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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.

The vision—where is it?

Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the operator since 2011 of the city-owned Faneuil Hall Marketplace, has been in recent tussles with its merchants, pushcarts, street performers and history-loving Bostonians. After public outcry and several meetings, some matters may be worked out.

The latest round occurred last week when the BRA board, showing little knowledge and only a smattering of interest, approved Ashkenazy’s “vision” for FHM.

The BRA should look at Ashkenazy’s plans more closely and with history in mind. Right now there is little evidence this company understands the market’s early retail success or how festival markets work. It has presented no evidence it can entice Bostonians to return to the market they flocked to in the 1970s and ‘80s.

According to Barry Lustig, Ashkenazy’s executive vice president, the company’s “vision” is to continue to attract tourists, 85 percent of whom visit the market. Plans for a hotel, a compatible use that would operate mostly on upper floors, ought to help increase tourist traffic.

Lustig wants to increase total traffic from 22 million annual visitors to 30 million, so part of his “vision” is to lure back Bostonians, whose interest in the historic marketplace has faded.

BRA board member Ted Landsmark asked Lustig, “What’s the thing that would get Bostonians there?

“Celebrating the architecture,” said Lustig. He waxed poetic about the architecture. Is architecture going to lure Bostonians who already have a surfeit of 19th century buildings to enjoy?

Landsmark did not follow up.

Not that Lustig’s plans for the architecture aren’t good. He plans to light the buildings strategically and reveal the interesting interior walls of Quincy Market now hidden behind refrigerators. But it’s hard to see how good lighting and revealing the walls will entice us to spend time at the market.

What he didn’t mention in answer to Landsmark’s question was that earlier in his presentation he had described ping-pong tables and other games he thought would draw Bostonians. A good park, in other words.

At the public meeting in early July he was even more specific. He described Bryant Park, which he said was a marvel for the nation.

“This property has the opportunity to be second only to Bryant Park,” he went on.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace second to something in New York?

To a park?

Oooooooo!

Did he notice the market is adjacent to an actual park, the Greenway, modeled to some extent on Bryant Park?

He kept talking about a park, but what Bostonians want is a good marketplace.

It was just that in the beginning. If they really are interested in history, as Lustig says they are, Ashkenazy should look at the market’s early success.

In 1976 and throughout much of the 1980s, FHM was quirky, local, vibrant and fun. Bostonians thronged to the place. There was no need for ping-pong because it had retail luster.

The Bear Necessities was probably the best of the best. Its teddy bears, priced from $5 to $500, had something for everyone. Its local owners, Tim and Nancy Atkins, knew retail entertainment. The bears’ names—Scarlett O’Beara, Douglas Bearbanks, Bearishnikov. Those alone made you want to check out the merchandise.

In 1982 the shop held a Bring Your Own Bear contest that drew 150 entries and many spectators. The shop drew children and adults, locals and tourists, who came upon it with delight and surprise.

“The retail was definitely unique,” Tim Atkins remembers of the early Faneuil Hall Marketplace. He recalled the Celtic Weavers, Pave Real, The Boxes, a scrimshaw place and Have-a-Heart—independent stores with merchandise unavailable elsewhere. Secretary of State John Kerry even had a store called Kilvert & Forbes, with hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Many of these independent stores were successful.

Then in the late 1980s, when some of the independents faltered, the operator replaced them with chains. Bostonians stopped going. Even the chains had problems. Atkins recalls a national store selling umbrellas with butterfly decorations. A woman loved them. Her husband said, “Let’s wait. We can get this back home in the Scottsdale mall.”

About the same time as the chains came in, the Atkinses closed the Bear Necessities. “We expanded beyond our business acumen,” Tim Atkins said. “We did it too fast and didn’t have the business experience to manage other stores and a mail-order catalog.”

Nevertheless, they never had any problem with sales at FHM. “We had a great response from customers,” he said.

The downside, Atkins acknowledged, is that local, quirky, vibrant and fun retailers sometimes lack experience and can run into financial difficulties.

This is where an expert, hard-working operator would add value—shepherding retailers with unique ideas into businesses where sales go through the roof.

Hearing Ashkenazy’s plans as they stand now, Bostonians will yawn. Sephora—a dime a dozen. Uniqlo may entice a few teenagers.

If Ashkenazy would actually study the history they say they revere, they would find retail models for play, entertainment and attraction for Bostonians. It’s called imagination, outreach and true retail skill. It’s in the history they say they want to re-create.

Immigrants, 1850

Recently I researched and wrote a book about a group of immigrants who came to America in the 1840s and 1850s. Getting to Grand Prairie: One Hundred Londoners and Their Quest for Land in Frontier Illinois will appear this summer. It tells a true story of the farming community I grew up in. I’m preparing the book’s index now.

Although I have published three books with commercial publishers, I could not find one for this book. I can understand—where is the market? These immigrants were not fleeing poverty or religious persecution as were many 19th-century arrivals. It was not the high drama publishers want.

At some point, though, I realized I had a ready-made audience. Those hundred Londoners now have hundreds of descendants and, in doing the research, I acquired many emails. Why share proceeds from this book with a publisher when I already have buyers? I’m not David McCullough. Most lesser known authors have little negotiating power and realize little profit from their works. I decided to publish it myself.

But that’s not what this column is about. It’s about what I learned about views toward immigrants in researching this book.

Today, some Americans heap vitriol on hapless children fleeing deadly gangs in Central America. Some Americans, especially those elected to Congress, want to send back the offspring of illegal immigrants to a homeland they left as children. Some Republican presidential candidates draw support by stimulating nativist bigotry and fanning fears of immigrants stealing jobs and wreaking havoc. Donald Trump’s statements are inflammatory, but other presidential candidates seem to agree with him even if they won’t express it in his terms. Meanness all around.

The research for my book showed the attitude toward immigrants was different in America in the mid-1800s, especially in the Middle West. There was land to be sold, business to be done and a population to build. Only 20 years after Illinois became a state, its citizens clamored for everybody to come. It was mostly European immigrants who were arriving. Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Irish—all were welcome. The skin color was the same as the American-born, but they were nevertheless exotic.

I learned the most about the Londoners, since they came together and had a great impact on their new community. They chose Illinois’ Grand Prairie because they were invited.

A land speculator, Isaac Sandusky, sponsored a lecture in London, extolling the virtues of the Grand Prairie, which stretched south from a growing Chicago along the Indiana border. It was one of about 100 named Illinois prairies, separated by rivers or forests. Abraham Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana and settled on Goose Nest Prairie, just west of the Grand Prairie, when he was a young man. The prairie names were used because the civil boundaries had either not been established or were in flux. Sandusky, whose original family name was Sodowsky, was said to have noble antecedents in Poland. Maybe that is true.

Isaac and his family had bought thousands of acres from the federal government in the 1830s and early 1840s, paying $1.25 an acre. They sold parcels for $4 or $5 an acre during the 1840s and ‘50s, so they prospered from the immigrants they had invited. They also sold the newcomers equipment and livestock.

It wasn’t just the Sandusky/Sodowsky family welcoming the immigrants. Immigrants were a profit center everywhere, so those with an eye on making money welcomed them.

New York (and presumably Boston) was prospering from the dozens of ships owned mostly by American investors that sailed from Europe, bringing 300 to 500 immigrants per crossing. A shipboard letter one of the Grand Prairie immigrants wrote described the customs agents as polite and welcoming as they boarded the Hendrik Hudson, with no restrictions on what immigrants could bring with them. The agents examined the passengers for signs of illness, but they allowed all to enter.

Immigrants paid for passage on the ships, enriching the owners and crew. Even the poorest bought supplies from local merchants when they arrived. They paid for trains, stagecoaches and boats that took them inland. It wasn’t hard to start a business or find a job. Such a welcome made me rethink some rejection stories of Irish immigrants in Boston. Some probably had a hard time. But it is also likely that many entrepreneurial Yankees saw the Irish as potential customers who would soon be buying what they had to sell.

The immigrants whose stories I unearthed were luckier than many. They spoke the same language as Americans. They shared an ancestry with many of them. The ships’ manifests show they often came with families. That was not true of the Irish and Germans on the same ships. They usually came alone.

Even though the immigrants were welcomed, they must have had mixed feelings. In most cases, they would never again see family or friends left behind. Finding a job, starting a business, learning the language and culture, even if they had commonalities, must have been both frightening and exciting. And then there was looming that awful war.

What comes through strongest is that in the mid-19th century, Americans realized they needed the immigrants. Today, except for economists, university research labs and large-scale farmers and business owners, most folks don’t see the connection. It’s true in Europe too. A couple of years ago, when visiting in Oxford, England, I heard people say, “We have enough people here.” I realized it was code for “No more immigrants.”

I don’t know how to solve the immigrant problems that appear to be worldwide. I do know we must pay tribute to our history of welcoming immigrants, and we must find a humane way to do it.

Questions you’ve always wanted answered

Recently we’ve noticed small, colored plastic disks embedded in the asphalt on Boston streets, especially in sections that have been repaired. What are those disks doing there?

“They signify the utility contractor that did the work” wrote Gabrielle Farrell, associate press secretary in the mayor’s office, in an email. “This gives the Public Works Department a way of tracking work done on the street. PWD notifies these companies if work is improper or if after 60 days PWD needs to finish the job.

Turns out I could have found the answer on the city’s website at http://www.cityofboston.gov/publicworks/construction/tags.asp

Since the spring of 2011, Public Works has required all utility companies, private contractors, city contractors, and other agencies that dig up Boston’s streets to insert what they call Utility Repair Tag Pavement Markers. These plastic disks identify whoever dug up the street. For example, Verizon’s orange disk has the year it was installed in the center, its name at the bottom and its bond number of 416 at the top. National Grid and NStar Gas have both been assigned a yellow disk, but their names and numbers are different. Private contactors’ disks are green. J. F. White, which does much work in Boston, was assigned the number 287.

City officials can check the disks if they notice a problem. Citizens can also identify the contractor or utility and call the mayor’s hot line or submit a cell-phone picture of the problem and the contractor through Citizen’s Connect.

These disks may help solve a problem about which many residents complain: a recently paved street, dug up and left messy by a contractor or utility that has to do underground work.

 

Hosts on NPR thank guests for appearing on their show. Why do the guests respond with a “thank you,” when they should say “you’re welcome?”

First, it’s just a place-holder, said Dr. Shari Thurer, a local clinical psychologist who is a keen observer of human behavior. Lots of people say thank you when there is really nothing to thank people for. But on NPR, some people have a new book out. It’s hard to find venues to talk about such things. No wonder they are thankful. Even if they haven’t written a book, those who are interviewed are probably genuinely grateful for the chance to express their views. It bugs me, but Dr. Thurer takes it in stride. Maybe the guest could say, “It’s been my pleasure,” instead.

 

Tower cranes are operating all over Boston and Cambridge. Some have an arm at a right-angle. Others have a movable arm mounted on the diagonal. What determines the kind of crane used on a construction site?

Chris King, president and general manager of Liberty Construction Services, which owns the cranes Suffolk Construction uses on its projects, knows the answer.

“The right-angled tower cranes are typically referred to as hammerhead tower cranes,” he said in an email provided by Leah Pennino of Suffolk Construction. “These are the more popular cranes throughout the U.S. The “diagonal jib” cranes are referred to as luffing jib cranes, and they are not as common.

“The luffing jib cranes are used in tight areas like downtown Boston where other buildings are close by. By being able to “luff” up and down, these cranes can avoid nearby structures. Hammerhead cranes are typically faster to erect and dismantle and easier to operate. These hammerhead cranes are found on most concrete jobs that are outside of downtown settings or in areas without nearby structures.

“The luffing jib cranes typically have more capacity than most hammerhead cranes by design. This is why most buildings erected out of steel use them. Hammerhead cranes are better suited to concrete projects.”

Aren’t you happy you now know about tower cranes?