Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Grab Bag: Mama Cass stirs Christopher Hitchens.

It's summer time, so the posts take a little respite. But Friday is a Grab Bag Day, so here is a Grab Bag thought.

Earlier, I listened to the Mamas and the Papas sing "Go Where You Wanna Go", their 1965 hit. Since the song was recorded before I was born, it wouldn't strain credulity if I ran out a string of associations, nay memories, stretching my whole life long.  Interestingly though the song brings back only one thought, a tuneful thought of sorts.

Christopher Hitchens, public intellectual, pompous ass, pugilist. He is the thought.

This might sound odd, and perhaps it is, but in his memoir -- at least I believe it is in his memoir -- Hitchens describes coming to the United States for the first time. The year was 1969.  He was still a student at Oxford but took the summer to drive around this country. To him, America was something an Englishman could almost hardly imagine. From his cold, damp, hide-bound island, empire no more, here was a place that was alive with energy and enthusiasm. Hitchens noted with a wonderment and awe that America could fight a war and send a man to the moon at the same time.

Christopher Hitchens later became an American citizen and made some good money poking fun at our shibboleths, but during that summer the man once described as a "drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay" felt the cool wind in his hair and listened to Mama Cass over and over again.  He reveled in that moment, accompanied by an anthem to youth, its indulgences and freedoms and to independence.

Hitchens was a man I loved to hate, and I suspect I wasn't alone. Perhaps because he popped bubbles so desperately in need of popping, he reeked of a smugness that rankled. On reflection, however, nothing he said runs to counter to me. I miss his British acerbity on the public stage. He never shied from saying things that needed saying, nor avoided a scuffle or was cowed by a bully.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A thought for the Fourth of July.

What an amazing species we are, that we could fashion from this feather a quill pen,

 and from that quill pen, a nation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Friday Grab Bag (on a Thursday): Weegee won't marry a Brooklyn girl; Is it all bunk?: Whither Janet Yellen?

It's Friday. Well no, it's Thursday, but tomorrow's Friday the 4th of July.  We will be celebrating our independence, Hurricane Arthur will be soaking Boston and Cambridge passing just off the coast of Nantucket, France will be playing Germany in the World Cup, and Friday's Grab Bag will have already happened, today.  Happy 4th!  "When in the course of human events ..."

*  *  * 

Behold a wonderful book, Sidewalks of America: Folklore, Legends, Sagas, Traditions, Customs, Songs, Stories and Sayings of Cityfolk, a 1954 collection by B.A. Botkin.  A friend loaned it to me.  On page 21, I come across this little gem:

... Weegee told us ... he wants to get married.  "So far I haven't been married as yet and I'm 47, but that wouldn't stop me.  Of course," he added, "I don't believe in marriage.  I'm a free soul.  But I'd be glad to humor the girl along and marry her." He paused, then added, "One thing -- I don't think I'll find her in Brooklyn." (quoted from "Why Weegee Won't Marry a Brooklyn Girl," by Jean Evans, PM Picture News, April 21, 1946).

*  *  * 

Yesterday, I found myself in the MIT Press Bookstore. I looked at the books, and they all were so damn serious.

Then I thought to myself, "What if it's all bunk? The whole lot of it, just bunk?"

*  *  *

If my memory serves me well, The New Republic used to run a box in its magazine filled with headlines from various publications that drew exactly opposite conclusions from the same news event.  It was hilarious to read, a good antidote to the pomposity of print media before the advent of the internet.  Well, I just had a time warp, courtesy of a Google search.  Look at the two headlines about Janet Yellen and interest rates:

The search originated in these interesting sentences from a story about wealth from the tech boom in the Bay Area:
"Quantitative easing, the policy that drove a great deal of wealth into Bay area tech, is expected to end this fall, and interesting rates will likely rise again before long.  If the market assessments of observers like Tom Perkins are correct, these changes will cause wealth to flow into lower-risk investments, and the start up economy will finally slow down." (Nathan Heller, "California Screaming", New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014.)  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Death by a thousand curb cuts.

At tomorrow’s Cambridge City Council meeting, councilors will consider a proposed rules change transferring special permit granting authority from the Cambridge Planning Board, where it currently resides, to the City Council.  Special permits, a zoning tool allowing uses and activities  beyond what is allowed "by right" under certain conditions, require approval by the local special permit granting authority.

In my view, moving the authority ("SPGA") from the Planning Board to the City Council is a terrible idea and, if adopted, will create untold problems for the Council, where only one member of the current nine can claim any expertise in urban design, planning or architecture.

More importantly, the citizens of Cambridge will not see an improved process or better outcomes. Instead, they will see a further contorting of our public debate because now all development will become overtly political. Furthermore, the relationship between councilors and developers will grow toxically close, undermining the principle of healthy arms-length deliberation by the decision-making body. What follows began as an list serve exchange and expresses my views on the matter in greater detail.


I do not believe having the City Council doing specific project review is a good idea. As an urban planner who served on that body for four years, it was never my experience that the Council was prepared to do the detailed work of project review. My opinion has not changed since. It's not what a City Council is made for, and it's not what it should be doing with its valuable time.

There are plenty of instances showing just what a tough time the Council has in making timely decisions in contentious development debates. 

Consider curb cuts. These petitions over access to the public way come to the Council periodically after a thorough review by city staff.  Sometimes they are non-controversial, but often they cause a firestorm of opposition requiring huge amounts of discussion and negotiation. The curb cut on Avon Hill split the neighborhood and demanded months of work to sort through.  A curb cut, by anybody’s reckoning, is microscopic compared to the complexity of design arguments on a 20 story building where thousands of different design criteria come into play.

The Foundry Building is another example.  In 2009, the city was given this structure — a building of about 60,000 sq. feet — as part of a mitigation agreement with Alexandria Real Estate for its Binney Street developments. As of this month, June 2014 — five years later — the City Council still has not been able to decide what should happen with that building.  This does not auger success (or sane governance) if the Council's responsibilities expand in a significant manner.

To me, the Foundry Building process is typical of what happens when political bodies try to get their hands around a very specific decision.  Individual councilors focus on their individual concerns, and can grow intransigent.  This locks up the process and freezes any motion.  To unfreeze the situation, pols negotiate with each other until a sufficient number of votes are reached.  That is not urban design. Nor would it be project review.  It is horse-trading, plain and simple.

Furthermore, the political pressures will force us to design by committee. Given the amount of trouble we already have reaching agreement about buildings under our existing process, I cannot imagine how this is an improvement.  Blandness will prevail in our design choices.  Everyone from developers to community voices will opt for "safe" because it will be the easiest.  Offending the least number of people is not a mark of leadership. Not in environmentalism.  Not in urban design.  It just seems like architectural retrenchment to me — and expresses fundamentally conservative tastes rather than progressive and challenging ones. This is not a version of project review I want to see.

Also, the scope of work involved in project review is large. I count nine projects "Special Permit - Granted" in 2014, totaling altogether 1.9 million square feet.  I wonder — on what basis will unelected aides and their councilors be making decisions about what passes muster? What happens in the case when only three community members show up to the meeting? Do they become the group to decide?  And what happens when nobody shows up to voice an opinion? Is it just the whim of the councilor — say one trained as a peace activist, or in non-profit management, or in law — to decide what that building should look like?  This is not an improvement over our current system.

Now, consider the impact this will have on the relationship between city councilors who will hold final say over projects and developers who stand to reap huge benefits for projects that move forward.  Developers will be petitioning councilors constantly, seeking their blessing on minute aspects of design and aesthetics.  Over time, this will bind these two parties together at the hip more closely.  The logical conclusion of this relationship is not a healthy picture at all.  Added to this, it is simply true that councilors have busy schedules and focus on their own issues — whether those are early childhood development or greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  Often this means they defer to committee chairs on subject matters not their own.  In practice, this is not a bad thing — it is how committees are supposed to work — but it means that all of this design decision-making authority will be run through one committee chairperson (or possibly two, if there are co-chairs).  That is simply worse than the system we have now, whatever its flaws.

The special permit granting authority also creates a new (and onerous) timetable for the City Council, one which I believe it will have a hard time meeting.  Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A Section 9, the SPGA is required to hold its initial hearing within 65 days of an application having been filed.  The decision has to be handed down within 90 days of that initial hearing, unless the timeline is extended by agreement of both parties.  This will be in addition to the timeline the Council must meet for all zoning petitions, and if the Council fails to act in the 90 days, this provision kicks in:
Failure by the special permit granting authority to take final action within said ninety days or extended time, if applicable, shall be deemed to be a grant of the special permit. (MGL, Ch.40A, sec.9)
As well, it is worth noting that the appeals provisions in MGL Ch 40A section 17 are broadly inclusive:
Any person aggrieved by a decision of the board of appeals or any special permit granting authority … whether or not previously a party to the proceeding ... may appeal to the land court department, the superior court department in which the land concerned is situated …
Furthermore …
If the complaint is filed by someone other than the original applicant, appellant or petitioner, such original applicant, appellant, or petitioner and all members of the board of appeals or special permit granting authority shall be named as parties defendant with their addresses.
It is fair and reasonable to ask if the Council will effectively be able to meet the mandated timelines without creating a situation of endless extensions producing something very close to a work-stoppage on all development.  Furthermore, my reading of the appeals provision states that anyone can file an appeal, and that all city councilors would be named as defendants.  This could quickly become an unworkable situation in a city where all development proposals are highly politicized and contentious. 

Planning boards were established exactly to create separation between elected bodies and more technical decisions that need to be made about buildings.  Accountability is a good thing, of course — we want the ability to throw the SOBs out of office at the next election — but it is axiom that politicians often can't see further down the road anyway. Someone needs to keep an eye on the long-range needs and demands of this community.  In a place where small numbers of active voters can skew any discussion significantly and developers pursue their own agenda, this proposal won't solve any of it.  In fact, it will only make it a lot worse.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Tragedy of Iraq (cont.)

How’s this for a deeply worrying opening paragraph: "Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.” ("Syrian aircraft bomb Sunni militant targets inside Iraq”, Washington Post, June 25, 2014). It has an apocalyptic "End of Days" feel to it.

As if that weren't enough, the border region between Syria and Iraq is fast becoming an ungoverned zone under the control of ISIS, the violent Sunni extremist group currently engaged in overthrowing the Maliki government in Baghdad, according to veteran journalist Robin Wright. Wright made the claim on Monday's Diane Rehm Show, but apparently has seen this coming for quite some time. In a September, 2013 New York Times piece entitled "Imagining a Remapped Middle East", she put forward the idea that lines in the Middle East could get redrawn, posing this fundamental question:
A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy François Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions. 
To answer it, she notes that even strongly nationalistic countries like Syria now have multiple nationalisms within their borders, the ever-present phenomenon of "cleansing" always adds to the challenge and "guns exacerbate differences". Events, it seems, have caught up with her foresight.  Today's Post furthers her thesis with a map entitled “How ISIS is carving out a new country.”

The Post goes on to describe the situation this way:
ISIS militants are fighting the governments on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, and an apparent decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene to help Maliki further tangles the already complex knot of actors in the overlapping crises.
In Syria, the United States opposes both Assad and ISIS, which it condemns as a terrorist, al-Qaeda-inspired organization.
Iran supports both Assad and Maliki and is sending aid to both, although Iraq’s ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday denied reports that the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was in Baghdad helping the government there, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.
As Iraq disintegrates, the inability of the U.S. to act effectively in this scenario only makes its culpability in helping to create it all the worse. Whatever course the U.S. does choose, dealing with ISIS, buffered as it is by two failing states, will come at a huge cost. Deep war weariness severely constrains American options. It seems that our interests will lead us to a strange bed-fellowship with Iran and therefore with Assad of Syria, and both will present ethical conundrums as well as geopolitical ones.  Watching the fragile Middle East unravel this way is like watching a car crash in high definition slow motion.

Friday, June 20, 2014

New York to Atlanta via rail, one man's journey.

I boarded the southbound Number 19 and was directed to my cabin. The train wasn't departing until 2:15 in the afternoon, so I still had some time. As it was an overnight train, I would have the whole compartment to myself. I leaned back to take in the scene.

Inside the train.

Out the window across the platforms and tracks of Penn Station, I imagined a ribbon of darkness from the tunnels that struggled against the overhead fluorescent lights for control of the space, creating a netherworld in which neither dark nor light could prevail.

Penn Station platform.

Penn Station may be the busiest passenger terminal in North America, but it is no longer the grandest, not by a long shot. That title was grabbed long ago by one of its rivals, perhaps Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station or Washington D.C.’s Union Station or New York’s other great station, Grand Central. The wrecking ball that wiped out the old Penn laid waste to one of the greatest cathedrals of American rail, with high vaulting arches that announced a kingdom of wheeled travel, but one that could not stand up to the churning power of 1960s or the arrival of the airlines.

Old Penn Station a year before demolition, 1962.

Down came those arches in 1963, and up went the new Penn, the impersonal modernist box that still holds sway on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue today.

Penn Station waiting area 2014.

At least, that’s what happened above ground.  Underground was a completely different tale. The world under the earth was untouched by the wrecker’s ball or the digger’s shovel, and therefore essentially unchanged. To those who love rail, the romance of long distance train travel still lingers here. I undertook this journey to see if rail was still a viable option in the United States. 

2:15 pm arrived and the great train lurched forward. The trip to Atlanta would take 19 hours. My train is called the Crescent and it winds its way south via electric power along the rails of the Northeast Corridor, stopping at Philly, Baltimore, DC before it switches to a diesel locomotive for the trip through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and then west to New Orleans, the Crescent City.

New Jersey.

At our first stop in Newark, New Jersey a young couple with a baby boarded and took the compartment across the way. My trip had now begun in earnest.  I started making notes. 
The woman next door is not happy.  The toilet, it turns out, is located in her tiny little compartment.  She wants to know why the toilets are not down at the end of the hall.  To me, this is a manageable problem.  To her, this is clearly not the case.  Within four minutes of having walked into the cabin, she has complained loudly three times.  I want to tell her to go take a plane.  It turns out that my peaceful trip may be interrupted by a crying baby too.  Age doesn’t bring lots of benefits, but it does bring the impression that the indignities you don’t want to deal with you don't not have to.  When this isn’t the case, it’s easy to get annoyed.
We rolled southward. The landscape had a particular beauty to it. I scribbled.

North of Philadelphia.

We’re still north of Washington D.C., but it’s old industrial, there’s an old junk car lot and now a cinderblock building with Home of Cutler Egg Products stenciled on the roof.  There’s a transformer and some very low small buildings and an abandoned factory as we pass the North Philadelphia station.  Another abandoned factory.  And is that another? There seem to be lots of them all along the way.  Bricked up and left to collapse.  And we have to assume the poor neighborhoods are all around them.  We treat our train areas like trash dumps.
We pressed on towards Washington D.C. and Union Station.
The vegetation changes as you go south.  That is an obvious point, but it’s a noticeable one too. There’s a flat brown stream.  It’s shallow. You wouldn’t find that up north.  There are trailer homes but the grass is green.  The trees don’t have leaves yet here either but they are just starting. We cross a river now. A broad river and a long bridge. We must be in Maryland now. 

The Amtrak brochure tells me that that the tracks to Washington D.C. are owned by Amtrak, but south of that to Alexandria they are owned by CSX.  South of that, they are owned by Norfolk Southern.  Let’s see what happens to our pace once we’re on freight tracks.  I’m sure we play second fiddle and have to wait when a freight train is passing. 
Washington, D.C. We are now in Union Station.  All power will be cut as the locomotives get switched.  To my right is a huge set of power cables sitting on a rack.  An Acela Express just came into the station. 

Union Station, Washington, D.C.
Union Station, Washington, D.C.

In the cafe car, I overheard train attendants talking about a guy who ate in the dining car and then walked out without paying.  The conductors tracked him down, but let him go.  Their other option was to arrest him. 

In the dining car, en route.

Virginia is lovely.  Genteel.  Two side-by-side American gothic churches, one slightly bigger than the other.  A train car loaded with sections of train track.  Like a toy model.  The sun is setting.
A Virginia farm at sunset.

It’s immediately noticeable how many freight cars and locomotives are parked on adjacent tracks.  We’re running on diesel power now, can max out at 80 mph, unlike north of DC, where we ran on electric and could max out at 110 mph, or so said the guy behind the bar in the café car.
Two trains passed in the night. It’s 9:48pm, and we’re south of Charlottesville by about 1 hour. Fatigue is setting in, though I’d like to try to do some reading as well.  Conrad.  The Secret Agent.  Let’s see if I can, or will I just fall asleep?  The train whistle sounds.  The wheels rub against the tracks as we turn.  Chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-a. 

Boxcars by night.

Now, about two hours north of Atlanta.  It’s impossible to say that you actually sleep on a train, but the night hours go by in a semi-slumber and before your know it, it’s 4:30am and almost time to get up. 
The train is stopped now, the train stops periodically on the tracks, to wait for clearances or whatnot.  High-pressure sodium lamps light up a lonely parking lot.  The sun has not shown its face at all, though it is 6:22am by my computer clock.  That seems odd.  I would think the sun would at least give a glimmer, particularly since we’re significantly south of where we started from and the days should be longer down here.  It’s almost time for breakfast.
 The sun is up.

Locomotive at dawn.
The mist still lingers on the green fields.  The trees are green, which is pleasant to see.  Every once in a while, a dogwood is tucked back in the thick of it all, short and white and pretty.  Time to pack.  To prepare to de-train.

The Number 19 in Atlanta.

And there it was, 19 hours to Atlanta.

The Atlanta train station is more befitting of a small town than a major American city. It's not connected to public transit and sits next to 15 lanes of freeway traffic.  Atlanta's priorities are clear.  This irony grows when we remember that Atlanta was started as a rail depot.

Atlanta train station.

Nevertheless, my trip told me one thing without question: long distance train travel is alive, if not kicking, in the United States.  Well run, on time, comfortable, these are the words I use to describe my journey. Getting there became a pleasurable part of the experience. It's not the cheapest to travel nor is it the quickest, but it is well worth it even still.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dems put their gloves on in Worcester; Convention organizers get a black eye.

After waiting over two hours for vote results at Saturday’s Democratic state convention in Worcester’s DCU Center, political reporter Andy Hiller could be overheard offering a hearty dose of expletives to describe what he perceived as a healthy dose of incompetence on the part of Democrats.  His language was sufficiently flavorful that nearby delegates started referring to the WHDH newsman as “Sunshine”.

Still, Hiller had a point. Saturday’s event had the trappings of an organized mess from the first moments to the final announcement of the day’s winners and losers.  Delegate voting took forever, and then getting the results took even longer.

How many tellers does it take to count a ballot? Actually, it is hard work.

One shouldn't draw grand conclusions out of it, but activating the activist base — and what is a convention if not a room full of party activists? — requires building a little good will among the anointed, and this weekend's show did anything but that. 

The party apparatchiks will review the all of it all, so in the meantime let’s take a moment to talk about the delegates’ choices, the candidates who will shape our primary in September and November’s general election.

Governor — My candidate Juliette Kayyem didn’t garner enough support to get on the ballot.  That is a shame because she offered an energetic example of new leadership in the state.  Still, politics is a game of organizing, and at this level, the state convention is hurdle Number One.  The “Best Organized” award goes to Steve Grossman, who out-hustled everyone else to the finish line, his orange "Grossman 14" t-shirts appearing everywhere, with the occasional super-delegate making a fashion statement out of it.
I'm with Steve, dammit!
In comparison, Martha Coakley was nothing but disappointing to these ears.  Not that Grossman is a rock star.  He certainly is not, but she delivered a flat speech that started off by reminding everyone of her 2010 defeat and all the disappointment that went side-by-side.  Yes, mention it Martha.  No, don’t lead with it.  I don’t see it playing out for her.

Don Berwick is the progressives’ darling.  He’s smart and committed to the cause ... a little too committed perhaps, which leaves me a little unconvinced.  Politics is not a morality play at the end of the day.  It’s the rough and tumble way we make choices as large groups, with our competing interests and differing points of view battling it out. Berwick is the “pure” choice for progressives which gives me pause in such an unpure business. The fifth and final candidate, Joe Avellone, didn’t find the votes so his season's over.

Lieutenant Governor — My candidate Leland Cheung just squeaked onto the ballot with slightly over 16 percent of delegates supporting him.  He (and his wife and child) cut a good figure up on the podium, but there’s still lots of work left for him to do.  The “Best Organized” award goes to Steve Kerrigan who clearly knows what he’s doing out there, and will be a very formidable candidate in September.
Kerrigan brings his A game, and it pays off.
The runner-up award goes to runner-up Mike Lake who came in a close second.  Well done Mike, though I suspect that over the campaign trail, Kerrigan will find ways to solidify the lead he showed at the convention.  Leland still had the best speech. James Arena-DeRosa, admirable man and good public servant, couldn't find enough support to continue to the next round.

Mike Lake talks up a delegate, but somebody is bored!
Attorney General — This is going to be the most interesting race to watch. This is the strongest field, a two-person race, with the most dynamic candidates. My candidate Maura Healey is a fighter — by her own assessment and by the vibe she gives off.  When she says she’ll fight for you, you believe her, because every signal you’re getting from her says — Yes, she will fight. You want that in an AG.

Still, Warren Tolman is no slouch.  To his credit, and as an indication of his poise, his short introductory video was unique by its humor, which made it stand above the rest.  The other shorts were simply a dreadful waste of time.  It's a sign of Tolman's wide-angle view that he can see such a small thing for what it is, such a small thing.  It's also a sign of someone who will recognize a big thing too.

This race is too close to call with each candidate getting around 50 percent of the delegates (Tolman beat out Healey by a hair, and got the party’s endorsement in the process) but it will be lots of fun to watch, with two competent, accomplished lawyers fighting for the brass ring.

Treasurer — An important job but not an inspiring one, Tom Conroy got my support because people I know like him. There’s nothing particular about Conroy to announce him as the obvious choice, except a face truly made for politics, but his credentials are good, his support is broad, his speech solid, and his campaign team hard-working.  Deb Goldberg did just fine at the convention, and these two will battle for votes in a contest where most voters couldn’t tell you one actual responsibility the treasurer has.  So be it.  At least we get to choose.  Barry Finegold didn’t make the cut. 

In summation, here’s the briefest wrap up of Saturday’s state Democratic convention in Worcester I can imagine:
"I think the substance of the convention was excellent. The logistics deplorable."
It comes from a fellow delegate, but I couldn’t agree more.