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Two recent events have gotten me thinking a lot about Somerville’s recent past, and how it still shapes our present and future.
The first event was a November 18 retirement party at the Somerville Holiday Inn for former Mayor (and soon-to-be-former Middlesex Register of Deeds) Gene Brune. Gene’s party not only drew his proud family and countless friends, but also attracted many notable figures from state and local government, past and present; They lined up to celebrate with Gene and his family, and to offer Gene some well-earned praise for his enduring contributions to Somerville and the Commonwealth. (More about that later.)
The second event happened over the Thanksgiving holiday. One of my mother-in-law’s friends brought me a beautifully-preserved piece of Somerville history that she’d found while cleaning out her attic. It was a 12-page special advertising insert from the October 17, 1965 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, produced for and featuring then-Mayor Lawrence Bretta. The title was Somerville: Colonial Birth – Space Age Rebirth.
Underwriting a 12-page insert the Sunday Globe must have cost the city and the Chamber of Commerce a lot of money, but Somerville’s business and political leadership clearly wanted do what we would now call “rebranding.” They proclaimed that “A new Somerville is surging from the sites of early American History into the Space Age, bringing new opportunity, new jobs and new hope.”
Yet aside from that one mention at the beginning, there was no further word of our city’s revolutionary past (and not a murmur about its ethnic diversity or bustling squares). Instead, the “special section” focused entirely on Somerville’s “modern” facilities: the impending construction of the new Kennedy School and the futuristic Clarendon Hill Towers, the state-of-the-art Somerville Hospital and brand-new supermarket (!) under construction on Winter Hill.
Some things haven’t changed much: the insert talked about Somerville’s proximity to the “famed ‘Research Row’ that extends from M.I.T. to Harvard College,” and describes the way that the city was successfully wooing Cambridge companies displaced by “the NASA development.” The city bragged about its leadership in “community communications,” although back then that meant newly-installed police phone boxes and “31 new public telephones to be installed on city property.”
And, of course, the insert spoke seductively of “office buildings and industrial plants in a spacious park-like setting” served by rapid transit and excellent highway access. In this case, however, Somerville’s planners and business leaders were talking about a development that never quite got off the ground, because the Inner Belt Highway never got built (thankfully ending an era when new highways cut apart and isolated Somerville’s neighborhoods) and the transit never materialized. But some buildings did spring up where the massive Inner Belt Industrial Center was supposed to go, among them the Holiday Inn, which opened its doors in 1974.
Mayor Bretta was (and remains) the youngest mayor in Somerville history. He was 34 when elected in 1962. A close political ally of Congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Bretta left office in 1968. He later went on to head the regional office of a massive Federal agency, the General Service Administration, but had a tragic fall from grace when he pleaded guilty to a federal bribery indictment and served four years in federal prison.
In fact, it’s no secret that a general aura of corruption hung over Somerville in those days. True reform wouldn’t come begin until 1970 under S. Lester Ralph, the first in a long line of reform mayors that worked to bring Somerville back from political corruption, and economic decline. Among other achievements, Ralph won Somerville its first designation as an All America City back in 1973.
But when it was my turn to speak at Gene Brune’s retirement celebration, I told the crowd what I have, and always will, believe: Gene remains the best mayor in the history of our city.
Starting in 1980 and ever since, every Somerville resident has benefitted from the standards he set, the vision he brought to the job and the people he attracted to public service. The essence of Somerville’s modern identity – as a regional and national leader in smart growth, transit-oriented development principles and best practices in municipal governance – was founded and nurtured by Gene Brune.
When I was a student in the Somerville school system, Gene was my mayor. He shaped my vision of what a public leader could be, and achieve. I saw how he was able to guide and enhance economic development opportunities at Davis and Assembly Squares. I saw him fight successfully to maintain city services as Proposition 2 ½ took hold across Massachusetts.
And, just a few months into his tenure, I saw him lead the city calmly and heroically in the most difficult circumstances any mayor can face. The great chemical spill of April, 1980 – the largest in state history – could have been a truly horrific disaster. Gene had to make some very quick and difficult decisions based on conflicting and inadequate advice. It was a dramatic moment. And not for the first or last time, Gene saved our city.
Throughout his career, Gene has embodied the great public virtues of energy, optimism, courage, compassion, pragmatism and unshakeable integrity. The big dreams of the 1960s may have soured for a time, but our city began a long journey to success back in the early 1970s – and no one has played a more important leadership role along the way than Gene Brune.
That role has never ended. In his years as Register, Gene has been a valued and insightful advisor to me and to Somerville’s political leadership at every level of government. His wisdom and experience has made our lives easier and improved our performance.
It’s amazing how far we’ve come since 1965. And it’s remarkable to think about how much of our past progress and future opportunity we owe to Gene Brune.