He brought Boston back from the brink

And to think it might not have happened but for a needless insult

FOR THOSE WHO REMEMBER Boston television news in the pre-cable days, Jack Hynes was a powerful media presence for decades. He anchored the news with a gravitas that made you pay close attention. He also knew Greater Boston like the back of his hand, and brought a level of integrity to his work that was rooted in a deep understanding of the city and region and what made it tick.

There were many factors that distinguished Jack Hynes as a special person with a unique perspective on Boston, but perhaps the most important was something many people watching him every night did not know: He was the oldest son of John B. Hynes, the mayor of Boston from January 1950 to January 1960 and perhaps the political leader most responsible for the vibrant Boston we enjoy today.

Jack Hynes brought the news into our homes; his father made news. And what news it was. Were it not for the work undertaken by John Hynes during his time in office, Boston would likely have declined into virtual oblivion. And so without taking anything away from the life and career of Jack Hynes, who died last week at 88, I am drawn to recollect the story of his dad, the mild mannered city clerk who unpredictably found himself at the helm of a city on the brink of disaster. It is a story that ought to be told and remembered, because in our hubris we may think that the thriving, vibrant Boston we know today was always destined to be.  It was not, and whenever we think that our trajectory is always and permanently upward, it is wise to remember where this city found itself at mid-20th century.

John Hynes, mayor of Boston from 1950 to 1960.

Things were so bad in Boston in 1949 that the city was close to becoming an irrelevant, non-viable urban center. Lawrence Kennedy, in his important history of planning and development in Boston, wrote of post-World War 2 Boston as “an old city in desperate need of decisive action.” Unfortunately, the city was led by an old man who did not have a record of taking decisive action, or having creative ideas, to spark economic growth.

Boston approaching 1950 was led by James Michael Curley, the fabled political rogue with an admirable empathy for the downtrodden and a poisonous disdain for the business community. That disdain, expressed in many ways but most potently in discriminatorily high commercial tax rates, led to a breakdown of personal relationships that meant private sector investment essentially dried up.

Curley spent five months of his fourth mayoral term in federal prison, convicted of mail fraud. During that forced hiatus, the city was managed by then-City Clerk John Hynes. Hynes served uneventfully as acting mayor, and likely would have faded into the mists of municipal history had Curley not let his better judgment escape him upon his return. Pardoned by President Harry Truman, Curley returned to City Hall without a trace of the kind of humility one might expect a recent convict to display. Instead, the brash and pompous Curley was dismissive of Hynes. At day’s end, Curley foolishly remarked to the gathered press that “I have accomplished more in one day than has been done in the five months of my absence.”

The normally mild mannered Hynes was furious at this needless public insult, and vowed his revenge.  Revenge is a dish best served cold, but it often begins in the fires of deep-rooted passion. So it was with Hynes – his anger gave way to a calm determination to defeat Curley at the polls. Curley was a spent political force, but he could not recognize that essential fact, and Hynes went on to defeat him in November 1949 by a slim margin of under 12,000 votes. Curley’s career was over. The question was whether Boston had a future, and if the former city clerk could revive the city that once considered itself the Athens of America.

Hynes rose to the occasion, and he needed to. As Kennedy recounts, “a deep gloom had settled over the city.” The untested mayor took hold of a runaway train about to fall off a cliff, put on the brakes, and redirected it to follow a course that over time became one of the nation’s most enduring success stories. Hynes knew that he needed to turn the city around quickly, and turned to the dean of the Boston College business school, W. Seavey Joyce. Together they convened a series of meetings among business, political, and civic leaders. These Boston College Citizen Seminars became essential forums for dialogue, innovation, and decision-making. Many initiatives arose directly from the Citizen Seminars: the creation of Massport as a way to save the failing port of Boston and Logan Airport; the building of the Prudential Center as a replacement for blighted rail yards that had long ago outlasted their usefulness; the enactment of legislation that created the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Many of the initiatives begun under the Hynes administration are viewed harshly today. The almost complete eradication of neighborhoods like the West End and the New York Streets conclave in the South End (leveraging federal funding made available through the US Housing Act of 1949) were textbook examples of destroying parts of the city in order to save it. These initiatives were acts of municipal desperation, taken by leaders who had no assurance that the city would survive without radical change and the elimination of areas deemed irretrievable slums. In the place of these slums the city would begin to build for its future. None of it was pretty, some of it (the peculiar circumstances that led to a former Hynes aide and confidante being selected without any meaningful competition to develop lucrative parcels made available through the razing of the West End) was corrupt, but most of it was necessary for the city to regain its footing and embark on an upward trajectory.

Urban renewal was the catch phrase of the day. It began under Hynes, and continued with great impact under his successor, John Collins, and his fabled BRA director, Ed Logue. From Hynes to Collins to Kevin White, the new Boston emerged. That “new Boston” was neither perfect nor always compassionate in its approach. Transportation planning, in particular, was largely auto-centric and unfriendly to people as large swaths of neighborhoods in places like East Boston, the South End, and elsewhere were deemed in the way of “progress.” Any assessment in retrospect must be leavened by an understanding of the conditions at the time, the prevailing understanding of “best practices,” and the enormous and legitimate sense that drastic measures were required to bring the city out of its potentially lethal stupor.

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In 1950, John Hynes took the city on a journey along unchartered territory, one that had no clear endpoint. He acted boldly, took risks, and made decisions that would either set the city right or guarantee its failure. Fortunately for us, the city was set right, and more good decisions were made than bad.

Events trigger memory, and the passing of Jack Hynes offers a moment to reflect on times that were crucial to the city’s future. Hynes’s career as a reporter and news anchor spanned the years that saw the city at its depths to its revival and resurgence — a revival built in large part upon a platform initially designed by his father. There’s a lot about Boston today that needs improvement, but there’s also a lot that is durable and worth maintaining. We are a city that never turns its back on its history, whether that history is enriching or painful. We are not history’s captives but its students, and we can learn lessons that inform our thinking today.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.