Monday, April 30, 2012

New York throws a pitch in the Innovation Game

A couple of quick web searches show that New York City is looking to capture some of the magic of Cambridge, MA, where universities, commercialization, start-ups, smart people and venture capital all combine in a volatile fuel that sparks the future.

Two New York institutions of higher learning, Cornell and NYU, are eager to join the party, and the city of New York also sees glitter, if not gold, and has plunged knee-deep in the negotiations.  New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, not a man of shallow pockets, is not being shy with the public purse this time either.

Of course, in the five boroughs, the most valuable commodity is not money but land.  In December of last year, Bloomberg announced that 11 acres on Roosevelt Island, which sits across the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan's East Side, will be dedicated to a new engineering campus under the aegis of Cornell University in partnership with the Haifa-based Technion University.  The city of New York is putting up $100 million to make this happen, and at the time of the announcement, Cornell stated that a $350 million anonymous donation will help facilitate the completion of this project.

Will Bloomberg and Cornell be feelin' groovy?

The proposed campus of 2,500 students will see the first arrivals in 2017, and the 1.3 million square feet of construction completed by 2027.  Just for scale comparisons, this square footage is roughly equivalent to the MIT project along Main Street in Kendall Square that they have put before the Cambridge City Council numerous times over the last three years.

Meanwhile, NYU doesn't want to be outdone in the city it truly calls its home, and announced earlier this month that they were about to begin work on their Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP).  Here's what they say about it in their press release:

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; in just a few more decades, the world's population will exceed 9 billion, 70 percent of whom will live in cities. Enabling those cities to deliver services effectively, efficiently, and sustainably while keeping their citizens safe, healthy, prosperous, and well-informed will be among the most important undertakings in this century. 
CUSP will tackle these urban challenges and set the research agenda on the science of cities, educating the next generation of engineers in how to apply that research, bringing innovative ideas to a world market, and creating a new, fast-growing, and indispensible industry—along with the many jobs that go with it.

As for their location, this is what they say:
We have identified Downtown Brooklyn as the preferred location for CUSP. It is a vibrant, creative, entrepreneurial neighborhood whose energy will be leveraged by the tech cluster we expect to spark. Growth in this field will be an especially good fit for MetroTech Center, helping it to more fully realize the City’s vision for this campus as a hotbed of technology firms and research.
From Cambridge's perspective, there are two interesting aspects to this. One is the regional component.  New York skews the graph whenever it appears, it's the outlier always.  And with good reason.

But the proponents of Cambridge's magic say that magic is actually the right word.  More than planning, and more than luck, there is a third element where random collisions produce positive energies that fuel this world.  The collisions are random, but some good amount of planning and design can go into fostering the likelihood of them occurring.  Cambridge seems to have it.  Can New York create it?

The other interesting component of this -- particularly for those who follow urban politics -- is the mayor's role in all of this and how his involvement is shaping the outcome.  No one should miss the profound impact that the resources of the city of New York can bring to bear when focused on an issue.

Resources or not, New York is its own thing, to be sure.  But special doesn't mean successful.  Just ask Boston.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

And even more construction in Cambridge

The Kendall Square area of Cambridge is witnessing a huge amount of construction right now. The number of projects underway in this very small section of the city is truly astounding.   It will be surprising when it arrives.  And we will be left scratching our heads as to what it means.

Here's one thing it certainly means: Cambridge continues to be a desirable place to build.

Here's another things it means: The economy is coming back and there is a renewed availability of capital for large scale projects such as these.

The first photo is of a residential development getting underway behind the Watermark Building on Third Street.  Housing is a perennial topic in the discussion about neighborhoods.  How do we Live, Work, Play in the same place?  For this you need housing, but how much should there be and where should it go?  Here is some that is about to be.

Residential construction, behind the Watermark Building, 3rd Street (April 2012)

Speaking of housing, the second photo is of the expansion of the Broad Institute on a site that was originally slated for housing. The developer, Boston Properties, came to the City Council to ask to change the use, and the City Council said yes.

The expansion of the Broad Institute.  Ames Street between Broadway and Main Street (April 2012)

Part of the science that is going to happen in this building is the continued examination and understanding of the human genome.  For this, five floors will be dedicated simply for computers.  The intersection of ever-increasing computing power and biology is one of the true breakthroughs of the last 25 years.

Five floors for nothing but computers!  That fact alone is dazzling and it reminds one that these are not small efforts in the realm of human endeavor.  In addition, the simple truth cannot be avoided: there are not many places on the planet where this type of truly fundamental and revolutionary knowledge-building is taking place.

But we should not be over-dazzled by the uniqueness, no matter how dazzling or unique it may be.

The interaction between innovation, creativity, science, place, built space and community is a very complicated one.

The activity that happens in a computer at the electron level also has implications for the activity on the street at the city level.  One should always be seeking to connect intellectual vibrancy with urban vibrancy. And while we're at it, let's also add civic vibrancy.

This city is now undergoing that experiment.  It has become the frog in the pot of water with the heat slowing being turned up.  All of these construction sites -- now only holes in the ground -- will become steel structures amazingly quickly.  The enormity of this change will be upon us sooner than we are realizing.  Much sooner.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Innovation Economy - Regional Questions

From the plate glass windows of the Microsoft offices in Cambridge, the spectacular view of Boston, its stately Back Bay homes and its large office buildings, comes into view.  The grand trees that dot the river's edge hold court.  Even baseball's Fenway Park can be spotted off the right shoulder in this majestic portrait of one of America's great cities.

What cannot be seen, but lurks underneath every part of this picturesque scene, is the depth of political distrust between Cambridge and Boston over the locating of companies like Microsoft and Google and many biotech companies that want to start a home in the region.  

While the origins of this distrust go back long before the invention of the personal computer, never mind the internet, the parochialism of local governments in Massachusetts fighting over their share of the pie has particularly insidious effects in today's global world and the consequences are much greater and longer lasting and damaging to the communities involved.  

In the past 30 years, Cambridge has not had troubles attracting suitors.  It has good bones -- a riverfront, good transit connections, lots of vacant and underutilized land, ancient and venerable squares, a long and storied history.  It's also got good in-laws, in the form of two of the world's most famous and increasingly important universities, Harvard and MIT.

In the 20th century, Harvard was the "it" place, and hosted the quintessential American moment of that American Century. Gen. George Marshall came to Cambridge in 1947 to announce the plan that became synonymous with his name. It pronounced American dominance, hegemony and beneficence in the post-war world.  In the 21st, that moment is much more likely to happen somewhere in an M.I.T. lab some quiet Saturday night or in a research institute at a summer conference, if it hasn't happened already.  

Boston has its own attractiveness.  The teaching hospitals are the cornerstone of a very strong edifice. Boston is also the heavy hitter in New England and is the gravitational center around which everything else in the region revolves, like it or not. 

But Boston hasn't missed the fact that Cambridge continues to garner the lion's share of the attention these days.  Kendall Square claims to be "most innovative square mile on the planet".  Boston's mayor Tom Menino now routinely claims all of Cambridge's activity as if it were his own.  And he's going one step beyond that.  He's trying to make this activity his own by creating his own Innovation District.

Meanwhile, the region, hampered by a deep-seated Yankee aversion to cooperation in these economic spheres, limps along with no coordinated effort.  The governor's office seems happy whenever any portion of economic growth happens, and claims indifference to its locale, as long as it is happening in Massachusetts.  The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the region's planning agency, has an advisory capacity but no binding power to compel any action on anybody's part, and even less money.  The folks at Cambridge Innovation Center, one of the area's most dynamic and energized hotspots for innovation, have been heard to say that "anything goes" is fine as long as it is going.  

There's highly charged energy in these waters, but there is also blood.  It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Cambridge wasn't part of a front running pack.  Not too too long ago, Cambridge was suffering from that same post-industrial disease that wiped out communities from Maine to Michigan and beyond. The collapse of the American industrial backbone north of the Mason-Dixon line did not leave even tony Cambridge untouched, and in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sense of desperation about what needed to be done.  A lot has changed since then, but it is predictable that a lot will change from now. Wise men and women caution: just wait, for this too shall pass.

The dearth of a coordinated effort makes no sense. Whatever its appeal for the cowboys in the room, robbing each other's resources leaves all poorer in the end. Growing the pie is the challenge, not shifting the pieces around. This will require some real thinking, some real determination, some real commitment, and some real work. The taste for this does yet appear to have shown up on the menu.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Boston, A City of History

Back when football was played with the feet, Boston Common was the place to play it, if you weren't off fighting the Civil War, that is.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Looking at rivers in cities

I have always been interested in the morphology of cities: What are the component parts that make a city a city?  Another way to ask this question: if you were to create a "City Building Kit", what would you include in it? Christopher Alexander and Allan Jacobs, both of Berkeley, are famous for their analysis along these lines.  A Pattern Language and Great Streets are seminal works in the field and have had long-lasting impact on people's understanding of urban places.

One meme of a city might be "River". Most great cities are located on rivers. It makes sense evolutionarily.  Early human settlements needed fresh water. Rivers were places for that, and for food.  Good land locations would not be abandoned, leading to a continuous line of habitation to today's modern version.  Think of Paris (Seine), London (Thames), New York (East, Hudson), Shanghai (Yangtze), Boston/Cambridge (Charles).

I think of rivers because today I saw two of them:

Bucolic, in a 19th century way
River #1  Medford, Massachusetts.  A city of 55,000 people north of Boston has the Mystic River rolling quietly through the downtown.  19th century buildings back up onto the river giving it a characteristic New England feel, but very much opposed to today's understanding of how to treat a river -- as one of the prime natural assets that city might have -- not something to turn your back on but something to celebrate for its restorative powers and its beauty. Nevertheless, the scene in Medford is both quaint and picturesque.

De-humanizing, in a 20th century way

River #2  Somerville, Massachusetts. Medford's neighbor just to the south is Somerville, a city of 75,000 residents. Somerville also reaches the Mystic, but the river I saw is a different one. It's the elevated concrete river called the McGrath Highway (MA Route 28), one of the Boston area's great urban planning disasters of the 20th century. At the point at which the roadway crosses over Washington Street, one enters an urban wasteland, the proverbial urban war zone. Built in the 1950s to increase traffic speed along the route, this flying river of cars also sits in stark contrast to the current thinking about cars in cities -- make the pedestrians the priority. Give it all a human scale.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Our public servants

In search and rescue operations, searching precedes rescuing.  The United States Coast Guard responds to requests for help in any number of situations including ships in distress and people overboard.

A friend, an officer in the U.S.C.G., has the responsibility of coordinating his district's search and rescue operations.  This winter and spring, he coordinated a search all too often in response to this phone call: someone has jumped off a bridge.

Local, state and federal agencies work together in these situations to maximize resources and support everyone involved.  Yet, as he said to me, until the body is found all you have is an empty car parked on a dark bridge and a passing driver who thinks they saw something.  It is very stressful until it is very sad.  

After such an event, closing the office door to be alone with one's thoughts is sometimes the only helpful therapy, so I am told.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

War! (cont.)

This past Sunday, I found myself in Essex, MA, eating fried fish at Woodman's and visiting the town's boat building museum.   Shipwrights have been building boats in the Essex boatyards continuously since 1668, when the town granted the easement for a public boat ramp into the Ipswich River.

There are a few local families that are famous for their boat building prowess, including the Story family and the Burnham family. In fact, I am told that the Burnhams are 11th generation boat builders in Essex, and that their ancestors in England were also boat builders. Apparently, it was not uncommon for the 17th century English settlers to import their skills and their trades, as well as their place names.  So the Burnhams remained boat builders.  But more interestingly, Rowley, Massachusetts was a place known for making sail cloth because Rowley, England had been a famous home for making sail cloth.

A Massachusetts fisherman's pride and joy, for centuries
On my break from the museum, I wandered my way to one of the town's many antique stores.  Creeky and musty, with a porch-full of old red Radio Flyers, shops like this one dot the North Shore towns because vacationers enjoy to rummage through someone else's bric-a-brac and drop 100 dollars on a mirror.

I clearly must have fit that general description, because there I was, up a steep set of wooden stairs looking through old books, a favorite pastime of mine.  Amongst the piles,  I came across the 1946 report of the Harvard College Class of 1940.  Not something of particular interest, but class reports include biographical sketches of the members of the class and updates of what they have been up to since the days of alma mater.  It occurred to me that John Kennedy graduated Harvard in 1940.

I opened the book.

There inside was this sad truth: the Harvard class of 1940, like every other university class of 1940, was up to one thing upon graduation -- they were going off to war.  I remember asking a high school teacher of mine, an old white-haired fellow who taught Latin, about this time.  He looked ancient to my eyes in the early 1980s, but he had been a graduating college senior in 1940.  He smiled with slightly pained, slightly cynical smile and said "we all knew what we were doing" after college -- he, and all his friends, were going to visit Uncle Sam's nearest enlistment center and sign up for the United States armed forces.

So it was with John Kennedy, who joined the Navy.

And so it was for so many of his classmates of whom 35 -- out of a 1,000 graduating seniors -- would be killed in the war.  Mind you, this is the 5th year reunion report (presumably delayed a year because of the war). The book began with the obituaries of these very young men.  Someone once said to me that the Army during wartime is a meat-grinder.  It takes all fresh hope-filled youth and turns it into a bloody red mess.

And in that odd quirk of history, one classmate of JFK's was this man.

He did have a hammer
If Kennedy was famous for his hawkish belligerence, in Cuba, in Vietnam, against the Soviets, then Pete Seeger became a symbol of peace, and he composed many of the anthems of the Peace Movement of the late 1960s that followed Kennedy's assassination.

Making sense of Kennedy and Seeger, and of this generation that went off to war and died so young is hard to do.  Upon their return, these young men all went about starting their lives.  Kennedy called himself a journalist and didn't mention his Navy commendations but did mention his books.  He was "pessimistic about the future of the country".  Seeger meanwhile  "hoboed around a while and then drifted into making a living as a singer of folk songs".  Over the next two decades, they together but separately changed America.  At one time, they were just young men facing war and seeing friends and classmates die.

No words about them outperform them in their own words.  For those, see below.

HERE is Pete Seeger singing the amazing song The Bells of Rhymney.

And HERE he is ringing out love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land. Both are from a concert in Australia in 1963.

And HERE is Seeger's contemporary, classmate, and fellow WWII veteran John Kennedy proclaiming "Ich bin ein Berliner".

Because I feel Pete Seeger should have the last word, THIS is Seeger singing Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.  Worth watching.

Monday, April 16, 2012


This morning, it was literally morning in America.

The sun warms my stripes and stars

On Lexington Green, redcoats were seen.

March we off to war
And then we wait

Troops ready to die for king and country.  Meanwhile, their captain took the morning air.

Three-quarter profile is my best look.

The Yankees assembled and considered their next move.

Is a graveyard an ominous sign?

War was upon us, 237 years ago, a bloodletting that made America, and made American lore.  Today it was remembered in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Much time has passed since then.  These battles here are mere replicas of those there.  

Unlike George Bernard Shaw's famous quip that the British and Americans are two people separated by a common language, these men -- re-enactors, infantrymen and irregulars, British and American -- have no trouble forming a single line.  

After laying a wreath at the tomb of a British soldier killed in 1775, they fired a loud salute to war's dead.  A car alarm went off in the parking lot nearby.

And afterward, New England's other great export -- prattling pedantry.

"And so why weren't rifles preferred over these guns?"  [Silence ensues.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: A Film, Fenway, Friday the 13th

It's Friday which means the Grab Bag is here.

See my recent full review of Boston Under by clicking HERE.

The Film.  Boston Under: After Hours is a fabulous film of what happens on the T after it closes business each night.  As the oldest subway in North America, aging tracks and equipment hamper this system that carries a combined total of 470 million people every year.  To keep it safe so that your morning commute goes off without a hitch, an army of workers descends underneath the streets of Boston at night to battle rats, third rails, flooded tunnels and sometimes the random human being living under our feet.  These workers are on the third shift -- that's the night shift -- and they do their work in the dark while we are sleeping.  They weld cracked steel, check switches, clean and maintain miles and miles of track.  This  film is their story, and their story is wonderful.  They are our public servants, hardworking, caring, committed.  They are the people we don't see, but who make a difference.

To watch a YouTube trailer, click HERE.

Two funny T tidbits.
  1. The city of Boston uses an abandoned underground T station near Boston City Hall as a storage room for files.  
  2. In 1961, a part of the Tremont Street station was turned into Fallout Shelter (remember those), and is still has canisters filled with dried biscuits and Good 'n Plenty.

One harrowing video.
  1. Part of the daily life of a T worker is safety.  Watch the security camera video of a drunken woman falling onto the tracks as the Orange Line train approaches the station.  I think it can be found on YouTube.

Fenway.  Fenway is 100, and here are some photos of the venerable park, the true Cathedral of Boston.

Welcome to Fenway
Down in front!

Ah, the Bleachers

Friday the 13th.  Happy Friday everyone.  Billy Baker in today's Boston Globe Metro section has some very funny factoids about the august day.   I quote:
... The last time the Red Sox opened at home on Friday the 13th was in 1984, against the Tigers. The teams combined for a 13-run first inning. The Tigers won 13-9. ...
There are also three Friday the 13ths this year, which happens about every 11 years, and they are 13 weeks apart.
And on and on.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David Dixon speaks. Will Kendall Square listen?

Last night, David Dixon head of the Boston firm Goody Clancy and a man of talent and experience in the urban planning world, got up before an audience of interested parties -- city staff, developers, MIT, neighborhood members -- and told them that Kendall Square in Cambridge is a great place, which is something they already believed.  And he told them that it can get better, which is something they sincerely hope.  And he said, this is how.  And they're still trying to parse that statement.

The meeting, held in a dingy room at the Kendall Marriott conference space, was a way station in a long planning effort, the Kendall Square/Central Square Study, initiated by the city over a year ago through a half-million dollar bid.

Meaningful urban planning is as much about participation as it is about analysis.  In that sense, it is as much a political process as it is a rational one.   The challenges that reside in Kendall's upcoming growth are as big as the opportunities and the stakes in this game are high.  A very important part of Cambridge's future will happen in this home to the intellectual energy of the city, with its huge number of start-ups and large pharma companies and in its university, MIT, but what happens will not be important for Cambridge alone.  The region and the state will feel the impacts of this.  And the economic growth is important both at a national level, and globally in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship.

At least the cookies were good.
Even in this context, Dixon's Powerpoint didn't surprise the weary eye.  His slides put some numbers to the projects that will be happening -- including the millions of square feet of lab space, along with the influx of housing that will be built in the area.  The maps he showed marked out zones of activity and in that wonderful way that planners do, he encompassed a whole dissertation of urban theory with a gesticulating wave toward some big circles on a map, saying "in this area, we expect to see a lively street front supported by a park", leaving the audience wondering what part of the Land of Oz exactly we were in.  A believer sees a way forward.  A cynic wonders what planners actually do.

If there was something of particular interest to this eye in Dixon's slides, it was at the level of building structure and dimension.  A great deal of time and effort these days goes into understanding, or at least trying to, how the shape and size of a building impacts  the urban context in which it exists.

Dixon noted that the type of commercial activity, in particular the lab activity, requires large floor plates.  That's a problem from an urban perspective because it implies big, blocky structures that denude the street of urban character.  Confronting this is important, and Dixon noted that even large structures can be made to appear smaller by segmenting them.  It's faux, but you have to work with what you've got.  A further important principle is the step-back, the height at which a building stops being a solid wall  and terraces back away from the street to open up to light and to sky.  New York is famous for its step-back provisions in its zoning, as is Paris.  Indeed, Paris has been working with this urban design principle for a very long time with many modifications over the years and many many successes.

Not staying for the group exercise portion, I left last night's meeting early.  When I got to the street, I noted just how far Kendall Square needs to go to become a place worthy of a name.  My darker self wanted to title this post "The Horror, The Horror" in honor of Mr. Kurtz and Marlon Brando and Joseph Conrad, and as a way of signaling the deep dissatisfaction one should have with the buildings in Kendall (see below), but some better angel grabbed me before I leapt.  Nonetheless, the photos do tell the story of the horror of mindless architecture and mindless urban design.  It always takes a long time to undo a bad idea cast in concrete.  These new ideas need to give us a better fifty years of urbanity than the last fifty did.

Third Street
1 Broadway

Volpe Center
MIT Campus

1 Broadway sidewalk 

M.I.T. Sloan School

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bees, Coffee and the Internet

What do these three have in common?

They all create a buzz in their respective spheres.  Coffee, of course, deals with that sphere between the ears.

Speaking of coffee, here are some photos in and around another favorite coffee hang-out of mine, the very local and tried and true 1369 in Inman Square.

Photo 1 is from while on line, from the inside looking out.

Photo 2 is some wall art right across Springfield Street.  Paris was filled with this stuff.  It now appears that Cambridge has its moments too.

1. Single cap

*  *  *

2.  Words to live by

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Coffee Shop Opens in Mid-Cambridge

In the way that neighborhood events can elevate a local happening into a bigger thing, it was with some measure of excitement that Mid-Cambridge welcomed the opening of dwelltime (yes, I believe the name begins with a lowercase "d"), a new place to grab a quick cappuccino and croissant.  Because in Mid-Cambridge, that is what we grab: a cappuccino and a croissant.

You used to be able to buy old furniture here
Many moons in the making, dwelltime opened its doors in the space of the old Hubley Furniture auction house on Broadway, just down the street from the Gather Here store at the corner of Lee Street.  These two new shops now animate a small row of non-conforming businesses into a vibrant mini-corridor in the midst of a neighborhood.  It is a nice "revival" of sorts of this stretch of shops, and shows a very good example of how retail can work at a scale that fits with the neighborhood.  The key ingredient is getting the right uses in the spaces.

Cambridge does process well, and this one was no exception.  Whether dealing with the city or dealing with the neighbors, there was lots of talking to do.  Permit-seeking was multi-layered.  Neighbors raised their hackles.  Rooftop mechanicals, the machines that heat and cool and vent the air of buildings, are the bane of all neighborhoods because they involve fans which always involve noise.  Compromises were sought.  And found.  Then other neighbors raised their hackles, and compromises were sought but not found.  This second issue involved a sign facing out onto Broadway -- was it appropriate for the street and the district.  When I was on the City Council, I thought it was. I still do (see photo).

Now, if only they could get some more chairs
Still for every new venture, the fundamental question always remains: Build it, but will they come?  Hardly open an hour, Dwelltime saw the coffee-drinking hoards arrive.  And they have kept coming since.  Objections aside, people want their coffee here.    They vote with their feet, in droves, in the front door.

And by the way, my review: Two Thumbs Up -- excellent coffee and food.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

I am a fan

Her name is Kimbra.  She's 22.  She's from New Zealand, but lives in Australia now.  She's been compared to jazz singers Nina Simone and Bessie Smith.

Oh, and she's got a beautiful voice.

HERE is a YouTube video of her singing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Grab Bag: Gopnik on Camus & More Construction

Friday is a day for the Grab Bag, those items that get scooped up in the week's events and then cast onto the ground before us as the weekend looms.

Adam Gopnik shows up again here for his portrait of Albert Camus in the April 9th New Yorker.  Gopnik writes elegantly but not ostentatiously.  He is efficient without being parsimonious.  He lets his observations ride the waves of his words very well.

Meanwhile, his topic, Camus, is the perfect cliche of the French intellectual as seen through American eyes.  But he is more than that, and more than the writer who penned one of the great first lines of any book. Gopnik walks through all that, and I do recommend a look-see.

And in Cambridge, the new buildings keep coming, and the city continues to grow.  And grow.  And grow.  Below is a photo of yet another construction site along Binney Street, the third project being built as we write.    This time it is happening at the corner of Fulkerson.

Binney and Fulkerson Streets (April 2012)

Let it here be noted: At its edges, Cambridge is changing, massively and quickly.  It is happening in ways that will surprise us much when these buildings extrude themselves from the ground in boxes of concrete, steel and glass.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

God Bless Fred Salvucci, for he is funny

With today's Boston Globe report that the Big Dig needs $54 million in a "light fix", and the ongoing battle over the MBTA's 23 percent fare hike, it was a pleasure to spend last night listening to Fred Salvucci remember the days when talk of transportation was a call to arms and war was in the streets of Cambridge and Boston.  The Inner Belt was coming, the Inner Belt was coming, and during the mid-1960s, the citizens of these two cities rose up to slay the mighty dragon of unlimited highway funding -- at least unlimited to the point where the federal government picked up 90 cents of ever dollar spent on new roadways. 

Salvucci, now a lecturer in the civil engineering department at M.I.T., is a silver-haired raconteur, and a man of big ideas.  He is rightly considered the Father of the Big Dig, and today's report notwithstanding, his accomplishment there was one of the great coups for real urban improvement in America in the last 50 years, reversing a trend of utter destruction that was the mark of roadway projects across this country.  It was a mark of genius both political and engineering, and an act that required great determination and courage to see it to completion. 

But he cut his teeth as a local activist some 20 years earlier when the proposal was to run a large elevated roadway up through Central Square in Cambridge and displace 1,500 families in the process.  Last night's event was put together by the Cambridge Historical Society, and it was a chance to reflect on this era and its impact.  Also on the panel were MIT professor Tunney Lee, Bob Goodman of Hampshire College, and Cambridge mayor Henrietta Davis.

Salvucci speaking at last night's forum, not that small in real life

The Inner Belt scheme was monstrous, but not unheard of in cities across the country at the time.  The auto was seen as savior, even to the Cambridge Planning Board in 1950, which released a report lauding the role the car plays in our society.  By 1965, Cambridge's thinking had changed, and many, many Cantabrigians rose to the occasion.  Last night's get together was both a chance to reflect and listen, to some people who moved mountains back at a time when such accomplishments were by no means commonplace.  It was history by the people who made it.

Salvucci offered many wise words:

"Culture eats policy for lunch."  This phrase Salvucci attributes to Jeffrey Mullan, and it means that the culture of your agency always trumps rational policy making everytime.  This means that if you're a bridge builder then the answer is always to build another bridge, if you're a road builder, then of course another road.  As Salvucci put it: Here's the answer, now what was the question? 

"Bad public policy is like measles, once you've experienced it, the antibodies build up so strong that it doesn't happen again."  I liked this image that the body politic can react so strongly to a bad idea, that it just won't occur again.

Finally, Salvucci relayed the tale of a meeting in the second floor of the old Wursthaus restaurant in Harvard Square.  It was a planning meeting of those opposed to the Inner Belt, and it included John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Moynihan argued that while the Inner Belt was an atrocious idea that needed to be opposed, nevertheless the displacement of these 1,500 families might change the urban politics in Cambridge for the better and lead to a more progressive local government come election time.  Galbraith, just back from a long plane flight and barely focused on the local issue at hand but briefed upon his arrival on the content of the debate, rose with great and venomous passion, unfolded his incredulous pterodactyl-like arm and pointing an accusatory finger as he did, gestured emphatically in Moynihan's direction saying that in a time of great racial discord, the neighborhood slated for removal was one of the few where races lived side by side in peace, and this roadway would destroy all of that.  After Galbraith's argument, "everybody fell into line" according to Salvucci.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Innovation Economy and Urban Space (cont.)

Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA is one example where this complex mix of innovation and economy seeks to emerge.  For such a thing to flourish, it needs both a culture and a physical environment that supports.  In the way of these efforts, there is no straight-line path forward.  Getting to the right place by following the correct route is impossible when no map exists.  This is an active process of invention and discovery by doing.  Nonjudgmental failure seems as important to this work as does the hope for success.

The combination of physical space and activities is a fascinating one.  What might we say about Kendall Square?  It is a very small geographic area centered around the T stop at Kendall that gives it immediate access to Boston right across the river, and in the other direction to Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge and points north and west.  Its immediate neighbor is one of the world's great universities, M.I.T. and it sits not far down the street from another one, Harvard.  Boston is home to some of the country's leading teaching and research hospitals, at Mass. General and at the multiple hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area.  

These pieces set the stage but they are only some of the players, and they don't yet account for the catalyzing agents that fill out the whole cast.  To understand this all better, we need to look at more of the pieces:

Institutional players
  • Universities
  • Private and public landholders
  • Institutional investors

Political and regulatory
  • Political structure and efficiency
  • Community politics
  • Public review and approval processes
  • Public regulatory bodies

  • Private capital
  • The housing market
  • The labor pool and the labor market
  • Regional competitors
  • Sources of interest (financial): local, national, international

Public investments
  • Infrastructure: transportation
  • Infrastructure: recreation

Physical characteristics
  • Density and distances
  • Geography
  • Architecture
  • Urban planning and design
  • Climate

This list can in no sense be complete.  But it's a beginning.  (Thoughts and comments about it would be very welcome.)  Seeing how these pieces interact must be the next question.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

(More) Construction in Cambridge

You don't have to go far to see some large-scale construction underway in Cambridge, MA.

Here are two more examples:
(Note: These are two separate construction sites, two blocks apart, both of them with an edge onto Binney Street.)

Site 1: The corner of Third and Binney Streets (April 2012)

*  *  *

Site 2: Rogers Street, looking toward Binney Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets (April 2012)

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Innovation Economy and Urban Space

We are in the midst of a period of exceptional change in our economy and in the role that cities play in it, and it is a transformation that is widely acknowledged but little understood. In a reverse of the suburbanization trend of late 20th century, density and intensity of activity are not seen as detrimental to economic growth but are considered a fundamental and necessary component of it in an economy where knowledge, creativity and capital must interact freely and fluidly. 

Developing the right urban space that fosters this activity is a major challenge, and while there is some agreement on what the ingredients need to be, truly successful urban environments that mix live, work and play in the right amounts and in the right ways are rare. 

Nevertheless, the value placed on creativity and risk-taking in the labor force will only continue to grow.   Knowledge per se is no longer seen as the most valuable commodity in this knowledge economy.  Instead, it is the leveraging of knowledge through interaction to create new and in many cases unexpected insights where the true premium is understood to exist. 

The urban space needs to foster this and encourage it, through its plan, its accessibility, through its support of element such as night life and more seemingly tangential uses like promotion of bicycles and walking, and ubiquitous internet access.  This is all part of the challenge of being attractive to a cutting edge labor force to come work, create and stay. The stakes in this truly global game are high, and the payoff is seen to be higher.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Poetry is not just for April, and April is not just for fools

Fenway Park closes in on 100 years old on April 12th. 

April 12th, 1912 turns out to be two days before the Titanic hit the iceberg.  In Boston, we'll celebrate the first but not the second.

Meanwhile, as wags note, April is cool. Perhaps the coolest month? 

April also happens to be National Poetry Month.

As a token of our appreciation -- not so much of the work of poets, which can range from sublime to ridiculous -- but as a token of our appreciation of the common humanity expressed through poetry, this oldest of art forms -- let us think of our poets and our poetry, today and all days.

But whom should we cite?  Eliot, surely.  He gave us a modern tongue and the line that we parody and repeat (see above).  Someone once told me I should read Elizabeth Bishop.  I haven't.  Yet.

Rather, today, I look back to the time of ancient scripture and see something very much of now.

In this year's March 5th New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews Elaine Pagels' book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking), on the Book of Revelation, the pyrotechnical completion to the Bible.  In it, she looks at the question of why this particular story was The Final Story among the many that existed in the earliest days of Christianity, when many many questions remained unsettled.

Not small themes, I grant you.  I do recommend reading Gopnik's review and perhaps Pagels' book as well (I haven't yet read it).  Here are some more tidbits from Gopnik: 

[Pagels] accepts that Revelation was probably written, toward the end of the first century C.E., by a refugee mystic named John on the little island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern Turkey ....

What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the 'Christianity' just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself 'Christian,' in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did.

But where's the poetry, you ask?

Here is the poetry, and what beautiful poetry it is.

After decoding Revelation, Pagels then looks at other long lost texts from the period, including those recently found at the Coptic library Nag Hammadi.  I will let Gopnik take it from here:

As an alternative revelation to John’s, she focuses on what must be the single most astonishing text of its time, the long feminist poem found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and called “Thunder, Perfect Mind”—a poem so contemporary in feeling that one would swear it had been written by Ntozake Shange in a feminist collective in the nineteen-seventies, and then adapted as a Helen Reddy song. In a series of riddling antitheses, a divine feminine principle is celebrated as transcending all principles (the divine woman is both whore and sibyl) and opening the way toward a true revelation of the hidden, embracing goddess of perfect being who lies behind all things:

I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
       and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
       and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom . . .
Why, you who hate me, do you love me,
       and hate those who love me?
You who deny me, confess me,
       and you who confess me, deny me.
You who tell the truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, tell the truth about me. 

Astonishingly, the text of this mystic masterpiece was—a bit of YouTube viewing reveals—recently used by Ridley Scott as the background narration for a gorgeous long-form ad for Prada perfumes. The Gnostic strophes, laid over the model’s busy life, are meant to suggest the Many Mystifying Moods of the Modern Woman, particularly while she’s changing from one Prada outfit to another in the back seat of a sedan. (One feels that one should disapprove, but surely the Gnostic idea of the eternal feminine antitheses is meant to speak to the complicated, this-and-that condition of actually being a woman at any moment, and why not in Prada as well as in a flowing white robe?)