Poligrip Ad: Is This Us?

Some pundits investigate the culture of America though our political system, which shows us as basically nuts.

I prefer advertisements—television advertisements during the 6:30 evening news to be exact. I watch those shows because I expect them to be fairly neutral in coverage. Fox News is out of the question—all those people yelling conspiracy theories at one another leaves me profoundly fatigued. Although I admire Rachel Maddow’s intelligence and humor, she can go too long on one subject, and after the first 15 minutes too many ads make my attention falter.

So the 6:30 news is my choice for television watching and advertisements. This program offers sociological evidence for what companies or their ad agencies think about us, the American people. It also makes you wonder if those companies understand the messages they convey.

For example, they think we’re lazy—too lazy to take four pills a day of ibuprofen, which my friend calls Vitamin I, when one Aleve will do. How hard is it to take four pills? Who knows which one is best?

They think we want to look like zombies. Check out the characters in a Restasis eye drops ad. All the eyes—ghoulish, fish-eyed, creepy—would fit perfectly on aliens from outer space. No way will I ever put Restasis into my eyes. I might come out looking like those people in the ad. This ad claims that people have a “disease” called “dry-eye syndrome.” Maybe some people have irritating eye problems, but doctors say there is a cheaper way to handle it.. Dip a wash cloth into hot water and hold it against your eyes for 20 seconds twice a day. You’ll be amazed.

Advertisers think we like seeing people who are either drunk or on opioids. The disheveled, bleary-eyed Poligrip woman looks like she needs to go into rehab. Poligrip holds false teeth in place. Who has false teeth these days, especially women of the actress’s age? That was a condition, before fluoride, before regular dental care, in which older people’s teeth became so diseased they had to come out.

But this woman looks as if she’s in her fifties, maybe even forties. Are the advertisers thinking that people whose teeth fall out look like that wobbly woman? It’s insulting. There are good reasons some people still need false teeth, but if they look at the woman in the ad, they’ll need more than false teeth.

According to the nightly news, many healthy men are impotent, or at least have low amounts of testosterone. I doubt it. Maybe because of fracking fluids, air-borne chemicals and other polluting factors, men’s sperm count is decreasing. But there is no way the men shown in the ads—handsome, fortyish guys with beautiful women at their side—can’t perform. These, however, are my favorite ads because at least the couples are cuddly, happy and looking forward to a nice activity rather than sporting creepy eyes or a drug-induced look.

And then these companies think we can be hoodwinked over the environment, another indication of how dumb they think the American people are. “Clean” coal—now there’s a curious concept. Urging you to become an “energy voter” because fossil fuels create jobs? Of course, so do wind and solar power, but why bring that up? I guess these advertisers believe you can fool all people enough of the time.

The ad-makers believe Americans have no friends. Otherwise why would a woman named Angie tell us that for a fee we can find out from her list which local plumber or electrician is a good one in our small neighborhoods in Boston? Don’t people have friends? I bet that’s where you get your recommendations.

Some advertisers notice that we’re so stupid that we’ll pay multiples for medicines that cost little if they are in generic form.

Advertisers believe you will help sell their products, because you’re so dumb. They instruct you to ask your doctor. Why would you insult him or her to ask about a pill advertised on television? We’re not that stupid.

The election is bearing down on us. Maybe it will prove that we’re stupid, we don’t have any friends, that most men, except for one overweight 70-year-old, are impotent, that people who need false teeth or eye treatments look like freaks of nature and that we’re too lazy to take four pills instead of one.

I just hope it proves we are still smart, well informed, able to distinguish between right and rot, and not what the advertisers think we are.

A look at the library

Summer has ended. We’re back. The renovations to the 1972 Johnson building at the Central Library are finished. You must see the results. They are scrumptious.

It was the former library president, Amy Ryan, whose experience in other parts of the country helped her envision a happier and more serviceable space in the building named after its architect, Philip Johnson. She initiated a strategic planning effort, consulting with users all over Boston. The result was the Compass Plan, adopted in 2011, that set forth eight principles for a new type of urban library. Those principles guided the renovations. She then oversaw the project from the start to more than halfway finished. The current BPL president, David Leonard, was in on the project from the beginning.

William Rawn’s architecture firm, one of Boston’s best, designed the rebuild. Well-versed city representatives were also involved since Boston’s capital budget provided the $78 million for the construction, which took place in two phases.

I served on the library’s citizens’ advisory committee with other downtown neighbors. I saw plans before the construction started and enjoyed working with the impressive team. I thought I might be biased in judging the outcome. So I asked my friend Sally Hinkle, a librarian trained at Columbia University, to visit the library with me and comment on the renovations.

She loved it. She pointed out that it now looks like a library. Amazing.

As we walked in, we saw another amazing sight—activity. People sit at counters along the newly-revealed windows, playing or studying on their computers. The formerly cavernous, sterile entryway now contains books, all at hand or wheelchair height. Newspapers are near the door. Drop in on your way to work, have a read, and get out quickly. Sally, ever the librarian, picked up a misplaced book and put it back on the shelf in the right place.

No longer must you walk halfway through the building to find the information desk. It is only a few steps from the front door, so you can quickly get directions.

The interiors are warm, colorful and curvy—as different as possible from its predecessor. The cold granite floor has been replaced with extra-durable Hungarian limestone. The ceiling’s repetitive arches of wooden slats embrace the space. Orangey-red comfortable chairs will need cleaning and maintenance, but taking care of them should be worth it. Hard-cover books depicting the Boston skyline adorn one wall.

We visited before the Newsfeed Café and WGBH’s studio opened to the right of the entrance, but we could see that their activity will be visible from all sides. A broadcast studio is a fitting activity to incorporate into a contemporary library, the name of which now signals learning more than just books.

During the design phase I worried that the large entry space would be undifferentiated, with one part oozing into another. But the curves solve that problem, moving visitors through and defining spaces.

The bright, warm, cheerfulness continued—mostly—throughout the other rooms and is clearly attracting a following. The building was full of people. The computer room has expanded, offering 105 computers, twice the number in the old place. Almost every space was occupied. People had taken over most of the orangey chairs upstairs. At tables upstairs, many toiled on their own computers. The atmosphere was quiet but busy, companionable but focused, up-to-date but comfortable.

Sally felt the money had been spent wisely on the most important needs, and she was thrilled at how many people were using the space. “Remember when people said we didn’t need libraries—that we didn’t need books?” she asked, as if she had known the answer for a long time.

A Bay Village resident, Rick Weaver, 23, said he came to the Central Library once or twice a week to get caught up on his accounting work because the surroundings were so nice.

The only jarring note was the one room left from the original design. Deferrari Hall is the square, grey, tall room in the center with the double staircases. It was landmarked by the Boston Landmarks Commission, as was the building itself, who apparently were dazzled by the celebrity of the architect, Philip Johnson. Celebrity, yes. Good architect? A couple of his buildings might be interesting, but this Boston Public Library addition isn’t one of them.

The hall is cold, and the stairs are overwhelming rather than majestic. We noticed people avoided the hall if they could, walking around the outside to get to the elevators rather than crossing through it. Someone had tried to warm up the place with a circle of plants, but it wasn’t working. No one was using the stairs, although some people must. Certainly few will want to get married in Deferrari Hall as they do in the garden next door in the McKim building, but the hall is the architect’s failed attempt to reflect that beautiful space.

The Landmarks Commission did allow the architects to do away with Johnson’s bizarre granite slabs that blocked light and vistas from the first floor windows, which were also replaced. Supposedly these were incorporated because city people were afraid of the street in the 1970s. But I was living here then, and no one I knew was afraid. Instead we occupied those streets.

The building still is a thud on the landscape, but inside it is considerably better than it was. Thank goodness for the vision and leadership that brought this new space into being.

Cities and the art of books

Two things you may not know much about—book arts and sister cities. I had little idea about these activities until friends introduced me, proving true the words, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

These somewhat obscure subjects are coming together, however, on Friday, October 7, at the French Library. Entitled “The Ex-Libris Exchange,” this exhibit features books designed by 25 artists, thirteen from Boston and twelve from one of Boston’s sister cities, Strasbourg, France. It is sponsored by the Boston/Strasbourg Sister City Association or the BSSCA.

Let’s take book arts first. Artist’s books are growing in popularity with collectors. The Smithsonian and Harvard’s Houghton Library already have interesting collections. But don’t think Crime and Punishment when you think of book arts. Instead imagine beautiful paper, quirky shapes and sizes, inventive bindings, new ways of telling stories and many surprises when you open the book.

A friend of mine in Maine introduced me to these objects because she became a book artist. Her creations tell stories through phrases, lines, fabrics, collages, maps and other media and techniques. When you open one of her books, it might fold out into big shapes. Turn over the book, and it folds out in a different way. The books beg to be handled and manipulated, but that sometimes can’t happen because they are too fragile. Some of the artist’s books in the French Library’s exhibit can be handled, however, adding to your pleasure.

Watertown artist Ann Forbush got the idea for this show when she was in Strasbourg at an earlier artist’s exchange, sponsored by the BSSCA, called Par Avion, in which one artist would create an image, mail it to his or her colleague in the other city who would add to the image, and then they would mail it back and forth until the piece was complete.

While in Strasbourg, Ann and her fellow artists were treated to several behind-the-scenes tours. One visit was to a library with an impressive collection of rare manuscripts.

There Ann saw a journal of the Revolutionary War period in America created by Georg Daniel Flohr who fought with French soldiers in that war and returned home to the area around Strasbourg, which at that time was part of Germany. Rather than a description of military life, his journal presented the daily life of America. Handwritten and lavishly illustrated, it was unique and gorgeous. Ann believed it would inspire present-day Bostonians and Strasbourgians to create their own books. So she and a colleague in Strasbourg got the effort going. Check out http://exlibrisproject.com for a flavor of how varied the responses to one historic artifact can be.

The exhibit includes a facsimile of Flohr’s journal. When the exhibit moves to Strasbourg next spring, the real journal will be on display.

What about sister cities? You may not have realized Boston has ten of them plus three cities with which it has a “partnership relationship.” The BSSCA is the second oldest such alliance in Boston, established in 1960 at the urging of Charles Munch, a Strasbourg native who was then conductor of the Boston Symphony, according to Mary Louise Burke, president of the BSSCA.

Burke said the concept of sister cities was initiated by General Eisenhower at the end of World War II to foster understanding with foreign lands.

Different sister city relationships have different levels of commitment and activity. The Boston/Strasbourg connection is one of the most active, said Burke. Run by volunteers with no office or staff, the BSSCA has sponsored not only artist exchanges, but also exchanges of civic and cultural leaders, musicians, teachers, school kids, fire fighters, chefs and even a curator of wallpaper in partnership with Historic New England. Strasbourg’s cuurent mayor has been to Boston four times, Burke said, and several Boston mayors have visited Strasbourg. “We promote the culture of Alsace [the region of Strasbourg] to enrich Boston residents,” she said.

The organization raises money through dues and a few fund-raising events. One recent party was a “diner en blanc,” in which gourmands dressed in white as the French do to dine at Les Zygomates in the Leather District.

The late deputy mayor under Kevin White, Katharine Kane, was a strong supporter of sister cities, especially the alliance with Strasbourg, and her sister-in-law, Ann Collier, a Back Bay resident fluent in French, was president of BSSCA for 11 years and is still involved as treasurer.

The friendships formed are real and lasting, said Burke. The most moving moment for her was after the Boston Marathon bombings, when Strasbourg sent condolences and followed up with an invitation for a Boston runner to come to Strasbourg to run in its marathon. It also raised more than $15,000 from Strasbourg residents for Boston’s One Fund. Two Strasbourg runners who were unable to finish in 2013 because they were not allowed to proceed past Kenmore Square returned to Boston at the Strasbourg sister city organizations expense to run and finally cross the finish line in the 2016 Boston Marathon.

The exhibit is free and runs through October. The French Library is at 53 Marlborough Street.

Infrastructure. Investment. Interesting.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Boston boldly invested in itself. It cleaned up the harbor, spending $3.8 billion on the Deer Island Treatment Plant alone. It spent from $650 to $850 million, depending on how you count, in state money for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, said spokesman Nate Little. Fifteen billion dollars of federal and state money went to the CA/T project, aka Big Dig, which buried the Central Artery and created the Ted Williams Tunnel.

These efforts, mostly completed by 2004, have paid off in improving Bostonians’ quality of life. We can swim in Boston Harbor without worrying about the “floatables” that sailed past when a friend of mine finished first in the 1977 Boston Light Swim. While our underground automobile trip through the Financial District is little faster than when we took the overhead road, neighbors no longer have to see or hear the stalled traffic. Instead we can take a beautiful walk through a maturing Greenway. Boston turned around and became the waterfront city it had been and was meant to be

Charlestown gained two lovely parks instead of the overhead tangle where I-93 and I-95 once met in possibly the most difficult intersection ever of two interstate highways. (We taught a daughter to drive by guiding her there from Leverett Circle, theorizing that she’d better know how to drive like a Boston driver.)

North End and Waterfront residents are no longer cut off from the rest of the city by an overhead road. And the rest of the city can now get to those neighborhoods with pleasure.

In anticipation of the Big Dig, utility companies relocated and upgraded underground connections, giving Boston a competitive edge over other older cities, recalls Bob O’Brien, who lived through it all when he served as executive director of the Downtown North Association.

The whole thing has provided an astounding boost to Boston’s economy. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, along with the Back Bay’s renovated Hynes, will contribute $750 million in benefits in fiscal 2017, said Little. The BRA calculates that projects approved since 2005 in the Seaport District total more than $6 billion in investment.

I’ve made my own calculations along the Big Dig with O’Brien’s help. In the dozen or so years since public projects were completed, private real estate investment totaling about $15 billion has built buildings or has them under construction or planned around the buried Central Artery. (If you want my list, email me at [email protected], and I’ll send it to you.) That figure includes such projects as the InterContinental Hotel, built around a tunnel vent tower, the proposed Haymarket Hotel, and the condominiums at Boulevard. That project, which adds the phrase, “on the Greenway” to its name and famously incorporates one standing wall from an original Bulfinch building is one of several projects not starting from scratch. Minor changes—cutting windows into the side of buildings that once lay next to the highway, changing doorways so outdoor restaurants now spill out toward the Greenway—are small contributions to the economy that I’ve not included in my tally.

How much can be attributed to the Big Dig? A good economy and the fact that Boston’s industries are the ones thriving everywhere today have helped. Nevertheless, O’Brien said, in the Downtown North area, alone he calculates that the Big Dig is directly responsible for more than $5 billion of investment. This includes parcels built on land freed by removing the elevated highway’s underpinning—the rental apartments on Canal Street, The Victor, Related Beal’s affordable housing on Beverly Street. Larger development sites at the Nashua Street Residences and the Boston Garden would have been less appealing if the overhead road had remained, he said.

The depression of the Central Artery, which created the Rose Kennedy Greenway, was a major factor in the revitalization and redevelopment of the downtown waterfront district from the North End though South Station and it was unquestionably a major catalyst for renewal and redevelopment of both Downtown Boston and the West End,” O’Brien wrote in an email.

Not even the Great Recession slowed investment much.

Don Chiofaro said his team bought the Harbor Garage because of its location between the harbor and the Greenway. Tom O’Brien said HYM’s project from Cambridge Street to the Greenway was based on the aftereffects of the Big Dig. “It is absolutely true that the Big Dig made projects like ours conceivable,” he wrote in an email. “In fact, I would say the Big Dig helped turn the entire Downtown into a residential neighborhood.”

Other projects along the Greenway may have gotten built whether or not the road was buried. Perhaps the Seaport District would have occurred without the Ted Williams tunnel and the other two public investments, but I doubt it, and so does Chiofaro.

Chiofaro has been around a long time and sees the Seaport’s growth, in particular, as directly related to them.

Everyone is impressed with the speed at which the Seaport has developed, but it wasn’t speedy at all, he contends. “The fact is when I got out of high school in 1963, someone took me to Pier 4 and said this is the next great real estate opportunity,” he said. “I looked at the steel nets and asked, ‘What are those?’ They were the nets we used to close Boston Harbor during World War II.

“In 1968 when I got out of college, I was told that district was the next great real estate opportunity. Five years later I got out of business school and was told it was the next great real estate opportunity.

“Long story short is it didn’t happen fast. It took the momentum of the depression of the Central Artery and the cleanup of the harbor,” he said.

So now, when we’re complaining we don’t have enough money to build the Green Line extension, the train to the South Shore, the North-South Rail Link and other big projects, maybe we should look back at the 1980s leadership that got Boston into its happy situation today.

We’re a richer city and state than we were then. To say we can’t afford to make big investments in infrastructure is to not notice where it has gotten us before.

How to succeed in downtown Boston

You moved in a couple of weeks ago. Welcome. You’ll love it here. You can walk to everything—work, concerts, shopping, the dentist, the river, the harbor. It’s easy to meet new people because all the downtown neighborhoods have plenty of organizations that are sure to tap into some interest you have.          Neighborhood associations attract the civic-minded. These associations often have special organizations for young people. Gardeners have garden clubs. Old folks have Beacon Hill Village, which is active in several downtown neighborhoods, not just Beacon Hill. Museums attract volunteers and board members who are interested in architecture or history. The restaurants, local bars and small businesses draw in regulars you’ll get to know. Dogs bring people together as do children. It’s a companionable life.

Boston’s downtown neighborhoods are no longer tribal. Even in the North End, which still revels in its past and entertains us with it, only a third of the residents identify as Italian (while still being able to enjoy the good restaurants.) It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what sexual orientation you come with, or what nationality you are. You’ll be welcome in all the downtown neighborhoods.

Experience will introduce you to the downsides. You already know that downtown living spaces are typically small and expensive. If you rent in an older building, you are likely to have a neglectful landlord who lives somewhere else, so don’t expect much for your money. Having a car is a pain unless you have a parking space, and even then why would you want to drive around the city when there is no parking at your destination? Take a cab, the T or an Uber.

If you’re a parent, you may have noticed there are only a few public schools—Charlestown, the North End and Chinatown have them—but in the rest of the downtown—zilch. Even in neighborhoods with a public school, local children aren’t assured of getting into one they can walk to. Private nursery schools abound, but only a few private elementary schools exist, and they are expensive and competitive.

You’ll also find that some of your neighbors don’t get it. They are ignorant of a special condition we have here—we must share and be kind to one another. Hallways, side walls, shade, parking, streets, sidewalks, ceilings and floors—we share everything. We’re all in this together.

It is easy to find happiness here, though. Learn when to put out your trash and recyclables and do it properly. Always pick up after your dog, and don’t dispose of the bag on the sidewalk or in a tree pit. Take it home to your own trash. Your neighbors will admire you.

Join your neighborhood association. Patronize local retail shops and restaurants often enough so the proprietors and employees know you. Join an athletic club and gather some of its patrons to go running or walking together. Practice tolerance when your neighbor cooks bacon, and you smell it. Thank the neighbor who sweeps the sidewalk, and do it yourself sometimes. Keep your tree watered.

Enjoy especially those random moments city life fosters—when you realize a man from India and one from Rhode Island are getting married in the middle of your street. Or when you catch sight of a young woman with pink boots and a lime green jacket driving down the street on a pink and lime green motor scooter. Or saying hello to the guys who are always hanging out on the stoop of a building a block away. Or listening to the talented flutist whose songs come from a nearby open window. Or the fact that if you are lonely, you can go out and talk with a neighbor who sits in a chair on the sidewalk on most good days. I’ve had two neighbors who do that, and it is comforting to know their eyes are on the street.

Living successfully in a crowded city is a product of an existential attitude. It requires tolerance, a sense of irony, an enjoyment of the human condition and an appreciation of others’ moods and behavior. It is one of the most satisfying of human conditions.