Dear Readers,

U.S. Representative Niki Tsongas is retiring. Harvard President Drew Faust and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also are doing so. I’m following their lead. I’m retiring. This is the last Downtown View column I will write.
I’ve enjoyed creating them. I’ve enjoyed interviewing the people who participate in Boston matters. I’ve enjoyed visiting such places as the Commonwealth Kitchen to which I probably would never have gone if I hadn’t had to find something to write about.
It’s been a privilege to write about this city that I’ve lived in for half a century. It has its problems, but I’ve also observed kindness and a true urge to make things better. Sometimes I wish our local leaders were bolder, more visionary. But I trust their goodwill, honesty and managerial talents. Sometime soon I hope to be able to say that about our national officials.
I have enjoyed your comments about those columns. I’ve even enjoyed the comments that call me stupid, delusional and dreadful. Comments, letters to the editor and such usually say more about the person who is writing them than they do about the article or column that triggered the response. I also have enjoyed how the first comments in all articles, not just mine, address the content but then devolve into commenters calling one another names.
But I’ve been meeting weekly deadlines without fail either as an editorial writer or a columnist for more than 20 years except for a few months when I recovered from two rotator cuff surgeries. I’m ready to do something else.
What that will be I’ve not yet determined. I’m going to do nothing for awhile to collect my thoughts.
One thought is that I will become civilly disobedient. I might even get arrested. There are certainly enough dreadful things going on in this country to find it easy to protest. As a woman of a certain age, I find I’m not afraid of much. I’ve got some friends who might join me.
Another possibility is to spend more time with those friends. It was hard, with a demanding job, to escape to sit with my dying friend 14 years ago during her chemotherapy infusions. I traded with other friends and managed to go for several of them. Now, I will go with friends any time they need me. I’ll throw lunch parties. I’ll help friends arrange their bookshelves. I actually might re-arrange my own bookshelves.
I probably will spend about the same amount of time with my family, since we spend much time together anyway. This past summer, my husband and I decided we might as well move to South Station since we were there so much, picking up one child from the Dartmouth Coach, putting her back on it, collecting three teenage boys from the Acela from New York City, meeting one teenage girl coming from Maine, and ferrying those kids on to their next destination after feeding them well.
I’ll take more walks. I used to meet friends at 6 a.m. at the Taj. We’d walk down Newbury Street and back along the river. Then my friends stopped working. They didn’t want to get up early any more. I still needed to be at the newspaper at 9 a.m. so we fell out of that habit. Now I, like them, can meet at 10 a.m. for a nice, long stroll.
I might write a book. Often, in jest I guess, I have threatened that when I quit newspapering I would write a novel entitled, “Love and Sex on Beacon Hill.” My grandchildren, embarrassed though they are by the title, voted last Thanksgiving that I should stop this column and write that book.
I’m no fiction writer. I can tell other people’s stories but I can’t easily make up my own. I might, however, give it a shot and see what happens. If I could spend a month in Italy at the Bellagio Center’s arts and literary arts program, I’d give it an even better shot. That is unlikely, since those chosen by the Bellagio Center are mostly more accomplished and promising than I. But what the heck. Give it a try.
If I write that book, I say: you are all going to be in it. Even if you live in Charlestown, the Waterfront, the North End, Back Bay, Downtown or the West End, you won’t get off scot-free. You’ll be in it since the story will really be about downtown Boston. I’ll just change all the names and let you guess about who I’m writing about.
These are lots of “ifs.” I’ve not been in this position before. It’s an adventure. But if Niki Tsongas can do it, so can I.


Books for reading and giving away

Sometimes I read recent books by Boston authors and describe them in this column. The following three books fit the Boston criteria, but vary widely in their subject matter. One of them might be just what you are looking for either for yourself or a holiday gift.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt

Ms. Holt, a resident of Roslindale, has done a prodigious amount of research for this book about formerly obscure women, talented in mathematics, who worked together in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California beginning in the 1940s.
She tells how they grew as a team, working under the guidance of an older woman who earned their loyalty. Calculating over and over to make sure they were accurate, they first worked on paper, then on huge, early IBM computers and finally on individual PCs.
We read about Wernher von Braun’s visits. Von Braun, as you know, was a premier rocket scientist in Germany during World War II, but was welcomed to the U.S. afterward to move American rocket science forward. Hmmmm. That’s what the rocket girls also thought—hmmm.
The author revisits the milestones of rocket history, Sputnik, the fire that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee and Ed White on the launch pad, moon landings, the explorations of Mars and deep space.
Naturally, being women, the rocket girls’ domestic lives influenced their success. Those whose husbands shared the burdens of maintaining a household and raising children had greater success than the women whose husbands were non-participants. The latter typically divorced.
Holt has a good story to tell and she tells it well. My only problem was keeping the characters straight because there are so many of them.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. After all, it is rocket science, and we can all enjoy the women’s story.

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

There is so much to like about this book. It takes place in Boston in the 1950s. You’ll recognize where the locations of the action. It’s got the tribes of Boston doing what the tribes do, but it is not as cliché-ridden as, let’s say, Ben Affleck’s movies. A bonus is that the book is filled with 1950s photographs, adding to the sense of time and place.
The sentences are good. This team knows how to write. For example, “She chopped some parsley, filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove top, then opened the fridge, peering in, but, as if she had forgotten what she was looking for, closed the door and shuffled back over to the stove and turned on the gas to boil the water.” That long sentence, filled with prosaic detail, hints at the character’s intention to put up with her situation.
But I could not finish the book. I realized that reviewers rarely divulge their biases or preferences. But I will: I can take only so much violence, sadism and mayhem. This book was too much for me.
The story ends on a high note, or as high as these characters can get. I know because I read the last pages.
If you can stomach such characteristics then you won’t be disappointed by the book’s pace, story telling or interesting characters. So it’s up to you, as it always is.

Make Way for Nancy by Nancy Schön

The sculptor who fashioned Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings for the Boston Public Garden does a fine job of telling her story and that of her creations, even though she warns readers that she is a sculptor, not a writer. She also tells the story of public art, its squabbles, its setbacks and successes and the difficulties of getting funding.
While she’s most famous in Boston for the ducklings, you’ll learn she has created bronze prairie dogs, bears, dragons, owls and pussycats, giraffes and Greek goddesses for display in the U.S. as well as in Moscow, where the only copy of the ducklings statues stands.
She fashioned the ducklings as close to the original drawings as possible. But her other animals are often pared-down versions that project movement and intention. An example is the dynamic Tortoise and the Hare pairing in Copley Square. How can she get bronze to look so lively? We learn how the project moved in fits and starts and how long it took to install it, finally in 1995 near the Boston Marathon finish line. Before that these heavy pieces made a trip to Washington and back, as well as taking a trip to Symphony Hall.
We learn how Schön creates her pieces, starting with a skeleton of plumbing pipes and ending with the finishing after the foundry casts them. She includes a bit of Boston history, a lot about art and, best of all, some insight into the life of a determined, talented, happy woman. We can use a bit of happiness in this world.
One complaint—the book’s layout and quality are not up to the typical standards of the publisher, David Godine. The pages, filled with awkward spacing and widows and orphans, look as if the book designer flowed the text without checking the result. The photos are interesting, but look as if no one took the time to Photoshop them. Strange.

What makes good public art?

You know it when you see it.
For Lucas Cowan, public art curator for the Greenway, it is the bean, or, more formally, “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
For Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston, it is the 1971 Corita Kent painting on the big gas storage tank in Dorchester, so visible from the Southeast Expressway. She sees it as perfect for the site, but being youngish and not living in Boston during the Viet Nam war, she doesn’t see the same Ho Chi Minh profile I do. I see Ho Chi Minh so prominently that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that the gas tank painting supposedly has a name—Rainbow Swash.
For Todd Lee, FAIA, former head of Boston Society of Architects Urban Design Committee and president of LIGHT Boston, it is Edgar Allan Poe’s statue, complete with raven and telltale heart, at the corner of South Charles and Boylston streets.
For most people good public art is also probably Maya Lin’s Viet Nam memorial, Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Boston Public Garden that entice children, their parents and seasonal hats, and the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s sitting statue hosts marches and demonstrations. It wept at John Kennedy’s assassination and, in a recent cartoon took a knee in front of Donald Trump in support of the NFL players who protested the sorry treatment of African American men and women. It follows Burros’ rule for being site specific. Positioned at the opposite side of the mall from the Capitol it is as if Lincoln is challenging that building’s occupants to remember that they serve America, not themselves.
For everyone I interviewed it was also Janet Echelman’s 2015 colorful woven sculpture magically billowing above the Greenway.
It seems a good time to consider public art since the Esplanade Association has installed its first piece of public art—a new mural along the bike path, and there have been murmurs of a memorial to Martin Luther King.
Cowan, who pointed out that the Greenway mostly hosts temporary art, said he looks for art that enlivens spaces, that helps onlookers experience an environment in a new way, as Echelman’s tapestry did. “It transforms space in a way you never understood,” he said. “It should be strong, something that stops you in your tracks.”
Visual artist Ann Forbush of Watertown agrees. “Good public art is arresting,” she said. “It makes you pause to ponder both the formal qualities and the conceptual aspects of the piece.”
She also mentioned that it should be indestructible.
Lee was interested in art that amuses. The Poe statue does that for him, and he said Harbor Fog on the Greenway is another piece that surprises you if you’re sitting near it eating a sandwich and it suddenly starts to puff out mist. Cohen said Harbor Fog was successful also because it spoke to the history of the Wharf District.
Art that invites interaction is another desirable characteristic. That is, of course, one of the attractions of Nancy Schön’s animal sculptures, but it can also take place in more formal settings. Lee pointed out that the Appeal to the Great Spirit, the statue that depicts a Native American astride a horse, sometimes gets adorned with a Patriots’ jersey.
I wonder if some people see that as disrespectful. I see it as embracing, but everyone is hyper-alert these days to every metaphor.
Holocaust memorials are typically not site-specific unless they are in Germany. But the one in Boston is beautiful and moving, so maybe that makes up for having no connection to the site. Mayor White’s statue seems right in its space. It’s big. He’s caught in mid-stride, looking at City Hall. It can’t get more site-appropriate than that.
The statues in the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall run a gamut of a product of their era, okay, and pretty good, said my informers.
What most can agree on are the pieces of public art that don’t work. Remember the Polish horsemen who appeared on the Common, causing bewilderment? Apparently they found an obscure resting place in South Boston.
Burros remembered Richard Serra’s 1981 Tilted Arc in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan as an example of noticeable failure. It blocked views, interrupted walking paths, was declared ugly and eventually removed.
At least two others in Boston attract scorn and need to find a resting place out of sight. The fallen fire fighters who stand behind the State House and the Irish famine statue on Washington Street seem more suited to comic strips than to memorials and should be replaced by something better. They are too literal, said Lee, and something more abstract might work better. But then there are the ducklings, literally copied from a children’s book. So it depends.
Meanwhile, Lee reminded us that public art is more than statues. He points to the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Now that is a wonderful piece of public art.

What happens to the millionaires?

The constitutional amendment that imposes a “millionaires’ tax” will likely be on our ballots in November, 2018, along with the candidates for governor and Congress.
You probably already know that this amendment would levy an additional tax on any person or couple who makes more than a million dollars in a year. We all pay a federal income tax, which varies depending on many factors. We also pay the state 5.1 percent of our income, no matter whether we make $50,000 or $500,000. We cannot claim many deductions on our state income tax, as we can when filing our federal taxes.
If this amendment passes, in the year 2019 anyone making more than one million dollars would pay an additional 4 percent on the amount that exceeds one million.
Supporters estimate the new tax would affect about 20,000 people and predict that the additional revenue would reach about $2.2 billion—all to be used for education and transportation.
Those who support the measure say that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” Those who oppose the measure say it would hurt the state’s business climate and cause the wealthiest among us to move to another state. While Gov. Charlie Baker says he’s against more taxes in general, I bet he’s secretly hoping this amendment will pass, giving him some wiggle room in a budget that never seems to be enough.
While I understand the basics about this amendment, I’ve never seen an example of how an actual family would be affected by it. So I’ve created one.
Joe and Sally are in their forties and work in real estate development and finance. Together they will make $2 million in state taxable income for the year 2019. They live in a nice but not lavish house, and they have no mortgage. Their second house in Maine also has no mortgage. Their kids are in private school, since I’ve placed them downtown, and they decided to forego the uncertain public school process. Those kids are expected to be responsible, do well in school and not give their parents grief with drugs or any other problems.
Since they live downtown and don’t want the hassle, they have only one car, again nice, fully paid for, and Joe has a driver he can call on when he needs to get around. They have health care through their work, and they don’t worry much about spending, but they are not profligate. Their kids will be loan-free in college and throughout graduate, medical or law school, should they choose to go.
I’m thinking they might be typical for people in their income bracket, since not every rich person desires expensive jewelry, aspirational handbags and gold-plated fixtures, especially in New England. I’m thinking they are responsible people who want to pay their fair share. Of course, fair is subjective.
So how would this amendment, if passed, affect them? They would still pay Massachusetts 5.1 percent on their $2 million income or $102,000. In addition, they would pay an extra 4 percent, or $40,000, on the million dollars more than the first million.
How much will they notice forking over an extra $40,000? Will it reduce their standard of living? Will it cause them pain? Will it prompt them to move to New Hampshire and commute long distances or change jobs? Will it hurt Joe’s real estate development plans or Sally’s finance business? Will it seem worth it since they may get better T service downtown and better roads and their businesses could prosper more since their future employees, Massachusetts kids, could be better educated because of the extra resources for education that this bill promises to provide.
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I imagine paying an extra 4 percent on incomes over a million will play out differently for each family, depending on their outlook on life. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Bring back the draft

As you could probably surmise by my name, I’m pretty white. One time at a political convention in Worcester, a man who must have considered himself ethnic compared to me, called me derisively, Karen Lord Taylor. I thought he was pathetic. After all, we were in the same political party, and most of us we were way beyond that.
But with white supremacy types whipping themselves up into a frenzy, thinking they will face few consequences, I wondered why some white people feel they need to be supreme and some white people are comfortable including everyone. I thought about my own family, where I never heard a bad word about any group from any of my relatives.
But my father was especially emphatic. “Everyone is as good as you are,” my father said again and again as we were growing up.
How did he know, and why was it so important to him to convey it?
I’m pretty sure it was because he was drafted in 1942. He went to war and met Americans of every stripe. When he returned home, a natural inclination had grown into a determination. He had finally met people who did not share his heritage but whom he learned to like and count on.
Like many Midwesterners, his ancestors had been in America a long time. He had not traveled much outside his farming community. Migration patterns from New England and the Chesapeake Bay to central Illinois meant that until he went into the Army, he had met almost no one who wasn’t descended from English settlers.
The soldiers he served with must have seemed exotic to him at first. But gradually he must have come to trust them, admire some of them and also realize how like him they were—young, away from home, doing boring jobs punctuated by terrifying moments. He talked about them with fondness and a few times later got in touch with them even though they lived far away.
It wasn’t the war that changed him in that way, although it changed him in other ways. It was the draft that made a difference.
We did away with the draft in the 1970s. At the time we thought that was progress. For one thing, the military during Vietnam was class-ridden. Young men who were in college were exempt, while the others were drafted.
The draft in World War II was different. Everyone except farmers and those working in certain industries, such as aircraft manufacturing, who had “essential labor exemptions,” had to go. Since my father’s brother could run the farm, my father went.
Thrown together, rich and poor, easterners and westerners, got to know one another. Of course, this scrum was mostly European. At that time, however, sons of Greek, French, English, Scandinavian and Italian families must have seemed exotic to one another. But after serving with people of other ethnic backgrounds for several years, it must have become familiar. African-Americans were not part of the mix, we’ve learned, but that is another story altogether.
One of the saddest parts of the 2016 election was learning that many of our fellow Americans today do not have good will toward those who are not like them. If they had to serve in the military with everyone, would they have more appreciation for others? I’d say it’s a good bet.
A draft now would be different in many ways from the draft in past wars. It would have to be more like national service—in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as well as the military. Women would be part of it.
With this Congress who is so eager to give every responsibility back to the states so they can do their will without the federal oversight that has reduced discrimination, improved health and made companies more responsible, the idea that they might go for a national service in which everyone participated is laughable.
But when we did away with a draft, there were unintended consequences that may be part of our current problems. That is a lesson to be learned whenever we make a change.