Monday, November 18, 2013

On the Waterfront.

There are some upsides to not winning an election.  For the first time in my 47 years, I have seen On the Waterfront.  Even the Vatican considers this a significant film.  I am glad to know that my views and theirs are in line. 

Brando.  Brando!  Even 60 years later, he's as fresh and new and revolutionary as ever.  Even more so, given all the film that's happened in between now and then.  The naturalness and the attention to detail are unique.

Kazan.  Kazan?  Who is Elia Kazan? Coward and traitor? Fighter? Neo-con?  A very gifted director.  That he would get in bed with HUAC offends.  But life is always more complex than that. HUAC was an American Star Chamber, in a democracy no less.  But according to Kazan, he'd already broken with the Communists.  Faced with an unacceptable choice, he chose an unacceptable option.  But no worse than the other option.  Furthermore, the Communists were not just wrong, but dependent on coercion, that most pernicious of political tools.  As it turns out, in the next five decades, the capitalists won the day if not the argument and have managed to break the labor movement and hollow out the middle class all at the same time. 

For all the inherent brutality of the On the Waterfront world, both physical and psychological, the scenes depicted are quaint now.  Not that they aren't still brutal, it's just that they no longer exist in such proximity to our world.  Politically, we are different.  Economically too.  Find me an American city that has a dock scene like that?  Maybe union politics still aren't all that different. But unions don't play the role they once did.  And more to the point, our cities aren't like that anymore either.  They turn not on grease but on electrons.  Good, unless you try to make your money by manipulating grease.  

Both the personal and the political are not just the things of drama but of life, which is why art can imitate life, but more commonly it is the other way around.

The other thing about this film is that its 1950s-ness shines through. Any urbanist will love it for its grittiness. 

Today a city is pretty: a playground for the very rich or an absorber of the very poor. In the winter of 1953, people still went up on rooftops without a second thought.  No health and safety regulations there.  I am a nostalgist, but there is a glory in that time.  Kazan's camera unintentionally captures details that tell the story of that world so well: the brick chimney with its mortar gone, brick on brick. The Empire State Building makes a cameo across the Hudson in the background.  Meanwhile, the film's most famous line, one of the most famous lines in all of film, is said in one of its quietest scenes.  Not some waterfront ballet scored by Leonard Bernstein but in the back of a taxi cab, one brother to another. Brando utters "I could have been a contender."  We've all felt that way.

Bold, black and white, beautiful -- Story, Location, Actors -- On the Waterfront is so palpably itself.  Unlike so many films, this film carries its own weight, easily. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Needed Revolution

I once heard Mitchell Silver, the former president of the American Planning Association, say something I believe to be very very true.  Silver said that every planning meeting, regardless of what community it’s in, takes place in a room filled with 65 year olds, and their answer to every question is “No”.  He went on "That's no way to plan."

Indeed, and what he noted about America more generally is true in Cambridge too.  A cynical pol walks into that room, reads it correctly and exploits it. An unsuccessful pol (quod vide) simply gets fed up with the feeling of entitled opposition and grows dismissive of it. 

It’s the odd but all too common scenario that exactly the wrong people are in the room shaping the discussion, guiding the outcomes.  None of the huge investment in Cambridge right now is happening because of the AARP generation.  None of it.  That they should be the tastemakers is an awful paradox that needs to be upended.  This latest local election is a reflection of the start of that.  The greatest political revolution waiting to happen in Cambridge is the generational one.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

No Middle Income Housing Without Subsidies

At a NAIOP breakfast meeting this morning, a panel looked at the housing boom in Boston.  The market is strong there particularly at the high end.  With the recent City Council race done here in Cambridge, it's time to look very seriously at a campaign promise that all candidates made (including myself) to create more middle income housing.

According to Steve Faber of the real estate development firm Related Beal at today's NAIOP panel, there is no way to build middle income housing in high rise construction in Boston without some subsidy.  I'm going to wager that what is true in Boston is also true here in the People's Republic.  So where is the subsidy going to come from?

It can come either as cash in some form, or it can be a subsidy from other market rate units, or it can come in the form of helping on the land costs.  This last option is particularly interesting because Cambridge owns some land in Central Square.  The parking lots that sit off of Massachusetts Avenue are the city's.  It is my belief that the city should hold onto this land, and use it in the same way that MIT uses land -- long-term leases for tenants who can build on it.  That way, the city doesn't relinquish the land, which would be near impossible to buy back once it was gone, and it can generate money for the city.  Additionally, it will allow the city to pursue policy goals it seeks to outline, such as this middle income housing.

Of course, these are all for the next Council to deliberate.  Had I been there, this is what I would be advocating for.  I wish them well in their work.