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Shadows vs. money

Aren’t we Bostonians better than Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump?

Millennium Partners beat out several other developers in a plan to demolish the city’s decrepit parking garage at Winthrop Square and build a 700-feet-plus skyscraper, paying the city millions of dollars to be spread around for park improvements, affordable housing and the like, all of which Boston needs. It’s a good project with a good outcome for Bostonians.

There is one problem, however. The project’s shadow would at times fall on the Boston Common and Public Garden, even though they are several blocks away. This means the building would violate the 27-year-old state law protecting the parks from shadows that can reduce plant health and people’s enjoyment. This law, as its advocates point out, has helped the parks and has not deterred development in Boston’s downtown. It should not be tampered with lightly.

So when I attended a meeting about the project sponsored by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, I was eager to see if anything could be worked out that would be a win-win for both sides.

Except for a gorgeous translucent model of downtown Boston, however, the event, attended by a couple hundred people, was depressing. It was two sides lining up like McConnell did against Obama, swearing that not one thing Obama wanted would ever get passed. It was like Trump—demonizing opponents with insults.

It was embarrassing to listen to an older man viciously screaming at young BPDA staffers because the format was not like the December meeting with a presentation and a time for audience comments. Instead there were stations set up with posters, videos and architects’ models addressing different elements in the project.

Then there was the battle of the buttons. Several attendees wore “Keep Our Parks Sunny.” Others were milling around with buttons that said “Let Boston Rise.” I was told that some people wearing the latter were union members.

Several residents muttered to me and one another about how deceptive Millennium officials were, how awful they were, how it was all about greed, and that they should simply slice off the top half of the building, bring it down to 300 feet and try to make a living off that.

It was embarrassing to hear the public sniping about a developer who started the revival of the Combat Zone by building a hotel and condominiums.

It was embarrassing to realize that there appears to have been a lack of awareness early on, on the part of the mayor, the BPDA and Millennium, that this far-away building would cast an illegal shadow. After all, these people are professionals.

It was embarrassing that the BPDA had not figured out how to warn people that the format would be different, since the crowd obviously couldn’t handle that surprise.

It was embarrassing that downtown folks, who typically enjoy more financial resources than do “working” people, can’t properly acknowledge that they also care about jobs the property development brings.

It is embarrassing that “working” people don’t realize that many downtown people actually do care that the wealth is shared generously among all kinds of workers.

It was embarrassing that the public couldn’t appreciate the ironies. For example, if the project’s location were closer to the park—let’s say where Macy’s is—its shadows would pass muster, said BPDA Director of Development Review, Jonathan Greeley, since buildings in the Midtown Cultural District (and over South Station) have less restrictive shadow limits. One reason some locations were restricted less was that the city was trying to foster development in those areas.

How did we get to this level of rancor and lack of humanity? How did we get to the place of no compromise, no ability to stand in another’s shoes?

I have been to many meetings about contentious matters. Often members of the public bond over their mission, pumping it up into a fight between good and evil, even if the morality of the matter is vague.

This is a good example. Both sides have good points to make. But the demonization must stop. The players should maintain respect for the other side’s position, even if they don’t agree with it. They should advocate without trying to destroy reputations or mocking the other side.

This can be worked out. My hope is always that Millennium narrows the top of their building into a point, like the Empire State Building, reducing the shadow and also improving Boston’s skyline. Ameliorating shadows was the reason the Empire State was designed like that. (It was also designed with a tie-up for a blimp, but that’s another story.) But that is just my hope, because we all have our quirks.

There is a process to go through, and I have no answers to these serious problems. But compromises can be made. Everyone may lose something but I hope both sides win a lot.

Good stories

So we’re sitting in a movie theatre at Loews on Tremont Street, waiting for Manchester by the Sea to begin. The previews are too loud. The themes are sadistic, violent, cruel, creepy, pathological. Silence is one of movies. The others I can’t remember but they involved cars blowing up, gunshots fired, people disintegrating, mayhem complete. The audience twitters. We’re laughing. The chaos is so profound that it’s ironically funny. The movie-going public has become so inured to violence that it must be extreme.

I say to my husband, “We can skip all these.”

He says, “This must be one reason why modern-day Americans are so messed up.” (He didn’t say “messed.”)

Later, in the ladies’ room, I hear people discussing how awful the previews were, so I know it wasn’t just me.

But it got me thinking about movies and why in my family we avoid so many. One is that movie-makers fail us with a lack of imagination.

Why do they have to rely on Jackie Kennedy to tell a story? Are they having a hard time making up stories of their own? There’s a movie about Chappaquiddick, for heaven’s sake. Let’s skip it. I felt the same way long ago when Mel Gibson, another violence-obsessed movie maker, made a film about the crucifixion. We all know how that turned out. It does not make us better persons to see it filmed in gory detail, supporting Gibson’s screwed-up mind.

I don’t want to see the films about the Boston Marathon bombing either. I want to remember on my own how Mayor Menino left his hospital bed and made it to the podium, metaphorically capturing what Bostonians described as strength in their response to the tragedy. I want to remember on my own how everyone stayed inside, following the Boston Police’s instructions, showing we trusted them to do the right thing. Given how the police are viewed in other communities, it makes that behavior special.

I read the reviews of the first marathon bombing movie, Patriot’s Day. This is probably not a bad movie, as movies based on real events go. But it seems to be not just about the bombing. It’s also about that local felon and recovered druggie, Mark Wahlberg.

Apparently his character is everywhere. Wahlberg exploits the tragedy for his own aggrandizement and financial benefit. Someone suggested in a letter to the editor that with his profits Wahlberg should fund the park near the Boston Children’s Museum that will be named after the little boy who was killed — the same little boy whose bereaved and injured family has responded to the tragedy with such dignity and class. Watertown and Cambridge wanted nothing to do with the movie, repudiating the exploitation. The family of the little boy also refused to be involved.

I imagine this movie will annoy all Bostonians because even Boston native Wahlberg will probably not be able to get the accents right either.

I won’t give up on movies, however. It’s because of Manchester by the Sea. Except for one character at the end they don’t nail Boston accents even though the credits listed a dialect coach. I guess they never will.

This movie takes place in the town of Manchester. Islands, ocean, snow, fishing and trees play their parts. It’s unclear whether the main character works in Boston or Quincy. But that’s a detail.

The family is dysfunctional. The main character is quick to fight if someone rubs him the wrong way. He reminds the movie-goer of what Mark Wahlberg might have been like as a young man.

But there has been a tragedy, one so profound that even a well-balanced person would never recover from it. In that way it is as extreme as the movies that feature violence as their reason for being.

But the delicacy and nuance that pervade the story elevate it to a category of its own. The characters sometimes find courage. At other times they falter. They make remarks that have the audience laughing even in the saddest parts—that short distance between tragedy and comedy. This story is about working-class Massachusetts people, but it does not offer the usual clichés about bank robbers and petty criminals that lurk around Charlestown or Southie. It’s been a long time since someone made a movie like this, especially about Massachusetts.

I hope it gets all the awards it has been nominated for because the story telling, the acting, the filming are all exquisite.

But its real value is in its creativity. It did not have to rely on the clichés of Boston, nor violence, nor someone else’s story. I hope it sets a new standard for movies worth seeing.

Too much trash

Karen is taking a break. This column appeared in December, 2014. Read it for nostalgia because times have changed. Now several downtown neighborhoods enjoy two pick-up days for recycling, which has boosted the recycling rate. Those residents who recycle religiously produce little trash, so the trash pickup days went from three to two in those neighborhoods. It means that trash sits on the sidewalk for less time and the streets are much cleaner. But Boston still faces challenges about keeping clean.

 Bostonians complained about it in the 1920s. We still complain about it. It’s so common and yet so difficult to solve. Maybe new Mayor Marty Walsh’s team can put the matter to rest.

         We’re talking trash.

         Boston is dirty compared to other American and European cities. “We moved into the city nine years ago,” said one resident, “but we have been in Massachusetts for 36 years, and I cannot remember a time when we didn’t think Boston was dirty.”

         They only place I’ve been that had more trash strewn about than my home town was Kolkata (Calcutta).

         One way to address the problem would be to ask why Boston continues to be dirty, and attack the reasons. I asked some downtown Bostonians—Joan, Jane, Colin and Diane—why they thought we have problems other cities don’t.

         Bostonians lack pride in their surroundings, they said. Absentee landlords feel little stake in the community so they eke all the money they can out of their property and don’t convey rules to tenants or clean the sidewalk in front. Students and short-term renters don’t put trash out properly or at the right times. Shopkeepers don’t sweep in front of their businesses. “In European cities shop owners are out every morning cleaning the area in front of their property,” said Jane.

         Trash sits too long on the street. Charlestown has pickup only one day a week, but trash is collected in other downtown neighborhoods two or three times a week. On Beacon Hill and in the North End trash can be put out at 5 p.m. and won’t get picked up until after 7 a.m. the next morning. That’s at least 14 hours three times a week that trash bags can be rifled by pickers, torn by rats, and backed over by cars too close to the curb.

         Except for the Back Bay and the South End, which have alleys that hold big bins, most of the rest of downtown uses plastic bags. Irresponsible residents don’t use heavy enough bags, so they are easily broken into by vermin or trash pickers, or they blow around.

         A dearth of trash bins compounds the problem.  Boston is a walking city. Tourists are all over our neighborhoods looking at the sights, but unless they are on a commercial street, they won’t find a bin in which to throw their trash.

         This problem occurs in front of some buildings with sidewalk smokers who throw butts on the ground.

         Irresponsible dog owners are to blame too. Even if they pick up after their dogs, too many leave the bags in a tree pit for someone else to deal with. Trash bins in the residential neighborhoods would address this problem too.

         Surveys about how to solve those problems have been inconclusive. North End residents rejected replacing a trash pickup with a recycling day. On Beacon Hill, two-thirds of the residents felt it would make the neighborhood cleaner, but the Beacon Hill Civic Association board was split 50-50, said civic association president Keeta Gilmore.

         Solutions on which neighborhoods agree: Add another day of recycling pickup no matter what. And bins along residential streets would help.

         But a real solution in some neighborhoods would be to reduce the hours residents could set trash out in Bay Village, the North End and Beacon Hill to mornings only, between 6 and 9 a.m., when the trash trucks would start their rounds. This would keep trash off the sidewalk at night when the rats are out and would reduce the time trash sits outside to usually less than six hours a day. It would make setting out trash convenient for residents walking to work.

         The city renegotiates its contracts with trash haulers in 2014, and a new mayor and his staff could satisfy many residents with such a plan.

         Meanwhile, Colin, who has moved back to Boston after many years in other cities, has an outlook that might hearten downtown residents. As bad as the trash problem in Boston is now, he said, Boston is much cleaner than when he lived here before.

Shade or shadow?

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from December, 2015 that attracted several comments.

 When I was 19 years old, I went to Wall Street. It was narrow, dark, secretive—worthy of the cash that I imagined rested behind those vault-like façades. It was my first encounter with shadows bestowing a sense of place, in this case a sense of importance.

Shadows affect people in other ways. They hint of secrets. They evoke menace, as in film noir or in “The Shadow.” Caravaggio used them to bring drama to his paintings.

In Boston, shadows are the bogeyman used to whip real estate developers into shape, causing them to lower the height of their buildings.

But shadows are complicated. If we like them, we call them shade.

The Friends of the Public Garden persuaded state legislators to pass a law in 1990 restricting new shadows on the Boston Common and Public Garden. This year New Yorkers urged their lawmakers to pass similar legislation protecting Central Park from such effects. Shadows on parkland can limit the kinds of vegetation that will survive, and they can also detract from users’ enjoyment of a park in which people seek sunlight as well as shade. That all seems reasonable.

But even the relationship between shadows and gardens is complex. Roses need only six hours of sun daily. Many other flowers and trees, not that much. Shade gardens are easier to maintain—less weeding needed. And consider my city garden. This 40-by-16-foot plot gets a one-hour sliver of sun that steals slowly around the garden walls, mostly in June. Yet everyone who visits it pronounces it beautiful. (I agree.) So much for the benefits of sunlight.

Another prime shadow location is on the southern side of Boston’s east-west sidewalks. The sidewalk across from my building has not seen sunlight since at least the 1890s. Five-story tenements cast it in total shadow. No one notices, and certainly no one has complained.

Massachusetts has passed other shadow legislation—Chapter 91, for example, addresses shadows. But Boston didn’t invent antipathy to shadows, and this city didn’t pass the first legislation about them. In 1901 New York City limited height in residential areas in the Tenement House Act, partly to reduce future shadows. In 1915, New York passed zoning that spelled out how commercial buildings would step back, narrowing as they rose higher, so they would cast less shadow. This zoning felicitously determined the graceful shapes of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building.

Later zoning was not so kind to the eye or the pedestrian. By 1961, architects were smitten with the International Style, and New York changed its zoning again. This time, instead of old-fashioned step-backs, the city used “floor-area ratios” to control height and shadows, but provided height bonuses to skyscrapers that gave the public “open space.” The plazas around such buildings did reduce some shadows, but they also increased wind, destroyed street life and presented a barrier to entering a building. Boston officials have been trying for years to eliminate such plazas and bring buildings back to the sidewalk.

Not all skyscrapers are known for shadows. My favorite is London’s “Walkie-Talkie,” a bulky, top-heavy, 525-foot leaning glass tower, the reflection of which was so strong that it melted a Jaguar on a nearby street. Some now call it the “Fryscraper.” Be careful what you wish for.

I have my own sunlight-creator. A large, newish, glass-clad building behind my house reflects sunlight every April and October for a few days, bringing sun into a couple of my north windows. It creeps me out.

Rather than tweaking design, New York style, Boston has typically, after contentious neighborhood processes, asked developers to take off several top floors. HYM Investments agreed to lower its 600-foot Government Center building by 75 feet. Did this benefit anyone?

Measuring shadows involves many subtleties, but reducing the height of a 600-foot building by 100 feet would typically mean its shadows would be reduced by one-sixth, according to Matt Littell, architect and principal with Utile Design and a consultant to the Public Realm and Watersheet Activation Plan and Municipal Harbor Plan for the Downtown Boston Waterfront.

One-sixth isn’t much in a city where most shadows land on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Moreover, this project will bring new sunlight to Congress Street, which we’ll probably complain about when we’re walking along on a hot summer day.

Other new projects are coming up, and they’ll all cast shadows, even if they are only three stories. The 600-foot TD Garden tower along Causeway Street will cast the most shadow over the TD Garden and North Station. Some will even increase sunlight in certain places. The Harbor Garage developers say their proposed buildings, one of which is 600 feet tall, would cast only fleeting shadows off-site and actually bring more sunlight on the ground at the site itself, compared to the current condition. Should more sunlight mean a developer can build higher?

It’s not that we shouldn’t consider shadows. But we should realize their presence is more nuanced than they have been made out to be. And if we insist that a building get shortened by 100 feet, or changed in some other way that affects shadows, it should actually matter.


My people

Karen is taking a break so she can manage the busy holiday season. Here is a column that attracted many comments. It is from 2016.

 It’s when I ride the crowded subway that I feel most Bostonian. “These are my people,” I think.

         Not that they are much like me. They are younger than I am for the most part. Sometimes one will get up from his seat and motion to me that I should take it. I know I can still stand on the subway, but it’s hard to resist their courtesy. Sometimes I accept. Sometimes I don’t. I think to myself, “My people are so kind and polite.”

         My people don’t look much like me. I’m pretty much white bread. They are whole wheat, oatmeal, pumpernickel, even seven-grain—some are so mixed in origin that they are unidentifiable as anything but my people.

         In that way, though, we are alike—alike in our differences. My people were born everywhere but Massachusetts. In 2014, about 56 percent of those living in Boston came from foreign countries or other states, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The Boston accents—the rest of the country doesn’t realize there are several Boston accents—are vanishing on the subway. The drivers, all born and bred here, used to announce the stops in wonderful local inflections so deep I had to listen carefully.

         Now the recorded announcement sounds like me, with “newscaster English,” a way of speech said to have arisen in Illinois and Iowa and also spoken in California, places I’ve lived. It’s an accent that doesn’t identify the speaker as coming from a specific place as a Michigan accent does or as voices from southern states or Brooklyn do. (Though it is not as if Brooklynites talk like Bernie Sanders anymore either.)

         My people engage in all the activities normal people do. Some go to college. Some are in high school or even younger, well equipped with backpacks. Depending on the time of day, many are going to work or coming home. Some have been shopping. Some are babies asleep in strollers. Some young men look as if they are going home after playing soccer. Some look scruffy. Others are nicely dressed. But few wear suits on the subway. Except for the State House, most offices don’t require suits anymore. Whatever they are doing, my people are busy.

         Most of my people spend their journey looking at their mobile phones. Some read newspapers or books. Once in awhile two people are chatting. Others look lost in thought.

         However they spend their time, they are lucky. They can get around by subway. When I first moved to the Boston area—Cambridge, it was—I met my first cockroach, but I also met my first underground train. The sign in Harvard Square read, “Eight minutes to Park Street.” The subway is still the fastest way to get between downtown Boston and Cambridge’s subway stations. It’s hard to imagine what our streets would be like without the T.

         I never feel as if I’m with my people when I’m driving. My people don’t cut other drivers off, they don’t blare their horns if a taxi or an Uber is letting out its passengers, they don’t drive as if all they can think of is, “Me first.”

         The people on the subway have much better manners than do drivers on the roads. Instead of “Me first” it is usually, “We’re all in this together.”

         Whenever I hear that the T has no money, that fares must rise, that we shouldn’t extend the system, I get sad. It’s partly because I know that a thriving public transit system, better than it is now and mostly underground, is essential to Boston’s prosperity and livability. We can’t grow an economy unless we grow the T and, as the fifth richest city  in America, we have the means to pay for it.

         But my sadness is more personal. We’ve got many ways to meet our fellow citizens. We see friends, we go to neighborhood meetings, we meet one another on the sidewalks, the shops, the library, the parks.

         But our neighborhoods, with their defined boundaries, can isolate us. Those trains on the MBTA’s colorful lines are places where we all come together. We’re jammed in. By and large, we are safe. We are all Bostonians, diverse, riding the rails together, treating one another with dignity, one people all getting along. Imagine that.