Friday, February 5, 2016

Open secret: Developers make money in Cambridge, lots of it

While reviewing tax data in Cambridge, I came across this stunning realization: large landholders make money in Cambridge. Lots of it.

From 2010 to 2014, the top 10 tax payers in Cambridge, MA added $1.4 billion in assessed value to the city's tax rolls. That's a 31 percent increase in just four years, by any measure, a striking amount of wealth in a city as small as the 6.2 square miles of Cambridge.

Here are the numbers, from the city's data:

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Art Detroit

She was a large woman. She’s spinning around like a turntable and I’m thinking this is genius. Front. Back. Roundandround. I'm so pleasantly surprised. The gold lame dress didn’t hurt either. 

I like the big stuff, the Yankee Stadiums, the Roman Coliseums. They're all in. Floor to ceiling. Eyeballs and toenails. No hesitation. When it comes to art, Detroit has some of it. Here's a Diego Rivera elsewhere in the city.

This, however, was intimate. Not small, but intimate. You could walk in and out of the room without even worrying about it. She was at the center of it all. 

The guitar she held played a couple of chords over and over again. Now that's gonna cut one of two ways. 

But it was good. She was good. 

The gold curtain was a part of the show too.

Three thousand years of placing women on pedestals never made so much sense.

And whoever put her there, he really nailed it. 

Old picture.

New frame.

Art, man, art.

Ragnar, you did a nice job. 

[A review of Woman in E, Ragnar Kjartansson's exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), now through April 10, 2016]

Woman in E
Ragnar Kjartansson
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)
4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit
January 15 through April 10, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Harvard Square in the snow

Here's a short video I made of Harvard Square during the recent snow storm ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Detroit is collapsing, come and see

I am left speechless by the destruction in Detroit. Gawking over it is sometimes called "ruin porn" but I only call it frightening.

Driving around the city, it is everywhere: streets with nothing but abandoned homes, small corner stores empty, large apartment buildings fenced off, downtown office towers with no one inside, whole factories crushing down on themselves.

Here are photographs of what I've seen ...

... This street has no humans on it, just houses waiting to fall down to the ground or go up in smoke ...

... This ten-story office building stands completely empty ...

... Hulking factories produce nothing but debris ...

... Massive apartment buildings endure winter windowless, tenantless ...

... Small corner stores have nothing to sell ...

... And bizarrely, my favorite, a hotel in the moonlight.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ford Piquette Plant: Henry Ford sat here

Henry Ford sat in this rocking chair and revolutionized the world.

He was a man with no education to speak of, but he had a genius for machines and each day he would place himself in his rocker that he left in the corner of his "experimental room" in his Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit and think up improvements for his cars which he would then sketch out on a chalk board for his draughtsmen to draw up the following day.

Ford Piquette Plant

Here's one such improvement, the very first internal combustion engine for the Ford Model T, the engine of the car that literally changed the world.

The first(!) internal combustion engine every made for the Model T

His workers at Piquette would get a delivery of car parts each morning, and in their work bay, they would hand-build each automobile. Parts that didn't fit were hammered or hewn into shape at the side bench until they did fit. There was no complaining to Mr. Ford about the parts you received. You either made them work, or you were fired.
The worker's bay with his work bench underneath the window

At Piquette, Ford was able to produce a car every 12 hours, and his workers were producing over 100 cars a day, unheard of numbers in 1908.  It wasn't until three years later that the assembly line came into being at the new Highland Park plant, the first real behemoth of the industrial age.

Here are some of the gems Mr. Ford and his men produced ...

Here is an early snow mobile, used to deliver mail on the East Coast

This is Model T #220 out of 15 million produced

Another view of this special machine

The Piquette Avenue plant was saved from the wrecking ball fifteen years ago and now operates as a museum focused on the early Ford Motor Company and the world-changing Model T. It is a five star must see for car enthusiasts or anyone interested in the industrial history of America. It's a remarkable place and a beautiful building.

Monday, January 18, 2016

How I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday

I stood in the biting wind with exposed hands. I had been taking photos of the outside of the building, but I wanted to go inside. As I walked toward the steps, I thought of a simple wisdom I must have learned from my mother. When you're outside, she would say, and you want to go inside, ring the doorbell. That is, after all, what a doorbell is for. So I stepped forward and bent my finger at the first joint. My fingertips were too cold at this point and too numb to serve any real purpose. I pushed firmly on the round steel button. It gave way and I could hear an electronic buzz on the other side of the door.

I wanted someone to be in the church. I wanted to go inside.

It occurred to me that I probably looked like many homeless people in Detroit that day, looking for some shelter from the subzero cold. A church is always a likely sanctuary, and I was hoping that churches were opening their doors to the poor people who have no other hope for warmth. But today, my reasons for wanting to enter were different. I was trying to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. by going to see Reinhold Niebuhr.

There was a deafening silence. I rang again.

The sign out front said Mayflower Missionary Baptist, but in an earlier lifetime this had been Bethel Evangelical Church, and the cornerstone said 1921, which meant that Reinhold Niebuhr indeed had preached here, indeed had pastored here.

Niebuhr is a hero to many, a man of conscience and of mind who spoke painfully clearly on the issues of his day and his country and his faith. Barack Obama has cited Niebuhr and none other than King himself in his Letter from Birmingham Jail cites him too. He is what I would call a quiet American, one who shaped our conscience without overwhelming us with his power or status.

Niebuhr wrote Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, a lovely reflection of his time in this church tending to his Detroit flock. It's a paperback book I stole from my father's bookshelf many years ago. The book was my way of proving to myself I was smart, but he himself probably bought it in the late 1950s because the woman he was to marry was the roommate of Niebuhr's daughter. Fifty-five years later, there I stood freezing on a desolate Detroit street, my hands so cold they started to feel warm, hoping to get inside Niebuhr's church. On Martin Luther King's birthday.

No one came to the door. I walked back to the car, the wind pushing so hard against my body in temperatures around zero that I worried for a moment I wouldn't make it back at all. I passed a handsome twenty story apartment building built around the time this was a prospering community only minutes from downtown. That also would have been around the time the church was built, but like so much else in this city, the tall elegant structure had long since been abandoned and now every window is gone.

I made it. The car was warmth. I drove on. Two streets away, I passed a CVS and thought that I should stop and get a few things. I was looking for parking when I noticed people milling in front a building. It was the Motown Museum!

The building with Hitsville U.S.A. across its front is so modest compared to what it produced. The Motown sound! I went in and took the tour. I mean, how could you not?

I was one of three whites in a group of 25 people. We saw a short video about the place and the music it made. About Berry Gordy and his savvy. About the black middle class that he came from, and the tremendous resourcefulness he showed in 1959. As I sat in the back of the theater, I thought that in a small way, today too was a reflection of King's dream. A shared history and a shared music and a shared culture. The actor Alec Baldwin once said to Billy Joel that music is the soundtrack to your life. As I sat there listening to this music I have heard and loved my whole life, and whose impact has followed me all my days, I realized that this this was a soundtrack in my life.  Everything from that ode to joy "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas to the pointedly political "War" by Edwin Starr.

The tour ends in the very modest studio where it all began: The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder.

I thought of other places I've seen in this country, the Stax Museum in Memphis, and the Lorraine Motel and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and I thought, this was the middle class who made creatively do with the resources they had, and when the 1960s came along, they became what they always had been, soldiers in their struggle for freedom.

Toyota, outside the box

I don't think of Toyota as being a challenging car maker.

They are a good car maker. They are an innovative car maker. But I don't think of them as a challenging one. In part, their recipe for success comes from pushing out ground-breaking technology packaged in a conventional wrapping - changing the world one bland sedan at a time.

But some of their "cars" in Detroit are making me rethink that. Here's what I'm talking about -- some examples from this week's North American International Auto Show ... Toyota ... outside the box ...