Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Meet John Doe in today's election

I didn't have a line at my local polling place this morning. The voting was easy, organized and painless. Hard to imagine who I might have voted for, but I'll give you a hint. His name was Joe Biden.

The other evening, ambling on YouTube as I often do, I ran into the film Meet John Doe, a 1941 Frank Capra gem of Americana starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. 

She's a wild, wise-talking journalist who upon getting fired from her newspaper pens one last column creating a character so distraught at the neglect of the little people, he's going to kill himself on Christmas Eve by jumping off of City Hall. His name is John Doe. It turns out, her story has struck a nerve. John Doe is popular, and newspapers are selling.  So her paper decides to keep her around and get a real John Doe to play the role. In walks Gary Cooper.

In the ensuing twists and turns, themes emerge -- the admiration of the little guy, the miseries of Depression-era men, the rapacious newspaper owner looking to turn a feel good story into political power, corruption in all its guises. And watching it, it didn't feel very far from today. Especially the love of the little guy, the downtrodden, forgotten soldier of decency in the American system. Get to know your neighbor, what's so hard about that?

As if to heighten the point, Capra culminates the film with a scene redolent with Christian crucifixion imagery. Determined to actually kill himself after he learns that he's been a pawn in a much larger scheme by newspaper owner Edward Arnold to take over the American political system, Cooper climbs City Hall tower on Christmas Eve. His persecutors and his supporters deduce that he may try to jump, so they climb the tower to meet him there. Stanwyck climbs the tower too, and in the snowy drifts of a cold night, she talks him down. John Doe does not have to die so that others might live.

Meet John Doe, thematically reminiscent of today.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Remembering Roz Springer

Roz Springer was a force of nature. Her laugh collapsed buildings and walls and her endless inquisitiveness made her a Socratic discussant. She was a Buddhist. She was beautiful and wore her hair up almost always. I can't remember not seeing it that way. 

Roz died this morning. 

I lost touch with her a few years ago. Hadn't seen her and couldn't find her. I worried what had happened to her. Asking around, I didn't find out much. 

Then finally I tracked her down through a friend a few months ago, only to find out she was in the final stages of her life. Thankfully, I got to spend some time with her this week and that meant that we caught up on things. What a gift.

Roz was from the Bronx, NY. That much I knew. As a young child, she lived on the Grand Concourse there. A relative (father, uncle, aunt?) owned an apartment building there. That much I think I knew. She lived in Cambridge at least 30 years. That much I think I knew. She told me once that she had a house and a life, and then she got an illness and had a house fire, and poof, like that, her life went up in smoke. That much I think I knew.

For the whole time I knew her, she lived in public housing here in Cambridge, at Newtowne Court. She was a tenant organizer there. I think I know that. She had a longstanding affiliation with the Margaret Fuller House.

Roz had a great idea for a book. Maybe it was just a book title. I tried from time to time to prompt her to write it. She would have called it The Poor Business and it would have been about all the ways in which the multibillion dollar human service industry -- including public housing and Social Security and all the different apparatuses of the state to help the poor -- are deeply entrenched systems that require poor people to continue to exist so that the system can continue to exist. Her point was that it all is so dehumanizing, to have to beg for housing, or income or healthcare. 

Roz was a force of a nature. She was loved. And she is missed. Already.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

Always a harbinger of warmer weather and birds and bees and flowers and trees, Shakespeare's birthday also prompts the thought, what sense would the great playwright make of today?

Here's but a brief quote from Julius Caesar [II.i.] about power ... to whet the reader's appetite and wish the Bard a Happy Birthday,

Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Earth is 50 years old today. At least the Day.

It's been 50 years since the first Earth Day. We should pause to reflect and pause to learn in these most wicked of times.

A virus ravages our globe. Our urban centers are fully stressed, and it seems only a matter of time before our rural ones are too. The virus has put a stop to most human economic activity.

And yet, or because of, carbon in the atmosphere has fallen dramatically. The skies above some of the worlds smoggiest cities have cleared. The air even tastes better. Animals roam streets that belonged only to humans weeks ago.

What if there was no more, "business as usual." What if the usual became very unusual indeed?

We sit at that moment. We should figure out how to derive the good from this bad. To see our systems for what they truly are, a mixed bag of benefits and impacts.

Generalities only go so far. Specifics will be needed. For the moment though, let's remember the earth. She is bigger and more complex than us. Was. Is. Will be.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Angus McQuilken talks economic recovery in the 6th District

Angus McQuilken -- a health care executive and a friend of mine -- is challenging Seth Moulton in this fall's Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District in Massachusetts. Last week, I talked with Angus via Zoom about his ideas for economic recovery in the district once we make it through the Covid era. 

Here is our conversation:

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

There is nothing inevitable about New York

I have this phrase floating in my head and I'm not sure why. It doesn't really make any sense and yet I keep repeating it. I keep saying, there is nothing inevitable about New York.

I don't mean that there is nothing inevitable about COVID-19 having the destructive effect it is having in NYC right now. That's not what I mean.

What I mean is, there is nothing inevitable about the city itself.

Take this image. It's a classic view of Manhattan island, taken from the air out in New York Harbor. The year is 1933. Look at all the piers traveling up the West Side, where goods, cargo and passengers all disembarked. Notice the rectangle in the middle of the island, the living lung of New York, Central Park. Though the shape of Manhattan is deeply ingrained in our minds, nothing in this image was preordained, no matter how familiar it is to us.

Some might say, "Incorrect! Geology along with geography account for it all." That as soon as the trading Dutch arrived in the New World, this argument would go, the island's destiny was determined. A deep water port, a navigable river with access inland, broad channels and plenty of shore. Perhaps. Salem, Massachusetts was a gem 200 years ago too.

The photograph, romantic in its black-and-white perspective, is emblazoned on most Americans. The history is so rich, the cultural lore so ever-pervasive. New York has always been this way. But nothing that made it so.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

At 8pm in my neighborhood, we salute

Every evening at 8pm, my neighbors and I go out on our porches, front steps, onto the sidewalk, to clap for frontline workers in this global pandemic. We clap our hands. We hoot. Someone has brought out a harmonica. Next, I'm certain someone will bring a drum.

Mostly, we are thinking of those who go to work in a hospital every day: The doctors and the nurses and the orderlies and the food service people and the cleaning crews, the security guards and the EMTs and the maintenance people. But it doesn't just stop with the health care profession. Of course we think of the police and fire as well. But what about the garbage collectors, and the mail man and the Amazon delivery drivers, and all the public transit employees? And what about all the people, young and old, who work in grocery stores every day, stocking the shelves and especially the cashiers? They are truly on the front line. Risking their lives.

The ritual first started in Italy I believe, as they became inundated with dead and sick, they thought it important to say thank you.

Someone down the street from me in Cambridge picked up the tradition, emailed some friends and instigated it among us. 8pm. Sharp. Outside. To clap. To say thank you.

It's nice. Some might say it's trite or misses the point. For one, I'm not sure any front line workers live near enough to hear us.

But in some ways that's not the point either. The days are long, and sometimes lonely. The internet helps, but only in the way that a mediated communication helps -- screens are good but not quite the same. There's nothing like being in a room with another person, and now, that's no longer possible.

The clapping in the end may be as much for us as for anyone else. It may be our little moment of solidarity, to say to ourselves, we will get through this, somehow, with our dignity and our humanity intact. Our communities not destroyed. Our sense of purpose reexamined but still undimmed. Perhaps its our way of saying to each other, we're still here. Don't worry, we're still here.

Anyway, if you've got a neighborhood that might support something like this, I recommend it. It's oddly confirming in a time when so much of our assumptions of safety are being torn apart.

I was even thinking of putting a little blue light in my window, as a way of saying, here's a light of recognition.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A simple way to help during COVID19

I was talking with a friend this morning, and we were bemoaning the self-isolation imposed on us all by COVID19, and regretting that there weren't easier ways to help out. For many people, we acknowledged, the best therapy is to go outside and help someone else. That's not possible now. Still, we came up with this idea. I'm sure it's in operation elsewhere, but I'm not aware of it here. It's simple, it's meaningful, and it fosters a connection between both the giver and the receiver. It goes like this ...


What if we started organizing "virtual check ins" for:
  • Seniors -- to check on their health, to check on their needs (food, etc.) and to provide some companionship during this lonely time of isolation. 
  • Young parents -- to check on school/home/life/work balance and offer the opportunity to chat.
  • In addition, we find a licensed therapist/social worker who would be available to talk to a parent/resident/elderly person on an appointment basis, to discuss issues like stress, anxiety or other worries they may have.
It's a perfect opportunity for someone to be a volunteer, and it will be meaningful for the people being called. It makes connections and combats some of the isolation, and, best of all, it's all virtual -- there is no danger of spreading COVID. (It could be a phone call or a video chat.)

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Viral Paradox

We are faced with the viral paradox. It's a public health scourge, both terrifying and deadly. And yet its capacity to teach us much is huge, even as the death toll mounts.

In health and public health. In leadership and political expediency. In organization management and supply chain vulnerabilities. In employment economics and the list goes on. On these, I have little to no knowledge.

But on the urban front, I have an inkling of an idea: the corona virus is allowing us to run the urban planning experiment no one thought possible. What if we shut down an entire city for a day? For a week? For a month?

That question is being asked here in this country and around the globe. What can we learn from this?

Quite a lot, I suspect.

As always, when in doubt, begin with a list.
  • Air pollution/Greenhouse gas emissions. They are greatly reduced worldwide. What can we learn from this? 
  • Transportation. Single car occupancy is again the rule and public transit suffers, but roads are emptier at all times of day and travel times reduced.
  • Working from home. Everybody's doing it. By force. Is it working? Who knows. The distractions are greater, but the focused times are probably more focused. What lessons are employers learning from this?
  • Internet bandwidth.  The virus is causing a huge strain on internet bandwidth. Europe asked Netflix to stop streaming in HD, to relieve some of the. pressure. What is our capacity?
  • Digital divide. If you have access to the internet, you can continue to go to school. If you don't you can't.
  • Distance learning. This is a BIG ONE for the Boston area. With so many colleges and universities, what does it mean to go to the virtual campus? How does an MIT differentiate itself from a Bunker Hill Community College if all classes are available to all people online?
  • Density. Is density our friend or our enemy?
And that is where I begin. And end this blog post. 

Over time, this space will look at each of these areas with greater depth.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The unimaginable (re)visits us ... again

As to its size and scale, the corona virus experience mimics 9/11. The notable phrase from 2001 was, if you'd written it as a Hollywood screenplay, it would have been rejected as too outlandish, too preposterous.

Covid-19 gives off that same general vibe. Imagine this plot: a strange new virus emerges in the Far East, and makes its way to America via a trans-Pacific air carrier. It starts to infect and then kill people here. We don't understand it, but we see it spreads quickly. We self-quarantine. We are told "don't go out." The economy starts to shut down and governors begin to ban interstate travel. Meanwhile the president dithers ineffectually in Washington as the situation grows more dire with each news cycle. People are left on their own as doctors struggle to care for the rising wave of new arrivals at the emergency room door.

I mean, that wouldn't, couldn't happen here. We would never run out of essential goods. It's too preposterous a script. Thank the screen writers, and express our gratitude, but tell them it's being rejected as too unrealistic.

And tell them, we'd never have to ask China for help to solve this problem.

And yet here we are. Those who sought this outcome should rejoice. We have arrived.

America is clearly no longer the indispensable nation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

And in other news, Tom Brady leaves on the midnight bus

It occurred to me this morning that Tom Brady, the New England Patriots star quarterback over these past two decades, picked the perfect time to slip out of town. Whether this was by choice or by chance (it was by chance, to be sure), he couldn't have found a more opportune time to exit out the back door while people were looking elsewhere. It's fair to say that most Boston people will be focused on other things over the next six months.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Visual City photos

I have finally started loading up some of my photographs on my website, visualcity.net.