Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Thomas M. Menino leaves his successor with a particular problem.
There's a solar-powered trash compactor in Boston Common with Tom Menino’s name on it. "Boston Shines 365 Days a Year!" reads the gray poster plastered to the side of the high-tech garbage bin, which was sponsored for the people of Boston by their baseball team. Tucked between that sunny slogan and the bold-faced BOSTON RED SOX, in smaller, playful type, maybe a cousin of Comic Sans: Thomas M. Menino, Mayor City of Boston.
I walked by this trash bin last month, shortly after the first municipal election in 20 years here that did not include Menino’s name. The city’s longtime mayor endeared himself to Boston with his mumbling manner and his care for the minutiae of neighborhood services over national political fame. He’ll step down on January 6 having occupied City Hall for an entire generation. But spend some time walking around his city, and it slowly becomes clear that he’s leaving his fingerprints everywhere.
There Menino is again, on another set of trash bins on Congress Street, across from Faneuil Hall. "HEY KEEP IT CLEAN," these receptacles say. And it appears as if the ALL-CAPS command is coming straight from Menino himself in his raspy Boston accent:
A few paces down the sidewalk, Menino's imprint is much subtler on the map kiosk that directs visitors on a walking tour of Revolutionary-era Boston:
Walk up the steps to City Hall, and Menino is waiting there, too:
The plaza in front of City Hall is a WiFi hot spot. Look up, and there’s a small yellow sign mounted 20 feet up a light pole announcing the public service. Squint just enough, and the outline of Menino’s name is there, too. He’s also on the Hubway bikeshare docks, and on the neighborhood parking permits pasted in the window of every car. He’s on playgrounds, and stamped beneath the Boston Parks & Recreation department logo wherever it appears in town. Most prominently, as the mayor of a "city of neighborhoods," Menino personally welcomes you to every community in Boston:
Any outgoing mayor leaves literal fingerprints like these, stamps on elevator inspection certificates or personal welcomes at a city’s ports of entry. This isn’t the grand stuff of permanent legacy projects—it’s the everyday presence of a mayor currently in power, implied in the present tense.
Thomas M. Menino, (The) Mayor, City of Boston
Thomas M. Menino, (A) Mayor, City of Boston
These are the signs, in other words, that someone must eventually change.
Boston, however, hasn’t had to deal with such a transition in 20 years. And in his 20 years, Menino happens to have put his name on an awful lot of stuff. The awkward question of mayoral re-branding is particularly acute here.
So what to do about it? Do you arm city employees with masking tape and markers? Do you risk broad tourist confusion to save money on new signs? Two years into the reign of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, there’s still a banner hanging from the rafters of Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport with former longtime mayor Richard M. Daley welcoming visitors to town.
I asked Menino’s office about this in its last weeks on the job. A spokesman for the mayor told me they have no master list of all the objects in town bearing Menino’s name. And the agenda for replacing them will be up to the new guy, incoming Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh.
Walsh is in a bit of weird spot. Boston Magazine ran a story over the summer declaring that Menino is more popular than kittens. So there’s no great urgency to spend money erasing his mark from city streets (Illinois, on the other hand, spent thousands of dollars very publicly ripping Rod Blagojevich’s name off of toll plazas around Chicago the morning after the governor was impeached in 2009).
Walsh also inherits all of these signs at a time when it’s particularly hard – in any city – to justify spending money on aesthetics. The optics are decidedly delicate either way: An incoming mayor is surely loathe to look like an egomaniac (even at the expense of the previous egomaniac), but no one wants the city to look outdated, either – as if it can’t even get its signs right.
So what’s Walsh’s move? His spokeswoman, Kate Norton, tells me that the incoming administration so far has no plans to change any Menino signs in town, save one: The new mayor's name will go up in the lobby of City Hall on January 6.
“Mayor-Elect Walsh ran a campaign focused on improving education, strengthening public safety, and supporting economic development in Boston,” Norton told me. “Changing signage is not on the priority list right now."
And I get it. What else is Walsh’s camp supposed to say?
I tried reaching out to Chicago for a more retrospective view. Daley is probably the most analogous and recent big-city mayor on the signage front. He was mayor of Chicago for 22 years, during which he was infamous for making sure constituents knew who presided over (and provided) the garbage trucks and public parks and streetscape improvements. Emanuel’s office declined to talk to me about his strategy (another sign, as I’ve come to discover, that mayors-putting-their-names-on-stuff is a sensitive topic).
At the time Emanuel took office, however, he was publicly clear that he didn’t want to spend resources updating the bulk of Daley’s trucks, signs, and street furniture, beyond the typical cycle of wear and tear (over this same time, there’s also been a post-Blago Illinois prohibition on putting politicians’ names on state infrastructure). This is evidently why Daley still greets us in the airport. It’s why I was able to find this gateway to the past on Google Street View, in the "Kinzie Industrial Corridor" economic development project:
Emanuel’s approach is savvy in its own way. If putting your name on stuff reminds constituents that you’ve done something valuable for them, then putting your name on nothing says you’re too busy to worry about branding. Maybe in the post-recession era, the new putting your name on stuff is not putting your name on stuff. Maybe it’s leaving the other guy’s name there.