Boston Housing Authority (BHA) Administrator Bill McGonagle announced this week he will retire – or in his terms, ‘transition’ – from his longtime post at the BHA, and he will do so with absolute confidence that the massive Bunker Hill redevelopment will move forward without him at the helm.
“I’m not using the word retirement,” he joked on Tuesday, after announcing on Monday his departure from the agency after 40 years.
He noted he still has a ceramic lamp in his living room given to him years ago by the Senior Citizens ceramics class at the Golden Age Center on Main Street. That was something that symbolized his time at the BHA more than anything, as a man who grew up in South Boston public housing developments and shared a unique bond – rather than the animosity some directors have – with residents in Charlestown and all over Boston.
“That’s one thing I am particularly proud of in my career,” he said. “Having grown up in public housing, I think that has given me a unique perspective and allowed me to develop personal relationships with our residents. I have the capacity to empathize, not sympathize, with the…challenges they’re going through…I’m on a first-name basis with our resident leadership and residents all over the city.”
McGonagle will retire on July 26, but it won’t be an end to his career.
After having worked a time as a janitor/groundskeeper at the BHA in the early 1970s, he pursued a degree at UMass Boston and worked with teenagers in Brighton and South Boston. Now, he said, he wants to return to that in a way, spending his time working with young people in recovery.
“Before I was at the Housing Authority, my first professional job was youth work,” he said. “I’m planning on doing some work in the recovery community, probably with young people, so I’m going to be busy.”
However, with the news of McGonagle leaving the agency – after truly spearheading the effort over the last five years to bring in the Bunker Hill redevelopment project – many are left wondering if a void in leadership will mean another delay in the project.
He said he had no doubt the project would continue, and he also said if there were any doubts, he would have delayed his retirement.
“I have every confidence the Bunker Hill Housing Development (project) is in a very solid place to move forward and proceed,” he said. “I fully expect there will be a groundbreaking next year. We have a plan that works financially, a plan that works architecturally and I have full confidence there will be a groundbreaking in the effort…some time next year…If I did not have every confidence this wasn’t set to go, I would have delayed my retirement from this job.”
McGonagle, 67, said he began his work at the Housing Authority in the 1980s when he responded to a help wanted ad in The Boston Globe. At the time, the BHA was under court-ordered receivership, and they had a position for an investigator.
After doing that for a year, he and five others were accepted into a leadership management training internship – which required classes at Boston University, as well as extensive work in the field.
That was followed up by assistant manager and manger positions for the Old Colony Housing Development in South Boston, and then the area director of elderly housing – which included several renovations to the old General Warren development in Charlestown.
That was followed up by a very challenging assignment as executive assistant to former Director Doris Bunte. While the job title might not reflect it, the position was all about racially integrating public housing in Charlestown and South Boston. That effort was quite dangerous, and there were threats and violent vandalism that transpired against him, and also against the residents he was trying to integrate.
His work in that position earned him a promotion in 1993 to deputy administrator, where he served for 17 years before being appointed by late Mayor Tom Menino to administrator in 2009. He was re-appointed by Mayor Martin Walsh as well.
“When I got here decades ago during receivership, public housing in the city was in horrendous condition,” he said. “We had 4,000 vacant units throughout the city. Rows and rows of abandoned – not even boarded-up buildings. Some in those days said public housing was described as free fire zones where no rules applied…It was a team effort to turn that around, an extraordinary team. But this agency has come a long, long way from when I first got here 40 years ago.”
Nowadays, many of the developments have been refurbished, including Mission Main (Mission Hill), Orchard Park (Roxbury), Maverick (East Boston), Franklin Hill (Dorchester), West Broadway (South Boston) and Washington Beech (Roslindale). Additionally, three are in construction, including Orient Heights (East Boston), Old Colony (South Boston), and Whittier Street (Roxbury).
Three are also in the works, including Bunker Hill, Mildred Hailey (Jamaica Plain) and Mary Ellen McCormick (South Boston).
The accomplishments are a long way from a kitchen table at 47 Russell St., which is the place his grandfather was born when the family moved from Donegal, Ireland to Charlestown.
“That was my ancestral home so to speak,” he said. “My grandfather about 105 years ago was born on the kitchen table, quite frankly, at 47 Russell St. That counts for something I think.”
There have been no announcements as to his successor, but that appointment will come from Mayor Walsh after July 26.