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Summer problems and pleasures

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from 2011 about Charles Circle, one of the significant entrances to Boston. The problems are still there. Actually, so are the pleasures.

We’re in the denouement of summer. New Englanders are said to eagerly anticipate this season, since after a long winter we feel we deserve it.

Does our anticipation of summer mean it can never live up to our expectations? This summer has been wonderful in one regard. While much of America has been sweltering [or drowning], we’ve had mostly lovely weather with tolerable heat and low humidity, if we don’t count about five days.

Otherwise, however, summer in Boston can be disappointing. It’s enough to make everyone succumb to that characteristic Boston attitude—grumpiness.

The first problem is that so few take advantage of the possibilities for beauty that summer brings. I don’t see this in other cities that I visit.

At Charles Circle for example, two businesses degrade the area. CVS is the first one. The trees are dying. The tree pits were planted years ago and are uncared for. The sidewalk isn’t swept. It’s a dump. The manager, when I asked him, had no idea he was part of a neighborhood. He said the landlord was responsible for taking care of the outside.

Actually, no. If a landlord agrees to do so, fine. But to be welcome in the neighborhood, CVS, you must take care of the area outside your business. CVS’s store windows are also the subject of lots of complaints I’ve heard. Banal pictures of models? How much more interesting the store would be if the windows were left open so we could see movement of the people inside. My only recourse is to not patronize the place, and I don’t. But that’s not good for the business or the neighborhood.

The second culprit is the Liberty Hotel. I love the hotel—inside. Its restaurants are fun. We take out-of-towners there to give them a thrill.

But what are they thinking about the outside of the hotel? For pedestrians the place is a disaster. Bare spots. Weeds. Tree pits, again uncared for—not even noticed in fact. The whole thing is shabby. Perhaps the hotel management doesn’t look outside and see scores of pedestrians using the sidewalk along Charles Street extension to get to the hospitals, the West End and the Science Museum. Perhaps the hotel owners don’t realize how bad things are. (I called them to tell them.) Such conditions are disrespectful of our neighborhood.

Charles and Cambridge streets aren’t much better. Charles Street merchants had to hire help to get the street swept, and even then many don’t contribute. If you’ve got a tree in front of your business, it’s yours. Water it, and plant the tree pit. The flowers will be stolen, you say? Have backups. [One business person in 2015 told me it cost her $500 to plant her tree pit and then someone took the flowers. It costs about $40 to plant a good tree pit, and that pays also for a few plants to replace ones that get stolen. She was fleeced and naïve both.]

Also, store owners, sweep your sidewalk. You don’t have time? It takes ten minutes a day. Anyone who complains about lack of business, and has a blank tree pit and an unswept sidewalk should get no sympathy.

John Corey of the Beacon Hill Civic Association set up a program to help business owners do better in their tree pits, and good for him. [And in 2015, he actually planted the pits for them.] He has more patience than the rest of us, who can’t see why the merchants don’t just do it. Why do they need direction to stick in a few plants, which they can get down the street at Top Shelf for a song?

Perhaps if I went away for the summer, as some people do, I’d be less grumpy. But little by little, I notice that not all is lost.

First, let’s compliment the Hill Tavern. I chastised them last year about the condition of their tree pits, and this year they’ve actually planted flowers. [But they didn’t in 2015.] They need about twice as many, but they’ve tried, and I’m hoping they’ll be better next year when they plant ten plants in every pit rather than three or four. Plants are cheap, fellas.

The Esplanade is another place that gets better every year. The people who founded and run the Esplanade Association have done much to give us pleasure.

The Red Sox are the icon of summer. It’s not just Jacoby Ellsbury and his winning ways. (That was then. This is now.) It’s the way the business is managed, the care with which the playing field is kept, the feeling you have when you are at Fenway Park that the owners care about your pleasure, not just about making money—which, coincidentally, makes them money.

The garden in back of my house gives me pleasure too in summer, and it’s not just the plants. A few nights ago, the weather was warm, but not oppressive. The darkness was coming on sooner than it had a month ago. Our next-door neighbor had her door open. The neighbor at the rear of our garden, whose house is on another street and whom we don’t know, was grilling up a storm. In the walkway on another side of our garden wall, the young renter was hosting her boyfriend and a couple of girlfriends in her small set up along the walkway. On a deck one story above our garden were several friends eating outside. We could hear bits of conversation and laughter from everyone.

Here we were, several neighbors, some long-term, others not, all crammed into a few square yards in the middle of the dense city that we were all enjoying. Now that’s my idea of a good summer.

 

Is there hope for Downtown Crossing?

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from 2010. Isn’t it interesting how times have changed?

Even though Downtown Crossing’s central location should make it a convenient destination for Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Charlestown, North End and Waterfront residents, few choose to go there, even though a good number work nearby. I bet we can all agree on what’s wrong with the place.

Let’s start with the most recent problems. The intersection where Summer and Winter streets join at Washington is book-ended by a hole in the ground on one side at Filene’s (John Hynes and Vornado, developers) and an empty parking lot on the other at Hayward Place (courtesy of Millennium Partners). Holes in the ground and parking lots are bad for business.

Filene’s hole and the parking lot didn’t cause other vacancies along the streets—well, actually the failed Filene’s development did eject Filene’s Basement—but they highlight the loss of Barnes and Noble and other businesses that might have attracted residents in surrounding neighborhoods to the area.

Next, take a look at the 19th– and early 20th-century buildings—handsome, solid things they are, with delightful detailing and the scale that many Bostonians favor. The buildings are shabby, but the rentals aren’t much cheaper than those in the city’s best neighborhoods. You realize these buildings suffer from the same kind of community-destroying mentality that afflicts the back of Beacon Hill, lots of the North End and other downtown properties here and there. That mentality decrees that owners may suck every dime out of their buildings while putting not one penny back into them.

There’s also the loss of the old Boston. Winter and Summer streets once were the crème de la crème of the city. Filene’s, Jordan Marsh and other Boston department stores were dignified landmarks with a sense of place. But with Jordan’s now Macy’s and the other department stores gone, the area is no longer a destination for anyone who can avoid it.

Then there are the kids. They hang around without anything to do. Passers-by think they look threatening. Why aren’t they in school? Why aren’t they studying, working, playing a sport? It’s a touchy subject since most of the kids are black and most of the complainers are white. And you know that in the city’s richer neighborhoods, teenagers have little time for hanging out, since their private schools keep them until 4 p.m. with all kinds of activities. The fact that the kids are there reminds passers-by of the unequal opportunities we offer our young people, and it’s another reason for the guilty discomfort of the downtown Boston resident who cares about the next generation.

One little thing, but it is irksome, is the neglect and, once in awhile, the erasure of narrow historic passageways that amuse pedestrians and invite them to explore further. With another kind of vision, these passageways could be to Boston what the delightful glass-covered shopping arcades are to Paris and London. (Recently, WalkBoston has led tours of these passageways and they may in the future. Go to www.walkboston.org to follow their walking tour schedule.)

Then there is the Downtown Crossing name—imposed by the city’s PR faction to try to make appealing an area already going downhill. Now the name, attached seemingly forever by becoming a T station’s name, stands for a trashy section of the city where you don’t want to go.

The name is only one of the civic failures. In the late 1990s the city tried to establish a Business Improvement District, a scheme in which the property owners are taxed extra to keep an area clean and safe. Naturally, the slum-lord style property owners objected, and, surprisingly, so did the police department, over a proposal for private security guards to be included as part of the safety campaign. So that plan went nowhere.

Which leaves the city at where it is now with a dumpy central commercial core that you’d never take your visiting friends and relatives to.

But even with no current hope for the hole in the ground and the parking lot, there are signs of change. Next week I’ll give you a run-down of a few steps being taken to improve the area. The remedies are squeezing in from the sides and slowly emerging from the middle.

Predicting the future

Karen is taking a break. In 2009, she asked several Bostonians to predict the future. How did they do?

 Last June, I bet you didn’t think we’d be here now: Obama as president, Hillary as secretary of state, the economy gone bust, General Motors in bankruptcy, Lehman Brothers no more, Sal DiMasi under indictment.

So, in an effort to prevent us all from being blindsided again, I’ve asked several common-sensical Bostonians to make predictions for the next few years.

Nancy Mayo-Smith, a long-time resident of Beacon Hill, predicts that people are going to be nicer. “They realize we’re all in this together,” she said. “People in stores and in the service industry have changed. They’re interested. It’s a result of the economy.”

Mayo-Smith hopes everyone will keep up the good habits after the economy recovers.

She also thinks race relations will improve since people of all races are proud of our new president. “His character and his race have helped race relations tremendously,” she said.

What she cannot predict, but only hope for, is a solution to crime in some parts of the city. She’d like to see effective methods at keeping guns out of the hands of gangs and criminals. And she’d also like to see new ideas for solving some of our problems, but again she’s not predicting that.

City Councilor Sal LaMattina, who represents District One, which covers a good portion of downtown Boston, was bullish on Boston. He predicted only great things. “There are good things happening in Boston,” he said. “It’s a vibrant city and I think the best has yet to happen.”

He said he expects that all neighborhoods will have beautiful restaurants and shops, and will remain desirable, especially to young professionals and empty-nesters. He also thinks that the families with children who stay in the city will have fewer children. He said he is a perfect example. When he grew up in East Boston, he said, everyone had four or five kids. Now he and his wife have one child. He regrets that other families have left Boston because it is costly to raise children here. But no matter who buys the houses and condominiums, he predicts that the real estate market will recover swiftly.

Another forecaster was also optimistic. Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, a non-profit organization supporting Boston’s economy, said Boston is on track to be the greenest city in America. He credits Mayor Menino with establishing guidelines for new construction and tenant fit-up and taking other steps that reduce greenhouse gases. He predicted that the number of commuters using bicycles will increase dramatically. He also predicted that companies will flock to Boston because of its green status.

Dimino was also optimistic that officials will solve the MBTA’s financial problems in such a way that makes Boston one of the world’s most successful cities in allowing people to move around without their cars. He expects the MBTA to complete the Fairmont line and build the urban ring, the Red-Blue line connector, the Silver Line’s underground link through the downtown, and the Green line extension to Somerville.

He also pointed out that a few unused rail lines, especially one that connects Newton to downtown Boston, will become viable after the post office on the Fort Point Channel moves and opens up space for more tracks at South Station.

Dimino predicts that Boston will become a 24-hour city, which may not sit well with those who moved into the city hoping for quiet. But he points to the residents filling in spaces between the offices in the financial district and Downtown Crossing. He welcomes the liveliness this will create in what are now dead zones after the work day is finished. Although the economy has slowed this trend, Dimino believes it will pick up again because people like the convenience of being near their work.

Don’t changes like this require strong political leadership to ram things through despite predictable opposition? “Boston and the state have a long tradition of doing difficult things,” he said. “We have an opportunity to move forward on a larger scale, and it’s necessary if we want to set the stage for the next generation.”

Since I’m writing this, I guess I’ll make a couple of predictions. First, Mayor Menino will be re-elected even though I have not yet talked to anyone who wants to vote for him.

And in the Public Garden, two of the Metasequoia glyptostroboides, which have now inched over the other trees, will within 10 years tower over the oaks, elms and maples. After all, they are redwoods.

 

Going for the mold

So we didn’t go for the gold after all. Instead we retreated to moldy old Boston where you wouldn’t want to do anything brash, imaginative or interesting. “We have our hats,” said the old Yankee lady, but Boston’s other tribes share her attitude. We don’t need anything new.

I am usually an optimist, which affected my support of the Olympics. Is it a big job? Yes. The effort’s leaders were smart, effective and used to big jobs, even if they weren’t the world’s greatest marketing people. They were not corrupt, as too many leaders were when I first moved to this city. To top it off, they were doing this to make Boston better, not for financial gain or status for themselves.

But, since it is Boston, there were class issues. The promoters were rich, heaven forbid. Too big for their britches, the nasties said. How dare they tell us, the real people of Boston, that we should do something dramatic? How dare they appropriate our city for improvements we might actually like but we hadn’t thought of ourselves? They did not pay enough obeisance to city councilors, state house functionaries, university presidents or most Globe columnists. Those powers were annoyed that someone else was leading a particular charge, when they were too timid to lead any charge.

Since we’re talking timidity, that played big too. The games were too risky. There might be too much traffic. The spectators might tear up some piece of grass. Some taxpayer might have to pay real money. The number of times the word risk was unfurled by the opponents was embarrassing. Isn’t this city, with its so-called world-renowned innovative companies and research institutions, all about risk?

But again we’re back in moldy old Boston, where you keep your principal, and never dip into it, even though it gets divided among subsequent generations until there is nothing left. If someone had dipped into the principal to start a new business, there might have been more for everyone.

Then it’s on to taxpayers. This has to do with risk avoidance too, but it has another meaning—that spending money on a big deal is foolish. Remember the naysayers before the Big Dig began? Sure our taxes are high. That’s because we can afford it. This is one rich city, as studies continually show. When someone spends $20 million on a Back Bay mansion and then spends another who-knows-how-many-more millions renovating it, it shows we can afford all kinds of things we say we can’t.

Ironically, taxpayers alone are now going to have to foot the bill for improvements in places like Franklin Park. We won’t have any Olympics money to help us.

Which brings us to spending money on the needs opponents said we should be funding instead of the Olympics. Does anyone think that will happen?

Already we’ve learned that, despite last winter’s MBTA debacle, the legislature can’t come up with enough money to fix the T or expand it. We’ve decided to apply only a patch. We’re building affordable housing, but we’re still arguing over tax breaks for a downtown project for “working families” that shouldn’t get the breaks, some say, because it is not in a blighted area. Keeping to that principle means no “working families” could ever afford to live downtown, which is discriminatory and wrong.

It would be nice to think because we won’t have the Olympics’ risk looming over our heads, we will spend money on Franklin Park, the T, housing all homeless families, installing kindergarten for four-year-olds across Massachusetts and rebuilding the Northern Avenue bridge. Dream on.

Instead we’ll go back to our desultory ways. Those ways were highlighted this spring when Mayor Walsh kicked off Boston 2030. There was the familiar panel, the recognizable audience, and the sappy tributes to Boston’s universities, research, hospitals, innovation, etc. Except for the speakers’ fondness for the word “millennials,” the forum could have been held 20 years ago when I first started covering such gatherings. The issues were the same. Little had been fixed. It was depressing.

That doesn’t mean Boston 2030 will fail, but an Olympics deadline would have meant we would have worked harder and faster to make it happen. You know that when you throw a party, you clean your house, paint the door and fix the step that broke last year.

The biggest effect of the Olympics failure might be on the most vocal opponents’ careers. Would you hire a risk-averse person who can’t support big efforts?

Boston won’t die because the Olympics died. We’ll still have universities, hospitals, yadda, yadda. We’ll still have a city in which living downtown, the characteristic that first brought me here years ago, is wonderful when it hasn’t even been possible in most other American cities.

But not being able to pull off the Olympics pretty much cements the fact that we’re not world class in any way. We’re just a small provincial city up in the corner of a big country—a city with more than its share of charm, but still with a lot of mold.

Read locally

Whether you go away in August or not, it is a good time to read. Everyone assumes everyone else is away. Few neighborhood meetings take place. Work is easier because some clients, customers and colleagues actually are on vacation. The “livin’ is easy,” as long as you have a beach, an air conditioner or fan and a nice iced tea (unsweetened, as New Englanders prefer.)

Naturally, I have a few suggestions for your reading pleasure. I’ve focused on three Boston authors, two of whom offer the reader many choices. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Joseph Finder, a Back Bay resident, writes thrillers—scary stories with really bad actors who get their comeuppance from Nick Heller, private investigator. Heller trained in the Special Forces, aka Green Berets, and has a good-looking girlfriend who works for the FBI. He also has a nephew he is close to and a female aide whose computer skills are legendary. Vanished takes place in Washington, DC. Nick tries to find his brother who has disappeared, but he also finds his brother’s secrets.

Buried Secrets takes place in Boston, the North Shore and New Hampshire. One of the pleasures of reading a book set in your locale is identifying the places the characters go. You will recognize the Liberty Hotel, the South End, Louisburg Square, a senator, a familiar name and finally southern NH. I figured Pine Ridge, NH was really Rindge, and sure enough, the credits recognize the police chief in Rindge. The only thing Finder got wrong in the whole book is the way to get to Rindge. From Boston, you’d take Route 3 rather than I-93. But that’s why it is fun to read locally.

Finder employs other main characters too. His books are better than most thrillers for one reason. Unlike some mysteries and spy stories, in which the reader must accept a confusing plot on faith, Finder’s plots are logical and tie together.

His pacing is good. The books follow a formula, but that is why we like them. I’m hooked. A new book, The Fixer, has just appeared.

 

Alexandra Marshall, a former Beacon Hill resident who now lives in the Fort Point Channel area, writes novels about family dynamics. Her characters follow no formula. They surprise the reader at every turn. A humdrum conversation suddenly turns witty and meaningful. Each character is tightly drawn, distinct from others in the story, and he or she grows and changes with the story. Every book has a finely wrought sense of place. Gus in Bronze takes place in Manhattan. The Brass Bed and Something Borrowed take place in Boston. I wanted to go to Cleveland, of all places, after reading The Court of Common Pleas, because she made that city sound vibrant and fascinating. Readers will appreciate her metaphors and similes as in talks between a mother and daughter, “which were always found in unplanned pockets of time like coins discovered in jackets.” I would never think of a comparison like that, and such creativity is part of the pleasure of Ms. Marshall’s writing. I know Ms. Marshall through an organization we both belong to, but I don’t see her frequently. When I do I am always surprised that inside this quiet, poised woman’s brain is a tangle of human understanding, perception and sympathy waiting to be freed by her words.

 

Marc Rotenberg now lives in Washington, D.C. but he grew up in Boston and his family members still live here. Rotenberg, a lawyer, heads the Electronic Privacy Information Center and teaches at Georgetown University Law Center.

Privacy in the Modern Age is a book of essays exploring matters a university must consider, problems occurring when the public has no opportunity to give consent, protecting data collected for legitimate uses, robots that crawl under doorways, consumer privacy and other facets of anonymity and privacy. With all the ways others can grab our likeness, follow our buying habits, tap our phones and learn about our location in 2015, it was comforting to read that our 19th-century forebears worried about such things after cameras were invented.

Unlike the creations of the first two authors, Rotenberg’s book is not a story that will whisk you away. Instead it’s for nerds like me and many of you who enjoy reading about all sides of a topic. You’ll encounter agencies you’ve never heard of with acronyms that confuse you. Because each essay is written by different people with distinct points of view, you’ll find odd statements: “America . . . has maybe one more generation left to make a real difference.” Really?

In the same article you’ll learn that the “Roman standard cart axel of 4 feet 8 ½ inches is still our railway gauge today.” Remarkable.

Later, when a writer discusses “storing sensitive information in insecure systems connected to the Internet,” you’ll be happy you’ve read Finder’s Buried Secrets. In that book, both the good and the bad guys get into their opponents’ electronic systems.

The privacy book is unsettling. Lines are hard to draw. But Buried Secrets shows how such matters can play out.