Author Archives: Karen

Thanks, Donnie, for the big reveal

Karen is taking a break. Since we were all recently laughing at Trump when he inappropriately complimented the French president’s wife on the good shape she was in after the age of 60, the subject of this column still seems up to date.

One good thing Donald has done for America is that the regrettable frequency of sexual assault is now out in the open, and it’s not just a bunch of drunk college sophomores committing the crimes.
I had read that women were revealing their own experiences with it to their mates and to other women. Then I landed with several women friends I see a two or three times a year. They started talking and talking and talking. I was observing the disclosures first-hand.
At first two themes emerged. One was that the men who had perpetrated these acts were pathetic, creepy creatures, and we suspected they had small “hands.” Another was that the women felt humiliation years after the acts had taken place.
Then one woman described an attempted rape. C. said that a busboy who’d been serving in her college sorority offered to walk her home, and she was happy for the company. But when they got to her place, he pushed her into her room and tried to rape her. Terrified, she could think of only one thing to do—she made herself throw up, all over him.
Disgusted and distracted, he paused, and she was out of there.
That set me to thinking: how many women have been threatened with sexual assault and prevailed? After an unscientific poll of my friends, it turns out that due to luck, height and clever thinking, many have done so.
Take S.’s experience:
“Some years ago, I was living with a large, chocolate point Siamese cat named Harvey and dating a professor from a local university. One evening after dinner at a lovely restaurant, we came back to my apartment for coffee and conversation. We were standing in the hallway leading from the living room to the bedroom when the professor began playfully backing me toward the open door of the bedroom. Before I realized this was not a game, the professor had pinned me down on the bed and was trying to disrobe me. I virtually bellowed my objection to no avail.
“In response, Harvey, issuing his great hoarse Siamese meows, leapt on the prof’s back and clawed him vigorously. Prof ran out the door with Harvey at his heels.”
Another story that may be more common than anyone realized was P.’s. She said her doctor pushed her against the wall as he was leaving the exam room and kissed her on the lips before slipping out the door. She retaliated by getting a new doctor.
Cleverness sometimes helps, although it’s hard to be clever when you are scared.
One woman told of being in grad school when a young teen approached her on the sidewalk. He was tall and skinny with a sweet baby face. She thought he was going to ask for change, but instead he knocked her books to the ground and tried to grope her. Astonished, she asked, “What would your mother say if she knew what you were doing?”
He stood back, looking really scared, and asked, “Do you know my mother?”
She replied, “Of course I do!!”
He disappeared down the street at record speed.
Having a weapon helps. In one tall woman’s case it was her elbows. She was married to a professor. As she came out of the bathroom at a department party, the head of her husband’s department pushed her back in and tried to disrobe her. This woman is about five-eleven, and she made use of her size, elbowing him and fighting him. She managed to get out. He came out soon after, continued having a good time at the party and never seemed embarrassed at subsequent social encounters with her. She wondered if he even remembered. She certainly did.
Another woman described using her door as a weapon. Some years ago a neighbor joined her as she was walking home through the colorful fall leaves in the Back Bay. He helped carry some of her heavy books. At her door, he returned her books and began to grope her. She pushed him away, but he still had one hand on the door frame. So she shut the door on his hand and kept it there, pushing against the door, as he wailed in pain. When she finally let up, he sprinted away. She laughed, then shook and cried.
Unfortunately, other stories of assault were less satisfying because the women could not get away.
The best news, however, is not that predatory men can be vanquished. It’s that so many men are dignified, caring, loving, respectful, and real friends and partners of women. Those kinds are the real men.

A modest proposal

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from last fall that needs more consideration.

The noise is always a surprise. Your cab stops in the street to let you out. The driver can’t pull over because parked cars line both sides of the narrow street. A short time passes while you pay and get ready to climb out.
Before you have time to count out the money for the driver or swipe your credit card, the guy in the SUV behind you lays on his horn. With him, it’s me first, all the time. Who are you to stop in front of him? Who do you think you are to delay his trip?
You know who you are because you live here. You know that streets must be shared. This means sometimes we have to wait, and we usually do it willingly because we understand the situation.
The guy laying on his horn in his gas guzzler is probably from the suburbs and doesn’t know how to behave in a city, you think. That’s the most insulting thing—being from a suburb, the “S” word—that long-time city dwellers can think of. It’s obvious because we know in the city, we must share all kinds of things, including time on the streets.
But there has been good news recently on the sharing front, on the behavior that says, “not just me first, but everyone that is in this with me.”
Take the World’s Greatest University, as a Boston Globe writer used to call it and others still do. A couple of weeks ago Harvard said yes to its dining hall workers, agreeing that all should make at least $35,000 a year, that their health care costs will not go up and that the university will provide compensation for workers laid off in the summer months when fewer students need a dining hall. Whew.
Perhaps Harvard capitulated to its dining hall workers because it looked in its heart and saw it was the right thing to do. It is also possible that it couldn’t take the criticism after the world learned that its portfolio managers were earning from $5 million to $8 million a year for performances well under those of their counterparts at other wealthy universities. Whatever the reason, Harvard shared.
The MBTA isn’t doing so well at sharing. Janitors at its stations have faced reduced hours, which not only means lower pay but also reduced health and other benefits. Privatization may reduce costs for government, but it can also end up making life miserable for employees.
I’m not defending the MBTA’s counting house privatization, since it seems as if workers there were not up to the job. But the janitors seemed to be doing their jobs just fine.
When we cut spending, does it have to be on those most vulnerable? What if we simply took a lesson from Harvard and shared more?
For example, that playspaces on the Esplanade are beautiful. The Esplanade Association and other local people raised the money to have those places built, and they were sorely needed. Good for them.
Wouldn’t it have been nice, however, if, as they raised funds for the Esplanade, they also raised funds for a playground in some park in the DCR system that is not surrounded by wealthy residents who can build their own playgrounds?
The Friends of the Public Garden could also afford to share. They have done a superb job of supplementing the city’s efforts to keep the Common, the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in fine shape. They are a lovable organization. Taking care of other parks is not their mission. A newer organization, the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park, is also a lovable, successful organization that has become good at raising funds and caring for a park.
But there are 157 park friends’ groups and 331 public green spaces in Boston, according to parks spokesman Ryan Woods. What if the more successful friends groups partnered with a friends’ group with fewer resources? It might be in work days. It might be sharing funds. If contributors knew their checks would be going, not only to the park next door to them but also to a needier Boston park, it might increase fund-raising for the more successful friends’ groups. Some people probably don’t write the biggest check they could, figuring that downtown friends’ groups have many resources already.
The idea of pairing an entity with more resources with one with lesser came from a series of meetings a couple of years ago with local parents who were trying, still unsuccessfully, to get a new school for downtown kids.
They seemed excited about mixing it up with kids of all races, ethnic origins and income levels. They asked, why not pair a successful school with an unsuccessful one and see if the two together could make headway in giving all children a fine education? They were ready to give it a chance, putting kids together and busing them between schools because they thought that kind of busing would be worth it. So far nothing has happened.
This could be Pollyanna talking. But after today, when this hate-filled election will be over, we should reach for something more, something that speaks to our better selves. Sharing is a good place to start.

Infrastructure. Investment. Interesting.

Karen is on vacation. Her column from September, 2016 is still relevant.

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 Route 1 leading to I-95 once met in possibly the most difficult intersection ever on an interstate highway. (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. 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 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.

North Country life cycle

I spend several days every summer in the North Country. The weather is always typical for New England, both warm and cold, dry and humid, sunny and rainy—all the contrasts that summer brings in our region.
Plenty of rain this year has ensured that the color green is pretty much overwhelming. The rain seems to have served up more insects and seeds for birds, because I’ve never heard such a chorus in late July.
The mountain trails are full of hikers. The ponds hold swimmers, canoe-ers and kayakers. The state campground down the road is full. Motorcycle flotillas roar by. Hot dog stands and clam shacks do a robust business. Some locals make their annual trek down to Boston to see the Red Sox play. Even the smallest towns have bike races, weekly farmers’ markets and outdoor concerts.
This summer we have much entertainment from Washington too. We were at a restaurant where the patrons were in stitches imagining Mexicans throwing bags of drugs over a border wall and hitting Americans on the head. They went on to laugh about a president’s lawyer whose name is Ty Cobb and the drama of a meeting with Russians—a meeting, one wag said, that appears to have had more people in it than attended the inauguration. Even Steven Spielberg would have trouble imaging all the weird things going on.
As summer progresses, though, it’s clear that this season stands out from the rest in its unique activities and leisure. It’s not like the joke—at least I think it was a joke—in the movie La La Land, in which each season introduced a section of the movie, and yet nothing changed.
New England’s summer progression is most apparent in the plants. Plants mark time passing as they can’t do in winter. It seems a metaphor for a life span.
Summer’s promise in the North Country is heralded in April by deep green skunk cabbage, bursting tree buds and the bright happiness of daffodils, almost like the anticipation of a newborn baby. Soon those beginnings give way to the solid structure of forsythia in gardens and along the roadside hobblebush, apple blossoms and painted trillium, more like a toddler. Tulips and then lilacs can seem as overwhelming as loud children at play.
By the time the mountain laurel appears in June, the summer is nearing teenage status. Peonies, columbine and gas plants (do you realize gas plants can actually catch fire?) are showy garden plants much like those teenagers with their dramatic appearances.
Lilies decorate the Fourth of July as does the abundant feverfew and are as dependable as college graduates going out to work.
Late July is rather like people in their forties. The show on the roadsides is in its prime and well settled in. It is as diverse as it will get before being taken over by goldenrod, a native plant, and Queen Anne’s lace, an alien I like, although some states have designated it invasive. Those August plants signify you’re on the downhill slide into fall.
In the neck of the woods I frequent most often, the most dramatic sign of fall is the proliferation of Michaelmas daisies, also known as wood asters. They last until the woods turns bright yellow with the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, which unlike the early spring Asian witch hazel, puts out its best show in the fall. To create the skin antiseptic with the same name, Native Americans taught the early European settlers to boil the stems of this plant.
After those bright October days, the last item left standing is the winterberry, a native holly that lasts for only a couple of weeks in November since the birds eat all the small red fruits. Once I put winterberry in my window boxes only to attract sparrows, which wiped the stems clean in a few minutes.
After this, it looks as if life shuts down, even though it will come again in the spring. Unless it turns out we can be reincarnated, that’s where the metaphor for human life ends.

Following up on the HarborWalk walk

A few weeks ago seven friends and I explored the HarborWalk from Lovejoy Wharf to Congress Street.
We were dismayed by the blind alleys, signs pointing in the wrong direction or no signs, parking lots and the sad condition of parts of the walk.
Now I’ve investigated what’s being done. The prognosis is mixed, but Boston Harbor Now’s plans over time could make a difference.
Before delving into the fixes, I must apologize to the condominium owners at Union Wharf, which was developed into housing before the walk was created in 1984. They pointed out that they had paid attention to the HarborWalk more attentively than other older wharves, and they are right. I’m sorry to have defamed them when they didn’t deserve it.
As to the fixes, one difficulty is that dozens of different public and private owners are responsible for the HarborWalk along its length. A Friends of the HarborWalk does exist. It comprises eight to ten volunteers who host free walking tours, organize cleanup days and install “wayfinding” signs, said the group’s president, Mike Manning, in an email.
But the sign focus has been in East Boston, which is undergoing a waterfront resurgence. Manning invited us to go on a tour with his folks, and I’m sure he would welcome others also. Find their information on www.BostonHarborNow.org.
As to the condition of the HarborWalk abutting the soon-to-be Eliot Upper School at 585 Commercial Street and Langone Park in the North End, it’s mixed.
Construction, to be completed in 2019, has begun on the school, said Boston Public Schools Communications Director Richard Weir. But the HarborWalk behind the school is owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, a notoriously underfunded agency.
At nearby Langone Park, however, there are plans. “Later in this fiscal year we plan to start a community design process for upcoming renovations to Langone/Popuolo Park, with construction starting the following fiscal year,” wrote Ryan Woods, Director of External Affairs at Boston Parks and Recreation. “In the meantime we will look into patching up the HarborWalk area so it is a safe place for residents and visitors to enjoy.”
Boston Harbor Now has the best news yet, although it is a long-term project that won’t spark immediate changes. Boston Harbor Now is a newish organization formed by combining the Boston Harbor Island Alliance and the Boston Harbor Association.
This non-profit’s mission is broad. In partnership with public agencies, communities, and private and non-profit entities, it aims to “re-establish Boston as one of the world’s truly great coastal cities.” That pretty much covers the waterfront (sorry).
Jill Valdes Horwood, BHN’s director of policy, said they are aware of the problems.
The most effective solutions to a continuous, navigable public walkway can be implemented through private developers with cash on hand and big new plans. Through negotiations under the 1866 Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 91, which “seeks to preserve and protect the rights of the public, and to guarantee that private uses of tidelands and waterways serve a proper public purpose,” the Department of Environmental Protection requires those entities that seek to develop waterfront property to create such public accommodations as walkways, restrooms, benches, grassy areas, even fishing docks. One of these is in the Seaport District at Pier Four, outfitted with a fish cleaning station and a machine that disgorges bait.
Chapter 91 was haphazardly enforced until the 1980s and early 1990s when the law was tightened as Boston began the harbor cleanup, saw its traditional industrial waterfront uses decline, and welcomed re-use of the old waterfront buildings. At the same time, it realized the public could be cut off again from the harbor, this time not by fisheries and shipping but by private residences, offices and hotels.
As development quickened, the underfunded Massachusetts DEP—isn’t every state agency these days—challenged by a small staff, negotiated with these new entities one at a time, stored the documents and after time passed, who remembers what’s in them? Thus, when a private hotel or residence closes off a portion of the HarborWalk, as critics say they do, is it legal? They might have the right to apply for a private event. Is the hotel forgetting what they can do? Do they not know or care?
Horwood said BHN has a solution that was begun this summer. It involves a website and is time-consuming to execute but thoroughly needed. This website would partly be a map identifying the walk and its amenities, hazards and incomplete sections, since most walkers have no idea what lies ahead and entities in charge of these sections may have no sense of how they are failing.
It would also collect all the licenses DEP has issued over the years into a searchable database so that both owners and neighbors could find out if closing a portion of the walkway at 4 p.m. is legitimate or not.
“The waterfront is for everyone,” said Horwood. “The state holds these lands in trust, and when someone buys a waterfront parcel it comes with strings attached for public access first, then for private development.”
Meanwhile, can we please work on the signs?