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.

Can O’Malley cut it?

Forty-year-old Faneuil Hall Marketplace has recently had a tough time, especially since the New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation took over the ground lease and became the manager of the retail and restaurant businesses five years ago.

Although it is Boston’s top destination for tourists, it is less popular with residents, who reportedly flocked to the refurbished BRA-owned historic structures when they first opened.

Although it was envisioned as a “festival” mall with local vendors, over the years its spaces have been filled with an increasing number of national mall chains, including the most recent addition, Uniqlo, and coming soon, make-up giant Sephora, making for a lesser “Boston” experience for some.

Marketplace managers and local marketplace vendors have clashed, with vendors complaining that Ashkenazy won’t give the locals long-term leases, that some have been pre-emptively kicked out, and others have been moved to lesser locations to make room for chains in more visible areas of the marketplace.

Finally, proposed renovations have met with complaint from both vendors and neighbors.

Enter Joe O’Malley, Ashkenazy’s new general manager. Aged 34, Dorchester-born, Dorchester-bred, South Boston-bred too, cousin of Marty Walsh—who was like a big brother to him, charming, friendly, optimistic, and determined to succeed. He’s had a background in retail, starting at Patty’s Pantry in Dorchester as a teen and working up to the convention center for the last ten years. O’Malley started at the marketplace in April. Will he be able to work through the difficulties?

“I want to bring it up to where it should be,” O’Malley said of the marketplace. “I’m working to be the conduit among all parties.”

O’Malley said one objective is to give the market a facelift by power washing and by replacing the rough, cobbled bricks with a smooth granite surface for easier walking. He wants to also complete the new glass building on the Congress Street corner that replaces the smaller, Ben Thompson-designed structure, which was not winter-proofed.

He said he wants to attract more Boston-area residents, which now comprise only 25 percent of the 20 million annual visitors at last count. He has installed tables and chairs for families. He said he wants the merchants’ association to help determine what type of crowd the vendors want. This summer, the market successfully hosted book readings, chess tournaments, dance classes, outdoor yoga and other offerings to attract the college-age and after-work crowd.

O’Malley doesn’t buy the fact that some people think national chains are boring, are better patronized on the internet and make Faneuil Hall look like every mall in the country. “I want a good mix of local versus national,” he said. He did not, however, spell out what that mix is.

He has reached out to a Dorchester non-profit, the Bird Street Community Center, to sell from a pushcart the blown glass its students produce in its glass-blowing program. He has also approached a Somerville non-profit to discuss how its members might participate. He has focused on these non-profit consortiums because he said he understands that individual artists and crafts people have trouble finding the time to both make their products and sell them.

Then there is the matter of long-term leases. Jeff Allen of Boston Pewter Company, which has been at the marketplace for 39 years, has had no lease for many months. O’Malley said he offered Allen a longer lease. Allen said the terms offered were not acceptable, especially where they said that after one year Ashkenazy could either relocate or terminate him with 90-days’ notice and wanted him to sign a confidentiality clause. The two are still battling it out.

Other leases? Unclear, said Carol Troxell, president of the market’s merchant’s association. She said vendors understand the need during construction to relocate a business or gain access to utilities within an individual space and are trying to be patient. But putting merchants on hold for too long disrupts their ability to get financing or make bulk purchases.

Nevertheless, she said the local merchants welcome O’Malley. “He’s new, young and very likable and understands the need for leases,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best.”

.        O’Malley is vague about the renovations Ashkenazy proposed many months ago. He won’t be pinned down on either the type of renovations or their timetable. He said everything is in the concept phase, except for having “shovels in the ground” for the new paving by October, 2017.

Right now, there is little to worry about profit-wise. Faneuil Hall Marketplace is enjoying its best year out of the last five with an increase of more than $1 million in sales so far over last year.

Profits are one thing. Resolving the conflicts are another. At least it will be easy to measure O’Malley’s effectiveness if by next year enough local merchants have signed long leases, if tempers have simmered down, and if the renovations are supported by both vendors and neighbors. If O’Malley, with his charming ways and optimistic outlook doesn’t succeed, who can?

Autumn requires poetry

New Englanders have a complicated relationship with autumn. We brag about it and invite outsiders to enjoy it with us. After all, who wouldn’t like those maples and oaks turning orange, crimson and yellow? Trees turn color in Illinois and Iowa too, but because those places have few hills, you can’t see them in big swaths as you can on our mountainous slopes.

Who doesn’t enjoy walking through the woods and realizing that the golden, spicy native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) lights up the path as if it were a ball of scented candles? Maybe you’ll come upon a mound of chicken of the woods mushrooms.

Plants go on forever, it seems. The knock-out roses keep knocking out blooms. Window boxes can bloom into November. September is the least rainy month in New England, and the air is usually dry and pleasantly cool. Hard frosts don’t really come until late November. That means summer really doesn’t end if we can enjoy eating at outdoor restaurants, walking along a beach in warm sand and forgoing heavy coats until winter is almost here.

But fall is full of frenzy. Not everyone goes away in the summer. And some students attend summer school. But in September, people feel as if everyone is back. The students have moved in. Traffic gets heavier. The subways are more crowded. You can go to a meeting every evening. Appointments pushed off during the summer now have to be kept. Obligations you promised during July now have to be met.

New Englanders see winter as something to be endured. They view spring as joyful and summer as short. Autumn, however, is purposeful. It is demanding of your time and attention. You have to meet goals, concentrate on projects, tidy things up. There is no lolling about as you might want to do in summer. Things are serious now.

They are also melancholy. Clam shacks, summer ice cream shanties and hot dog stands close. The last of the harvest comes in. Daytime gets shorter, and some people begin to fear a depression coming on that seems exacerbated by the darkness. While activity is more purposeful it is also more constricted.

Songs about autumn express that melancholy. “Autumn Leaves,” a song about love and loss composed in 1945, has never gone out of style. Nat King Cole recorded it in the 1950s, and Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton did it in the 2000s.

If autumn drags you to melancholy, you’re not the first one to feel it. But I’ve always felt the demands of autumn can be balanced by the poetry that has been written by such favorites as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Perhaps you can’t evoke the images as well as Will Shakespeare in Sonnet 73 but you can find solace it them:


“That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the deathbed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long”


On the other hand, Emily Dickinson got a bit giddy with autumn:


“The morns are meeker than they were,

The nuts are getting brown;

The berry’s cheek is plumper,

The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,

The field a scarlet gown.

Lest I should be old-fashioned,

I’ll put a trinket on.”


So you can take your pick. Wallow in autumn and its symbolism of death or go all gaudy with it. It’s your choice.

A month in the country

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from August, 2013.

For the first time since I was 18 years old, I have spent a month in the country.

And what a beautiful country it is. Fifty shades of green complimented by the bluest sky ever. Puffy clouds ranging from gray to bright white. Dozens of goldfinches, which my father-in-law called “cornfield canaries,” soar around with their undulating flight.

Grass won’t grow beneath the dense hemlocks, but their gray-green needles are still intact. The ash tree sprawls over the perennial beds, shading them, but not too much. Acorns fall on your head as you walk through an oak forest, but it is not yet clear that it will be a mast year. The maples are at least 100 years old, gnarled, rutted and pitted, their trunks sometimes looking like old faces. No one taps them for syrup, but a farmer down the road has lined his woods with bright blue plastic tubes that deliver sap from hundreds of trees. The pines tower over everything.

The town beach is Scobie Pond, sometimes called Haunted Lake. The water looks like tea and tastes like leaves when you swim in it. Sometimes minnows or snakes glide by, giving everyone a thrill.

This is not Disney World, a mall or anything that reeks of corporate, homogenized America. It’s called the simple life, but there is nothing simple about it.

Instead this is profound New England, much like “la France profonde,” the phrase that calls up a place’s truest, deepest culture. People have had to work hard to make the land the “simple” place it is. Dozens of stone walls, piled up by 18th or 19th century farmers, run deep into the woods, where ancient apple tree remains can be found. An old pine stands thick, reaching out with many large branches, signaling that this was once a cleared field, probably used for grazing. Out in the woods, sometimes an old cellar hole becomes obvious. The first Europeans who settled here endured a physically demanding life, not like me whose biggest exertion is hiking up a mountain or weeding the garden.

This is a land of my ancestors—some of them. This is the land they left to find a longer growing season, deeper soil, fewer rocks in the field, a better life. They ended up in the Midwest, as did so many other New England farmers, carrying with them New England names. The Peabody Coal Company was down the road from the farm I grew up on. Its founder lived in Chicago, but his mother and father came from Maine and New Hampshire. Now I’m back, grateful for the early settlers’ efforts.

Autumn is the season for which New England is known, but I’d argue that for New Englanders, summer is the high point. We increasingly have hot days, but many are cool and refreshing. We have enough rain most summers to keep the grass green and the gardens producing.

Painters from the gnarled ocean side of Maine to the green hills of the Berkshires have celebrated summer. Edith Wharton wrote a book with that season’s title, and she did not write books with titles of the other seasons. Summer is the season of Shakespeare’s plays performed outside, music played in tents and parks, of overdosing on sweet corn, pesto, and gazpacho because in a couple of months those treats that are at their best in August will be gone.

There are still blueberries at the top of mountains. Tiny wild dianthus grows among the grasses in the meadow, at times making it glow in vivid pink. Michaelmas daisies have popped out along the edges of the walls and the lanes.

Beavers are in the marsh. Leeches, bullfrogs and big snapping turtles are there too, scaring and delighting the children. Warblers, cedar waxwings and sparrows I have a hard time identifying lurk in the shrubs, making binoculars more important than a frying pan. Deer peek out of the forest. Flocks of turkeys strut across the lawn and balance on the stone walls.        It’s as busy as a street in downtown Boston.

There are dangers here. Bears and fisher cats pose risks to pets. Global warming has caused the hemlocks to be vulnerable to the wooly adelgid. The ash borer is creeping up this way. The spruce budworm has again done in some of the spruce, and the maples and oaks have potential problems too.

But I know we are lucky to be able to spend this month in the country, and I don’t take it for granted. It’s not Syria or other fragile countries in Africa and the middle east, where the world has gone crazy. It is a place of beauty and peace. I hope it stays this way forever.


Jaywalking is safest

Karen is on a break.

We’ve not heard much about this bill since last winter. But jaywalking is still a Bostonian’s best bet.

 It gladdened my heart last week to read that state Senator Harriette Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester and the Senate Majority Leader, proposed raising the fine for jaywalking from $1 to $25 for a first offense up to $75 for third offenses and more. She thinks this will save lives.

I was delighted for two reasons. First, it’s fun to watch when people try to solve a problem with an ineffective solution.

Also, the senator’s proposal gives me the chance to celebrate jaywalking as the Boston pedestrians’ only way to get across a street.

Let’s look at facts. Massachusetts saw 11 pedestrian deaths between January 4 and January 26, according to WalkBoston. Eight were caused by drivers, not pedestrians. Four of the victims were in a crosswalk, but the drivers hit them anyway. One driver was drunk. Three drivers hit and ran. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of WalkBoston because I care about this stuff.)

Eight fatalities occurred after dark. Older pedestrians were more at risk: seven were over 60.

The irony is that Sen. Chandler would be increasing the fine on the best way to stay safe. Studies in San Francisco, New York City and Florida have determined that jaywalking is safer than crossing in a crosswalk.

In May, 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks vindicated Boston pedestrians when he wrote that people take more risks when they believe systems or devices are in place to protect them. “[Pedestrians] have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways,” he wrote.

Despite the recent tragedies, Boston’s jaywalkers still make this city the second safest for pedestrians in America. Transportation for America, an organization devoted to expanding transportation options, quantified the most dangerous places for pedestrians. In 50 metro areas of more than 1 million, Minneapolis-St. Paul was safest, but Boston was second.

This is despite the fact that more Boston-area residents (4.6 percent) walk to work than in any American city except New York (6 percent). New York was also safer for pedestrians, with a ranking just under Boston’s.

Putting safety aside, jaywalking is the reasonable option when pedestrians face the challenges the city’s transportation officials put in their way.

The city has installed push buttons at every crosswalk so cars are not inconvenienced if no one is waiting to cross. We doubt that the buttons work since we know how badly the city maintains anything. So we are forced to take matters into our own hands.

Most cities use buttons at crosswalks where few pedestrians turn up. Here, at all times of day, there are as many pedestrians as cars at most intersections. We always need a walk cycle. Take out the buttons, and spend the savings on pre-kindergarten.

Another problem is that even if we get a walk cycle, it is not concurrent with traffic going in the same direction, as it is in every other American city. Maybe those officials don’t want us to slow down the drivers who are turning.

Law-abiding tourists are stuck and confused. You watch them stand on a corner, waiting and waiting for the little white man, wondering why Bostonians are paying no attention.

The next problem is the time walkers are given to cross a street. We might get 18 seconds at a Cambridge Street intersection, while Washington D.C. pedestrians get 47 seconds on a street of a comparable size. (It is nerdy to measure such things, but I do it.)

It is ironic in “America’s Walking City” that city officials are so behind the times in making it more convenient and safer for walkers.         Cambridge and Chicago have instituted a “leading pedestrian interval” at some intersections. Pedestrians get a few seconds head start in crossing the street before the light turns green for cars heading in the same direction. Turning cars are more likely to see pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk.

Finally, drivers should be fined for blasting through un-signaled crosswalks when a person has already started to cross. California drivers on even the busiest roads stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. In Boston, where drivers seem oblivious, a sign helps.

Mayor Walsh has a plan for making our streets safer with his Vision Zero Task Force. It has identified some of the most dangerous locations and made plans to make them safer. His plea for drivers to slow down won’t make a difference. But his plan for speed bumps and raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods is an excellent start, since high speed is the greatest factor in pedestrian deaths.

Making laws and the right of way tougher on cars is the way to go, not blaming the victims.

Meanwhile, I called Ms. Chandler’s office to see how things are going. Haven’t heard back yet.