Thursday, December 25, 2014

A thought for Christmas Day

The opposite of materialism isn't spirituality. It's community.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Something at hand?

It is hard not to feel that something is at hand, that some moment of consequence is upon us.  The rage of the people is palpable.  The disgust of our populous is unmistakeable.  We are perhaps at a turning point. 

It used to be popular to lament the culture of violence that had overtaken our land.  From armed street thugs to video game mayhem to the endless blood-soaked action of our films, it seemed that there was no bulwark against our insatiable appetite for death. As a people, so the story went, we were craven. We even were capable of producing the frightening prospect of the disillusioned teenager who, to solve the misery of his existence, ported an assault rifle to the one place that probably treated him the best — his school — so that he could kill fellow students, children just like him.  Our frontier mindset meant every conflict was resolved with a gun fight. Our beleaguered police chiefs were simply overmatched in a world gone mad.

But the non-indictments in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York show in stark relief that another culture of violence has overtaken this land. It is prevalent and equally as deadly, and very real. It is perpetrated not by the citizenry on each other but by the police on its people.

It is in a word disgusting, and in another word terrifying. The idea that a man with a badge and a uniform, entrusted with the authority to use a gun and the deadly force it implies, is simply unaccountable to any level of society except for his own superiors is what I think George Orwell might call “a police state”.  In a land that has been trying to get its diminished mind around such huge trends as income inequality, wealth disparity, gentrification, immigration, the explosion of information and the huge political gulf that separates red states from blue states, it seems as though this latest episode might be a tipping point, when a system supposedly serving the people seems only to be subjugating them. At this moment, we may all look up and wonder, how did we get here? And then we may ask the much more important question — what the hell do we need to do to get out?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

More on Ferguson, this time cars.

It is interesting to note that across the country, blocking roads and freeways has been one consistent method protesters have used to register their outrage over the grand jury’s refusal to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.  Meanwhile, public transit continues unscathed.

That must be because like all Americans the protesters have an intuitive understanding that by depriving people of their freedom to drive, they create as effective a disruption as any our culture can endure.  Simply put, there is no better physical expression of what John Lennon called "I, me, mine" than the automobile. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John Doar.

I read with great sadness that John Doar has died. 

John Doar was a great American. He served us all with great distinction in his many roles in public life, and we are a better country for his courage and integrity.

It was my honor and pleasure to get to know him.

Here is his obituary in The New York Times.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Why The Dems Lost in MA ... One More Take

In the era of saturation coverage and Monday morning quarterbacking where all our mistakes become obvious in retrospect though we manage to miss them when it could have really counted, and Facebook is filled with angry denunciations that Our Democracy is Officially Broken, though these same pronouncements would have miraculously morphed into self-satisfaction if Democrats had  won the day on Tuesday — in light of all of this, I will not demonstrate better judgement by keeping my mouth shut, but rather offer my own unexamined, unresearched, unuseful hypothesis on this week’s Democratic misfortune, at least for the state of Massachusetts. Ok, here goes ...

The state’s Democrats quite simply are suffering from Election Fatigue.  It's as simple as that. Every election for the past five years, and there have been many of them, has been a fire drill, and it’s worn them out.

Starting with Ted Kennedy’s death in August 2009, Massachusetts Democrats have been asked to rally round the party banner again and again.  To put a number on it, on average every five and a half months there has been an election, a convention or  a major political announcement in the Commonwealth.

In January 2010, five months after Kennedy's death, Democrat Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown in the special election to fill that seat. Nine months later, voters went to the polls in mid-term primaries, and then two months after that, they were back in the voting booth for the general election.  Then, ten months later, Elizabeth Warren announced she was running for the U.S. Senate seat won by Brown two years earlier. With primaries in September of 2012, and then the general election in November of that year, voters and activists had had a lot to process over the past four years.  But it wasn’t done yet.  In December of 2012, President Obama announced that he was picking John Kerry as his nominee for Secretary of State.  The election to fill his senate seat was set for June 2013, with the primaries held in April of that year. Five months after ensuring that Elizabeth Warren beat Scott Brown, voters were asked to go back to the polls to pick Kerry’s replacement, and on April 30, the Democrats chose Ed Markey as their standard bearer, and three months later, he was elected to the seat.

So, when Martha Coakley emerged again in 2014, there just wasn’t the energy left in the tank to produce the margin of difference she needed. Her challenge was to find that boost among her electorate, and it was something she just couldn’t do. In a Republican year, in a Democratic state, the batteries simply were too drained to get her where we wanted to go.  Here's what the history looks like as a chart:

Ted Kennedy dies
Special Election
Scott Brown defeats Martha Coakley for US Senate
Democratic primary

General Election
Deval Patrick re-elected governor

Elizabeth Warren announces
Democratic primary
Elizabeth Warren chosen as party’s nominee
General Election
Elizabeth Warren elected to US Senate; President Obama re-elected

Obama names John Kerry to be Secretary of State
Democratic primary
Ed Markey chosen as the party’s nominee for Senate
Special Election
Ed Markey elected to US Senate
State Convention

Democratic primary
Martha Coakley chosen as party’s nominee
General Election
Martha Coakley loses to Charlie Baker

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Networking in my automobile.

Exiting the Home Depot parking lot, I drove north until I could get under I-93, at the spot where twelve lanes of the interstate lift off to fly over Somerville and Medford. At Route 38, I stopped for a red light.

While waiting for the light to change, I had a change of heart. In
the metaphors of today’s digital world, I wondered: wasn't our road building craze of the last century nothing more than a massive connectivity upgrade? After all, what are roads but a network? What is a freeway but increased bandwidth? What are cars but the iPhone of their day? In the end, is anything different but the size of it all? Aren't roads just a technologically crude version of the internet and all its modern offshoots, virtues we promote shamelessly today?

More than that, Planner's Bible says that roads, particularly interstates, undermine cities. Actually, I now think quite the opposite. Their construction accentuated the importance of cities rather than diminished them.  Roads connected surrounding areas to the urban centers that supported them. Without that network, cities were purely local phenomena. With the network, cities became regional phenomena. New York stretched to New Jersey and Connecticut. Boston stretched to central Massachusetts and New Hampshire. As the reach of the city expanded, so too did access to the city. 

Then, like Walter Mitty, my light turned green, and I drove on.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

There's always a story behind a story.

True story — Two guys drinking at a bar start talking about someone who won the Massachusetts lottery twice in six months.  

To one, it smacked of a fix, someone on the inside helping out a friend. To the other, it was just blind good luck.

Then they started to trading their own stories.  One bought a scratch ticket once that won him $20,000.  Instead of bringing it into the lottery office, he sold the it to a “professional gambler” in a cash transaction completed in a parking lot. The “gambler” took his cut and handed over the rest of it in bills. The guy said his pocket was bulging bigger than you could imagine. 

Not to be outdone, the other won $44,000 once at the dog track.  He claimed he’d been offered the same deal, with a “professional gambler” willing to buy the winning ticket off him. Honestly it didn’t sound true.  The dollar amount sounded like too much too.  

It was a kind of nuclear arms race of “you won’t believe how much I've won” stories. But as I listened to these two, I couldn’t help but feel with both of them, there was a story behind these stories. Because there’s always a story behind a story.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The havoc the wind can wreak.

The fate of a plastic plate — that was my practical and philosophical question. 

I had a vision for it, you can be sure. It was going to end up in a recycle bin. Of that I was certain. I would put it there by my own hand. 

However, it wasn’t as simple a proposition as that. Outdoors, near the water, the wind was kicking up, as wind near the water will do. The plate and I were there too. A warm October day and large buildings nearby meant it was gusting. Sudden bursts emerged without warning. 

Oh, did I mention the sandwich? The heavy brick-like sandwich? The tasteless pointless sandwich that nevertheless aided me by holding the plate down? The bread was cardboard. The meat was colorless and indecipherable. Was it turkey? Was it ham? It was simply impossible to tell. But the help was appreciated.

The seagulls down by the waterfront are a savvy group. They play innocent. I’m just enjoying the sunshine like you buddy, that’s what the little gray and white-winged guy next to me is saying. But they are thinking to themselves, there is food nearby, and if I can just wait long enough, it may come to me. Still, they get only so close. They know when they are not wanted. 

The outdoor tables find these gusts no trouble at all. They are built for it.

Just then, it happened. A mighty breeze blew up strong. My hand could not still the tiller and the sandwich was simply no match. The whole thing, plastic plate with its leaden cargo, simply lifted off the table and flopped upside down on the ground. The plate then reared up again, carried further by another gust. If I couldn’t put a hand on it, or step on it, it would end up in the water.  

In the water? 

Litter! I would litter in Boston Harbor.  

I walked slowly toward that black disk peacefully resting on the wooden boardwalk. Only two more steps and I'd have it.  

But then again — Gust! Blow! 

Plate go! 

Into water.  

It bobbed on the surface, a visual blemish against me and against the damn wind. 

I walked away in disgust. Somehow, it served them right!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Iraq and Saigon. Deja vu all over again.

At least at a superficial level, America is once again unerringly being itself.

Our efforts to subdue ISIS through airstrikes masks a disturbing parallel — we have seen this whole drama before.  The year was 1975 and America was just completing an episode eerily similar this one. 

Up until that year, we maintained the fiction that the puppet regime in Saigon still had validity. Having supported it economically and militarily for over a decade, perhaps we didn't have any other option than to believe it. Meanwhile, a foe that earlier had vexed U.S. forces in the field with its military and political acumen finally demonstrated how much stronger it was than our allies, the South Vietnamese. The policy of Vietnamization, encouraging the South to take over the fighting duties from the Americans with the aid of U.S. military and financial support, proved itself to be nothing but a fig leaf. As soon as American forces ceased combat operations, southern forces weakened. When the enemy finally closed in on their capital, the South crumbled more quickly than anyone predicted. The U.S. was left to fly choppers off the embassy roof evacuating only those of our allies lucky enough to punch their way onto a departing craft.

Well, we’ve been in Iraq over a decade now. We destroyed the country that had existed when we arrived.  In the process, we undermined the social, political, economic and military structure that had been in place, first with a war and then with a series of failed policies of peace. We trained and armed a reconstituted national army and security forces, pouring in huge amounts of American man-hours and dollars and expensive equipment. We supported local leaders who lacked the support of their populace. In the end, everything we put in place was no match for a foe who showed greater skill and determination at the moment it counts, defeating our allies handily and capturing plenty of our sophisticated weaponry in the process. We are left trying to shape the battlefield and the negotiating table through the one tool we alone have, air power.

If Vietnam and Iraq sound painfully familiar, it is because they are. Somehow, we Americans are always willing, and apparently always able, to convince ourselves that American largesse will simply overwhelm forces arrayed against us.  Because we can bring more to the fight, we will eventually win, so the thinking goes. This has proved not to be the case in every single conflict we've engaged in since 1945 (Grenada is a fair exception), and it is perhaps time that we reevaluate our assumptions.  

The one consolation in all of this is to remember that 1975 was a dangerous year too. Mutually assured destruction was an active part of the political vocabulary then, and nobody mistook Vietnam for anything but a proxy war between bigger players. We, by which I mean the world, survived that time, and we will survive this one too.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The most expensive item in the room.

The old duffers lined the hall.  Their mammoth tour bus waited patiently outside. The men all looked like veterans of Omaha Beach, but actually they were more likely to be veterans of Woodstock. Time does that.

Sarah was very good — smart, energetic, informed, thought-provoking — the kind of tour guide any museum would like to have and any tourist would want to get, feeding loads of information in very digestible chunks.  

She pointed to the desk in the center of the room. Henry David Thoreau felt no need to lock his cabin when he left and didn’t mind if he found someone sitting there when he returned. But he always locked his desk, as the scratch marks around the keyhole proved. Safeguarding the contents of his mind was more important to him than protecting the contents of his house. 

She stumbled a little bit on the Transcendentalists, admitting that their organizing principles still eluded her.  They believed in the goodness of all mankind and were back-to-nature types, which all sounded rather hippie-ish. A chuckle rose from the audience. 

In a separate room, she asked if anyone knew what the most expensive item in there was.  People guessed this and that. No, none of these. It was the mirror, which was made of polished silver. Mirrors were a rarity in colonial times, owned by very few, and many 17th century inhabitants went years without ever seeing their own reflection, or even knowing what they themselves looked like.  

It’s a proposition of existential wonderment — what would it mean to go decades or a whole lifetime without ever seeing your own face? What sort of person would such a colonial man be who never had the opportunity to look upon himself but only looked out onto others? There is a reason the verb "to reflect" means "to throw back heat or light" as a mirror does, but also "to think deeply" or "to contemplate". It all adds a different wrinkle on the admonition to "be self-aware." 

Today, we suffer no such dearth. Our faces are as familiar to us as anything we see, and our opportunities to see our own reflections, whether on surfaces or in digital formats, gives us almost endless opportunities to reflect. Moreover, in today's world, we are also surrounded by other human faces, in the form of persons or on screens or in the pages of print media. Our daily visual landscape is littered with eyes-nose-mouth, which is unlike the earliest days of colonial America, when to see the face of another human being was more common than seeing an image of one's own, but still itself a rare occurrence. If there is such a thing as social evolution, this must surely be a part of it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A trip to Concord.

In Concord, MA, a British soldier, wounded in the fighting around the Old North Bridge, died near the town green, about a half-mile's march from the battle. His fellow redcoats gave him a summary burial there where he finally fell, thousands of miles from his home. History did not preserve his name, but it didn’t forget the location of the most significant event in this young man’s life. A gravestone still stands today.  It all took place on Wednesday, April 19, 1775.

The stone begs the question how different our country and our lives could have been.  Unlike our European cousins — say, France or Germany or Belgium or the Netherlands or Russia — our towns and villages are not littered with the dead of foreign troops who once trod here, musket or rifle in hand, and grave markers do not daily remind us of an alien presence on our native soil. Over the last century and a half, America has had the luxury of exporting its virtues and its soldiers overseas, and as such we have always been able to look outwards upon the world, not been forced to look sideways onto ourselves. 

How different would we be were we daily confronted with the “what if?” in which others had come here to try to impose their will and their virtues on us? We would not necessarily be a better breed, but undoubtedly we would be a humbler one. That much is certain.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A stroll through Central Park.

I walked back through Central Park, passed the ball fields and found a park bench.  On the green grass in front of me, under the shade of a large tree, were four or five young families, moms and dads with young infants, mostly toddlers. It was late afternoon on a hot end-of-summer’s day. The new parents had a Treffpunkt, a place to come together to let their kids run around in the company of others. The spires of Central Park West rose in the not too far off.

There was one woman in particular. Attractive at this distance, white tank top and pale army green shorts, looking after her small child. She was bending over the stroller, tilting herself in such a way that was easy to misinterpret but near impossible to miss. If she was looking for somebody, she was showing it. If she wasn’t, she seemed like she was.  

It was harder to interpret the motion of the men around her. All were dads, but it wasn’t clear if one of them was the dad to her child. They milled about, darting and feinting like small birds whirling in sudden little dances that evaporated as quickly as they came, but in the end all seemed to be attached to other women, or perhaps more importantly, to other children. The men may have wanted to be hers, but that was just the flirtations of young parents debating their own choice of partner. I concluded that this woman was alone, with her child.

I stayed for a while to watch. It occurred to me, what a different New York City this was than the one I grew up in in the 1970s. The idea that white middle class parents, and all these parents were white and middle class, would use the park in the same way that suburban parents might use a playground felt so foreign. Undeniably, it represents a great improvement over the much more dangerous and dirty Central Park of my youth – one need only look at a Gary Winograd photo to be reminded what a pit hole New York was back then. But I couldn’t help but wonder, where did all the poor people go?  What park do they now get to use?  

That’s the challenge in a pluralistic and diverse city like New York. When an outfit like the Central Park Conservancy gets created, it's supposed to tap into the huge amount of private wealth that rings the park, and use that money for the betterment of the place. It does this by cleaning it up, planting and prettifying it, but also by forcing out all the undesirable elements, the messier people, the noisier people, the people who don’t have a four year college degree or speak English as their primary language. Or for that matter, have white skin. It makes the park an urban refuge for the affluent. 

We decried this sort of thing when Robert Moses tried it nearly a century ago with clever tricks to keep the poor off of public beaches, but there is no similar protest today. Today happens through the palliative of “public-private partnerships,” a catch-all phrase designed to convey a best-of-both-worlds scenario — the harshness of private greed softened by a sense of public purpose and the incompetence of public decision-making made sharper by the application steel-eyed private management practices. 

Yet we know that in a city such as New York, it is the poor who have the greater need of easily-accesible public open space. Central Park has always been described as the lung of Manhattan Island, a place where one could breathe, but by slow and steady creep, money has once again won the day and bought that air for only those who can afford to possess it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Interview. Tom Hughes, Memories of the Brattle Theater and the Cambridge of his youth.

It was June 1961 and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had just finished berating 44-year-old John Kennedy at the Vienna Summit. Robert White became the fastest man on earth by flying a U.S. Air Force plane 3,600 miles per hour, one mile every second, and Ernest Hemingway was one month away from his demise. 

If you wanted to take a break from it all and forget about the world for a while, there were always the movies. Few places are better than the dark of the theater to get away from the pressing business of the day. If you liked the arty stuff, the European stuff, the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square was busy redefining the rules for American film-goers. They were showing films you couldn't see elsewhere in the country. Man in a Cocked Hat. The Naked Night. Othello. 3 Penny Opera. Grand Illusion. The Seventh Seal.

Tom Hughes
I recently sat down with Tom Hughes to hear about those days. Tom worked at the Brattle back then as a young man. He remembered the theater in those early days and its mercurial founder Cy Harvey, a man who was said to have the Midas touch turning everything to gold, a man who started not only the Brattle but also Crabtree & Evelyn out of a small shop in Harvard Square called Truc. Tom also remembered the Cambridge of his youth, the city he grew up in over a half-century ago. Here is Tom's story.

Tell me about the founding of the Brattle?

Cy Harvey was in World War Two. He came home after staying in Paris for a while and he meets a guy named Bryant Haliday who he went to Harvard with. Cy was really into foreign films. He was supposed to be going to the Sorbonne, but he was mostly going to look at foreign films like Truffaut and so on.  

The Brattle entrance today
He comes back and he meets Bryant on Brattle Street, and he finds out that Bryant’s grandmother had left him the Brattle Theater which at one point a dance hall and other things. By the way my mother went to her prom there in 1930.

Anyway, Cy has the idea of importing foreign films and showing them in Harvard Square.

What year are we talking about?

We’ve got to be talking about late 1940s or early ‘50s. Apparently at this time the only other foreign film theater in the United States was in Greenwich Village. Bryant owns the theater. They have the first rear-projection theater around where its not projected from the balcony. This gave them a little bit more room and space.

At the same time, Cy thinks of opening up a bar at the back of the theater. He’s very successful bringing in foreign films but also stuff like Casablanca, American films, Humphrey Bogart and so on. He shows Casablanca during reading periods and there are lines around the block. All the students have seen it at least four times in their career at Harvard and they recite some of the lines that Bogart gives.  

We used to give out Bogie buttons at the theater. This is in the late 1950s or early '60s. Cy and Bryant used to tear tickets, collect the money. I think at the time it was 50 cents to get into the theater because when I started working there it was 75 cents.

Cy then starts a film company called Janus Films and he opens up a bar nightclub and calls it the Casablanca and it becomes a very popular bar. People from all walks of life are going there and having cocktails. It was a great hangout for a lot of people.

What’s Harvard Square like at this time?

They have Cardullo’s restaurant. There’s a place called Albiani’s restaurant. These are big cafeteria style restaurants that all the students liked to eat in.  

The Harvard Square Theater was called the University Theater when I was a kid. It was a neighborhood theater as well as a theater for the Harvard and Radcliffe students. Saturday morning they used to have a 10 o’clock showing just for kids.

Did they show cartoons or something?

No, it was the whole deal. They would show news events, Pathe news. This had to be end of WWII, the Korean War. As a kid, I used to love to watch these news films even before the regular feature came on, before Tonto and the Lone Ranger came on. If you saved your ticket stub, the other half you’d put it in for a drawing. After the news they’d have a drawing for 100 shiny pennies and if your number was read off, you’d get 100 shiny pennies. And then they’d have the regular feature. And then after that, they’d have a short — Tom Corbett Space Cadet where the rocket ships would take off but not straight up but zip around. You were out of there by 12 o’clock. You got to see newsreels, cartoons, a main feature. It was great.

Eventually, you started working at the theater. How did you get the job?

I worked there when I was a freshman in college. I got the job because Cy lived on the same street I did in West Cambridge. We lived on Sibley Court, he lived on Sparks Street. My mother used to babysit for his daughter. He had married a French woman. She was kinda different. The reason my mother was babysitting for her, she didn’t work, but she and a Jewish lady across the street, Mrs. Shain, used to like to go to Suffolk Downs and catch the afternoon meet and gamble and she didn’t want her husband to know this so she would leave the baby, Papette, with my mother and she would come back at 5 pm after the afternoon at Suffolk Downs and pick the kid up.
Sibley Court

Cy knew that my mother was a babysitter and I had met him and so he offered me a job. I’m 19 at the time. This is at the Harvard Square Theater. We all had to wear blue blazers. We all went over to J. August on Mass. Ave. and we all got fitted for blue blazers. He wanted to do it right. And we had flashlights and we’d show people their seats and that’s how I started there. I disliked dressing up wearing ties and blazers and at the Brattle Theater you could wear anything, and so I started working at the Brattle in 1961. I did it right through college and graduate school. I would take tickets. You didn’t have to show people their seats.

Was it configured the same way it is today?

The old exit door, Casablanca was downstairs
No. Where the Algiers is now, that was a big door that opened up onto the street. You entered next to the Adult Education Center. Inside it was basically the same building as it is today. We used to sneak in there until the guy who was managing it who’d graduated from Harvard, Buddy Cramer, he and his wife, he worked for Cy and he leased the Blue Parrot Coffee Shop, he said, “You guys don’t have to sneak in, I’ll let you in for nothing.” So, that’s how we knew about the place, and then a lot of us worked there later on, and a lot of my friends, I would get them jobs there.

Did that include Rich Rossi?

It included the present-day City Manager of Cambridge. He was a part-time manager at the Brattle Theater. He says it was the best job he ever had. He loved it.

How about for you, was it a fun job for you?

It was terrific. You know the old story, one hand washes the other. I used to let the waiters from the Casablanca in for nothing and then when I went downstairs, they’d let me drink for nothing there. It wasn’t an even swap because it was only 75 cents to get in, and you could drink a lot of beers.

You worked there for a few years?

I worked there until I got a job teaching overseas. I was actually working there when I got my first teaching job in Winthrop. Then at the end of my first year in Winthrop, I went overseas to work for the Department of Defense to teach and that was the last time I worked there.

Did you go see some of these films that were being shown?

We saw all the films. We all became experts on Ingmar Bergman and Truffaut and Fellini. Even to this day, we all can talk about the great Fellini films. Jean Renoir, the son Auguste Renoir, the painter, was a famous film producer and we showed many of Renoir’s films at the theater at the time. We showed the Grand Illusion, we showed Boudu Saved from Drowning. These are classic Renoir films, all in black and white.

What was it like seeing those movies then?

from The Boston Globe, June 7, 1961
These were classic films. Some of these films, they were done in 1922, 1932, black and white, Boudu Saved from Drowning was done right on the Seine. That was a classic film. I found it the other day at the library in Cambridge and I looked at it and it brought back memories of forty years ago.

Did the directors come and visit here?

Truffaut came and visited Cy and I believe Bergman because he showed all the Bergman films in the theater. Bergman was anti-social. He wasn’t into meeting a lot of people and in fact when he won the 1960 Best Foreign Film award for Virgin Spring, he didn’t want to go to Hollywood to accept so our boss Cy Harvey, being friends with him, accepted in Hollywood for Ingmar Bergman. We were all downstairs at the Casablanca drinking Cy’s booze and watching on television as they said “Accepting in Hollywood for Ingmar Bergman is Cyrus Harvey.” We shouted, “Eh, Cy, alright, Cy!”

Switching gears a little, I want to ask you about the Cambridge of your youth. What was it like for you growing up in your neighborhood?

I grew up in what today is West Cambridge and is considered one of the nicer parts of the city. When I was growing up there, part of it was very nice, the other part I lived in was typical working class. This was the area below Brattle Street. It was called the Marsh because at one time before they put in the locks at the harbor, it used to overflow, hence the word marsh.

Riverview Apts, urban renewal Cambridge-style
People who lived there historically worked for estates on Brattle Street. They were the caretakers, the gardeners, and so on. A lot of them had their own crafts. They were housepainters and truck drivers. There was the Su-Lee Wet Wash Laundry. It was an ethnic mix. There were poor Italian, poor Irish. Some Chinese. A few Jewish families. One owned an antique store there. 

By 1960, there was a section that was considered blighted so urban renewal came in. Luckily it wasn’t our side of the street but the other side which was mostly garages, a wet wash laundry, an antique shop, kind of rundown housing, but it was cheap and affordable for Italian and Chinese immigrants. But they tore it all down which would probably never happen today, and all my friends wound up living in housing projects in Cambridge and Somerville. They really didn’t do a lot for the people they displaced, but they put in some very nice housing. The Riverview apartments basically occupy most of the area. There was a family that lived in back in a very nice house — she was the daughter of General “Beetle” Smith, who was the primary aide to Eisenhower in WWII, lived right on Bradbury Street.

The view from home plate, looking towards centerfield
What would you do as kids?

We were a little way from the Cambridge Common which was really the only place you could really play baseball, so there was a small park on the corner of Memorial Drive, Hawthorn and Mt. Auburn Streets and we’d play baseball in the park there. It wasn’t organized. It was just like back in the '40s and '50s and '60s before parents organized kids, we all went down there and chose up sides and played baseball. A lot of time arguing over whether the kid was safe or out or ball or strike. There were no barriers. Foul balls wound up on Memorial Drive. Wild pitches in Memorial Drive. It was a small park but when you’re ten years old, you don’t need a big park and a few kids could hit it out onto Mt. Auburn Street. It was a nice place. It was close to home. Within 5 minutes we could be back for lunch. I remember there were streetcars there.

I swam in the Charles River when I was 7 or 8 years old. This was '47 or '48. We swam at Gerry’s Landing. It was where the Eliot Bridge is now. And the bathhouse is the present-day American Legion Marsh Post but that was actually a bathhouse. And we’d go up there and swim in Gerry’s Landing and I’m sure it was somewhat polluted and it even became worse as time went on. Everybody dumped into the river. Even the Mt. Auburn Hospital would dump into the Charles River. After that, by the early '50s you couldn’t swim in it anymore and that’s when they began to build MDC pools along the river. Magazine Beach, where Riverside Boat Club is today, that used to be a beach on the river where people swam. I never went down there. So when they closed the river to swimming, they built these pools and that’s where kids would swim for the summer.

As you think back on it all, what are your thoughts?

The idea that the old days were so great ... they really weren’t that great. My parents had very little money. I went to the local Catholic grammar school. I still have guilt from serving under the nuns. For my parents, life would revolve around the church and working. There wasn’t a lot of social entertainment. My parents almost never ate out. In fact I don’t ever remember eating in a restaurant except for once a year we’d go to the Turkey Farm in New Hampshire. My father wouldn’t mind going up there because nobody knew him. He enjoyed going up there, one of the few social events he enjoyed. Typical Irish family, everything played close to the vest. Don’t take any risks. It was an interesting neighborhood. You had a lot of ethnic mixes. You still had a lot of racism, ethnic competition, “Don’t let the Italians get ahead of you, don’t let this one get ahead of you.” They were still into that kind of stuff. 
From Harvard to the hearts of millions, FDR

But they all voted Democratic. They all came through the Depression and had terrible memories of it. They thought Roosevelt was a god, and in my estimation he was. Without the New Deal, we wouldn’t have what we have today. And they all became Roosevelt Democrats, and ever since everybody votes Democratic. In fact, the state of Massachusetts is still the most Democratic voting state in the country.

What are your thoughts about Cambridge in 2014?

Cambridge has had a terrific evolution and I mean for the better. When I grew up, there were very few parks. There were very few things for kids to do. The educational system was somewhat average. The city wasn’t kept up that well. There was minimal attention to development in the city. Unfortunately, there was a lot of political corruption in the city. They tended to hate Harvard. They didn’t want the Harvard people getting control of their city. The educational system suffered because of that. 

Construction in Kendall Square today
Today it’s dramatically different. The schools are better. What I’ve seen is tremendous influx of immigrants, from the Caribbean, from all over the world coming to Cambridge. When I was in school here, there was minority community of blacks on Western Ave. and River Street. Poor, basically, some working-class. There was actually a middle working-class community up around Concord Ave and Walden Street. Many of them worked in the post office, for the government, for the MTA, they had pretty good lives. But there were very few immigrants. The only immigrants were Portuguese, and they worked in East Cambridge in the shoe factory and the food processing places in East Cambridge. Today in the high school we have multiple languages being spoken. The opportunities are terrific in Cambridge. With the subway extension, they took the debris from the subway and they stored it up at the dump and then the turned the whole dump into a beautiful park, and the subway extension in the '80s really made a dramatic difference in Cambridge and Somerville. Today it’s a terrific city. Excellent tax base. 1960 Kendall Square had been torn down. They were going to situate NASA there, and what happened was, the story goes, after the death of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson said NASA’s going to Houston. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure, but the whole area sat vacant for years, which was a good thing, because they did some very good planning. It’s kind of like the Silicon Valley of the east. 

I've seen the city go from working class, basically working class, to a situation where real estate - because people want to live here and they want to work in Kendall Square in high tech area - real estate has gone through the roof. For the average citizen, owning a single-family home here is beyond their means. A lot of people have moved to the suburbs.

Do you care? A lot of people get very bent out of shape about that, but they didn’t grow up in Cambridge. They moved here.

I think a lot of it has been for the better. I’ve seen the city purposely not go the total gentrification route. The city has built a lot of low-income housing so they could retain working class people. There have been a number of housing projects put in since the war and they’ve maintained low-income housing for people of lesser means, so it hasn’t been an exclusive city although real estate is sky-high. You also have the opportunity if you don’t have the means to live in low-income moderate housing, mixed housing, which is a good thing. This city could be if they didn’t make an effort it could be exclusively upper class, very wealthy. It could look like some of the suburbs, Lincoln or Winchester or so on. The city fathers made an effort to include all socio-economic groups within the city itself. I think they’ve done a pretty good job.