Category Archives: Uncategorized

1,200 new street trees

The City of Boston started planting 1,200 trees along city streets in mid-April and will continue to do so until June. Every neighborhood gets them. Their hired contractor might grind out the stump of a dead tree. Then he’ll refresh the soil in the tree pit, dig the hole, water it, set the tree into it and cover it with soil. Then he’ll add mulch in a raised circle, called a mulch saucer, so that when he waters again the water will soak into the soil near the roots. He’ll come back every two weeks to water again.

You say, that’s a laugh, I’ve never seen any city-hired truck watering a tree. That will change, according to arborist and Parks Department general foreman Max Ford-Diamond. Ford-Diamond can follow the contractor’s movements through the GPS system installed in the trucks, usually Ford F350s with a big water tank in the truck bed.

Here are the trees the city will plant: honey locusts on busy streets with lots of foot traffic and winter salt. “Honey locusts are about as hardy as any tree can be,” said Ford-Diamond.

Tree pits under power lines qualify for flowering crab apples and cherries because these trees don’t grow as tall as Boston’s other favorites. Maples, ginkos, oaks, and shadblow will show up. The Parks Department mixes up the genera so that if blight hits one type of tree, the rest will carry on, I was told several years ago.

Ford-Diamond has always been a tree guy. He went to Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole, got an associate’s degree at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and earned his bachelor’s from UMass in urban forestry. He is an Mass. Certified Arborist as are the other two Parks Department arborists.

He picked out the 1,200 trees himself, flying to New Jersey in the fall to identify the ones he wanted at the Tuckahoe Nursery. Each tree costs the city between $400 and $750.

The types of trees that typically grow tall in a large yard or in the forest are usually shorter on the street because “they are constrained by the site condition,” said Ford-Diamond. The size of the pit is one important constraint.

Once a tree is planted it is up to the citizens of Boston to help ensure the tree’s survival. Ford-Diamond recommends that nearby home and business owners pour a five gallon bucket of water on the tree a couple of times a week. You can also turn a hose on with a drip for about 30 minutes, since the idea is to water deeply, not just on the surface. The tree roots will follow the water and if surface watering is all that is done, roots will be shallow. This will make the tree more susceptible to damage and it might encourage roots to buckle the sidewalk rather than growing deep into the ground.

If it is 100 degrees for a few days, water more frequently, he said.

Arborists used to use green plastic “gator” bags wrapped around new trees to get trees going with deep drips. But that hasn’t worked out so well, said Ford-Diamond.

Nearby residents often couldn’t figure out whether to put the water in or outside the bag. When the city removed the bags they found the moisture inside had sometimes rotted the bark. Or passersby had used them as trash bins, filling them with cans or bottles. So now the trees are left naked, with the hope that nearby residents can more easily care for them.

Weeding the tree pit, keeping dogs out and picking up trash and litter from the pit will also help the tree thrive. Ford-Diamond does not recommend grates around the tree trunk but he is all for fencing around the tree pit. Just make the street side length removable so if the tree has to be replaced, the fence will not have to be destroyed. He also said to hold on the fertilizer. Unless you test the soil you won’t know what it needs.

Part of caring is watching what happens to the tree. Trees can get hit by unruly drivers parking their car or trucks that can’t see what they are backing into. The city can cut back low-lying limbs on older, taller trees to make room for tall vehicles to be near them without injuring them, but the new trees are vulnerable to all kinds of vehicle menaces.

If your tree gets hits, report it by calling 311, use the 311 app or call the Parks Department at 617-635-4505. Sometimes a tree that has been knocked over can be reset into the ground. You should also report your tree if it looks sick or is damaged in any other way.

Ford-Diamond’s department is always looking for places to put new street trees, so if you want one in front of your house or business and you’re willing to care for it, contact the Parks Department and put in a request to find out if it is possible to plant a tree where you want it to go.

Bostonians are proud of the green canopy that shades the sidewalks for six months of the year. You can see how important the trees are for visual delight if you visit San Francisco. That city is handsome from afar and it is certainly interesting to look at. But its wide concrete sidewalks are cold and uninviting. The city would look much better if they were lined with trees.

Finally the T did something right. Almost.

The new Government Center T station opened with cheers all around. It finished ahead of schedule despite complicated underground construction, trains that had to keep running while work went on and a setback with glass design.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief that finally the MBTA did something right. Inside, the new station is bright even down in the Blue Line’s level, underneath the Green Line. It is handicap accessible. Watching the creaky, squeaky, rusty trains come through is jolting in this clean, bright place.

The floors are colorful expanses of beauty, made of epoxy-based terrazzo that used recycled glass and seashell chips, according to Jason B. Johnson of MassDoT. During a recent rainstorm the glass roof leaked, but that can be fixed.

A couple of problems, however, can’t be. Although the design passed muster with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which determined there was “no adverse effect to any historic properties,” it is now impossible to see the Old North Church steeple from the plaque embedded in the Tremont Street sidewalk near the Omni Parker House. That view corridor, I was told, was written into the federal urban renewal agreement that was signed when Scollay Square was obliterated. Did the BRA and Mass. Historic forget that? Haven’t heard back from either agency, so I can’t confirm it.

Second, the glass headhouse is too big. (If you read this column regularly, you know I usually don’t mind big.) It hides the historic Sears Crescent building —the nicest edge on City Hall Plaza—from viewers on Cambridge Street. The headhouse’s box fights with the Sears Crescent’s gentle curve. An MBTA report justifies the dimensions: “The MBTA worked with the BRA to establish an overall height that balances many issues, including the civic scale of Government Center Plaza [sic], the Sears Crescent, the Sears Block, the view corridor to the Old North Church, and the visual proportion of the headhouse.” Apparently they didn’t work hard enough.

The materials other than the floor could pose a problem. They look cheaper than the materials at, say, the newish Charles/MGH station. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Less expensive materials can be fine. But some money-saving materials and strategies require upkeep. The MBTA is not noted for good maintenance.

Take a look for yourself. Paint attracts scuff marks, and it chips. How often will the posts be repainted? The bright white tile will get dirty. Will anyone wash it? The windows could be even more of a problem. You can’t see the Old North Church steeple now when the glass is clean. What will the glass look like when it is dirty?

Transit systems all over the nation are starved for cash and poorly maintained. The only-40-year-old Washington D. C. metro had to close for a day because it is in such bad repair. Yet city roads and streets are choked with private cars with only one occupant, causing American commuters to waste an average of 42 hours a year in traffic and suck up an extra 19 gallons of gas while stalled.

Commuting Bostonians spend even more hours in traffic—64—than do residents of such cities as Seattle, Chicago and all large southern cities with no underground transit.

I’m still a fan of the T. Dirty, noisy and delayed as it is, it gets me quickly to stations along the Red Line, although it is even noisier, dirtier and slower when I change to another color. I like the convenience of the Charlie Card, although apparently we’ll soon have new ways to pay with our cell phones. I like my fellow riders.

But “world-class” cities do it another way. Go to London. You’ll marvel at the fast, clean escalators, the tidy stations, the quiet trains and the upholstered seats that have nary a rip or a spot on them. Wherever you are in London, you are within a few minutes’ walk of a tube station.

You’ll learn that London is extending its Underground because it knows that the 13 miles of tunnel connecting 40 new and old rail and underground stations under that city on the new Crossrail line are critical to that city’s economic success. (Watch the construction on crossrail.co.uk) You’ll cry with despair upon returning to Boston, which still hasn’t managed to connect one and a half miles between North and South Stations or can’t figure out how to extend the Green Line to Medford.

Meanwhile, take a train through the Government Center station. It’s much better down below than it is above.

Leslie Adam goes shopping

Downtown Boston residents have embraced the Boston Public Market. It arrived along the Greenway at the right time. Food-lovers were tired of the agriculture-industrial complex and wanted their food to be real, local, maybe organic. They were repelled by the whipped-petroleum products lining the shelves in traditional supermarkets.

I’ve been to the market many times. The smoked fish and the lettuce are favorites, but I had never shopped there seriously, thinking it wouldn’t be possible. Then I talked to Beacon Hill resident Leslie Adam, who said she and a Back Bay friend do almost all their grocery shopping for their families weekly at the Boston Public Market.

So I went with Leslie on a recent Wednesday to see how she does it. First, she drives. She usually goes first thing in the morning. This time, however, we left about 11 a.m. and the parking garage was full. After waiting in a short line for cars to leave, we drove in, parked and were off. Leslie said Sunday mornings at 8 a.m. is her favorite time to go. With few other shoppers, she has the run of the place. In the summer, she often bikes over.

Leslie has two children, a husband and sometimes friends to feed. We headed for the back of the market because she likes to buy her bread, located near the main entrance, as she leaves so it won’t be crushed at the bottom of the bags she carries with her.

Sometimes Leslie brings along a list or recipes, but at other times she lets what is available speak to her.

On the way to the back, we stopped at two pop-up shops that spoke to her. Leslie bought popovers from The Popover Lady, based in Melrose, because she knew her kids would like them. She also stopped at ParTea, where owner Sarah Wasser told us she had combined her experience as a bartender with her love for tea and created natural infusions in tea-bag like packets for booze. Leslie decided such drinks might be a conversation starter for guests so she bought a ginger infusion. Like most of the vendors, the women running the pop-up shops ran Leslie’s credit card through Square on their phones or iPads.

Red’s Best was next. The counter man suggested redfish, caught on a Gloucester fishing boat, for good fish tacos. Leslie decided tacos would be tonight’s dinner. She also got salmon raised in the Bay of Fundy.

She pointed out the Spindrift bottles, filled with berries and sparkling water, in a refrigerated case in front of Red’s Best. She has met Bill Creelman, the Charlestown resident who created them.

Leslie bought eggs and both fresh and frozen meats—pork loin, chicken breasts and ground beef—from Stillman Quality Meats and Chestnut Farms. Her kids like the frozen pulled pork from Lilac Hedge, which she heats and piles in buns for lunches. Today, however, because the children’s schedules during the coming week meant lunch would be elsewhere, she went on to choose New Braintree-based Stillman Farms’ fresh spinach, sweet potatoes and squash, already peeled.

She bought roasted red pepper ravioli at Nella’s and smoked haddock for kedgeree—Leslie’s husband is British— and salmon belly at Boston Smoked Fish Company. She got Hardwick Stone cheese at Appleton Farms so her daughter could make the cheese sandwiches she has begun grilling for breakfast.

Around the corner we admired the dramatic tulips, the cider syrup—good on pork, said Leslie—honey and smoked maple syrup and caramels. Leslie didn’t buy any of those on our trip, but she said they were all were fabulous.

We ended our shop with a Harbison cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, salad greens from Corner Stalk Farm in East Boston and two loaves of bread from Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery in Winchester.

Leslie had most of the food she will need for the week. She’ll have to stop elsewhere for such staples as bananas, avocados and oranges, but it takes only a short time, she said, to fill in the blanks.

Leslie admits it is usually more expensive to shop at the Boston Public Market, but she does not want her children eating produce sprayed with who-knows-what. She also likes her money going into the local economy.

We paid only a dollar for parking since we had been there less than an hour and had validated the ticket. A bike delivery service is available for those who don’t want to schlep bags home.

One way to shop at the Boston Public Market in a more frugal way is to buy at the market the products that you really can’t live without and then go out the door. On Fridays and Saturdays, the traditional Haymarket carts and vendors are right outside with the best prices anywhere. You’ll get the best of both worlds.

Heroic?

Mayor John Hynes was elected in 1949, John Collins in 1960. Collins brought in Ed Logue as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, established in 1957.

These men faced a problem. Boston was in trouble. After a depression, two wars, long-time corruption and a changing industrial base, the city was losing manufacturing, jobs and population. The mayors and Logue intended to re-invent Boston.

This is the story with which the authors of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press) begin their tale of how, beginning in the 1960s, concrete took over architecture in America’s most tradition-bound city.

The book is arranged in essays by various architects and critics with accompanying photos far too small. Photographs of Boston’s Brutalist buildings in the middle portion of the book are better. Reading the book, you’ll realize concrete buildings are everywhere, many of which were in the background before. (The Colonnade Hotel?)

The authors suggest that, partly because of the mayors’ and Logue’s efforts, heroic could replace the term Brutalism, taken from the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete.

It certainly took guts to defy tradition and take big steps. It was government investing in infrastructure that would jump-start a resurgence. That’s the heroic part.

But the re-invention was mixed. Hynes and the BRA demolished the old West End and built the regrettable Central Artery. But Hynes persuaded the Prudential Insurance Company to build Boston’s first skyscraper over old railroad yards. Its construction from 1960 to 1964 was a hopeful sign.

The real effort, however, was creating Government Center. This is where concrete triumphed with its centerpiece, Boston City Hall.

The authors point out such virtues of Boston City Hall as the city councilors’ offices overlooking the public space of City Hall Plaza. They describe its monumentality and the patterns of light and shadow created by its detail. The authors go into rapture over Paul Rudolph’s Government Services Building. And love for the Christian Science Center spills over like the water does in its long rectangular pool.

They delve into the origins of béton brut, practiced by Le Corbusier and other Europeans before the style came to America. Béton brut was a departure from the thin International Style. They contend it follows a classical tradition.

A problem with this book—maybe it is my problem reading about art and architecture—is what do some sentences mean? “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work.” Really?

“Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” Ethical?

Or “Heroic architecture . . . [was] meant to reveal the realities of its time and forge a new honesty . . .” Does concrete reveal realities anymore than, let’s say, steel?

And “the New Brutalism was an idealism about realism.” Hmmm.

The book brings up many questions. Brutalism is admired by architects and critics. Regular people, not so much. Today a writer describing Back Bay Station, pointed out the “forbidding” concrete wall. Fortress-like is another term commoners use to describe these buildings. Why is there a schism between professionals and lay people? Would lay people like Brutalism more if we were better educated? Or are architects shunned if they don’t follow the line?

How much should we take into account people’s physical reaction to concrete? It gets dirty. It’s cold. We’d rather stand next to tiger maple.

The Christian Science Center is another example of attracting people or not. We learn that the Christian Scientists, behaving like Christians, built concrete Church Park across the street before they demolished the 19th-century row houses along Massachusetts Avenue and opened up the handsome view to the church buildings. This meant displaced residents had homes.

This complex is admired for its geometry and its long reflecting pool. But even in summer, compared to a teeming Boston sidewalk, few people gather along the pool’s edges or walk through the site. Do people have to want to be there for good architecture to take place?

How important is a sense of place to a building’s success? The Brutalist New England Aquarium could be in Framingham for all the nods it gives to its harbor side location. The Hurley Building ignores its neighbors on Cambridge Street. Early Brutalist Le Corbusier designed a building at Harvard that looks as if it belongs in a suburb with two-acre zoning rather than along the low-key urban Quincy Street.

How well does a building have to work be an asset? City Hall’s layout was organized—services on the bottom, offices at the top—but people find it hard to navigate. Worse are the acoustics. The authors gave a talk at City Hall in the foyer, envisioned by its architects as a place for performances and presentations. We could hear only half their talk. In the city council’s hearing room, you can’t hear either.

Finally, would Boston, with its hospitals and universities, have come back from the brink without the heroics of its leaders and architecture? We’ll never know.

One thing is for sure. These buildings are here to stay. Bill Le Messurier, the late, renowned structural engineer, said the only way to demolish Boston City Hall would be “with a controlled nuclear device.”

But the heroic buildings are in dire need. Many of them are government buildings, and we know how hard it is to get money to spend on the public sector these days. We need to clean, repair, enhance, even re-configure these behemoths to make them better fit into the city and make us feel better about living with them.

How soon do you think that’s going to happen?

Gobsmacked by the English language

“Gobsmacked” came to America at just the right time. We needed a word that called to mind being unexpectedly socked in the head with a fistful of some disgusting, muddy substance. It’s what most of us have experienced during the current Republican campaign for president.

Thanks, Britain, and Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish singer who introduced many of us to the term when she described how she felt when she earned fame and opportunity by becoming a winner in 2009 on the television show, “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Gobsmacked is a new term that fit perfectly into the language. Other words change their meaning, develop loaded messages or are used in other ways by other people just when you think you know exactly what a word means.

Not all words are as successful as “gobsmacked.” Take a new meaning of “lifestyle.” Before the Godfrey Hotel opened on Washington Street this winter people who write for newspapers received an invitation to the opening of this “lifestyle hotel.” “Lifestyle” is trite, lacking the complexity that accompanies most people’s lives. A friend once said he and his fiancée were deciding what their lifestyle would be. That people decided on their style of life was a new concept. I had previously thought it was a given, depending on your likes, dislikes, career choice and choice of mate.

So what was a “lifestyle hotel”? It turns out the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association knows. It co-opted the term for big hotel chains’ small, boutique-style hotels.

Other businesses have also adopted the term. At least one downtown retail shop has identified itself as a “lifestyle” place. What does it mean? Who knows? But it surely means to be trendy.

Shepherd’s pie is also peculiar these days. Check out the ingredients in the frozen pies in Whole Foods. Shepherds tend sheep. But the shepherd’s pies are made with beef. What are they thinking?

They aren’t thinking. They forgot what the name means. This happened with a community newspaper I read at some point. Their classified section had small advertisements listing services. But they were all jumbled—they weren’t classified. Duh.

The British supermarket chain Tesco has also forgotten the meaning of a word. It decided to redesign its croissants because the company’s handlers believed a straight shape makes it is easier to spread jam. Really? Then how can you call them croissants, which means crescent? The French sometimes make them straight, but the French ones are so good compared to everyone else’s, especially the American version, they can make them any shape, and it would be okay.

The most interesting new word meaning to watch is “heroic.” It is a term some boosters are promoting as a substitute for Brutalism, the architectural style of Boston City Hall. The term Brutalism comes, most people would say, from béton brut, a French term meaning raw concrete. Unfortunately for its aficionados, brute in English doesn’t exactly mean raw.

I worry that the verb “are” could be an endangered species. Listen to the wording people are using more frequently after “there.” I recently heard a television personality say, “There’s cockroaches in there.” But she isn’t the only one. The pattern shows up frequently. Are the speakers’ brains not processing that they are about to use a plural? Maybe the fossil fuels have finally attacked our speech centers along with our oceans.

Then there are street names. A couple of months ago, I asked Nick Martin, spokesman for the BRA, a question about New Sudbury Street. It extends from Cross Street at the edge of the North End to Cambridge Street and is part of the 1960s’ West End renewal.

Nick pointed out that the street is called Sudbury Street on Google Maps. I pushed back on that name. I asked several people who live near the street. They all said it was New Sudbury Street.

I walked over to look at the sign. Sudbury Street. Tracey Ganiatsos, long-time spokeswoman for the Boston Transportation Department, advised me that the Public Improvement Commission, which manages street names, identifies the street as Sudbury.

But the plot thickened. I chanced upon a page in the MBTA web site. New Sudbury Street. Then I received a press release about the first phase of the Government Center Garage project from the same Nick Martin—in which he wrote about “the 1,300 square feet of ground floor retail space on New Sudbury Street.” (Italics mine.)

So I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it. It works either way.