Picture L. A.

Picture the skyline of Los Angeles. How about Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, even Chicago?

You can’t? Oh, well.

Now picture Washington D. C., Seattle, Toronto or New York. You know those skylines, don’t you? There might be a gimmick—Seattle’s Space Needle; Toronto’s CN Tower with the scary glass floor.

Or there might be the building that defines a city, one that cameras capture, one that ensures identity.

I thought about this when I viewed the proposals eight developers submitted for perking up Winthrop Square, the financial district parcel with the crumbling garage.

Take a look. None of these disappointing skyscrapers will become iconic. It is as if the same architect designed them all. Mostly the same material—glass. Mostly the same design—John Hancock clones, but with a protrusion here, a slash there, a bit of color, all bowing to hackneyed architectural trends. Who cares how tall they are? They are all alike and forgettable.

Architects and developers have gotten better at meeting the ground in Boston. But at the top—dullsville. And that’s the place that makes a building go down in history. Look at skylines, peruse the many books about skyscrapers—materials count somewhat. But more than materials is shape.

Ninety percent of the pictures of skyscrapers in tourist pamphlets, movies and books have the same thing—a top, a dramatic, pointy top, stepped back to allow more light to reach the ground as the building rises. Perhaps the same primeval instinct that built obelisks, pyramids, pagodas and church steeples remains if a structure is to become a symbol for a city.

So, Boston real estate developers, if you want to be remembered, give your building a top. Step it back for interest. It will etch you in history. It will make your creation the icon every city needs. It will ensure your legacy. Otherwise you are doomed. A timid slant won’t count. Your building will be indistinguishable from its neighbors, even if it is 60 stories tall.

Then why don’t real estate developers do this?

Blame architectural trends obsessed with new technology, materials and cheap flourishes to cover up that it is just a box. Blame the ease and cost savings when architects can design one floor plate and continue it to 30 stories, 60 stories—heck, make it 100 stories. Too tall? Doesn’t matter. Cut it down. Cheap.

Blame the BRA. Planning director Kairos Shen said last fall that he considers how buildings perform as a group, complimenting adjacent buildings. I guess that means nothing should stand out. In most cities, nothing does, there is no sense of place. Every skyline looks like Hartford. Is this really what Bostonians want?

Blame the financial hit when the floors get narrower as the building rises. The top floors of the Empire State have less rental space than its lower floors.

It’s also a resistance to creativity. Contemporary buildings are only tall boxes, sometimes twisted to show that the architect has knows Frank Gehry. They are clad in predictable materials and dotted with a quirk or two. Not much originality.

The icons that define American cities are different.

New York City’s are familiar. The Empire State and the Chrysler Building are in 99 percent of every skyline picture of NYC. What do they have? Stepped back design. Pointy tops.

The Empire State’s top was designed so dirigibles could tie up and disgorge their passengers. That didn’t work out, but the design lasted anyway. Even “Hog Butcher for the World” boosters ignore Mies van der Rohe’s creations and feature the Chicago Water Tower.

Remarkably, the icons are at least 80 years old. The newer ones, including New York’s One World Trade Center and the entire Sixth Avenue can’t be recalled. (One World Trade Center does have an antenna. Hard to tell how that will play in 100 years.)

In Washington the White House confers a sense of place, as do presidential memorials. But two structures take precedence in pictures. One is the Capitol, with its step-backs and pointy top. The other honors our first president.

Even banal examples define cities. If there is one American city that should never have had skyscrapers, it is San Francisco. I once lived across the bay. When I first laid eyes from the Berkeley Hills on the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought I had experienced art at its finest.

Then I noticed the other work of art, the crowded city on its left with its low white buildings roving over foggy hills. It evoked a sense of place San Francisco lost as high rises rose. But even in San Francisco’s forgettable skyline, one building stands out. The pointy-top TransAmerica building has become that city’s icon, even if it is clunky.

Let’s return to the Boston skyline.

From the south you see a jumble on the right and the one-dimensional weirdness of the John Hancock building.

Approaching from points west, the jumble tumbles into the Atlantic Ocean.

From I-93 north, there is no skyline. The Pru is on the right, then empty space, then the John Hancock. To the left is a tall mass of indistinguishable blobs.

From the harbor, you’re confronted with Harbor Towers and the jumble behind.

Consider pictures of Boston and its icons. What building appears most frequently in tourist-attracting pictures? The Custom House Tower.

Is any skyscraper featured? The State Street Bank buildings? Dewey Square? One Beacon? Sixty State? 33 Arch? Any excitement over the Nashua Street Residences, now under construction?

They are all the new nothings. Big boxes in different clothing. Even my favorite skyscraper, Hugh Stubbin’s Federal Reserve Bank, is barely noticed. No wonder Bostonians don’t like tall buildings.

So here is the lesson for you developers: the buildings you are proposing are unlikely to be remembered or even noticed, except as they block someone’s view. If your creation is to become iconic, history has lessons. Step it back to allow more light to reach the street. Give it a delightful, well-lit pointy top that we can see from afar.

You too can go down in history.

What is best for us, not Tsarnaev

We’ve had the trial even though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers admitted he was guilty on the first day. This trial was important to endure. If we hadn’t had it, the conspiracy theorists would crawl out, accusing the police of cover-ups. The Fox-TV screamers would be concocting stories about how it was all Obama’s fault. The right wing would be clamoring to send the guy to Guantanamo. And the rest of us would have to put up with such idiocy instead of being able to watch Wolf Hall in peace. So I figure the trial was for us, not for Tsarnaev.

The second phase, to which we’ll be subjected to next week, is different. It’s not in our best interest. In America, the accused is supposed to be tried by his peers. This guy doesn’t have any peers. So it was up to the citizenry of Massachusetts to provide a jury. But more than half of us were deemed unqualified because we believed the death penalty to be unproductive, so 17th-century and no deterrent. Sounds like not all the citizenry was valued or deemed equal, but there it is.

We know this guy is one pathetic, despicable humanoid creature. So why can’t we just put him away in some Colorado prison for the worst human beings ever and never see him, read about him or hear about him again?

This stance has nothing to do with the morality or immorality of the death penalty or some people’s desire for revenge. It has to do with the death penalty’s burden on us.      If the jury imposes the death penalty—and few would care if the guy dies—the nation’s justice system will continue to grind, costing taxpayers money. It will take time away from other matters we’d like to be considering, such as the Olympics, police brutality and Iran’s trustworthiness, matters about which we already have enough conflict. There will be hearings and appeals and news stories and television commentary and more drawings.

Moreover, it will keep the spotlight on him. It is impossible to judge the role fame plays with people like this. But one suspects the attention might make him proud of his actions, might validate them. It might affirm that he did what was needed for the religion he claims is his. It might give him pleasure to think he could be a martyr for his cause. Maybe he looks forward to the drama his death by lethal injection would cause. Maybe he looks forward to those virgins, which surely are preferable to imagining a life spent among the occupants of the Colorado prison for the worst human beings ever.

Observers in the courtroom play up Tsarnaev’s demeanor—impassive, unemotional, glazed. They imply or say it means he has no empathy for the father who described what that day was like for his family or the young, injured woman who held her friend’s hand as she died.

That demeanor means nothing. Anyone who has ever criticized someone has seen that kind of demeanor. Anyone who has ever been criticized has probably displayed that immobile face. Does anyone actually expect this Tsarnaev to be remorseful? After all this is a guy who ran over his own brother. He might have been supremely annoyed at that brother, the one who got him into this mess.

If someone did what Tsarnaev did to my child, I’d want to strangle him with my own hands. The rest of my life would be shrouded in a gloom that never went away.

But private feelings are different from civic ones. We are better off if we put him away and never hear from him or about him again. Life is too short and too precious, as we were reminded on that day, to be caught in the mire that he created.

 

Young adults invest in city

This is what older adults think of the newly minted adults—20 to early 30s—living on their block:

They have loud parties. They drink too much. They put their trash out at any old time and don’t bag it properly. They have too many dogs, and they don’t pick up the you-know-what. They don’t care about the neighborhood because they’re here temporarily—only until they get a new job or find a mate and decamp to the burbs when they think about having children.

So who wants such troublesome people living in Boston? Actually, we all do—if they are the kind of young adult who gets accepted to Boston’s ONEin3 Council.

Realizing that the age group between 20 and 34 years old comprised about one-third of Boston’s population, Mayor Menino started ONEin3 as an advisory group in 2004. Those who are accepted to the council meet one another and learn about the city, its many activities for young people, the various neighborhoods and work and family life in those neighborhoods. If they choose later to take a leadership role in the city, they have a leg up in knowledge and experience in negotiating civic affairs. A good example is city Councillor Tito Jackson who is an alumnus of ONEin3.

This year 37 members from 20 Boston neighborhoods started their year’s service about six weeks ago. The city bills ONEin3 as a group that helps Boston be the best place it can be for that age group.

But the participants I spoke to said it was more than that. It expanded their world, introduced them to current and future leaders, and enabled them to make a unique contribution—different from serving on other boards or volunteering at other organizations.

Senam Kumahia, 30, who lives in the Back Bay, applied because he wanted to meet like-minded young people. He works as a consultant connecting real estate companies with suppliers and service businesses owned by women and minorities.

Shea Coakley, also 30, is enthused about ONEin3 because it builds bridges. “It brings together different groups that might not bump into one another,” he said.

Coakley, a Charlestown resident, is an entrepreneur who started LeanBox, a healthy, fresh meal delivery service for smaller companies that don’t provide a cafeteria for their workers.

He said through ONEin3 he has met people in his age group who work in the arts, non-profits and other industries he has not been involved in. He and Kumahia both said they have especially liked the evenings when everyone gathers at a restaurant in a specific neighborhood when ONEin3 residents of that neighborhood explain to the others what it is like to live there. Next month they will gather in West Roxbury.

“It’s not networking,” said Coakley. “It’s community building.”

In addition to the monthly introduction to different neighborhoods, ONEin3 members meet city officials and participate in volunteer projects such as last year’s art installation outside the Boston Public Library in which residents and visitors wrote in up to five words what Boston meant to them. Last year they also invested time in such efforts as collecting 600 warm coats for those who need them.

Coakley is one of four ONEin3 members to participate for the second year to provide extra leadership and continuity for the group.

This is Kumahia’s first year. He said he has been most impressed with the energy in the group and the support members give one another at events and efforts they are involved in. “There is excitement around the program,” he explained. “People are coming up with good ideas, and they’re fired up.”

Although 82 percent of Boston’s young adult population has never been married, both Kumahia and Coakley are. So that brings up the next question: do they intend to stay in the city and raise a family here?

Both men say yes. Coakley pointed out that he and his wife are expecting a baby, and Charlestown is filled with strollers, mother-to-be yoga classes, and schools, so he and his wife feel right at home.

I hope they do stay. I hope all of the ONEin3 Council members stay in the city. We need engaged, civic-minded residents who know one another’s neighborhoods and one another’s industries and professions.

I wish such a council had been in existence when I was in that age group. It would have saved me time and frustration in learning how to negotiate city government and in forming alliances with people in other neighborhoods. The connections among neighborhoods is an antidote to the tribalism that has infected and degraded the city for too long. Menino, to his credit, did not participate in tribal Boston. He recognized that it’s a new world order out there. The ONEin3 Council members are the leaders of that order.

Keep City Hall Plaza

Mayor Walsh has asked for help in re-making City Hall Plaza. He has resorted to Twitter to re-invent, re-imagine, re-envision #CityHallPlaza.

In letters, radio commentary and Twitter, Bostonians have chimed in. Art exhibits, a baseball diamond, a roller rink, Yo-Yo Ma’s music garden idea, trees, an inexplicable suggestion for an “enhanced multimodal hub-ness”—all these ideas are great.

Except none of them will work.

I’d like you to consider a shocking concept: there is nothing wrong with City Hall Plaza itself. It’s the edges that make it fail.

(Full disclosure: I once served on a mayor-appointed panel that heard opinions on what to do about the plaza.)

Let’s concentrate on the plaza’s pluses. Find the bird’s eye view of the plaza soon after it was completed on #CityHallPlaza on Twitter. It’s not bad. The brick looks warm. Granite steps break up the expanse. The fountain is tucked in rather nicely.

The plaza functions well for one purpose—big crowds, whether it’s for a concert or a sports celebration. (Trees, a common suggestion, will get trampled by boisterous fans celebrating the next Red Sox World Series Championship, should that ever occur.)

City Hall Plaza’s architects are said to have envisioned Italy’s great plazas when they laid out theirs. Regrettably, most 1960s architects concentrated on whatever they were designing and forgot the setting their design was in. Copying the great Italian plazas, they noted the empty space, the majestic building at one end, the limestone surface, the activity. They ignored the feature that made those plazas successful—the edges.

Whether in Venice, Sienna or Rome, otherwise cold, windswept plazas are lined with dozens of cafes and restaurants filled with people. Those restaurants open early and close late. If you’ve visited Italy, I’ll bet you’ve crossed those plazas to find a spot to sit, sip a coffee or glass of wine, and watch the activity.

So here’s my recommendation: keep the design of the plaza. Remove that awful concrete and restore the old fountain. Re-lay the bricks. Pull out the weeds that make the granite steps buckle. Care for the trees next to the JFK building and plant the pits with flowers that someone waters. This fix is cheap.

Then rezone the edges. An eyeglass shop or an office supply store has no business being on the Sears Crescent side of the plaza. Neither does a blank back entrance to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. Instead ask the vets to enliven their entrance, perhaps with a café that they run. Persuade Boston’s best restaurateurs to set up shop and spill out onto the plaza. Let them stay open late. But that’s only one edge.

Cambridge Street presents a challenge. A roadway is a disaster for Italian-style plazas. The farmer’s market helped, and food carts or Faneuil Hall-style trinket carts could too, and once many years ago, they occupied space there and were successful.

The last blank edge degrading the plaza is the JFK building. When a hotel was proposed in the 1990s, some objected to privatizing public space. But that use would have succeeded in bringing life to that edge. The feds objected to the hotel, claiming that windows facing the JFK would make it vulnerable to bomb-throwing terrorists. We didn’t yet know airplanes were a bigger threat.

If the feds are scared of having people nearby, they shouldn’t be located next to an active plaza. It is a long shot to persuade JFK’s handlers to invite activity into its ground floor, but it is worth trying. The state successfully did this at the Saltonstall Building across the street.

Meanwhile, activate the plaza with events and all sorts of things. Because of no good edges, it will take an dedicated leader and a lot of programming.

Bostonians should take comfort. We don’t have the worst city hall plaza. Visit Dallas, or go online to view their city hall and its surroundings, brought to them by I. M. Pei, the over-rated architect who laid out our regrettable Government Center.

Dallas City Hall is uglier than ours—hard as that might be to imagine. Roadways surround that plaza, and its surface is concrete.

As to Boston City Hall itself? Plant some ivy. Let it grow up the walls. And call it a day.

 

Do we have any privacy?

The notion of privacy has received much attention recently. I’m still waiting for someone to draw a reasonable line about how far to go in collecting information on the world’s population.

The new handwringing about privacy began when Edward Snowden, the contractor working for the National Security Agency, leaked classified documents to the press about the NSA’s activities.

He entertained us as he fled to Hong Kong, tried to get to Bolivia and finally settled for Russia. Poor guy. And he thinks the U. S. is bad.

His present life has some compensations. Apparently his girlfriend visits him in exile. He has been lauded with a whistleblower prize, a person-of-the-year designation, a teleconferenced speech at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, and films about his activities.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden and his revelations. Mostly I sympathized with the young man’s parents, who raised a smart son with a frustrating tendency to bring trouble on himself—starting with dropping out of both high school and college. I could imagine them saying, “Oh, no, Eddie. What have you done now?”

The privacy conversation continued with the juicy revelation that we were tapping Angela Merkel’s phone. I always assumed the Germans were tapping Obama’s or maybe Kerry’s phone too.

I’ll admit I’m mostly ignorant about spying. My information comes from spy novels. If you like them too, and you haven’t tried the works of Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, in addition to old favorites like John Le Carre, you’re in for a treat. So I have always assumed everyone is spying on everyone else. It’s sort of like the doctrine of mutual assured destruction with the atom bomb. If both sides have it, no one goes too far.

But if I know little about spying, I do know about privacy. It’s not the government I’m afraid of. The government has journalists scrutinizing every move. I’m afraid of private entities, unregulated, unobserved and operating with proprietary tactics. For most people it is irrelevant what NSA does. Electronics have already blown your cover.

It’s Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s the iPhone that knows your location, helpfully (and creepily) displaying the correct time in your new time zone as you step off a plane. Your laptop follows you, showing your location when you go onto Google Maps and tracking your website visits and purchases. I once called Comcast about a problem, and they knew the television program I had been watching.

When you are out and about, it’s not the NSA, it’s all electronics that record your every movement. Cameras watch people in stores, hospitals and at intersections. Other cameras take photos of license plates as cars go through toll booths. Charlie cards record the time we tap through the fare gate. Library cards confirm the books we check out. The airlines know about your vacation plans. Your Visa card reveals a lot about how much money you have to spend.

Then there are the websites devoted only to digging up your dirt. I tried one—InstantCheckmate.com.

It was unnerving. InstantCheckmate charged me $22.86 for one-month access to its data, which it apparently collects from all sorts of websites. It knew my name, age, address and phone numbers. Moreover, it knew all about my husband and our daughters, including their married names and home addresses. I have Facebook and Linked-in accounts, but neither of those pages has much information on them. How did they accumulate so much information about me?

The site promised to show any lawsuits in which I was involved as well as any court appearances I have made or arrests I have had, although some information required more payment. I decided I didn’t get paid enough for this column to spend more money on this website, especially since I knew I had never been arrested. I didn’t look anyone else up. I’m just not that curious about any secrets my friends might want to keep from the world.

I’m certain this is only one website of many providing accurate information that might be none of your business.

I can see how such sites as this are useful. If you don’t trust your daughter’s boyfriend, you can see if there is good reason for your suspicion. If you are hiring people, you’ve got a tool to learn about secrets they do not reveal on their Facebook page. The site asks you to agree not to use the information for hiring and several other purposes, but they don’t care if you do.

I’ve known people, however, for whom such sites could be devastating. A friend suffered from a stalker. Another friend had a sticky divorce, and she did not want her ex-husband to know anything about her life without him. Electronic information could bring danger to such people as this.

I hope we can settle on boundaries for the NSA. At the same time, I hope we can make private companies do their part in keeping our information private.