Friday, August 24, 2012

Timeline. Kendall Square (expanded)

Below you will find an expanded timeline.  I apologize for the size -- graphics issues are still being worked out.  You should open the image with a program (like Preview on a Mac) that allows you to zoom in to see the details.

I have continued to expand my timeline of events in Kendall Square, and with the aid of new timeline software, I am able to manage more data points with greater ease.

You will notice that I separate events by actors -- namely, who is the key protagonist of the action.  So far, I include:
  • Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA)
  • The City of Cambridge
  • the [Cambridge] City Council
  • The Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan (KSURP)
  • MIT 
  • Commercial  

Please feel free to share with me more data and/or further moments of historical importance, by posting below or contacting me by email.  This project with continue as more information becomes available to me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review. Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies.

A spy tells you things about someone else that they don't want you to know.   A double-crossing spy tells you things about someone else that they do want you to know. 

When you're dealing with spies, it's important to know what you've got.  As troops amassed on the southern coast of England in May 1944 for the invasion on the Normandy beaches that would become famous under the name D-Day, this distinction became crucial. 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  Ben Macintyre.
At that very moment, a small group of spies was busy spreading all sorts of lies in an effort to deceive the Germans as to the time and the place of the main Allied assault onto continental Europe.  What was special about these spies, and what gave them a particular credibility among their German audience was that each of them began their espionage career as an employee of the Third Reich, recruited to find out everything they could about their evil British enemy.  But in each case, this rag-tag group of people determined that the defeat of Nazi Germany was truly the goal worth fighting for, and decided that their work in the war would be to trip up their German spymasters.

On St. James's Street in London, it fell to a very small group of British eccentrics, public school boys besotted with cricket analogies and misogynists to a man, to determine the reliability of this potentially powerful weapon against Adolph Hitler.  They were part of B Section, a group within MI5 whose job was counterespionage.  Their initial tools were a group of German spies landed on English soil in 1940 in preparation for the invasion of England to take place that year.  Not one of these spies evaded detection.  Four of them agreed to serve as double agents.  A very new front was opened in the war, this time, it would be a war of guile and nerves. 

The agents would have fit in any James Bond novel.  Dusan "Dusko" Popov, elegant, daring, with a voracious appetite for women, was friends with Johann ("Johnny") Jebsen, a 22-year old heir of a German shipping company, and an Anglophile with a love of P.G. Wodehouse.  Popov offered himself as a spy.  Jebsen was recruited later on.  Both hated the Nazis.  Both were brave and fearless.  Popov fed disinformation to the Germans in the run-up to D-Day, Jebsen shared a mass of real information about the Germans with the British.  Popov survived the war.  Jebsen's fate was less kind. In the slippery world of espionage, he trusted someone he should not have, and it did not turn out well.

These characters, and many others, populate the new book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.  Double Cross is compelling, a true page-turner.  The quirky Brits, broad-hearted and small-minded at the same time, cook up these crazy schemes that just might work.  Against them are pitted the Germans whose army intelligence service is slow-footed, dim-witted, pleasure-seeking and always one step behind their English adversaries.  However, lurking in the background of German army incompetence is the menacing specter of the party faithful -- the Nazi efficiency, mania and brutality.  

Double Cross has all the markings of a spy thriller, but it is more than that.  It is real.  These characters were not the construct of someone's fertile mind (though many of the spies and spymasters possessed very fertile minds themselves).  They were people who were not there to read scripts but to write them, in real time.  Their lives, and their response to their circumstances, created a drama that is both full and with the benefit of hindsight, deeply consequential -- the human drama lifted to the level of history.

Double Cross is also the story of small people in the eyes of history who rise to their part when the light of luck and fate shines upon them.  For all their failings, these people did not fail.  Macintyre lifts Jebsen most among them. 

Ultimately, Double Cross is a summer-time read of the highest order.  Fun, gripping, eventful, romantic in the way of old-time film noir, it does not disappoint.  You won't put it down till you find out what happened on D-Day.  That's the truth, if you believe it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review. Boston, The Irish, The Projects, The Kennedys.

I am in a recycling mode these days -- emptying out old drawers, looking in old boxes.  Throwing things out.

It has an odd cleansing quality to it.  Waves of nostalgia mix with the liberating notion that the weight of the past is not a forever and forever proposition.  Cords can be cut.  Docked boats can be unmoored. 

All of this applies to electronic files as well.  Yesterday, I found this review I wrote in 2000 of two wonderful books, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer.

The review is 12 years old.  The books, even older.  But all stand the test of time, and so get posted here.


Review of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer

Sam Seidel
March, 2000

Northeastern cities hold their value exactly because they have not fully succumbed to the powers of Khaki-clad, latte sippers.  They still retain the grit their 19th century immigrant and industrial past -- the sights, sounds and smells preserved in the journey from the Old World to the new.  But for immigrant groups, the past can be a two-edged sword.

Take South Boston, for example.  As it comes under tremendous pressure with the arrival of the new convention center, its strong core is still there – Irish and working class – “a country all unto itself” in the words of one longtime Boston developer. All Souls, A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald, walks us into that world.

MacDonald has us learn about his childhood through a story told with a childlike innocence.   Except that the events are anything but innocent—the violent chaos of the 1974 busing riots; the disintegration of this same neighborhood a decade later under the oppressive influence of guns and drugs – courtesy of gangster Whitey Bulger, brother of former Massachusetts state Senate President William Bulger.   

All Souls is a tale of just exactly what it feels like to be at the bottom of the ladder, and be told that you’re at the top.  MacDonald is able to retell these events with unaccusatory skill, rendering that time and that place with uncanny touch.  As the protected sanctuary of his childhood dissolves and the guns and drugs move in, MacDonald realizes that the true demon here is something different.  The code of the street is the code of silence.  As long as it holds people in its grip, the downfall can continue.  Ironically, only through reaching out to the neighboring black communities of Roxbury and Dorchester is MacDonald able to see a way out of the spiral.

But Boston has long been an Irish town, home to some of this country's greatest citizens.  Take, for example, the Kennedys, emblems of power and prestige.  They started their battles in the end of the 19th century, when legendary politicians like James Michael Curley and John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald ruled the town.  By the time Joseph Kennedy, Sr. married Honey Fitz’s daughter, Curley and Fitzgerald were already locked in battle with the old-line Brahmin establishment.  Joe himself, and then his children, would reap the benefit of their efforts.

Adam Clymer's new biography of Joe’s only surviving male child, Senator Ted Kennedy, examines the results.  The book, simply named Edward M. Kennedy, tells the story of Kennedy’s  uncommon privilege  -- First Communion from the Pope, son of the U.S. ambassador in London, and, by the age of 28, brother of a president of the United States. It tells the story of a towering figure in American political life whose most enduring political lessons may have been those learned through those early fighters in the older Boston’s immigrant ward politics.

But it also tells of a man who had clearly left those politics behind.  Though Kennedy felt that the working class Irish were his core constituency, who had rallied to his side numerous times, he supported busing, and became a pariah in South Boston.  After being booed off stage during an anti-busing rally at Boston City Hall, he never stepped foot in South Boston to campaign during his1976 Senate reelection campaign.

Kennedy’s rejection of Southie was possible because of his national, as well as global appeal.  And that is probably pure Kennedy – a unique combination of wit, grit and grace.  As a senator, he has put his mark on the most important social legislation of the past quarter century.  As an international figure his admirers come from a broad ideological spectrum, from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan.  To his credit Clymer, a reporter for The New York Times, keeps to the story, and does not waste time with scandal, unless it relates to Kennedy's political fortunes.  In all, this is an oddly moving book.

Michael Patrick MacDonald’s amazing tale about this amazing town and Clymer’s well-tempered assessment of one of the seminal American figures of the second half of the 20th century open up the world of Boston – its past, its neighborhoods, its uniqueness.   A city rich in its people has produced two fine tales.  Read them both.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Some of my thoughts about cities, circa 2001

The paragraphs below are the opening of an essay I wrote while a graduate student in 2001.  In reflection, it's interesting to note the problems I identify as being urban problems -- they seem from another era. Indeed they are from another era, and I am certain that any list I drew up today would look very different.  Note: The interconnection between urban space and urban politics has only grown more apparent to me in the intervening years:

The concept of “the city” has always fascinated me, in large part because cities are the cynosure of the social and physical extremes – wealth and poverty, the lofty skyscraper and the pastoral city park.  But I have come to realize that the understanding I had of cities was too limited.

My initial conception was that cities were political beings first and foremost.  I came to that conclusion because the majority of my work had been in political contexts, and I did what people often do – I generalized from my specific experience.   While not only being too constrained, this view of “city as politics” was also almost unavoidably pessimistic.  It meant that per force, I thought of cities in terms of their negatives: an amalgamation of the social problems that American cities are famous for – poverty, crime, and the economic and racial segregation that are typical of our big urban centers.  And the only solutions I could imagine were political. 

But I have begun to understand that a city is not only a grouping of negatives, nor is it only political.  A city is also physical, and it is an intricate weave of opportunities and constraints.  This addition layer of necessary information adds difficult complexity to understanding cities.  It increases the variables innumerably.  But it also gets at what I now consider to be a fundamental fact – that political aspects of a city are inextricably intertwined with the physical aspects of a city.  In other worlds, space matters – in a way that I did not foresee, nor in full candor, that I fully yet understand.