions, including Northeastern, to help renovate and develop housing and other projects, he said, adding that the Fenway Plan members would provide consultants, bankers and other technical assistance, and FenPAC would provide planning and advice.

“All of the institutions and the elected members of the community will be working together in this area to bring it up,” Gulo said.

***

People who moved to Boston might say they live in Boston. But a native would never think of saying such a thing. He may live in South Boston, or the North End, or Roslindale, or Roxbury, or Brighton. But only late-comers live in Boston.

Boston’s neighborhoods have been set apart from each other by ethnicity, parish and geography. The distinctness of each frequently surprises newcomers who are more accustomed to unified cities.

Timilty believes the distinctness of the neighborhoods is Boston’s best hope for the future.

“The only way that you have a viable neighborhood community is when you have a certain level of respect and pride for that community,” he said.

He cited a Christian Science Monitor poll which showed that, in many cities, residents who don’t like the way their city is being run “still thought there was an element of pride left in their neighborhoods.

“We ought to encourage that,” he added, “because it makes it more attractive to live.”

White also said he believes neighborhoods are a strong asset to Boston because they provide “roots and history and heritage and pride, so it gives you solidity and strength.”

However, the very distinctiveness of the city’s neighborhoods has led to isolation, he said, and when a problem comes up in which all neighborhoods should work together, it can create a crisis — desegregation being the best example.

“If you’re a progressive mayor, as I think I am, and you’re always pushing your city, then you’re always antagonizing them,” said White. You’re kicking, you’re pushing, you’re cajoling them.

“Most mayors,” he added, “want to smile at them and follow them and wave at them, or follow the pattern of their flow. These neighborhoods flow only inside of themselves. So the strength is one thing. The weakness is — boy, tough to move sometimes.”

***

For many students, their time in Boston has been a time of discovery, of a city and of themselves.

“I love Boston because it’s got a lot of European influence, because it’s a small city, because the buildings have been kept low or enough buildings have been kept low so you can see the sky when you’re walking around,” said Whitehead.

“And everything is here,” she added. “I go to the July Fourth thing every year, I go to all the things at the Hatch Shell. I’ve been to the Shakespeare theater, the Museum of Science, art museum, the Prudential Center. I saw the marathon last year. I go to the Christmas tree lighting every year.”

Although she plans to leave in a few years, she isn’t read to leave yet.

“I’m not tired of Boston yet,” she said. “There are so many things I haven’t gotten out of Boston that I know are just sitting there to be taken advantage of. I’m not going to leave before I take advantage of them.”

Fernandez, too, plans to enjoy it while he’s here. His special interest is long-distance running, and he said Boston offers more to runners than any place he’s been to.

“Up here, there’s so many [races] to choose from,” he said, adding that his high point was running in the city’s Labatt’s race Oct. 1, 1978. “I’ve never seen such variety. All different lengths, from one mile up to marathon length.”

The cultural assets of the city are another advantage, he said.

“One thing that’s nice,” he said, “you live right down the street from Symphony Hall. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.” This past Christmas, Fernandez’ mother came up from Florida to visit. They went to the Pops’ Christmas concert — something his mother had seen many times before on television — and it was one of the highlights of the holiday, he said.

It is Gulo, the Boston native, who is best at describing the charm of the city.

“It’s got many problems, but I think the city’s really coming up,” he said. “I’ve traveled around the world. I’ve been to Africa, Western Europe, Italy ten times, Moscow, Canada, Mexico City, you name it. But to me, Boston is unique. It’s got all the institutions, it’s the center of culture. It’s the educational, the medical hub.

“For a little town, it’s got the intimacy that Chicago, New York, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth don’t have,” he added, saying that he knows of people who have moved away from Boston to live in the suburbs and have come back because they miss it.

“Bostonians are very parochial,” he concluded, grinning. “They love their city.”

2 thoughts on “My interview with Kevin White

  1. Bob Drake

    Thanks Dan. It’s always nice to read a retrospective written by someone who was actually around at the time.

    Perhaps, I’m getting older, but increasingly I’m aware that the reporting that I’m consuming lacks a certain “steeping” that occurs when one lives in an area for more than a decade.

    Although well educated and intentioned, too many reporters do not have the experience or grounding to write such sentences.

    One month earlier, Richard M. Nixon had ended six years of shame by resigning his presidency to the first unelected chief executive in history, Gerald R. Ford.

    The Vietnam debacle was still front-page news every day. American troops were gone, but the carnage they had helped create would not come to its chaotic conclusion for another eight months.

    And there was busing. Day after day, public school students — the ones that bothered to go to class, anyway — pulled knives on classmates because they were of a different color. Grown men hurled bricks at buses filled with little children. Politicians such as John Kerrigan, Louise Day Hicks and Elvira “Pixie” Palladino railed against integration and promised to run Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, the man who ordered integration, out of town. One Friday night in October, a motorcade of South Boston mothers drove up Huntington Avenue, honking their horns and hollering racial epithets.

    Ah – the good old days. I’ll add my realization of how tawdry the city used to look.

    For extra credit: Alan Lupo’s excellent book about Kevin White during the summer before Phase 1 of busing bagan, “Liberty’s chosen home”.

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