Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ronald Reagan is finally dead, and it is Donald Trump who killed him

Now that Ted Cruz has unleashed his extraordinary televised rant against Donald Trump, and John Boehner likewise called Ted Cruz "Lucifer in the flesh" a few days ago, we can all agree that Ronald Reagan is finally dead, done and gone.

One of the Gipper's most lasting legacies for his party was his oft-repeated 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

The phrase actually owes its birth to California Republican Party chairman Gaylord Parkinson, who coined it in an effort to avoid the vicious internecine warfare that hounded Barry Goldwater in his ill-fated 1964 run. Reagan just adopted it and popularized it.

Who's to blame in this most recent iteration of the demise of the Grand Old Party? None other than party's front-runner and likely nominee, Donald Trump who from Day One brought the tone down down down. Clearly, his charms have become infectious.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Georgia on my mind

This past week, I spent a few days wandering the highways and byways of Georgia (see below for the reason), and I found Martin Luther King's quote on repeat in my head. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” The reds of Georgia are everywhere so I took some photos ...


I stopped in the wonderful college town of Athens, home of the University of Georgia. It feels like every other college town I know … Berkeley, Ithaca, Austin, Cambridge. Actually, it’s better than Cambridge. Athens at least hasn’t lost its funk.

But it has this amazing sign among the buildings of its lovely North Quad ...

The old South is never far away even when you’re in the new South.

As I waited for my waffles and bacon in the Waffle House near campus early the next morning, I

overheard two older white men at the counter talking sports. I thought, “These are not bad men by any means. Southern men. Sons of Georgia. Locals. Born in the 1940s or ‘50s. Children in the 1960s. Not filled with the vile racism of their parents. But I am certain in their heart of hearts, they think the South lost the Civil War because it wasn’t good enough, it just didn’t have sufficient stuff to bring to the fight.” The thought brought back historian Shelby Foote’s anecdote that in 1864, at the height of the war, there were still enough young men walking around Cambridge and New Haven to stage a crew race between Harvard and Yale, when in that same year the doors of the University of Georgia had to be shuttered entirely because every one of its young men was either off fighting or soon to be. "The South didn’t lose for lack of resources," I decided. "It lost because it was wrong, which is a different proposition altogether."

Still, the campus North Quad was … majestic ... stately ... beautiful? No, the word I'm looking for is sumptuous.

Now, as to the reason for my visit, it was my car obsession that brought me there. Some seat time in a Porsche and a Ford Mustang GT at Road Atlanta was all the convincing I needed to hop on plane and fly down. The track and the cars were thrilling.

Since this post started as a car review, let me give a quick review of the track experience. At the end of the day, the tight German engineering of the 911 outshone the straight-forward urge of the Ford, though both cars deliver plenty of power and performance with ease. Its just that the Porsche doles it out in more manageable bites, with more consistent feedback to the driver. The Ford heaps everything onto the plate at once. To compensate for this, the Mustang softens the shocks, smooths out the gear shifts, and mixes pure power with a touch of luxury cruise-ability. It's really in the handling of the two cars where differences become obvious. The Porsche grips the road better courtesy of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, offering a more predictable package overall, and connects the car to the road is ways unheard of in the Ford.

The Mustang is all get-up-and-go.  The push of the five-liter engine and the smaller tires lowers the confidence that it actually will make it around a corner, but man, shifting into fifth gear on the straight reminded me why we love the rumble of an American motor! In the end, I preferred the Porsche for its overall driving characteristics and driving pleasure.

The Road Atlanta instructors joked that the South wouldn't be the South without a refrigerator on the porch. To wrap it all up, I'll add to that ... "or some rusty cars on the front lawn" ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

1974 (pornography)

1974 was a momentous year in Boston. As I have written elsewhere on my blog, it was the year of busing and all the racial strife that brought. 

It was also the year that the city of Boston began to create the “Combat Zone” on lower Washington Street, the city’s infamous red light district.

I have long been fascinated by the Combat Zone.

As an urban planner, I know adult entertainment is a challenging proposition in any community. Because pornography is First Amendment protected speech, communities cannot ban it outright. Still, Boston in the 1970s did not want seedy strip clubs and massage parlors creeping too close to residential neighborhoods and so created a specific zone for them.

As a lover of history, I know that nothing happens in a city entirely by random chance. There is always a reason and a logic, no matter how obscure, that depends on what came before. The Combat Zone was no exception. The urban renewal efforts of the early 1960s destroyed the old neighborhood of Scollay Square. In replacing it with Government Center, planners displaced all the peep shows and tattoo parlors that had served generations of U.S. servicemen, pushing these activities further out into the neighborhoods. Boston was trying to manage this process by creating the Combat Zone.  

Finally, on a more personal note, I remember the Combat Zone. Visits to Boston in the early 1980s allowed me to see it when it was still in its heyday. It's hard to imagine now, but standing with your back to the Park Street T stop, looking towards Downtown Crossing, you were staring it in the face. As a New York City kid, of course I  looked down on what Boston considered seedy. It didn't compare to Times Square either in size or in scale, and by the gritty standards of the day, it just seemed quaint.

Still, Boston has changed so much in recent times, becoming so much cleaner and wealthier and more built-up, that looking back at the Combat Zone is like looking into an oddly-shaped mirror and seeing how much we have changed in the intervening decades. 

It is my hope, dare I say my intention, to write more about the Combat Zone over the coming months, but as a teaser, I will leave you with this interesting letter I found in the city’s archives. It comes from Mace Menninger, the director of Development Planning and Zoning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and it is dated January 3, 1977. It is addressed to James Schroeder, the director of urban planning at the City of Dallas in response to Mr. Schroeder’s request for information about the zoning efforts that Boston undertook. Its third paragraph ends with this wonderful sentence, “So, until we think of something better, it is the best regulation we have.” Isn’t that always the case.

Paragraph 3 ...

While we consider that Boston’s regulation has been effective and achieved its purpose, the concept of confinement to one area has sometimes been misrepresented to mean that “anything goes” there, and this feature, however erroneous, has been criticized in the press because of a recent much publicized violent incident in the “combat zone”. However, to eliminate the Adult Entertainment Zone as a land use control would have little or no impact in reality on the activities conducted there, whether legal or illegal, and alternatively could do serious harm by allowing their spread to locations closer to residential neighborhoods. So, until we think of something better, it is the best regulation we have.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What the Bolling Building taught me about neighborhoods and youth employment

Buildings can play such important roles in neighborhoods. They can define them spatially and can orient activity that happens around them. They can create the identity of the neighborhood both for neighbors and for visitors.

Few buildings fit this description better than the old Ferdinand's building in the heart of Dudley Square. 

The old Ferdinand's (now called the Bruce C. Bolling) building today
Shaped as a triangle right at the base of Massachusetts Avenue, this old department store formed the retail anchor in a once thriving community.  By the 1970s, however, Dudley Square was in decline as urban centers were losing out to their suburban rivals. By 1987, the neighborhood had even lost its train stop. The Ferdinand's building sat vacant for many years. 

The original Ferdinand's (L) and the boarded up version (R)

As one of the most fitting legacies for the late mayor of Boston Tom Menino, the building finally got redeveloped by the city of Boston, using the wonderful Dutch architect Francine Houben teamed up with local firm Sasaki. Their accomplishment in the newly renamed Bruce C. Bolling Building is spectacular.

Interior: very Dutch, very beautiful

Now home to the Boston School Committee and offices of the city’s School Department, the Bolling Building also houses the Roxbury Innovation Center, whose goal is to spread the innovation culture outside of its confines in Kendall Square and the Seaport District and into neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester so that the word "entrepreneur" doesn't sound so ... French to the young men and women who are growing up there.

Last night, the RIC co-sponsored a panel discussion with the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center entitled “Conversation in Civic Innovation: Enabling Youth Employment”. 

I applaud the folks at RIC and Microsoft for developing these conversations around civic innovation and their focus on equity. Last night’s panel started with Boston-area youth who are participating in the job market, but also who have opinions about how that job-market should be shaped. I was very interested by what I heard, and I offer a few quick take-aways from the panelists:
  • The Boston Public Schools fail miserably to educate their children effectively, particularly children of color, and they fail to provide any kind of effective guidance to kids as they think about their careers and their subsequent lives in the job world.
  • Criminal records have a debilitating effect on employment opportunities for youth, particularly for young men.
  • There is a difference between having a job, and having an interesting job.
Young men and women talk about their futures

The wisdom of these young people led me to my own observations ...
  • During the Q & A portion of the discussion, a young man who worked in youth engagement said that it was crucial for kids in the neighborhood to be aware of the social, societal and environmental hazards that they face, including the impact of the criminal justice system on their lives, the role a failing education system has on their opportunities, the role poor nutrition has on their health. The list goes on, but the bigger point was how important it is for young people to be aware of the social justice issues that they face as they seek to enter the job market.
  • There is a huge gap between what these kids imagine for themselves, and what a middle-class kid images for him or herself at a similar age. As someone said to me after the talk, “you don’t know what you don’t know," meaning that if you’ve never been exposed to veterinary science or linguistics or mechanical engineering or computer coding, you might never be able to imagine that A. you might enjoy something like that; B. you could actually make a career out of something like that. 
  • Soft skills, soft skills, soft skills are as important as hard skills, hard skills, hard skills.
  • Policy people talk a completely different language from the people they are trying to serve. This dissonance is painful to listen to, even if it is entirely predictable, and in some ways inevitable.
As I left the Bolling Building, I couldn’t help but feel that we have a long way to go to close these gaps and address these inequities. Walking the dark, deserted streets of Dudley Square at night, I felt just how far that neighborhood had fallen, and how challenging it will be to knit back together a vibrant community in that wonderful place.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

London, Beautiful London

In 1950, Phaidon published a book of photographs by Helmut Gernsheim entitled Beautiful London. Striking black and white images, 103 of them in all, show a city both grand and quaint. The stillness and the emptiness speak of a time modern but also so remote it’s hard to grasp. None of the ravages of the war appear, nor do the economic hardships of post-war Britain. Instead, big architecture and quiet streets fill the scene, speaking in calm tones of greatness departed. Compared to the bustling abundance of today’s global London, Gernsheim froze in time an empire in decline and what that looked like at home.

The foreward by James Pope-Hennessy explains the city this way:

The largest capital in the world, London is a city which was never planned. It has accumulated. For this reason, and also because its development was chiefly guided by mercantile considerations, London is no longer, at first sight, overtly beautiful. Haphazard and shapeless, it offers few fine vistas and has no kind of symmetry. Its complement boroughs seem self-contained and unrelated to each other, for once behind the ancient boundaries of the City proper and once outside the Government quarter of Westminster and Whitehall, London is nothing but a  mass of rural villages — Kensington, Tottenham, Paddington, Camberwell, Edmonton, Hampstead and so on — engulfed in the tide of two centuries of swift urban expansion. 
I found this book on a book seller’s table in Harvard Square early last Sunday morning. When was the last time you stopped at a book seller’s table? The joys of that alone evoke all the nostalgia of a time gone by. Much like this book.

Here is Gernsheim’s London, two plates 

The National Gallery and St. Martin's-in-the-Fields 
St. George's Church, Hanover Square

Monday, April 18, 2016

Patriots' Day on Cambridge Common, 2016

The annual Patriots' Day celebration on Cambridge Common is one of the great New England traditions. It remembers the night of April 19, 1775 when Paul Revere and his fellow patriot William Dawes rode out from Boston to warn the surrounding towns that the British were indeed coming.

Revere, with some help from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has been firmly etched in our hearts and minds as a national legend, but Dawes, who took all the same risks, never got the same fame. Not so to Cantabrigians. Every year, they assemble on the Cambridge Common to remember this woe-betided man of history and they do so with a wonderful mix of Massachusetts irony along with a genuine appreciation of the momentous events that took place on these grounds over 240 years ago.

Here is a short video of Dawes' arrival from this morning's event, followed by some photos.

The horses arrive ...

And some photos ...

Minutemen (and a biker)

The Mayor speaks

A young participant

Major Dawes talks to mayor

And just for good measure, here are the first two stanzas of Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear 
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive 
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Building a building near Porter Square, Lego style

The old Bob Slate's site at 1971 Massachusetts Avenue, north of Porter Square, is getting redeveloped now.  It is a fascinating construction process, where prefab boxes each about the size of a small trailer are trucked in on the back of 18-wheelers, and then one-by-one lifted by crane into place. This allows the building to go up very very quickly. Since all these plywood boxes "snap together" so neatly, I can't help but think of it like a giant Lego set.

I watched some of this construction on Thursday, and here are photos from that experience ...