Where things stand: Winthrop Square

The proposed 775-foot tower to be built on the site of a grungy city garage started out nicely when plans were unveiled last summer. The developer, Millennium Partners, was largely responsible for revitalization of Washington Street with the Ritz complex, Millennium Place and the Millennium Tower that filled in Vornado’s Filene’s hole. They would pay the city $153 million for affordable housing and park maintenance in the Boston Common and Franklin Park. So far, so good.

Then came a pesky problem.

The tower broke the law. It threw shadows on the Common that were not allowed under the early 1990s state legislation limiting shadows on the Boston Common, the Public Garden and the common in Lynn. (It’s a long story.)

The Friends of the Public Garden, who look after the Common, said no way would they allow illegal shadows. Legislators spoke up. City councilors weighed in. Meetings were held. Letters were written. The Boston Planning and Development Agency offered a compromise—let Winthrop Square, which is not in the Midtown Cultural District, use the shadows left in the “shadow bank,” available only to properties in the Midtown Cultural District, which extends from the Common through Downtown Crossing.

Meanwhile, Logan Airport said the tower might be too high. Rep. Aaron Michlowitz of the North End said nothing would happen unless the city ponies up dollars to support the Greenway. No one has yet offered any compromise.

Complicated stories like this get more complicated, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening.

So where do things stand?

I asked four people who are involved with the matter. (Two other people I never reached.) This is apparently where things stand.

The Friends of the Public Garden still oppose the shadow the project casts, said Liz Vizza, the organization’s executive director. Since the city has not filed a home rule petition, Vizza does not know what the city is planning, so she waits.

Her group isn’t passive, however. It mounts letter-writing campaigns, meets with city officials, and has hired a State House lobbyist to help manage whatever legislation is filed.

Potential for compromise on the part of the Friends? Maybe a little gesture. Vizza characterized the shadow trade as “an incremental step toward balancing additional shadow and protecting the park.” She also said she would like to see the city consider how to balance new development and green spaces all over Boston. In Dorchester, South Boston and JP, where many buildings are rising, green spaces have no protection at all.

The rumor mill has it that some think Copley Square needs a shadow law. Would such restrictions sweeten the pot for park advocates? Hard to tell.

Vizza, as well as some legislators I spoke to, want the city to drill down in zoning so everyone knows what’s allowed. But city officials say good luck unless they’ve got a much bigger budget and more staff. Meanwhile everyone wants to take advantage of the best economy in recent memory for development.

Vizza’s big worry is precedent. No comparable city-owned parcels are left in the downtown. But, she wonders, if city officials are blinded by the big bucks this development throws off, what will they do if future developers offer way beyond what they need to in proposing their plan?

Josh Zakim, the city councilor for the neighborhoods around the Common, said it is hard to get a sense of whether the city council would support a home rule petition until the city files its proposal. Zakim would still like to see the developers explain what shadows would be like if the building were at 500 or 600 feet tall. For now, he’s waiting too.

Joe Larkin, Millennium’s point man for Winthrop Square, has been presenting the merits of the proposal to neighborhood groups all over the city, since, as he says, the payoff benefits many neighborhoods.

Larkin said his company will file Form 7460 with Massport within the next 30 days. That will start the process of determining whether 775 feet will fly (sorry) with the airport crowd. He supports the shadow bank trade. “Shadow for shadow is a good deal,” he said.

He has no plans for a design change. His company, like the Friends, has hired lobbyists. “We’re working in an environment we’re not familiar with,” he said, referring to the State House. “It’s the same with the Friends.”

Finally, a few answers came from the BPDA’s Jonathan Greeley. City officials are focused on the money for housing and park maintenance. He says the BPDA, as part of resolving this matter, will “lead a planning effort to better define the future of downtown.”

His spokesperson, Bonnie McGilpin, said the home rule petition will go to the city council in the next few weeks. “The exact substance is still being finalized,” she said in an email.

As to Rep. Michlowitz’s demand, the mayor and he have had a conversation, said McGilpin. So far, the mayor looks as if he’s sticking with his original plan for disbursing the money. Is it a moot point as officials work out with abutters how the Greenway’s maintenance will go forward?

So many moving parts. So many conflicts. So little time.

Finding hope

After the election, Nancy Schön was blue. When faced with sadness, what’s a sculptor to do? She fashions a piece that acknowledges her feelings, yet points toward hope.

The mother dove has a tear in her eye. But her fledgling is rising from a lilac branch that already has buds on it. Laurel leaves lie nearby. This small sculpture, still in wax, shows how an artist conceives of a project, decides how big it will be, plays with the image until it feels right and finally can send it off to the Chelsea foundry to be cast in bronze. Nancy is still playing with the image, so the doves are not finished. But the project is making her feel better.

Nancy, of course, is the renowned sculptor who turned Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings mallards into the bronze statues in the Boston Public Garden. (Her last name is pronounced “Shern.”) Children have been playing on the ducks, and their parents have been taking photographs of those children on the ducks, for almost 30 years.

This remarkable woman showed me around her house and studio the other day so I could tell some of her story.

Nancy lives in a section of Newton that has big, early 20th-century, gorgeous houses. Her pleasant home is filled with the paintings and sculpture of other artists, as well as her own art.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue my love of sculpture, help others and earn a living,” she said. That’s what she is doing.

Nancy is slender and good looking, taking after her mother, who was a beauty herself. She is strong and agile, which comes in handy when she makes such big pieces as a lifesize pig, bear or giraffe. Seven months of the year she swims a quarter of a mile daily in her outdoor pool, which takes up most of her back yard. She works every day in her spacious studio behind the swimming pool, using materials and tools familiar to carpenters, jewelers and plumbers—Styrofoam, steel netting, drywall nails, pipes, scrapers, magnifying glasses, clay, wax, plaster, marble, turntables, wire. She spends lots of time at lumber yards. She follows the Red Sox, goes to symphony and likes places that offer valet parking.

Did I mention that she is 88 years old? She seems at least 25 years younger.

Nancy grew up in Newton in a loving family. Her father ran Harry Quint Florist in the Back Bay, and her mother delivered the flowers. From an early age Nancy was sculpting. “I intuitively knew how things go together,” she said.

She trained at the Museum School, married philosopher, professor and author Donald Schön and had four children, all happy and healthy. Her early sculptures featured many mothers and children. She created images of her husband and children walking in the woods. She made giraffes because Donald was six feet four and told her he sometimes felt like a giraffe. She made sculptures of people waiting, of people climbing. She watched people looking at sculpture and had an insight. “Children patted the cat or stroked the donkey, but paid no attention to the people sculptures,” she said.

Her public art commissions came fast after the ducklings statues were unveiled. First Lady Barbara Bush called on her to reprise Mrs. Mallard and her brood for the children of the then-Soviet Union. Mrs. Bush and Nancy went to Moscow to present the ducks to Raisa Gorbachev. Nancy made a tortoise and a hare for Copley Square to celebrate the Boston Marathon. She made a dragon with a heart at the end of its tail for the Nonquit Street Green in Dorchester. The city of Hamilton, Ohio, commissioned a statue of Lentil and his dog in honor of hometown boy Robert McCloskey, whose first book, Lentil, was believed to be autobiographical.

Nancy made prairie dogs for Oklahoma City to symbolize friendship. She created Eeyore, Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh for the Newton Free Library. Her raccoons occupy a place of regard in Tennessee, another tortoise and hare live in Arkansas, and the bear Sal met in Blueberries for Sal stands in Boothbay Harbor, Maine’s botanical garden.

Nancy’s husband, Don, died about 20 years ago at age 67 so she had to create a new life for herself. That involved finishing a studio they had planned together and expanding her work with non-profit organizations. She partners with many groups doing good in the world to make works of art—desk-size sculptures, pins, even a zipper pull—to help them raise money or honor volunteers. She was a prime mover in building the skate park near the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge because she believed the kids skateboarding in Copley Square needed a better place to do their tricks. She created a series of small sculptures illustrating 24 of Aesop’s Fables that are still waiting for public home. She spends much time with her children, grandchildren and her first great-grandchild.

She is still working on the doves, trying to decide which composition will capture the hope she strives for. But in a world that contains so much bad news, so many bad actors, so much corruption and so many falsehoods, it is relieving to come upon a good story. It is what Nancy has made of her life that gives everyone hope that good lives can occur.

Class divides?

A few weeks ago I took the T over to Prudential Center. I wanted to check out Eataly, since I’d heard so much about it. Was it really a sign that tradition-bound Boston can handle the latest, greatest retail concept? Would it finally make the Pru cool? Would it edge out the North End as the most Italian place north of New York?

I forgot those questions when I stepped off the escalator on the second floor. Instead I was overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of the place. This was not moldy old Boston.

Fifty kinds of pasta, at least. Wine, cheese, sauce, meats, fish, take-away and restaurants. It was like Harrods’ Food Hall on steroids. Gorgeous displays. Lavish, clean, the lighting strategically designed to make everything beautiful. The fresh-pasta makers drew crowds as they rolled, sliced and nipped at the dough. Plenty of staff were around to answer questions. The one percent would feel at home here.

It reminded me how stratified into class and money our nation has become. The last election illustrated this, as do the reports about how housing in Boston (and other cities) is out of reach for so many.

The stratification seems more obvious now than it used to, and I feared Eataly was only one more example of the divides between the rich, not-so-rich and poor.

We have many examples of the divides. While there has always been stratification in travel, the airlines currently seem to have made it into an art form. The pecking order goes from first class to economy plus, with a bit of extra leg room, down to steerage, where passengers do not have enough space between them and the seat in front to open a laptop. And then the airlines blame the passengers when they get testy.

You can pay to play, and life gets difficult if you don’t. Getting on the plane last means little room in the bins for your belongings. Of course, for $30-plus you can get on earlier. Even JetBlue—formerly the most egalitarian airline—has instituted a class structure on long flights.

Class divisions are common practice in the retirement states. Gated communities are on the rise in Florida, and they are the development mode in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Gated communities are supposed to signify luxury. Instead, they conjure up images of a frightened populace hunkered down, fearful of who-knows-what lurking in the outside world, which they never encounter because they leave the gates only in a locked car headed to a shopping mall patrolled by guards. That doesn’t seem like luxury living to me.

In some ways, however, airline stratification and gated communities’ fake status are just throwaways. They don’t matter much. The real stratification invades such places as higher education and family structure.

Richer students still attend brick and mortar institutions and spend four years doing so. Poorer students and so-called non-traditional students are offered online courses or degrees from for-profit institutions with shaky credentials and uncertain outcomes.

Other options besides Harvard, BU and Northeastern are good; there’s no denying that. But the traditional schools’ extra benefits—providing students time to ponder the world’s literature and history, fostering discussions of life’s big questions into the night with roommates, and providing a setting where classmates will remain friends forever and help connect one another to jobs, mates, and other opportunities—are hard to come by if a student is sitting at a computer mastering course work in isolation.

Marriage is another benefit that has succumbed to a class divide. Marriage typically brings emotional and financial stability for spouses and their children, but for reasons that are only partly understood, those without college degrees are now more likely to have to go it alone than are college graduates.

I pondered these divides as I wandered around Eataly. Then I began to look at the people. The staff was as diverse a group as I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tell their financial status, but they were young and old and represented every ethnicity and color, so there must be some economic diversity among the workers. A woman handling check-out later told me she liked her job, was satisfied with her pay, and looked forward to getting a promotion soon.

I watched the other patrons. They too were diverse. As far as I could tell they were not only the one-percenters, but came from all the percentages. With the long lines at the cash registers, it looked as if the diverse crowd was stocking up on merchandise that was within reach.

I left feeling better than when I first encountered the store. Maybe Eataly, despite its trendy concept and novel merchandising, is not just a new concept but also a reflection of the cities it occupies—where all kinds of people are readily accepted and everyone feels comfortable, different and together.

Uninhabitable

Samuel Eliot Morison in The Maritime History of Massachusetts describes our state’s liabilities—tumbling, shallow, un-navigable rivers that could never compete with the mighty Hudson or the St. Lawrence; “long-lying snow,” making for a short growing season; shallow soil too close to the underlying granite for successful farming, few natural resources beyond timber, and then there is the ice. Compared to the old country, Massachusetts presented daunting challenges to its early European settlers.

Morison goes on to credit those settlers with turning their liabilities into assets. Our forebears captured the power of the waterfalls that prevented navigation to turn the mill wheel, enabling them to grind wheat and develop industry. They used the snow’s slippery surface to haul big items, possibly the most famous being the captured British cannons that Henry Knox dragged on sleds from Fort Ticonderoga at the beginning of the American Revolution. He made it to Dorchester Heights, where General Washington trained them on the British fleet, which prudently left Boston Harbor on or about March 17, conveniently giving us a secular reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Finally, landowners, realizing New England’s soil was mostly only marginally fertile, quarried the underlying granite to build imposing architecture, headstones, curbs and now, kitchen counters. With few natural resources of their own, Massachusetts’ early entrepreneurs shipped other places’ goods. Then they sliced the ice from the ponds into blocks, packed them in sawdust in the holds of ocean-going ships, and sold the ice to tropical countries. I’m told that such entrepreneurs also introduced ice cream to show tropical-landers how to use frozen water.

Clever.

Nevertheless, Morison’s description reminds readers of how uninhabitable America was to early Europeans. It still is. New England? Morison spelled it out. But other regions were and are even more challenging.

The mid-Atlantic states, the South and the Midwest? So hot and humid that British diplomats assigned to Washington, D.C. in the 1800s were allowed to wear Bermuda shorts. Texas— same heat, with the added threat of fire ants. South and the Midwest? Tornedos. The South? Bugs, big ones that bite and give you the creeps, not to mention poisonous snakes and the alligators that would get you if you tried to swim in the fresh-water ponds, rivers and lakes.

Arizona and some of Nevada? October through March is nice enough. But from April on you can’t go outside without collapsing. You will burn your hand if you touch anything outside. I once met a woman who grew up in the state before air conditioning. She said her family dipped their sheets in water before they went to bed and rolled up in them so they would be cool enough to sleep.

Arizonians say you won’t mind the heat because it is dry heat. They say this while sipping margaritas at an air-conditioned bar. They know better than to go outside.

In many other areas of the country you can’t go outside in the summer. That’s one advantage New Englanders have on most summer days. The southern states spend more on air conditioning than we do on heat. What kind of life is that to be forced inside all summer?

Then there is the West Coast, possibly the nicest place in all of America. Unfortunately, California is slowly tipping into the Pacific Ocean. It is wracked with earthquakes, fires and either droughts or floods. Oregon puts up with an active volcano.

With all the threats and challenges to human life in the rest of the country, Morison’s New England looks pretty good. We can still spend many days outdoors in the summer. Winter sports and a cozy fire in a fireplace, if we are lucky enough to have one, keep us going.

Still, we face global warming and sea rise, so that even in relatively livable New England we can expect overheated summers, winters too warm to stop the deadly southern bugs, and the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our doors. According to news reports, we might have to build a sea wall at the entrance to Boston Harbor to keep the rising ocean out.

We might get some solace from the fact the Florida, where the governor refuses to recognize climate change, will soon be a shallow salt marsh. But that also means that New Englanders won’t have Florida to flee to if they can’t stand weather or taxes.

We’ll just have to stay here and face the changes. Grist mills, granite quarries and ice seem pretty benign right now.

The pitfalls of symbols

Super Bowl fever brought up the topic of sports design. Surely you have noticed the Super Bowl trophy. Once in awhile someone mentions its shape, but not much. Apparently two prominent football guys sat down in a restaurant and designed it, and Tiffany made it and continues to make it. Maybe the guys who designed it had small “hands” and didn’t realize what they were doing. Much talk centers on how men make better decisions when women are included in the decision-making. This was clearly a time for a woman to weigh in. The design they came up with, seen from a certain way, is a giant, in your face, phallus. It’s amusing. But it is also embarrassing because the guys don’t seem to realize what they have wrought.

Do the players get a copy of the trophy in addition to the ring? If so, I wonder how Giselle, who seems like one of the more level-headed of celebrities, feels about Tom’s haul lying around the house.

The American football trophy is different in its symbolism from other familiar trophies. The Stanley Cup, English football’s Premier League trophy and the World Series trophy are all taller than they are wide, but you’d never decide these trophies were a literal phallic symbol.

Beyond the Super Bowl trophy design, however, are sports graphics in general. Take the Celtics mascot laminated on the floor in the middle of TD Garden. Years ago, when I first saw it, I was puzzled. I recognized it as a leprechaun, but it could also have been interpreted as a stereotype of a drunk and foolish Irishman, an embarrassment to a whole nation of immigrants. Yet Boston was an Irish town. No one seemed to object to this cartoon. Wasn’t anyone insulted?

I had had experience with symbols. I had spent my university years at an institution that eventually retired Chief Illiniwek because this majestic, elegantly clad warrior, impersonated by a former Eagle Scout who danced to Hollywood-style Native American drumming music, was considered an insult to the confederation of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria and Michigamea tribes, to name a few. Since then opposition to using Native American names for sports teams or images used as mascots grew to the point where most teams relinquished them. Only such teams as the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins and, in Massachusetts, some high schools—think Turners Falls—still carry the names.

While I had mixed feelings about the Chief, that image was never foolish or derogatory. He was tall, robust and manly.

The contrast between majestic Chief Illiniwek and what I thought was the insulting Celtics logo, however, caused me to pay attention to sports mascots and graphics.

Football logos were especially interesting. When I looked at the Patriots’ logo, its “manly” face seemed cartoonish and silly. Its heavy lines reminded me of what a Nazi graphic designer might have drawn. Then I looked more closely. Oh. It was supposed to be a Minuteman, but it didn’t much resemble the graceful statues in either Lexington or Concord. According to the Patriots’ website, the logo, designed in 1993, is called the “Flying Elvis.” Maybe football fans are fine with that inanity, now that it is so old.

The Atlanta Falcons’ logo is even worse in evoking a Nazi symbol. It resembles a side version of the eagle in the emblem of the actual Nazi party. It’s the black stripes that convey the image. How did football logos come to be inspired by Nazis?

Some sports logos are simply baffling. Take a look at the Miami Heat. It’s sort of a complicated fire ball going through a ring. Maybe it means the basketball team is on fire and a player is making a basket. Or maybe it’s simply weird and needs an update. But I have sympathy for the graphic designer. How do you convey heat in a graphic? Sweat? Lethargy? Panting?

Perhaps we have an answer for good names and graphics right at home. John I. Taylor (no relation as far as I know to my husband’s family) decided in 1907 that the red stockings his team wore would inspire its name. That decision prevented future disputes, insulted no one, and allowed a graphic to be designed that was at the same time emblematic as well as rather sweet.

Going back to the Celtics logo, however, are the Irish. This immigrant nationality has been one of the most financially successful of any in America. Once you’ve reached that status, who cares how anyone depicts you?