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.

Passive vs. active

Boston is an odd city in many ways. We do have a lion and a unicorn, but our favorite icons are a grasshopper (Faneuil Hall) a cod (State House) and ducklings and swans (Public Garden). Those creatures might seem insignificant in some cities, but we’re going with what we’ve got.
Amid sixteenth-to-nineteenth-century street patterns we have plunked City Hall Plaza, the JFK building and a Brutalist city hall. And one of the old streets, Hanover Street’s extension, still runs under that plaza. So odd.
Who would guess that in this sports-crazed town, 4.5 times more people visited art and cultural institutions than attended Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox games, according to a 2014 study by ArtsBoston?
If we’re so intellectual, why don’t we have bookstores? I can name only four within subway distance from my neighborhood.
But a contrasting attitude toward city life is also oddly on display here. It has to do with active versus passive—the level of noise, activity and general disorganization prized by some and detested by others.
A few years ago one of my neighbors announced that our neighborhood has too many restaurants. Another neighbor was astounded at that attitude. They never resolved their disagreement.
I won’t even mention the arguments about liquor licenses, which some people think will destroy Boston as we know it and others just want to be able to order a martini when they go out.
Helicopters are a center of conflict. Some downtown residents complain about them constantly. They fly low. They’re noisy. Helicopters landing on Mass General’s rooftop are secretly abhorred even though the abhorrer realizes they are life-saving. But how do you know it’s a legitimate rescue helicopter or one sent out by a TV station to capture some news?
Others either don’t notice the helicopters or get a thrill when they realize they are converging on the Common. Something exciting must be going on. Maybe a demonstration at the State House? We’re in the middle of action, and the action people like it that way.
The active versus passive argument gets played out in our public spaces. Recently the two contingents met aggressively over Long Wharf, where vocal critics of the BPDA (formerly BRA) said keep Long Wharf free of commercial activity since it is a nice place to contemplate the dawn. Others viewed the inactive space as unwelcoming.
In 1999 a conflict erupted over holiday lights along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. A donor provided them, the city began installing them and the passive contingent lashed out. This is just like those ugly lights on Boston Common that city workers sometimes arrange awkwardly, they said. It’s over the top.
The conflict was stopped in its tracks when the venerated Henry Lee, a founder and then head of the Friends of the Public Garden declared, “Christmas can’t be too gaudy for me.”
The opposition knew it had been crushed, and we now have holiday lights on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall as well as the Boston Common.
When the Frog Pond was redone in the 1990s, an undercurrent of complaint arose over too much activity in the Common. The Common and City Hall Plaza are both places that some people feel are reserved for demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster. Others complain about demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster.
The Public Garden has gone in one direction. Most people, I think, would agree that it is designed for quiet strolls, horticulture appreciation, and statue gazing. The Common, not so much. And the Greenway has taken park activity to an extreme. It has a lot going on, which is not typical in Boston parks. Compare it to the Esplanade, another linear park with a lot fewer activities. The Esplanade, however, is more active than it used to be now that the Esplanade Association has become involved. But some of the activity is centered around cleanup, always welcome in gritty Boston.
One attitude is not better than the other. Quiet has its appeal as does noise. But neighborhood residents on both sides frame their arguments in moral tones. They don’t seem to realize the bias they have that causes them to take certain stances on public matters. The next time you are at a meeting about some situation in your neighborhood, notice the difference. It can be frustrating, but also entertaining to observe people displaying their bias with little self awareness of where it comes from.

Raise your kids in the city

It’s a familiar story. Twenty-somethings enjoy living downtown. Then they have kids. After a couple of years they depart for the suburbs. They have good reasons. The schools are often better. The housing is cheaper. There is more space.
Common practices and policies make it hard for families to stay in downtown Boston. Few new condominiums have more than two bedrooms, and those are pricey. When these buildings were built, the idea was that singles and couples would be most interested. But this is circular reasoning. If you don’t build three- and four-bedroom units, families can’t be interested.
The same kind of reasoning afflicts the school department. Officials have been reluctant to create new downtown schools, claiming too many downtown kids go to private schools. But without enough spaces in the downtown schools, parents who want to stay have no other choice.
The numbers show the situation. Boston as a whole had 13,000 fewer kids in 2010 than it did in 2000, but downtown was different. The number of children in most neighborhoods increased slightly, said BPDA spokesperson Bonnie McGilpin in an email. But the kid population is still only four to six percent. In Chinatown and Charlestown, children comprised 11 and 16 percent of the population respectively, but that was a decline from the year 2000. Whether the trends hold seven years later is unclear, McGilpin said, since the interim estimates have a large margin of error when the numbers are small.
No matter what the numbers, those who have raised children in the city believe they have benefitted and so have their kids, who have enjoyed experiences and gained skills rare in their suburban counterparts.
Most city parents work downtown as well as live here, so they don’t face long commutes that keep them away from their families. That’s the first benefit.
City kids are independent and self-confident. All the parents said that. Children learn early to stop at the curb and not go into the street. They walk to friends’ houses. They know how to get to the shops, find the parks and ride the T alone at an early age. They don’t have to depend on grownups to drive them. Many downtown neighborhoods have village-like atmospheres in which children are safe.
Terry told a story. “Once when I was up on a ladder, fixing something electric, I sent seven-year-old Eve to the hardware store for a part.
“She did it, but was distinctly inconvenienced. Reportedly she said to the owner, ‘My mom drives me crazy.’ He leaned over the counter and agreed, ‘Yes, she drives me crazy too.’ ”
All the downtown neighborhoods have good parks and play grounds and many of those parks have lawns, mowed by other people, said Katharine. Remarkably, in those parks you’ll find children of every color, even though downtown residents are thought to be mostly white.
The mix is a benefit of downtown child-raising that Bob cited. On the T, on the sidewalks, in the parks—everywhere there are people unlike yourself. Living among diversity becomes familiar, not scary, as we have unfortunately learned it is in some places.
It’s easy to go on child-friendly outings, with museums, the TD Garden and Fenway Park an easy walk or T ride.
The paucity of downtown public schools and the fear about the enrollment process continue to push parents out of the city. But Bruce, whose kids are in the public schools, said the Eliot in the North End, the Quincy in Chinatown and the Warren Prescott in Charlestown, all with good reputations, attract more downtown residents than they used to. He said a parents group will offer public panel discussions about the schools soon, although a date has not been set.
Nick, who was raised in the North End, raised his five children there also. While prices downtown are high now, they were also high many years ago in comparison with outlying places. So he got creative. He bought an old warehouse and converted it into apartments, installing his family in the largest one.
We did something similar. We bought a tenement building and lived on two floors, three floors and four floors as our children grew. Our tenants helped pay our mortgage. Now we’re back to three floors. Examples like these show you don’t have to wait for a single family house or a developer’s condominium to solve your problem.
Nick reiterated what other parents have said—that his kids learned to navigate Boston to take advantage of the rich experiences Boston offers, richer than these parents believe they would encounter in the suburbs.
Proof came from his children’s suburban friends. “When school friends visited they gushed over how much fun it was living in Boston,” he said.
A bonus for our family was that our daughters’ suburban friends spent most weekend nights with us. They were on the safe subway instead of cruising around the drunk drivers on Rte. 128.
If you’re considering staying in the city with your children, you’ll have lots of support. Some parents I interviewed said they’d be happy to talk with readers who want to do so, but are still wary. Email me at [email protected] and I’ll set you up with them.