A different take

Things happen. A story gets told. It gets hardened by conventional wisdom. But you can look at it in a different way.

City boosters are ga-ga over GE. We’ve been told this company is relocating because of Boston’s robust, synergistic economic environment. But there might be another reason. An executive I once interviewed told me to look at corporate moves skeptically. He said when a company relocates it is often because the CEO wants to live in the new location.

Let’s imagine a conversation:

Andrea Immelt: Jeffrey, dear, I can’t take Fairfield a minute longer. It is sooooo boring.

Jeff: I’m sorry you are unhappy. Can’t you go into the city and stay in our flat on East 58th Street?

Andrea: I like it there better, but you’re never there. Besides it takes more than an hour to get between here and there if you take the train, and I don’t like the train.

Jeff: Call the driver. He’ll drive you.

Andrea: With the traffic, that takes even longer. When I’m here in this big house with all this acreage, I am isolated. I want to live somewhere where I’m in touch with life.

Jeff: What do you want me to do? Move the whole company?

Andrea: I was thinking that might be the ticket. A lot of other CEOs have moved to better locations. Besides, a lot of houses are for sale on West Road. Are our neighbors as bored as I am?

Jeff: Okay, honey. Where do you want to go?

Andrea: I was thinking Boston. It’s a lively city, but it’s small and manageable. It’s got interesting architecture. I’m sure I’d be welcome on all sorts of boards. We could live downtown, and when I went for my daily walk, I’d see people. We could get a nice house in that neighborhood called the Back Bay. Once in awhile you could even walk to work.

Jeff: I’ll start the ball rolling. I bet GE’s other executives would prefer to live there too. After all, Jack did. Boston has universities and for sure they’ll give us a good tax deal. It will probably be good for the company.

Andrea: Thank you, Jeffrey. You’re so good to me.

This probably didn’t happen. But my executive’s comment is the first thing I think of when I hear about a corporate move.

 

Let’s next consider the MBTA.

Some of its workers earn more than $100,000.

The public is legitimately concerned about the high rates of absenteeism that force some employees to work overtime. But there is an undercurrent of classism in the talk about the MBTA’s high salaries. It’s too much money, the talk implies.

I’m here to defend the hard-working employees. Why shouldn’t they make the same as a person in a profession with more status? Those guys are doing what politicians say someone should do—working hard, probably longer hours than a financial guru or a lawyer, in less comfort and probably in more danger. They are doing someone else’s job as well as their own. I don’t know what the right amount is, but if they’re working two jobs keeping the trains running for us, they should be well compensated.

 

What can we afford?

Boston, the media has been crowing, is the fifth richest city in America, according to Bloomberg Business. According to recent news reports, “Boston’s $128 billion tax base had $47.5 million in new growth and a 15.6 percent increase in total assessed value” in fiscal 2016.

That’s not all. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked Massachusetts the best performing state in the “new economy,” which should transfer into wealth. Of course, not all Massachusetts communities enjoy the same wealth as Boston. Also, of course, not all Bostonians enjoy wealth equally.

Nevertheless, a large number of the state’s residents have deep resources.

Why then are we cutting city and state education funding? Why are we not building an excellent, far-reaching public transportation system instead of threatening cut-backs? Such cutbacks seem unfair and unfathomable amid such wealth. Aren’t our elected officials embarrassed by crying poor?

If they are, they’re not showing it. We know why we need stellar public services. Good education makes good workers who make prosperous companies. You could call it “trickle up.” A good public transportation system means that residents in all neighborhoods can get to work.

Letting wealthy Boston and Massachusetts residents off the hook in improving our common wealth, as Gov. Baker and House Speaker DeLeo are doing, is disingenuous. At some point, some brave soul is going to have to raise taxes. A first-rate public realm is the tide that lifts all boats.

Getting through

Ah, winter. This is the north, you know. It’s cold and it snows. Some of us like it. A lot of us don’t.

I’m in the like-it category—the coziness, a fire in my fireplace and me with a good book, and the sounds of silence the snow brings.

I’m not the only one who likes winter. I hear from many readers that they like it too. One reader last year sent me photos of mountains of snow that he considered thrilling. I did too.

Those children (and a few adults) who were sliding down the hill on the Boston Common a couple of Sundays ago must like it too.

People who want a bit of calm should find winter welcome. September and October can be hectic with every organization making up for the lack of activity during the summer. The run-up to the holidays, when decorating days, holiday strolls and December parties crowd the calendar, are another hectic time. And April and May can make an active person bedraggled keeping up with the organizations who are all trying to get their missions accomplished before summer hits and everyone is presumed to be going away.

January, February and March, by contrast, are more leisurely. Organizations are not frantic, and there are diversions—the Oscars, for example, and lots of laughs at the news: bizarre presidential candidates, new rattlesnakes on a Quabbin Reservoir island, MBTA follies, and arguments over an old bridge. You can’t make this stuff up.

The people who successfully thrive in winter employ coping strategies. One woman tries to meet as many friends as possible. A Back Bay couple said they go away for a week every January. Another woman enjoys counting the days until the Red Sox roll back into town.

A psychotherapist who has seen countless patients in this northern climate over the years, says she has observed that native New Englanders cope better than those coming from warmer climates. “Folks who cope well are those who were born here and like winter sport,” said Dr. Shari Thurer, who lives on Beacon Hill. She said younger people do better because they aren’t afraid to go outside. Also doing well are people who have a wide social network. “The cold is very isolating,” she noted.

Another successful strategy appears to be those who look for winter’s pleasures. “I learned to embrace winter,” said Diane Valle of Charlestown. “I like to shovel, I like to

make a fire  and I ski. As I get older, I realize how short winter really is and see it as a rest stop before spring.”

Valle, the impetus behind Marathon Daffodils, in which hundreds of people plant bulbs and prepare pots of daffodils that bloom along the Boston Marathon route, is also busy preparing for that April run, so it’s possible she doesn’t have time to wallow in winter darkness.

Ivan Hansen, who lives on Beacon Hill and will turn 80 this March, says winter is a joy for him because it is the season of performances—music concerts, the theater, the ballet. Hansen, who grew up in Minnesota, even colder than Boston, said winter reminds him of the fun of childhood, when snow means play and games. He is proud that except for a recent spell in the hospital, he has been out tromping around in the weather every single day for several years.

Reading by a fire, baking and braising, and listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts gets Francine Crawford of the Back Bay through the winter. This year, however, she’s taken a different tack, one that some New Englanders might find refreshing. She’s headed for a warm clime, but it’s not Florida. She is returning for a short visit to Maui, where her mother was born and raised and she used to visit in the summers. But her plans are not beachy.

She is looking forward to visiting the Baldwin Sugar Museum, a museum of plantation life during the early 20th century. Her grandfather and uncles worked for the sugar company. The museum, she said, has formed a partnership with UMass Dartmouth that will digitize the company’s records and create a searchable website so people can trace their families and employment histories. Since she hasn’t been back to the island since 1968, she expects it will have changed.

Getting through the winter will be exciting for Crawford. For the rest of us, there is still that toasty fire.

Sestercentennial

It is now 2016, only 10 years until America’s 250th birthday. So are we going to celebrate or what?

It’s not only the Declaration of Independence. The 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre takes place in 2020. The Boston Tea Party’s 250th—2023. The battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, 2025.

What are Boston’s civic leaders planning for a celebration? Nothing so far.

What are Philadelphia’s civic leaders planning? They are building the $150 million Museum of the American Revolution, to be completed in spring 2017. Meanwhile they have a web site. The first picture under the tab “A Revolutionary Experience?” The Liberty Tree. In Boston.

This frustrates the small band of local historians and historic site officials who are trying to figure out how to get Massachusetts going on celebrating the “shot heard round the world” and the events leading up to it.

“The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, but everything else happened here,” said Martha J. McNamara, director of the New England Arts & Architecture Program at Wellesley College and a member of the Boston 250 group. She points out that although 2020 marks the Pilgrim’s landing and 2030 marks Boston’s founding, those are local events compared to the founding of a nation.

To those who say why celebrate a 250th birthday, when 200- and 300- year celebrations are more important, McNamara is clear. “None of us will be here for the 300th,” she said.

McNamara and her colleagues have started the ball rolling. They celebrated the 250th anniversary of Boston’s resistance to the Stamp Act at the Liberty Tree on Washington Street last August. They held a forum on the topic at Old North Church in early December. They’ve created a web site, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Now what they need is a Kathy Kane.        Kane was the dynamic, imaginative, effective member of Mayor Kevin White’s team who, among other achievements, made a name for herself as the creator of Summerthing, a wonderful celebration of arts and crafts and activities in every Boston neighborhood. She planned the Boston 200 celebration held in 1976. She raised the money to make it happen. President Gerald Ford came to Boston to light a third lantern in Old North, the third representing the future, said Harron Ellenson, the marketing maven who ran Boston 200 after Kane became White’s Deputy Mayor. After assuring Bostonians there were no hard feelings, the Queen of England showed up.

Part of Kane’s power came from Mayor White’s strong backing. He wanted everyone to participate, said Ellenson. Boston 200 planned a re-enactment of the Tea Party at the Tea Party Ship. When an anti-war group showed up and demanded to put on their own Tea Party, Mayor White said fine. The disabled war veterans then wanted their re-enactment. So we ended up with three Tea Party re-enactments.

Every neighborhood had an exhibit. Corporations paid the bills. Gillette sponsored a 19th-century exhibit in what we then called the Castle. Smoki Bacon ran that one. Sun Life paid for a game on the top floor of Quincy Market, said Ellenson. Players walked through answering questions. At the end, they received a card telling them, based on their answers, whether they would have been a Tory or a patriot. Cambridge Seven architects put on a delightful funny film at the Pru entitled “Where’s Boston?” It’s on YouTube now.

It was a different time in Boston. The city was not an economic powerhouse. It was contending with white flight and controversy over busing. When Ellenson went to the Beacon Hill Civic Association to describe Boston 200 plans, the directors were aghast. Tourists??? On our sidewalks??? Who’d ever heard of such a thing?

Beacon Hill residents now love the tourists and are grateful to them for enhancing the coffers of the small businesses that neighborhood needs to maintain its quality of life. They enjoy the tourists’ appreciation of the brick sidewalks and gas lamps, which they can’t find elsewhere.

But that new attitude shows how Boston 200 changed Boston. For one thing, new maps, designated trails, directional signs on streets and labels on historic properties made it easier for tourists to get around. These changes actually made a tourist industry for Boston, which had not been recognized as an economic engine prior to that time.

Another lasting benefit, said Ellenson, was that the National Park Service got involved. They established the Boston National Historical Park, 43 acres in downtown Boston, Charlestown and South Boston, and the only urban national park in America. The Park Service brought funding that helped sites along the Freedom Trail repair and maintain their facilities.

Boston’s success has never come from baby steps. Filling in the Back Bay, the nation’s first subway, the Big Dig—the city’s success has always been built on big, bold, scary efforts. With the failure of the Olympics, it looked for awhile as if Bostonians lacked confidence, that they were too scared to tackle big projects.

But Bob Allison, history department chair at Suffolk University, points out that the event we would be celebrating, starting a revolution, is probably the boldest step Bostonians have ever taken.

So let’s get going, people. Let’s be bold. Let’s be creative. We must include all. We can even fold affordable housing and better education into it. Let’s make Boston 250 the most fun, important, meaningful and shall we say it—revolutionary— thing we do over the next 10 years.

Up to the job?

January is a good time to visit the World Trade Center site in New York City.

The crowds are smaller than in July. El Niño makes it warm enough for the water to cascade freely over the edges of the two square, black sunken fountains marking the locations of the destroyed towers. Calatrava’s soaring head-house for the PATH train station is nearing completion, so it is easy to recognize its beauty. One wag said it resembles a stegosaurus rather than a bird.

One World Trade Center has happily lost its cloying “Freedom Tower” name. Thin crowds make it quick to get into the multi-media elevator that takes about a minute for its journey. Your ears pop. At the top of the 104-story building, you look out over New York and have lunch looking up the Hudson River. Down on the ground, the 9/11 museum is a moving tribute to that day.

Going through the museum was upsetting. Why weren’t all the visitors sobbing, as I was? But in going through the museum, riding to the top of the skyscraper, and watching construction on the train station the feeling wasn’t sadness. Instead it was admiration—admiration for the competence of the rescuers and for the competence that conceived of these structures, designed them, built them and now host thousands of visitors and workers every day.

Not only are the structures well done, but the museum exhibits are laid out artfully, appropriately, straightforwardly, without any demeaning sentimentality. The competence extended to the original twin towers. The exhibit pointed out that good engineering kept the Hudson out of lower Manhattan on that day. The towers’ engineering was novel in the 1960s and also good, but they weren’t designed to withstand the impact of low-flying jets.

It was clear though. These architects, designers and everyone else who had a hand in building and then rebuilding the site knew what they were doing.

It brought home how important competence is, and how disappointing it is when competence isn’t delivered.

Recent news has shown people coming up short in that arena. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his cohorts failed to get clean water to Flint, Michigan residents because they wanted to save money, and then they ignored residents’ complaints. It is especially rich that Snyder had to call in the Feds, his hated group, to save them. I doubt if he intended to hurt people. He just wasn’t up to the task.

Neither is the Chicago police force. The Boston Globe’s delivery service. Or most of the presidential candidates. Or Gov. Nikki Haley in her State of the Union response. She claimed, “If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families.” Poor lady. She didn’t read the tax plans her party’s candidates actually proposed.

The MBTA is an example of an important service strangled for years by incompetence, including a sorry legislature that saddled it with debt.

Obamacare suffered from incompetence too. If you were Kathleen Sibelius, Health and Human Services Secretary at the time, wouldn’t you have made sure the website worked? We finally got the legislation that ended insurance industry abuses and gave hope to millions that they could be covered, but the incompetence of the people who rolled it out made a good law suspect and harder for people to support.

The Obamacare website wasn’t the only troubled one. Massachusetts’ site had problems. Many websites do. How many times have you followed instructions to click on a button in the upper right hand corner of a site to find it isn’t there?

Then there was Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA at 9/11. She assured people that the silty, grimy air around Ground Zero posed no threat. Perhaps her opinion was framed by ideology or malevolence. Nah, she just didn’t know what she was talking about.

As I found in New York City, recognizing competence brings a feeling of hope. You experience it when you step onto the deep old Piccadilly Line in London’s Underground. The trains go up to 60 miles an hour. They are clean and bright, as are the stations. The escalators work.

You recognize competence when you attend a concert of the Boston Symphony, or see the The Big Short or when you drive many cars these days. Their performance and reliability are much greater than they were 20 years ago. We’re all hoping Charlie Baker has the competence his reputation suggests.

The ride back to Boston on Amtrak was also a display of competence. The train arrived on time at Penn Station and at South Station, despite outdated equipment and being ignored by Congress. Those who ran the train did so nicely with easy starts and stops.

Then we got to South Station, which isn’t a station at all, but only a terminal. We rolled our bags along the platform and found the escalator down to the Red Line. One escalator, just fine.

But at the next level, NO escalator, only a wide staircase. What dingbat leaves out an escalator where people are pulling large suitcases? No elevator was in sight. I watched passengers struggle down the stairs with their baggage to get to the Red Line platform.

So much for competence.

Is traffic bad?

Millennium will soon finish its tower, and new people will move in. Avalon Bay’s residential tower adjacent to the Tip O’Neil building has topped off. A hotel and residential building is rising on Dalton Street in the Back Bay. 888 Boylston is going up too. Eight million square feet of construction is slated for the North Station area. Then there is Winthrop Square and the Seaport District build-out. The equivalent of 14 Prudential towers is under construction right now in Boston.

You get the picture. More people. More cars. More traffic congestion. At every public meeting held about new building projects the new traffic they will bring is the biggest complaint.

I get it. No one likes to sit in traffic. But I’m baffled. Why would anyone who lives downtown care a fig about traffic? We should know better than to get into our cars, even if we own one. A more important question—is traffic congestion bad?

Not so much, say observers. It’s the sign of a good economy. Traffic tells you people want to be there. It’s good for small , local businesses like those along Hanover or Charles streets. Since residents depend on those businesses for goods and services, traffic actually improves downtown residents’ lives.

According to researcher Matthias Sweet of Ontario’s McMaster University, local traffic congestion is an economic stimulant. On regional routes—think I-95—it is an economic drag. (Read all about it in the Journal of Transport Geography.)

I’m not concerned about I-95 (128 to old-timers.) It’s the downtown crush that raises downtown residents’ ire. Even if it is sign of good times, is anything being done about it?

Yes. Sort of. Mayor Walsh has set in motion Go Boston 2030, now in its second year. Led by state Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents Dorchester, JP and Mattapan, and Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, and also a former Boston Transportation Commissioner, this effort is intended to engage Bostonians in identifying transportation problems and solutions. The result will be a master plan to guide transportation decisions. Its purpose is not to prevent traffic jams as much as it is to make streets safer and travel times predictable so people can plan, said Dimino.

Because of 2030, the city is already doing quick fixes, said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. Better signs, technology to reduce the number of cars looking for a parking space, ticketing drivers who block the box—those incremental improvements do help.

But I’m here to tell you, angry traffic haters, that you’re fighting a losing battle. No one wants the kind of traffic that signifies a bad economy or an undesirable city. “The transportation system is responsive to economic conditions,” Dimino pointed out.

And the traffic that hotel or office and residential tower near you will bring is just a drop in the bucket. Osgood said 17 million square feet is still available to be built at North Point, Allston Brighton, Roxbury Crossing. Again, you get the idea—as long as the good economy lasts, the problem isn’t going away.

We’re not going to widen streets and roads. For one thing, there’s no space. And if you build it, they will come. “The reality is that we will always have congestion because every time we add traffic capacity, it gets filled up,” said transportation engineer David Black of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin. He said the most effective way to reduce traffic is to reduce parking. If you can’t park, you won’t drive in.

Black also said that the trend toward mixed-use developments is an antidote. The Ink Block with a Whole Foods is an example. “People living there can shop without having to use a car,” he said. Building work and living spaces together also helps traffic. He pointed out that managing traffic requires many simultaneous solutions.

There is, however, the elephant in the room. The experts I interviewed all said it. It’s money.

“We need to invest,” said Dimino. He’s talking MBTA bus lines, subways and commuter rail. With only fixes and no major investment, Boston’s economy will slow down. “My hope is that the governor and the legislature will see the economic cost of only plugging holes in the ship is too significant,” he said.

“We can’t think about a mobility plan for the city without considering how the MBTA plugs into that,” said Osgood.

The problem is “underfunding of transit and non-auto mobility,” said Black.

Funding looks bleak, however. The cost of a ride will go up, but the extra funds raised are insignificant compared to the need. And even in this good economy when many Massachusetts taxpayers are taking home more dollars than they’ve ever seen before, House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently announced that no new taxes or fees will be imposed in 2016. Maybe he plans for the MBTA to win the next Powerball jackpot as the key to maintenance and expansion.

So for now, downtown folks, stay out of your car. Take the subway when you can, but don’t expect much improvement until some elected official is brave enough to confront the money end. You’ll see more and more traffic. The only solution is to be grateful for a good economy and walk.