ASK Ray Flynn how he knows this city, often torn by racial strife, has come a long way during his decade in office and you're likely to get an anecdote from the neighborhoods - a youth baseball game in his native South Boston, for instance.
"I played in the first Little League game in Southie, and the other night I watched what might have been my last game there and I saw white kids giving high fives to a black teammate who hit the winning double," the mayor recalls.
That might have been Mr. Flynn's last Little League game for a while because the "mayor of the neighborhoods" appears destined for a new address. After some headline-making hesitation and a quick trip to Washington to clear up doubts, Boston's most popular politician could soon be off to Rome to become the United States ambassador to the Vatican.
Flynn, whose out-on-the-streets style as mayor won acclaim both here and nationally, will leave a city that is socially and fiscally sounder than it was when his populist appeal captured City Hall in 1983. But it is also a city that faces tough economic challenges as revenues decline and deeper budget cuts loom. Racial tensions in Boston's neighborhoods, though much subdued during the Flynn years, can still flare, as recent disturbances at the mayor's alma mater, South Boston High, showed.
Flynn is a politician cut from a classic Boston pattern: He's proudly Irish-American - brought up in the city's preeminent Irish neighborhood by parents who struggled to get by - and spent part of his early political life defending that "turf" against federally mandated busing to integrate local schools. But as an at-large city councilman and then as mayor, Flynn's political profile lost its ethnic edges. He says his greatest achievement has been "bringing the city together."
"I've seen the devastation in the past of a city polarized," the mayor told Monitor reporters. "We've made tremendous progress, connecting neighborhood to neighborhood and the neighborhoods to downtown."
Many observers of Boston's political scene agree that the mayor's personal, hand-shaking, ball-playing approach to all the city's people has quieted racial tensions. "He's been a great healer," says Lawrence DiCara, an attorney who once ran against Flynn for mayor.
Others are more guarded in their praise. "What he has done is more fairly distribute the city's wealth, spending equally on parks and facilities in every neighborhood," says Boyce Slayman, head of the Massachusetts Council of Human Services Providers and a prominent figure in the black community. Mr. Slayman argues, however, that the mayor could have developed programs designed to bring the city's ethnic communities into contact and help people "celebrate each other's cultures," not just their own. The r elative racial harmony during Flynn's tenure may have been tied more to a vibrant economy than to any "real understanding of each other" among the city's people, he says.
The local economy boomed during Flynn's first term and part of the second. But the mayor also took a direct hand in imposing financial discipline, particularly during the recent economic contraction. "This fiscal year, I submitted another balanced budget - that makes nine consecutive years," Flynn says. He ended eight fiscal years with operating surpluses. Before Flynn, city government had regularly run deficits.
The mayor's success in keeping the city solvent is "an important achievement in this state at this time," says Samuel Tyler, who directs the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent agency. He adds, however, that the two revenue sources that account for nearly 72 percent of Boston's income - state aid and property tax receipts - are in decline. Moreover, the city has exhausted the financial reserves that helped Flynn navigate the last few years.
Flynn has pushed for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax that would go to cities, but the state legislature wasn't interested. Still, the mayor insists on the need for a greater "appreciation and understanding of the unique role Boston plays in the economic health of the whole New England region."
That battle, however, will belong to the next mayor - if he or she is willing, as Flynn puts it, to persistently go to the state capitol and "kick those doors in if you have to."
Increasingly, the man who claims to know every playground in the city - "and I'll tell you where the slide is broken" - will have to turn toward his new assignment. Flynn says he is confident his confirmation hearings will be wrapped up in time to avoid throwing Boston's electoral calendar out of kilter. The queue of candidates to succeed him is growing.
There is a note of weariness in his voice when the mayor talks about having done his job "seven days a week, for 17 hours a day, every week." He says, "It's time for someone else to do it."
But the Flynn fire returns when he is asked what may lie ahead, politically, after the Vatican ambassadorship. "You're going to be writing about me for another 40 years," he says with a laugh. "I love elected office. I love the challenge of campaigning."