Pockets of diversity

A few weeks ago I went to “The Dynamic City,” a conference at Boston University sponsored by Historic New England and two BU departments—the Initiative on Cities and the American and New England Studies Program. The presentations were first-rate, the speakers interesting and the topic of how historic preservation fits into contemporary urban life was one this column sometimes addresses.

Soon it became apparent, however, another dynamic was going on, one I hadn’t expected nor rarely experienced.

This conference was the most diverse in presenters and attendees I had ever been to. Black and whites, Latinos and Englishmen, with at least one American whose parents hailed from India. Young and old, men and women. Lesbians, gays and straights. All this diversity in historic preservation, a movement one might have believed was the interest solely of old, traditional white guys.

But no. Officials of all colors and backgrounds from such places as Lawrence and Holyoke, Detroit and Nashville, Liverpool, England and Houston, Texas, discussed how their cities married their old structures with new needs. A major theme was how to correct the ravages of Le Corbusier’s ideas and 1950s and 1960s city planning that destroyed much of what makes cities vibrant.

All that was good, but the take-away was that older cities can claw their way back because they are in good hands with diverse leaders who understand the need to make cities work for everyone no matter what their race, economic situation or culture. If historic preservation can do that, why can’t everyone else?

Are there other industries, places or events in which people of all backgrounds participate? There is the T, Downtown Crossing and The Children’s Museum. Some schools, both public and private.

And television. News shows are diverse. The most diverse, however, is HGTV. For those of you who haven’t viewed “Love It or List It” or “House Hunters,” I’ll introduce you. These programs are reality TV, real people with all their quirks, questionable judgment and unrealistic expectations. They are taking on house renovations or looking for a house to buy. They are assisted by the stars of the shows who are real estate brokers, interior designers or contractors.

The stars and the real people—homeowners or potential buyers—are often multi-racial, two married people of the same sex, mothers and daughters, a single person. All combinations are unremarkable. It feels natural, not forced. Sometimes I wonder when a multi-racial couple buys a home in a neighborhood in, let’s say, Atlanta, is there fall-out afterwards? The program does not say, but the message it sends is that diversity is as natural as living.

While Historic New England and HGTV may have caught up with the times, an appreciation for diversity has not spilled over onto some of our political leaders. The actions that look like racism are not talked about in the press much, but they are often discussed in private gatherings.

We expect such behavior from Donald Trump, who may still promote the idea that Obama was born in Kenya. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, should know better.

McConnell seems offended by having to endure a president whose principal transgression is serving while black in the highest office in the land. Perhaps jealousy also plays a role in McConnell’s insulting treatment of our president. The black man, Obama, is smarter, better looking, better educated and more humane than McConnell. He even has a more attractive family.

Early on McConnell promised not to help Americans prosper, but to make Obama a one-term president. That didn’t work out. Now he is thwarting the appointment of a Supreme Court justice by a president duly elected by the American people. Some columnists claim he is just anti-Democrat, but his extreme, disrespectful behavior smacks of a deeper prejudice.

McConnell’s not the only bigot around. Remember South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouting out, “Liar,” during a speech Obama gave to Congress? Or Rand Paul’s description of President Obama as “arrogant.” Sounds like “uppity” to me.

The race-based insults heaved at Obama from McConnell and others are unprecedented since Representative Preston Brooks, also from South Carolina, beat up Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane. Ted Cruz continues the disrespect, calling the president Barack Obama, not President Obama. It’s all code emphasizing that President Obama is the “other.” Perhaps their disrespect for a black man plays well with their constituency.

It no longer plays well in Boston. The city known for bigotry in the 1970s has changed. I’m writing this column a couple of weeks before it will be published, and it looks as if an anti-discrimination bill will be passed and signed. In 2016, downtown Boston is expensive to live in, and the census still shows little diversity. But the people on the sidewalks of all the downtown neighborhoods come in many colors. If you can afford it, you are welcome here. We don’t care what race, national origin or background you enjoy. If you pick up after your dog and put your trash out responsibly, please move in.

Fish, flowers and fresh produce

Last year for my birthday one of my daughters gave me flowers. These were not the usual birthday flowers. They were delivered to my door for several weeks from the one-eighth acre garden of Ferriss Buck Donham of Arlington.

The flowers Ferriss provided were different from those available from even the loveliest florist. In spring I got big bleeding hearts, lilies of the valley and tiny violets and primroses. In summer came cranesbills, cosmos and astilbe. In the fall Ferriss brought New England asters and several kinds of chrysanthemums I’d never seen before. Plus, these flowers didn’t have to be flown in from a faraway land.

Ferriss’s offering is a flower CSA—community-supported agriculture. In this arrangement clients pay ahead of time so the farmer has the cash to plant. When the crop is ready the farmer delivers or arranges a pick-up place and time. The steady stream of flowers reminded me of what summers are supposed to be, bountiful and beautiful.

Last year was only Ferriss’s third summer of offering a CSA. “I knew there were vegetable CSAs,” she said. “Why not do one for flowers?” But she has been designing, installing and maintaining gardens for clients for 15 years. She delivered to my house because she doesn’t have many clients yet. Her goal this year is 50, and if she has enough downtown Boston clients she will figure out where to deposit the flowers in central locations. The cost is $100 for five weeks of bouquets in one of three sessions—spring, summer or fall.

Rebecca and Joe Pimentel have a downtown location already. The two met while they were both living on Beacon Hill, but they soon moved to Scituate and started gardening and raising goats and chickens. They finally acquired 240 acres of central Vermont farmland as well as two children. Farming is a good life for a family since both parents, while working hard, are home.

A few years ago they started Sweet Georgia P’s, named after their daughter. They raise 50 dairy goats and 350 layer hens, employ 10 helpers as well as a delivery crew and rarely take a summer vacation. They now deliver produce, eggs, honey, goat cheese, dairy products and pasture-raised, hormone-free beef and pork as well as free-range turkey and chickens to about 100 CSA members on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 3 to 7 p.m. at three downtown locations. They too would add more if the number of clients in an area warrant it. They also serve 10 restaurants and set up shop at farmers’ markets. Rebecca hopes to launch a line of natural skin care products soon.

The cost is $600 for 15 weekly deliveries in a standard size. Deliveries begin in June.

Another kind of CSA is really a CSF. Cape Ann Fresh Catch, the second oldest community-supported fishery in the U.S., delivers fish and prepared foods made of seafood products. Catching fish is not limited to the summer months, so Cape Ann sells shares all year long. They do not yet have a downtown Boston location but would search one out if enough customers signed up. The closest delivery locations to downtown now are in Harvard Square and the South End. Shareholders can sign up for a one or two-pound fillets or a whole fish.

Like all community-supported agriculture or fisheries, what you get is what is available. The week I interviewed Donna Marshall, Cape Ann’s executive director, the boats were bringing in pollack, dabs and flounder. “We never know,” she said, “but at 4 a.m. we get a fax letting us know what the catch is.”

Shareholders sign up for eight weeks of one-pound fillets at $120 or $220 for two-pound fillets. The catch, including scallops, is handled minimally, just rinsed, said Donna. (Some fishmongers plunge scallops in a preservative that makes them white and soggy, something Donna said they would never do.)

These community-supported food delivery services have much in common. They all have websites. Just type their names and they come up. Their products are all local and about as fresh as anything gets. You may not know what you’re getting but with the Internet it is easy to get a recipe for the combination you receive. All of the purveyors said they work with customers who need to tweak an order, whether they are on vacation or need more or less of some product.

Pundits complain that people never cook anymore, but with such products and services as these, it may be that the pundits are wrong.

Chain store sorrows

Local businesses or chain stores. Which is best for Boston neighborhoods and such shopping attractions as Faneuil Hall Marketplace?

The tension has resurfaced recently with a local merchant at Faneuil Hall threatened with eviction, two San Francisco chain stores opening on Charles Street on Beacon Hill and fear by North Enders that Starbucks could overwhelm locally-owned Italian-style coffee shops with their unique atmosphere.

“This is a problem all over the city because the national chains can afford the high rents and tourists want safe, sanitized, predictable experiences,” said Nick Dello Russo of the North End. “It’s a tragedy.”

Let’s start with Faneuil Hall. In March the Boston Pewter Company was threatened with eviction because marketplace manager Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation erroneously accused owner Jeff Allen of being in arrears. Eventually, Allen worked out the problem and was allowed to stay.

But he still doesn’t have a signed lease from Ashkenazy, so he can’t get a lower price for bulk ordering because he doesn’t know if he will be in business in two years, when he would finally sell all he had bought. Other local merchants are in the same boat, he said, without leases, while Ashkenazy offers new chain stores, such as Uniqlo and Sephora, long leases. (Barry Lustig, Ashkenazy’s executive vice president handling leasing, did not return my phone call about this matter.)

For almost five years, Faneuil Hall’s local shop owners and many Boston boosters have grown increasingly worried that the marketplace will lose its Boston feel and become like every other mall in America. Without shops unique to Boston, will attendance lag and businesses suffer? So far, Ashkenazy’s practices have only fanned those flames of fear.

Charles Street aficionados suffer from the same concern. Benefit, a Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy-owned cosmetics chain with more than 3,000 shops or department store operations, has moved into a prominent corner location formerly occupied by a local cosmetics shop. Margaret O’Leary has leased space formerly occupied by the locally-owned women’s shop, Wish. These San Francisco-based chains want to be in up-market neighborhoods. Steve Young, owner of the building Benefit has moved into, said he believed Benefit would fit in nicely with the other businesses on the street, and he wanted stability in his property. Furthermore, Benefit could wait until the local shop that was vacating the space managed its move.

While the North End still has restaurants, groceries, Mike’s Pastry and other local shops with a distinctly Italian feel, North Enders are also worried about losing their flavor. “If you want an espresso you could go to Starbucks on Atlantic Avenue or to any of the coffee shops on Hanover Street,” said Dello Russo. “Which would be the more authentic experience and the more enjoyable?”

Dello Russo said he’d prefer “having a really great coffee at the Cafe Paradiso made by the Vietnamese barrista who has worked there for over 30 years and listen to the locals argue about the soccer game playing on one of their TV sets.”

This isn’t just nostalgia. Chain stores moving in to a business district often have been shown to adversely affect that neighborhood. The City of Boston’s Small Business Plan, issued in March, quoted a person identified as a business service provider on how chain stores have pushed out local businesses on Newbury and Boylston streets.

“There has been more of a shift towards the larger national businesses, and they’ve created tremendous pressure for real estate,” the person said. “Small businesses can barely survive in the Back Bay.”

Local ownership has a more positive effect on the local economy than does a chain store operation. Economic impact analyses from the Urban Conservancy, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and others from such disparate places as Michigan, Maine, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago show that local businesses purchase more goods and services from nearby vendors than do chains. They tend to employ more people per unit of sales. They do their banking locally. The staff tends to be more stable. They tend to donate more to neighborhood causes and participate more in local efforts.

The mayor’s small business plan is aimed locally, not on chains. It recognizes that “Small businesses add so much value and character to Boston’s neighborhoods . . . Small business owners are stewards who invest in our neighborhoods and our neighbors.”

There are a few bright spots for the merchants and residents who value locally-owned businesses. Karilyn Crockett, director of economic policy and research in the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, said city hall is focused on “supporting the long-term stability of small businesses that are home grown.” Her office helps local businesses gain access to capital and addresses the problem of high rent that invites only chains. She said she is also open to such zoning changes as Concord, Massachusetts, has made that limits the number of chains in one area.

A plus for the North End and Beacon Hill is that their interior shopping streets generally have spaces too small for the chains’ formula.

In the end, though, keeping neighborhood districts local depends on the neighbors. “How much do we, as a community, value diversity?” asks Beacon Hill resident Susan McWhinney-Morse. “How much energy and creative thinking are we willing to expend to keep Charles Street a place where small, local merchants can succeed?”

Ducklings then and now

Duckling Day is coming up. On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, starting at 10 a.m., the Harvard Marching Band will lead hundreds of parents and children dressed like ducklings from the Boston Common’s Parkman Bandstand into the Public Garden in a re-creation—sort of—of Mrs. Mallard’s trip to the Public Garden with her eight ducklings. (Mrs. Mallard led her babies from the Esplanade, but she wouldn’t be able to get across Storrow Drive now.)

The parade ends up near the beloved duckling statues, created by sculptor Nancy Schön in 1987.

You can participate in Duckling Day, either by taking your children or grandchildren or by volunteering. If you decide not to do so, you still might want to look at Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, the 1941 book that inspired the duckling statues and the parade. It reveals a Boston of 75 years ago. It describes a fumbling father duck who is only partially engaged and a smart, inventive mother duck who runs her family with confidence and discipline. Were fathers like this in the 1940s? Mine wasn’t, but I can’t know what other fathers were like.

Mr. Mallard’s disengagement would be frowned upon in today’s families, whose dads are expected to be involved. Mr. Mallard reveals poor judgment, such as in his suggestions that the family build their nest near turtles and foxes, which are predators, Mrs. Mallard reminds him.

Mrs. Mallard finds a safe, protected spot on an island in the Charles River, lays her eggs and then sits on them with little help from their father. Just after the ducklings hatch, Mr. Mallard decides to take a week-long jaunt, leaving Mrs. Mallard with all the responsibility for the newborns. How do you think that would go over with new human mothers in today’s world?

McCloskey not only portrays a different kind of father, but his drawings show a different physical world. He provides a faithful representation of Boston in 1941. The Esplanade has no Storrow Drive so the policeman, Michael, can easily stop traffic on the slower street that Storrow Drive replaced. Bicycle riding in the Public Garden, which scared off Mrs. Mallard when she was contemplating her newborn ducklings’ safety, was permitted then, but is prohibited now.

Boston police officers, unlike Michael and Clancy, are no longer all Irish, nor are they all men. Streets that were two-ways in the 1940s are now one one-way. McCloskey’s drawings show the real shops on Charles Street in the 1940s. What wouldn’t we give for The Corner Bookstore instead of the chain coffee shop that now occupies that space. The drawings show a man sweeping the street. Was Boston cleaner then than it is now?

Some features of Boston, however, are the same. The Public Garden is fully recognizable, right down to the handsome bridge over the lagoon and the Swan Boats. The Longfellow Bridge is in its right place, although the Cambridge side of the river was more industrial than it is now. Louisburg Square hasn’t changed. On one page a bottle floats in the Charles River. I’m sure you can still find a bottle or two in the river, even though it has been mercifully cleaned up since the 1940s.

After almost 30 years, the duckling statues are still one of the most visited attractions in Boston. It is always wonderful to walk by and watch happy little children playing on the ducklings. Parents still snap photos of the tykes, although, unlike 30 years ago, it is with smartphones instead of cameras.

There is still time to register for the ducklings parade. It costs $35 for a family until May 6 and $40 afterward. Contact the Friends of the Public Garden, the organization that now runs the parade. Amazon.com has duckling costumes.

1,200 new street trees

The City of Boston started planting 1,200 trees along city streets in mid-April and will continue to do so until June. Every neighborhood gets them. Their hired contractor might grind out the stump of a dead tree. Then he’ll refresh the soil in the tree pit, dig the hole, water it, set the tree into it and cover it with soil. Then he’ll add mulch in a raised circle, called a mulch saucer, so that when he waters again the water will soak into the soil near the roots. He’ll come back every two weeks to water again.

You say, that’s a laugh, I’ve never seen any city-hired truck watering a tree. That will change, according to arborist and Parks Department general foreman Max Ford-Diamond. Ford-Diamond can follow the contractor’s movements through the GPS system installed in the trucks, usually Ford F350s with a big water tank in the truck bed.

Here are the trees the city will plant: honey locusts on busy streets with lots of foot traffic and winter salt. “Honey locusts are about as hardy as any tree can be,” said Ford-Diamond.

Tree pits under power lines qualify for flowering crab apples and cherries because these trees don’t grow as tall as Boston’s other favorites. Maples, ginkos, oaks, and shadblow will show up. The Parks Department mixes up the genera so that if blight hits one type of tree, the rest will carry on, I was told several years ago.

Ford-Diamond has always been a tree guy. He went to Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole, got an associate’s degree at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and earned his bachelor’s from UMass in urban forestry. He is an Mass. Certified Arborist as are the other two Parks Department arborists.

He picked out the 1,200 trees himself, flying to New Jersey in the fall to identify the ones he wanted at the Tuckahoe Nursery. Each tree costs the city between $400 and $750.

The types of trees that typically grow tall in a large yard or in the forest are usually shorter on the street because “they are constrained by the site condition,” said Ford-Diamond. The size of the pit is one important constraint.

Once a tree is planted it is up to the citizens of Boston to help ensure the tree’s survival. Ford-Diamond recommends that nearby home and business owners pour a five gallon bucket of water on the tree a couple of times a week. You can also turn a hose on with a drip for about 30 minutes, since the idea is to water deeply, not just on the surface. The tree roots will follow the water and if surface watering is all that is done, roots will be shallow. This will make the tree more susceptible to damage and it might encourage roots to buckle the sidewalk rather than growing deep into the ground.

If it is 100 degrees for a few days, water more frequently, he said.

Arborists used to use green plastic “gator” bags wrapped around new trees to get trees going with deep drips. But that hasn’t worked out so well, said Ford-Diamond.

Nearby residents often couldn’t figure out whether to put the water in or outside the bag. When the city removed the bags they found the moisture inside had sometimes rotted the bark. Or passersby had used them as trash bins, filling them with cans or bottles. So now the trees are left naked, with the hope that nearby residents can more easily care for them.

Weeding the tree pit, keeping dogs out and picking up trash and litter from the pit will also help the tree thrive. Ford-Diamond does not recommend grates around the tree trunk but he is all for fencing around the tree pit. Just make the street side length removable so if the tree has to be replaced, the fence will not have to be destroyed. He also said to hold on the fertilizer. Unless you test the soil you won’t know what it needs.

Part of caring is watching what happens to the tree. Trees can get hit by unruly drivers parking their car or trucks that can’t see what they are backing into. The city can cut back low-lying limbs on older, taller trees to make room for tall vehicles to be near them without injuring them, but the new trees are vulnerable to all kinds of vehicle menaces.

If your tree gets hits, report it by calling 311, use the 311 app or call the Parks Department at 617-635-4505. Sometimes a tree that has been knocked over can be reset into the ground. You should also report your tree if it looks sick or is damaged in any other way.

Ford-Diamond’s department is always looking for places to put new street trees, so if you want one in front of your house or business and you’re willing to care for it, contact the Parks Department and put in a request to find out if it is possible to plant a tree where you want it to go.

Bostonians are proud of the green canopy that shades the sidewalks for six months of the year. You can see how important the trees are for visual delight if you visit San Francisco. That city is handsome from afar and it is certainly interesting to look at. But its wide concrete sidewalks are cold and uninviting. The city would look much better if they were lined with trees.