Being left out

Are you working hard? Paying attention? Being involved?

Some people apparently believe you aren’t. You are not worthy of their attention. They are leaving you out.

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is one of the perpetrators. Its recent flyer listed the sites in each neighborhood to which Boston residents could go to meet a BWSC staff member and pay a bill or get answers to questions. The problem? There were no sites listed for the Downtown and Waterfront, Bay Village, Beacon Hill or the Back Bay. Do residents of those neighborhoods have no needs? You could probably traipse over to the North End branch library or Chinatown’s Benevolent Association on Tyler Street to do business with water and sewer, but still.

This brings up a strange way the city has of lumping neighborhoods together. For example, city officials usually speak of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay in one breath. It’s true they lie next to one another and sort of share a demographic. But life in these two neighborhoods is completely different.

With long blocks, large buildings, back alleys and parking spaces in those alleys, Back Bay residents have more in common with the South End than with Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill, with its narrow streets, narrow sidewalks, trash out on those sidewalks twice a week and nowhere but the street for cars to park, is more like the North End than it is like the Back Bay.

And then there’s Bernie. Say it isn’t so, Bernie. You don’t want some of us anymore. When you were in Boston in early April you and Senator Elizabeth Warren had a great rally. Then you dropped the bombshell: you “proposed a restructuring of the Democratic Party, one [that] would be made up of the working class, rather than the ‘liberal elite,’ ” the newspapers reported.

Who do you think was there cheering you on in downtown Boston? A large percentage of the 1,600-plus college-educated crowd were members of that liberal elite.

That reminds me of the years I spent long ago in the National Writers Union. As a member, I was also a non-paying member of the United Auto Workers. (Bernie, would that get me back in your good graces?) I liked the NWU. I participated in workshops and a writers’ group and made many friends who have had success with their writing. One member came up with the title of my first book. I demonstrated with the NWU in front of a Back Bay bookseller when that fearful chain decided not to carry Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses because of threats from the haters. The National Writers Union was a good organization.

But I noticed something: some members seemed more interested in being in a union, especially one in which your job did not require you to shower off the grime at the end of every day, than they were in writing. They were incurable romantics in love with the labor movement, and the only way they could become part of that labor movement was to do it with writers.

But back to Bernie. I wondered. Who is he referring to when he rejects the liberal elite? Is it people who live in Boston who have been to college? Is it National Writers Union members who actually write for a living? Isn’t he one of the members of the liberal elite?

So many questions. So many prejudices. So much name calling. So much partitioning off everyone from everyone else.

There is another insidious way of being left-out. The victims are those who can’t stay up late. How are we early-to-bedders going to enjoy Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert, which everyone is talking about? Why can’t these programs be on at 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m.? Record them, you say. Play them at other times. I know. I’m just complaining that they’re leaving lots of people out of that great communal feeling that we’re all laughing at the same time.

Boston’s future mobility

The city published its Go Boston 2030 report in mid-March. It is 223 pages long. I read it so you don’t have to. It’s taken me awhile.

It is available electronically at http://goboston2030.org/en/. Suggestions are accompanied by a note explaining how other cities have fared with such changes, a nice touch.

After I read the report, I checked in with a few people familiar with the project. The complaints were consistent. The solutions are small ideas. Many of them won’t address big problems. And the period of time the report predicts it will take to implement the solutions seems far too long. 2030? We need many of these solutions now.

But there’s much to like in Go Boston 2030. It involved many citizens. One overwhelming theme emerged: Bostonians want fewer cars on the roads and many more options for walking, biking and transit riding. Everyone wanted the ways we get around to be safer, better, faster, more reliable and less congested. “Every home should be within a 10-minute walk of a rail station, a key bus route stop, a Hubway station or a car share,” the report urged.

The principles the city employed were that plans must work for ALL Bostonians, they must foster economic opportunity, and they must respond to climate change by reducing emissions and enabling Bostonians to get around despite severe weather. Aren’t you proud of a city with those principles?

The project illuminated interesting facts: Of the people who both live and work in Boston, 36 percent ride public transit, 27 percent walk to work, and 38 percent drive alone or in a carpool. In the North End, Beacon Hill and downtown more than 40 percent walk to work.

The report’s biggest surprise was about commuting times from homes to jobs. Mattapan residents are screwed big-time. It takes them twice as long to get to work as it does the average of people in every neighborhood. Some other outlying neighborhoods have long travel times too. Downtown neighborhoods fare well in such measures. The report noted that higher housing costs mean lower transportation costs.

Achieving equality is challenging because of past history. Lower income neighborhoods rely more on slow buses while higher income neighborhoods have better access to rapid transit. Is their aversion to helping poor people why Congress finds it so hard to fund public transit? Another reason to be grateful that Boston is beginning to address this inequity.

Some suggested solutions seemed to exacerbate the problems. If you consolidate bus stops so the bus won’t have to stop as much the bus will go faster, but some stops will be farther from many riders’ homes. Running a bus from North Station to the Seaport district won’t sit well with North End and Waterfront residents, who think Atlantic Avenue and the Greenway roads are already impassible.

Many routes labeled “Bus Rapid Transit’ are not rapid since they share lanes with cars. Yet installing such lanes is estimated to take more than five years. Why so long?

“It has to be done the right way,” said Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the Boston Transportation Department. “It requires us to work with the local community.”

When such lanes are created it usually requires the city to eliminate driving and parking lanes, he said.

But this report shows that the Boston residents want such things to occur. Meanwhile I’m feeling pretty bad about our Mattapan neighbors who are sitting in those slow buses.

Some pieces are missing in the report. Wayfinding isn’t mentioned much, especially the problem that newcomers might not know where they are because Boston does not install street signs on such thoroughfares as Commonwealth or Massachusetts Avenue. Several people have pointed out that taxis not mentioned anywhere. Have we decided that taxis play no part in transportation?

The North South Rail Link is not mentioned either, even though estimates predict it would take 55,000 cars off Boston-area roads. That clearly addresses the climate change and emissions goal. The rail link would also enable residents in the north to get to jobs in the south and vice versa, which addresses the economic opportunity piece. I’ve been clear before in this column that I’m an advocate for seriously studying the NSRL to judge if its promise lives up to scrutiny.

The report does mention the South Station expansion, which some predict will be out of date and at capacity as soon as it is completed.

A turf war is going on between those two projects. That is not good for the city. Minds need to open so that both projects get fully and fairly vetted.

One interesting matter regarding Go Boston 2030 is the way things are structured here.

This was the city’s effort to understand what Bostonians want in mobility but, except for streets and sidewalks, the city does not control Boston’s transportation. The MBTA does.

Gupta says his department works closely with the MBTA, and I believe him.

It would have been nice, however, to have some indication of how the city and the MBTA will work together to achieve residents’ goals.

And then there is the money problem. We’re not going to have an excellent transportation system with economic opportunity, equality and reliability without a lot of dollars to make it happen.

Hunting for spring

About this time of year, everyone gets antsy. When will winter really end?

A few warm days help make everyone feel better. But it is when the magnolias bloom along Back Bay’s streets and when the beds in the Boston Public Garden fill with blooms that it really seems like spring. The Greenway has also gotten into the act of presenting us with gardens.

While those blossoms are the most dramatic, pockets of the city have been filling in nicely with their own displays. You might have to look a little further to see them.

A dramatic change occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing when Charlestown resident Diane Valle started the Marathon Daffodils movement. Hundreds of people planted thousands of daffodil bulbs along the marathon route as well as throughout the city. Volunteers also distribute pots of daffodils on this Friday, just before the marathon, and this year it is also Good Friday. It’s nice to have those daffodils to celebrate Easter as well as the Marathon. Look for daffodil pots around Boylston and Newbury streets as well as Charles Street. Look also at the north end of the Greenway for the 13,000 daffodils North End volunteers planted there.

Another dense daffodil display is at the Paul Revere Park between the Washington Street Bridge and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge on the Charlestown side of the Charles River. As long as you are in Charlestown, you might as well go over to the Gardens for Charlestown at the intersection of Main and Bunker Hill streets. This hillside garden is now mature, always well kept, and a true community endeavor.

The Old North Church’s garden is undergoing archeological investigations in preparation for a new design in conjunction with renovation and restoration of Old North’s building and grounds. But another church has a garden offering that might surprise you and make a good visit.

Old West Church on Cambridge Street has been planting edibles in their mostly sunny front yard. Church members planted apple and cherry trees a couple of years ago and then a mulberry tree and a kiwi vine. Later they arranged a spiral of potted herbs on the front steps, said Old West’s pastor, Sara Garrard. Raised beds on the right of the walkway leading to the church’s front door are built at different levels so children, adults and those in wheel chairs, or those who just want to sit in a chair while they garden, can all take part.

On the left side of the main walkway is a raised bed built under a principle called hugelkultur, in which a trench filled with wooden branches, leaves, mulch, soil, compost and even cardboard, forms the basis for a productive and healthy garden.

Sara said such a structure helps in an urban plot whose surroundings might be contaminated with lead. Last summer that bed produced four different kinds of peppers, lavender, cilantro and other herbs.

Her congregation has been helped by the Boston Food Forest Coalition, which helps communities create “edible public parks” and also by more than 300 Northeastern students who for two years have helped cultivate, plant, weed and harvest.

Sara and her team will begin working in those gardens about the same time as the Boston Marathon if the weather holds. She said neighbors have come to help, and everyone is welcome to help and share in the bounty.

The front yard of the church is open to the public and there have been thefts of whole plants. But Sara has that belief in the goodness of people to help with the task, take what they need and leave plenty for others.

In its third summer, the garden’s purpose is not just to grow food, but also to build relationships and community.

Mass General, just down the street from Old West Church, is another gardening oasis. Its lawn, between the Ether Dome, the Wang addition and its buildings along Blossom Street, is one of the few extensive grassy areas in that part of town. Between the Yawkey building and the Liberty Hotel, MGH maintains a beautiful round garden of mostly perennials.

Such pockets of horticulture decorate our city for seven months of the year. But in the spring we appreciate them the most.

Baffling

So many things I don’t understand. Maybe you don’t either.

Some people in some states are all in a lather about women sharing bathrooms with transgender persons who are now female. My question: how would you know?

This person presumably looks like a woman. She would go into a stall like any other woman. It’s private. She would come out and wash her hands. She might even have make-up on. Seems like a woman to me.

I guess some people are afraid that a man will walk in dressed as a woman and try to molest the women in there. Anything is possible, of course.

But women hardly have to go into a bathroom to find men ready to molest them. We found that out this fall that even certain presidents have problems with predation. A ladies room filled with women who once were men seems a lot safer than hanging around with certain elected officials.

Luckily, we live in Massachusetts. No one seems to be much upset over transgender matters.

What does strike closer to home is the stupidity around the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Didn’t the guys who run that parade realize that the city’s patience with discrimination against any group has run out? They did not win this one, and they won’t in the future. No mayor or governor will celebrate with them unless everyone is included, no matter what their sexual orientation is. Sponsors and spectators will flee. Did they think that Trump’s election gave them a pass? Boston’s reputation as an inclusive city has triumphed over the old prejudices and practices. Get with the program, fellas.

Another puzzling matter is the creature who characterizes himself or herself as an “originalist.” “Originalists” are the Supreme Court justices (and others) who claim they interpret the constitution as James Madison, etc. intended it to be interpreted. Antonin Scalia prided himself on this stance. Apparently so does Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. They say they base their view on an intellectual study of the law and writings contemporary to the document itself. But even Madison changed his views over the years, so it’s hard to pin him down perfectly.

Makes me wonder. Do “originalists” channel the founding fathers’ inner thoughts? Do they meditate, hoping to divine exactly what Madison was thinking?

Surely they realize that the founders got it wrong many times. Slavery? Not allowing women to vote? Creating an electoral college to get the slave states to join the new United States so that slavery continues to dog us? Three electors in Wyoming represent an average of 187,923 residents each. California’s 55 electors represent an average of 677,355 people each—a disparity of 3.6 to 1. In Massachusetts, each of the 11 electoral votes represents 595,239 people, so a Wyoming voter has about three times as much influence on electing a president that we do. That doesn’t sound like one “man,” one vote.

The founders got it wrong with so many matters, why would we consider their views (whatever those were) as sacred in other realms. Laws have been passed, and circumstances have changed. What makes some supposedly smart people believe they are one of the few who have such insight into the heads of men who lived more than 200 years ago and that those opinions should be considered ahead of everything else? It seems weirdly like those folks who know what God wants. Another direct line that you figure most people don’t have. Odd.

And there are still those mattresses. I was baffled by mattresses last fall, and I’m still baffled by them. We recently visited relatives in Scottsdale, Arizona. There was a mattress store on every corner. Are people not sleeping well? Are mattresses now made so poorly that they break down easily and must be replaced every five years? Have we spent so much money on everything else that we’re down to mattresses to satisfy our acquisitive needs? Who knew there would be more mattress stores than grocery stores?

With so many baffling things in the world, I’m glad that spring is coming. Already tulip tips are emerging from the soft ground. Tulips are one thing we can count on not to baffle us.

 

 

Where things stand: Allston Interchange

If you live in downtown Boston, you probably know this place from your car only. This is where either you paid your first toll on the Mass Pike after you sailed past BU, or where you got on the pike via a long, winding ramp after driving out from downtown on Storrow Drive. Either way, since you drove, you may not be aware of details you’d be conscious of if you lived in the area or walked through it.

But a task force has been at work for three years on a project that would realign the Mass Pike, re-order the entrance and exits ramps at that location and free up about 100 acres owned by Harvard for redevelopment into streets, sidewalks and buildings—a real part of the city. All this takes place roughly between the Harvard Business School and the BU Bridge.

The plans began because MassDoT realized the Mass Pike viaduct was in need of repair. Coincidentally, the viaduct was adjacent to land, the underlying rights to which Harvard bought in 2000 and 2003. Over a period of about 15 years, Harvard and the rail company CSXT entered into agreements that relocated most of the old rail operations between the Charles River and the Mass Pike to places farther west, and the land was sitting there, waiting. So when MassDoT announced it would have to rebuild the viaduct, after nudging from Allston, which is the neighborhood amid the tangle of ramps, streets, former rail lines and pike roads, everyone said, “Let’s do it right.”

After many community meetings, the planning is almost finished and has come down to three options for the viaduct, said Bob Sloane, who has represented WalkBoston on the task force. But what happens to the viaduct is not as interesting as what happens to the neighborhood.

Remarkably, said Jessica Robertson, a task force member from Allston, the neighborhood and Harvard basically agree on how to move forward. Actually, she used the word, “shocking.” Robertson called what is there now, “a huge waste of urban land.”

Kevin Casey, Harvard’s vice president of public affairs and communications, said Harvard sees huge potential in this project. “We look at the MassDoT approach as a new opportunity,” he said. “It changes the pike’s contours, creates a street grid providing development opportunities for Harvard and the region, while removing longstanding impediments to neighborhood circulation, and makes a nice connectivity between Cambridge and the Longwood area.”

Perhaps not a perfect connectivity between Cambridge and Longwood, but one that is better than the circuitous route people now use.

To help envision where the street grid would be, think about the Doubletree Hotel, isolated among roads and ramps, the elevated Mass Pike and the little building that says Houghton Chemical. The grid would be between that forlorn hotel and about where the Mass Pike is now. That grid would connect to the rest of Allston. The stub of Cambridge Street that becomes River Street in Cambridge at the Charles River would benefit from becoming a street that could be lined with buildings instead of an isolated road for cars.

Because MassDoT could leave the viaduct in place while it creates the new pike alignment this plan would also minimize disruption, Casey pointed out.

This project also provides a chance to deal with some of Allston’s streets that have been compromised by traffic. Robertson hopes that bridges will be repaired and made more friendly to pedestrians. She also hopes the new streets in the grid will be narrow ones that invite strolling rather than becoming wide raceways for cars.

The project includes plans for West Station, a new stop on the South Station-Worcester commuter rail line. Robertson said Allston used to have three stops on a rail line. Bringing one back seems the least that should be done. There is also the possibility of more rail connections to Cambridge and beyond with the Grand Junction line, which goes over the rail bridge under the BU Bridge.

Many devilish details still need to be worked out. One section is narrow. Making room for the park along the river, Storrow Drive, the Mass Pike and rail lines is hard, said Sloane. Whether to build the transit station now or later is also not determined.

Robertson worries about that. “MassDoT has a history of committing to building transit and then the highway is done and transit costs too much and is not built,” she said.

Casey said Harvard has no development plans yet for the area, which is near its enterprise campus along Western Avenue. “[It] will unfold over a long-term process, taking the better part of ten years,” he said. The area would not necessarily be occupied by Harvard buildings only. Robertson hopes for some affordable housing, since Allston, like everywhere else needs such a thing.

The Draft Environmental Impact Report is scheduled for release this fall. Meanwhile, the project’s cost is unknown and how to pay for it isn’t determined, said Patrick Marvin, a spokesperson for MassDoT. There is no official timetable yet either, but Sloane estimates that if everything goes well—a big if—it would be 2021 or 2022 before construction could begin.