Wednesday, April 27, 2016

1974 (pornography)

1974 was a momentous year in Boston. As I have written elsewhere on my blog, it was the year of busing and all the racial strife that brought. 

It was also the year that the city of Boston began to create the “Combat Zone” on lower Washington Street, the city’s infamous red light district.

I have long been fascinated by the Combat Zone.

As an urban planner, I know adult entertainment is a challenging proposition in any community. Because pornography is First Amendment protected speech, communities cannot ban it outright. Still, Boston in the 1970s did not want seedy strip clubs and massage parlors creeping too close to residential neighborhoods and so created a specific zone for them.

As a lover of history, I know that nothing happens in a city entirely by random chance. There is always a reason and a logic, no matter how obscure, that depends on what came before. The Combat Zone was no exception. The urban renewal efforts of the early 1960s destroyed the old neighborhood of Scollay Square. In replacing it with Government Center, planners displaced all the peep shows and tattoo parlors that had served generations of U.S. servicemen, pushing these activities further out into the neighborhoods. Boston was trying to manage this process by creating the Combat Zone.  

Finally, on a more personal note, I remember the Combat Zone. Visits to Boston in the early 1980s allowed me to see it when it was still in its heyday. It's hard to imagine now, but standing with your back to the Park Street T stop, looking towards Downtown Crossing, you were staring it in the face. As a New York City kid, of course I  looked down on what Boston considered seedy. It didn't compare to Times Square either in size or in scale, and by the gritty standards of the day, it just seemed quaint.

Still, Boston has changed so much in recent times, becoming so much cleaner and wealthier and more built-up, that looking back at the Combat Zone is like looking into an oddly-shaped mirror and seeing how much we have changed in the intervening decades. 

It is my hope, dare I say my intention, to write more about the Combat Zone over the coming months, but as a teaser, I will leave you with this interesting letter I found in the city’s archives. It comes from Mace Menninger, the director of Development Planning and Zoning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and it is dated January 3, 1977. It is addressed to James Schroeder, the director of urban planning at the City of Dallas in response to Mr. Schroeder’s request for information about the zoning efforts that Boston undertook. Its third paragraph ends with this wonderful sentence, “So, until we think of something better, it is the best regulation we have.” Isn’t that always the case.

Paragraph 3 ...

While we consider that Boston’s regulation has been effective and achieved its purpose, the concept of confinement to one area has sometimes been misrepresented to mean that “anything goes” there, and this feature, however erroneous, has been criticized in the press because of a recent much publicized violent incident in the “combat zone”. However, to eliminate the Adult Entertainment Zone as a land use control would have little or no impact in reality on the activities conducted there, whether legal or illegal, and alternatively could do serious harm by allowing their spread to locations closer to residential neighborhoods. So, until we think of something better, it is the best regulation we have.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What the Bolling Building taught me about neighborhoods and youth employment

Buildings can play such important roles in neighborhoods. They can define them spatially and can orient activity that happens around them. They can create the identity of the neighborhood both for neighbors and for visitors.

Few buildings fit this description better than the old Ferdinand's building in the heart of Dudley Square. 

The old Ferdinand's (now called the Bruce C. Bolling) building today
Shaped as a triangle right at the base of Massachusetts Avenue, this old department store formed the retail anchor in a once thriving community.  By the 1970s, however, Dudley Square was in decline as urban centers were losing out to their suburban rivals. By 1987, the neighborhood had even lost its train stop. The Ferdinand's building sat vacant for many years. 

The original Ferdinand's (L) and the boarded up version (R)

As one of the most fitting legacies for the late mayor of Boston Tom Menino, the building finally got redeveloped by the city of Boston, using the wonderful Dutch architect Francine Houben teamed up with local firm Sasaki. Their accomplishment in the newly renamed Bruce C. Bolling Building is spectacular.

Interior: very Dutch, very beautiful

Now home to the Boston School Committee and offices of the city’s School Department, the Bolling Building also houses the Roxbury Innovation Center, whose goal is to spread the innovation culture outside of its confines in Kendall Square and the Seaport District and into neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester so that the word "entrepreneur" doesn't sound so ... French to the young men and women who are growing up there.

Last night, the RIC co-sponsored a panel discussion with the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center entitled “Conversation in Civic Innovation: Enabling Youth Employment”. 

I applaud the folks at RIC and Microsoft for developing these conversations around civic innovation and their focus on equity. Last night’s panel started with Boston-area youth who are participating in the job market, but also who have opinions about how that job-market should be shaped. I was very interested by what I heard, and I offer a few quick take-aways from the panelists:
  • The Boston Public Schools fail miserably to educate their children effectively, particularly children of color, and they fail to provide any kind of effective guidance to kids as they think about their careers and their subsequent lives in the job world.
  • Criminal records have a debilitating effect on employment opportunities for youth, particularly for young men.
  • There is a difference between having a job, and having an interesting job.
Young men and women talk about their futures

The wisdom of these young people led me to my own observations ...
  • During the Q & A portion of the discussion, a young man who worked in youth engagement said that it was crucial for kids in the neighborhood to be aware of the social, societal and environmental hazards that they face, including the impact of the criminal justice system on their lives, the role a failing education system has on their opportunities, the role poor nutrition has on their health. The list goes on, but the bigger point was how important it is for young people to be aware of the social justice issues that they face as they seek to enter the job market.
  • There is a huge gap between what these kids imagine for themselves, and what a middle-class kid images for him or herself at a similar age. As someone said to me after the talk, “you don’t know what you don’t know," meaning that if you’ve never been exposed to veterinary science or linguistics or mechanical engineering or computer coding, you might never be able to imagine that A. you might enjoy something like that; B. you could actually make a career out of something like that. 
  • Soft skills, soft skills, soft skills are as important as hard skills, hard skills, hard skills.
  • Policy people talk a completely different language from the people they are trying to serve. This dissonance is painful to listen to, even if it is entirely predictable, and in some ways inevitable.
As I left the Bolling Building, I couldn’t help but feel that we have a long way to go to close these gaps and address these inequities. Walking the dark, deserted streets of Dudley Square at night, I felt just how far that neighborhood had fallen, and how challenging it will be to knit back together a vibrant community in that wonderful place.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

London, Beautiful London

In 1950, Phaidon published a book of photographs by Helmut Gernsheim entitled Beautiful London. Striking black and white images, 103 of them in all, show a city both grand and quaint. The stillness and the emptiness speak of a time modern but also so remote it’s hard to grasp. None of the ravages of the war appear, nor do the economic hardships of post-war Britain. Instead, big architecture and quiet streets fill the scene, speaking in calm tones of greatness departed. Compared to the bustling abundance of today’s global London, Gernsheim froze in time an empire in decline and what that looked like at home.

The foreward by James Pope-Hennessy explains the city this way:

The largest capital in the world, London is a city which was never planned. It has accumulated. For this reason, and also because its development was chiefly guided by mercantile considerations, London is no longer, at first sight, overtly beautiful. Haphazard and shapeless, it offers few fine vistas and has no kind of symmetry. Its complement boroughs seem self-contained and unrelated to each other, for once behind the ancient boundaries of the City proper and once outside the Government quarter of Westminster and Whitehall, London is nothing but a  mass of rural villages — Kensington, Tottenham, Paddington, Camberwell, Edmonton, Hampstead and so on — engulfed in the tide of two centuries of swift urban expansion. 
I found this book on a book seller’s table in Harvard Square early last Sunday morning. When was the last time you stopped at a book seller’s table? The joys of that alone evoke all the nostalgia of a time gone by. Much like this book.

Here is Gernsheim’s London, two plates 

The National Gallery and St. Martin's-in-the-Fields 
St. George's Church, Hanover Square

Monday, April 18, 2016

Patriots' Day on Cambridge Common, 2016

The annual Patriots' Day celebration on Cambridge Common is one of the great New England traditions. It remembers the night of April 19, 1775 when Paul Revere and his fellow patriot William Dawes rode out from Boston to warn the surrounding towns that the British were indeed coming.

Revere, with some help from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has been firmly etched in our hearts and minds as a national legend, but Dawes, who took all the same risks, never got the same fame. Not so to Cantabrigians. Every year, they assemble on the Cambridge Common to remember this woe-betided man of history and they do so with a wonderful mix of Massachusetts irony along with a genuine appreciation of the momentous events that took place on these grounds over 240 years ago.

Here is a short video of Dawes' arrival from this morning's event, followed by some photos.

The horses arrive ...

And some photos ...

Minutemen (and a biker)

The Mayor speaks

A young participant

Major Dawes talks to mayor

And just for good measure, here are the first two stanzas of Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear 
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive 
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Building a building near Porter Square, Lego style

The old Bob Slate's site at 1971 Massachusetts Avenue, north of Porter Square, is getting redeveloped now.  It is a fascinating construction process, where prefab boxes each about the size of a small trailer are trucked in on the back of 18-wheelers, and then one-by-one lifted by crane into place. This allows the building to go up very very quickly. Since all these plywood boxes "snap together" so neatly, I can't help but think of it like a giant Lego set.

I watched some of this construction on Thursday, and here are photos from that experience ...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sean Effel tells us all about his Corbin Sparrow

Walking through Harvard Square the other day, I noticed an oddly-shaped 3-wheeled vehicle with a lovely purple veneer nosing its way through the rain and thick traffic. Although I couldn’t get close enough to get a great look at it, I did notice “CCTV" emblazoned on its side. Though I didn't know it at the time, the car I spied was a Corbin Sparrow ...

A Corbin Sparrow with its owner Sean Effel

I watched the car work its way north along Massachusetts Avenue and made a mental note to reach out to Susan over at Cambridge Community Television to find out more about this wild vehicle sporting their logo.

"I think I saw a very cool 3-wheel CCTV car driving through Harvard Sq yesterday,” I queried her the following day. "I'd love to take a look at it, take some photos of it. (I have a car obsession these days!)."

Susan responded quickly … "ah, our first bite! Sean owns the car, most days it is in our garage and I am sure that he wouldn't mind pulling it out for you."

Sean is Sean Effel, the associate director of operations over at CCTV, and he was fine with that, 
"Hi, Sam. Swing by and have a look. Call ahead though since sometimes when the weather is bad I choose to leave it at home." So we set up a time on Friday to roll the car out into the parking lot and take a look.

With the advent of the Toyota Prius and the Tesla and the Chevy Volt and Bolt and everything that’s happened with electric cars in the intervening almost two decades since this Corbin Sparrow was built, its shock value (pun not intended) has diminished since it first arrived in 2000. But that doesn't mean this little jelly bean isn't still a head turner. It is.

Sean has conveniently put up a FAQ on the CCTV website, where you can read all about the car. In it, you’ll learn that this 3-wheeler is actually classified as a microcar, but in Massachusetts is registered as a motorcycle. By his best estimation, the all-electric vehicle gets 162 mpg equivalent from the multiple batteries up front under the hood and driver's seat. Here is a video walk-thru that Sean and I made the other day.

Below are photographs of Sean and his very special vehicle. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

First Blush: Cambridge bag ban is working

A quick stop-in at Harvard Bookstore this morning - it was raining and I had some time to kill - led to a brief conversation with the three ladies behind the register area about Cambridge's new plastic bag ban. The bag ban is designed to reduce the distribution of plastic bags for one-time use.

I overhead one of the women tell a funny story of offering up a bag to a customer, noting that they would have to pay for the bag. The customer was fine with this.

"How much does it cost?" the customer queried.
"Ten cents," the clerk responded.

The customer reached in her purse for a dime.

"Well, it's actually 11 cents," responded the clerk.

If you buy a bag, which the city ordinance requires if you did not bring your own bag but would like the store to provide you with one, you will have to pay $0.11 for it. The bag costs $0.10, but don't forget the tax! And, the store is not allowed to have the bag cost $0.09 so that with tax it will cost $0.10.

But how is the ban working? I wanted to know. By their unofficial estimates, and they were just that, nothing more than back-of-the-envelope guesstimates, the bag ban may have already reduced bag consumption by 50 percent!

If that number is even vaguely correct, then this policy, so many years in the making, is a success. The goal is reduction of plastic bags, the vehicle is an added fee as disincentive to waste, and the resulting human behavior is following suit.

It's textbook Econ 101, with a whole lot of other stuff thrown in for good measure. Regardless, the result is a good one.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I have but one purpose in my life

I have but one purpose in my life and that is to exhaust my hound. Nothing else holds meaning.

Job done ... for now

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Blondes get bigger tips

If you decide to become a waitress, you might consider dying your hair blonde. So says researcher Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Management. Professor Lynn has spent the last thirty years trying to understand the very interesting, ubiquitous and slightly bizarre practice of tipping.

Why do you tip the hotel doorman but not the person behind the reception desk? Are smokers better tippers? Is there a tipping paradox - when you run into someone who is supposed to get tipped for their job, like a baggage person at the airport, do you refuse to let them carry your bag and insist on carrying it yourself? 
Do someone’s shoes tell whether or not they’ll be generous with a tip?

Lynn is fascinated by an economic activity so common in the United States and yet completely voluntary. Oh, and tipping accounts for $40 billion in annual spending, which is roughly twice the budget for NASA.

His research has led him to some very interesting observations. Here are some of his findings ...

  • Attractive waitresses get better tips than unattractive waitresses, generally speaking. For men, appearance plays less of a role. 
  • Women tend to give better tips to waiters than to waitresses, whereas men tend to give better tips to waitresses.
  • Blondes get better tips than brunettes or redheads.
  • Large breasted women tend to get better tips than smaller breasted women.
  • Women in their 30s get better tips than either younger or older women.
  • Blacks tend to tip less than whites.
  • Both blacks and whites tip white servers more than they tip black servers. 
  • Actual perception of the dining experience plays only a very small role in the size of the tip.
  • Touching customers tends to increase the tip amount.
  • Bending down at the table also tends to increase the amount of the tip.

Why take my word for it? Just listen to Stephen Dubner and the Freakonomics radio show where I got all this information:

And while you're at it, listen to this Freakonomics story about New York restauranteur Danny Meyer, who is trying to reset the table when it comes to his waitstaff and their pay ...

Sunday, April 3, 2016

What is my life?

My life is the story of my life - i.e., the story I tell about my life. (It is also the story that others tell about my life, but I'll leave that complicating factor for another day.)

Psychology allows me to add subtlety and nuance to my story, and allows me to include parts of the past in ways that otherwise wouldn't make sense. 

Psychotherapy allows me look at the scarier parts of the story without getting too scared by them.