Passive vs. active

Boston is an odd city in many ways. We do have a lion and a unicorn, but our favorite icons are a grasshopper (Faneuil Hall) a cod (State House) and ducklings and swans (Public Garden). Those creatures might seem insignificant in some cities, but we’re going with what we’ve got.
Amid sixteenth-to-nineteenth-century street patterns we have plunked City Hall Plaza, the JFK building and a Brutalist city hall. And one of the old streets, Hanover Street’s extension, still runs under that plaza. So odd.
Who would guess that in this sports-crazed town, 4.5 times more people visited art and cultural institutions than attended Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox games, according to a 2014 study by ArtsBoston?
If we’re so intellectual, why don’t we have bookstores? I can name only four within subway distance from my neighborhood.
But a contrasting attitude toward city life is also oddly on display here. It has to do with active versus passive—the level of noise, activity and general disorganization prized by some and detested by others.
A few years ago one of my neighbors announced that our neighborhood has too many restaurants. Another neighbor was astounded at that attitude. They never resolved their disagreement.
I won’t even mention the arguments about liquor licenses, which some people think will destroy Boston as we know it and others just want to be able to order a martini when they go out.
Helicopters are a center of conflict. Some downtown residents complain about them constantly. They fly low. They’re noisy. Helicopters landing on Mass General’s rooftop are secretly abhorred even though the abhorrer realizes they are life-saving. But how do you know it’s a legitimate rescue helicopter or one sent out by a TV station to capture some news?
Others either don’t notice the helicopters or get a thrill when they realize they are converging on the Common. Something exciting must be going on. Maybe a demonstration at the State House? We’re in the middle of action, and the action people like it that way.
The active versus passive argument gets played out in our public spaces. Recently the two contingents met aggressively over Long Wharf, where vocal critics of the BPDA (formerly BRA) said keep Long Wharf free of commercial activity since it is a nice place to contemplate the dawn. Others viewed the inactive space as unwelcoming.
In 1999 a conflict erupted over holiday lights along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. A donor provided them, the city began installing them and the passive contingent lashed out. This is just like those ugly lights on Boston Common that city workers sometimes arrange awkwardly, they said. It’s over the top.
The conflict was stopped in its tracks when the venerated Henry Lee, a founder and then head of the Friends of the Public Garden declared, “Christmas can’t be too gaudy for me.”
The opposition knew it had been crushed, and we now have holiday lights on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall as well as the Boston Common.
When the Frog Pond was redone in the 1990s, an undercurrent of complaint arose over too much activity in the Common. The Common and City Hall Plaza are both places that some people feel are reserved for demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster. Others complain about demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster.
The Public Garden has gone in one direction. Most people, I think, would agree that it is designed for quiet strolls, horticulture appreciation, and statue gazing. The Common, not so much. And the Greenway has taken park activity to an extreme. It has a lot going on, which is not typical in Boston parks. Compare it to the Esplanade, another linear park with a lot fewer activities. The Esplanade, however, is more active than it used to be now that the Esplanade Association has become involved. But some of the activity is centered around cleanup, always welcome in gritty Boston.
One attitude is not better than the other. Quiet has its appeal as does noise. But neighborhood residents on both sides frame their arguments in moral tones. They don’t seem to realize the bias they have that causes them to take certain stances on public matters. The next time you are at a meeting about some situation in your neighborhood, notice the difference. It can be frustrating, but also entertaining to observe people displaying their bias with little self awareness of where it comes from.

Raise your kids in the city

It’s a familiar story. Twenty-somethings enjoy living downtown. Then they have kids. After a couple of years they depart for the suburbs. They have good reasons. The schools are often better. The housing is cheaper. There is more space.
Common practices and policies make it hard for families to stay in downtown Boston. Few new condominiums have more than two bedrooms, and those are pricey. When these buildings were built, the idea was that singles and couples would be most interested. But this is circular reasoning. If you don’t build three- and four-bedroom units, families can’t be interested.
The same kind of reasoning afflicts the school department. Officials have been reluctant to create new downtown schools, claiming too many downtown kids go to private schools. But without enough spaces in the downtown schools, parents who want to stay have no other choice.
The numbers show the situation. Boston as a whole had 13,000 fewer kids in 2010 than it did in 2000, but downtown was different. The number of children in most neighborhoods increased slightly, said BPDA spokesperson Bonnie McGilpin in an email. But the kid population is still only four to six percent. In Chinatown and Charlestown, children comprised 11 and 16 percent of the population respectively, but that was a decline from the year 2000. Whether the trends hold seven years later is unclear, McGilpin said, since the interim estimates have a large margin of error when the numbers are small.
No matter what the numbers, those who have raised children in the city believe they have benefitted and so have their kids, who have enjoyed experiences and gained skills rare in their suburban counterparts.
Most city parents work downtown as well as live here, so they don’t face long commutes that keep them away from their families. That’s the first benefit.
City kids are independent and self-confident. All the parents said that. Children learn early to stop at the curb and not go into the street. They walk to friends’ houses. They know how to get to the shops, find the parks and ride the T alone at an early age. They don’t have to depend on grownups to drive them. Many downtown neighborhoods have village-like atmospheres in which children are safe.
Terry told a story. “Once when I was up on a ladder, fixing something electric, I sent seven-year-old Eve to the hardware store for a part.
“She did it, but was distinctly inconvenienced. Reportedly she said to the owner, ‘My mom drives me crazy.’ He leaned over the counter and agreed, ‘Yes, she drives me crazy too.’ ”
All the downtown neighborhoods have good parks and play grounds and many of those parks have lawns, mowed by other people, said Katharine. Remarkably, in those parks you’ll find children of every color, even though downtown residents are thought to be mostly white.
The mix is a benefit of downtown child-raising that Bob cited. On the T, on the sidewalks, in the parks—everywhere there are people unlike yourself. Living among diversity becomes familiar, not scary, as we have unfortunately learned it is in some places.
It’s easy to go on child-friendly outings, with museums, the TD Garden and Fenway Park an easy walk or T ride.
The paucity of downtown public schools and the fear about the enrollment process continue to push parents out of the city. But Bruce, whose kids are in the public schools, said the Eliot in the North End, the Quincy in Chinatown and the Warren Prescott in Charlestown, all with good reputations, attract more downtown residents than they used to. He said a parents group will offer public panel discussions about the schools soon, although a date has not been set.
Nick, who was raised in the North End, raised his five children there also. While prices downtown are high now, they were also high many years ago in comparison with outlying places. So he got creative. He bought an old warehouse and converted it into apartments, installing his family in the largest one.
We did something similar. We bought a tenement building and lived on two floors, three floors and four floors as our children grew. Our tenants helped pay our mortgage. Now we’re back to three floors. Examples like these show you don’t have to wait for a single family house or a developer’s condominium to solve your problem.
Nick reiterated what other parents have said—that his kids learned to navigate Boston to take advantage of the rich experiences Boston offers, richer than these parents believe they would encounter in the suburbs.
Proof came from his children’s suburban friends. “When school friends visited they gushed over how much fun it was living in Boston,” he said.
A bonus for our family was that our daughters’ suburban friends spent most weekend nights with us. They were on the safe subway instead of cruising around the drunk drivers on Rte. 128.
If you’re considering staying in the city with your children, you’ll have lots of support. Some parents I interviewed said they’d be happy to talk with readers who want to do so, but are still wary. Email me at [email protected] and I’ll set you up with them.

September

For the past three weeks everyone has been busy. Neighborhood organizations are throwing welcome-back parties and holding meetings, confident that people are back in town.
Kids gather again at bus stops. They carry backpacks and sports equipment, looking determined and full of anticipation for what their school day holds. The BPL has begun homework-helping sessions. Sunday schools have started up. Youth soccer is in full swing in all the downtown neighborhoods.
City workers are visible. They were out sweeping the streets after the September move-in day. Later they were fixing lights. The mechanical street sweeper last Wednesday went over my street several times. This attention to detail may not seem unusual today. But when I moved here the Public Garden was in shambles, street sweeping was haphazard and I rarely saw a city worker doing anything. It’s a dramatic change to have people working hard to keep Boston in good shape.
The fall schedule is full. The Esplanade Association is holding its annual Moondance on September 23. The Boston Athenaeum is hosting Nancy Schon, the sculptor of the 30-year-old ducklings in the Public Garden, at 1 p.m. on October 23. She will talk about her new children’s book, Make Way for Nancy: A Life in Public Art. The symphony, the Huntington Theatre and the ART, as well as smaller performing groups, begin their seasons.
The number of people who actually leave town in July and August is possibly over-stated. Nevertheless those who stay in the city in summer apparently don’t like to be bothered with schedules. So we make up for lost time in September.
A friend said she had not been looking forward to the summer ending. But now that she was back in town she was enjoying the energy. “It’s so much fun to be back,” she said. (She is one of the people who does go away.)
In some ways September is the best month of the year. It’s the energy, but also the weather—usually sunny and warm, with a nip in the air that requires only a light sweater. Everyone seems happy. We’ve got both the Red Sox and the Patriots to entertain us. Tourists are still around to add vitality and a mix of languages.
We can still dine outside. The farmers’ markets are at their best. Cauliflower comes in dozens of colors. The tomatoes are the tastiest they will ever be. The arugula I bought at Copley Square one Friday was still edible 10 days later because it must have been picked the morning I bought it.
The river and the harbor are still open for kayaking, sailing, rowing and commuting. The docks still hold those large private yachts that, with their dark windows and sinewy lines, look like they belong to drug dealers.
This fall has many matters to entertain us.
The mayoral election is coming up. One question. Will Marty Walsh this year campaign on Beacon Hill as he did not do four years ago? C’mon, Marty. You know Beacon Hillers didn’t like your cheap handicap ramps that break as soon as they are installed. They insulted the disabled, as if they weren’t good enough for something that lasts. While Beacon Hill leaders proposed a long-term solution respectful of that community—that they would pay for—you stuck with your low-priced plastic spread. But even Beacon Hillers have interests beyond ramps and might like some of the other things you’ve accomplished. Don’t be shy.
We’ve also got Amazon for our leaders to go nuts over, trying to persuade Jeff Bezos that Suffolk Downs, with its two Blue Line stations, is just what he needs. Jeff may say to our leaders, “You call this transit? I want a 21st-century system—new, clean trains, a rail connection through both North and South Stations so my South Shore employees can get to work, trains to the South Shore down to the Cape and to the north into New Hampshire, and a comfortable, fast Silver Line that doesn’t require drivers to leave their seat to manually change from electric power to diesel. How can I put my innovative company in a region so behind the times?”
I could be wrong. He may not say that, depending on how sweet the pot is and how dazzled he is by our universities and hospitals, which our promoters claim are unmatched. If he passes on Boston, will our leaders have learned something about our still-19th century T?
So enjoy this fall. It lasts until December when we go into the holiday season. Then winter is only three months long. By April we’ll again be enjoying flowers, a few warm days and that gorgeous season called spring.

Ingredients for a successful city

What makes small cities successful?
I’ve asked that question as I’ve gotten to know Portsmouth, New Hampshire, over a couple of visits.
If you’ve not been to this lovely, vibrant place less than an hour and a half from Boston up Route 1 and I-95, put in on your list.
Its setting is divine, lying alongside the ice-free Piscataqua River across from Kittery, Maine. It boasts a moderately hilly terrain, a beautiful harbor, a deep maritime history, historic architecture and such tourist attractions as a submarine and a restored historic village museum called Strawbery Banke. For many years it benefitted from both an air force base and a shipyard that designed and built submarines.
These factors gave it a good base, said two people I spoke with—Nancy Carmer, Portsmouth’s Economic Development Program Manager, and Barbara Massar, the executive director of the non-profit arts and culture sponsor, Pro Portsmouth. John Bohenko, Portsmouth’s city manager, communicated by email.
They agreed that the city’s setting, history and military presence gave it a start. But they also said good planning, good leadership, ambitious infrastructure improvements and an engaged citizenry helped save it from becoming, like so many cities, one that looks back on a prosperous history without a solid replacement.
“You can take your assets and build upon those,” said Carmer. “But it’s also true there were champions.”
Those champions were not enough to save an old Italian section that was razed in the style of Boston’s West End. But they learned, and no more razing took place. They saved the oldest settled community, which became Strawbery Bank. And they created Pro Portsmouth, which began 40 years ago to produce such events as New Hampshire’s only First Night, celebrate Portsmouth and advocate for better streets and public gathering places—spaces for performances, street festivals, markets, and a place to begin road races.
This is where infrastructure comes into the picture. Massar said that city officials supported Pro Portsmouth’s activities and created car-free Market Square, widened sidewalks and passed zoning laws to reserve ground-floor areas for retail or restaurant uses. This cooperation has produced an environment that has thrived with local shops instead of chain stores, and hordes of people just walking the street enjoying the vitality.
“We’ve had a great relationship with the city manager,” said Massar. “We welcome everyone downtown.”
Despite saving Strawbery Banke for tourists and making downtown lively, things could have gone downhill fast when Pease Air Force Base closed in 1990 and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard went from building submarines to only repairing them.
But savvy city managers and civic leaders transformed the base into “an international trade port” with a small airport, successful invitations to entrepreneurs and such big businesses as Liberty Mutual Insurance, Sprague Energy and Amadeus software, as well as a regional hospital.
City Manager Bohenko said the resulting diversity of Portsmouth’s business base is a strength as well as its intention to employ sustainability practices and policies. The city’s workforce is well educated, and the city makes an effort to ensure its residents are trained in the kind of skills its businesses need.
No city is perfect. Portsmouth struggles with traffic, parking and a lack of good alternatives to cars. As downtown has seen success, rents have skyrocketed, putting local shopkeepers’ businesses in jeopardy. Energy costs are high as they are in the rest of New England. Housing costs are also high, but, remarkably, about half of Portsmouth’s housing stock is multi-family and of this, approximately 50 percent is subsidized.
What advice would Bohenko give to other small cities? He provided a long list:
• Start with sound fiscal management and long range planning so your city is attractive to investors, prospective businesses and residents.
• Capitalize on your unique assets and promote them.
• Create public places for community interaction and expression that reflects the city’s unique and vibrant personality. Activate sidewalks through outdoor dining, street performances, etc.
• Create public/multimodal transportation opportunities.
• Cultivate, support and promote the local arts and cultural community.
• Invest in infrastructure through sustained capital planning and sound fiscal management. Focus on encouraging walking and biking.
• Promote a diversified business base.
• Partner with organizations like Main Street America to bring activity/festivals.
• Cultivate a tech business ecosystem and environment for businesses that seek a young workforce.
• Promote public/private partnerships.
• Attract and retain a diverse business base.
• Allow for the creation of housing for all income brackets.
• Seek grant funding to offset local revenue spending on capital and other needs.
• Partner with educational institutions to grow a workforce that meets employer needs.
• Take advantage of state and federal business attraction incentives/programs.

It sounds like a tall order. But it can work, as Portsmouth has shown.

Welcome to Boston

It’s September. You’ve moved in either over the weekend or sometime this summer. You’ve not met many of your neighbors because long-time residents try to get out of town on moving days, since it can be hectic, noisy and hard to negotiate the sidewalks because they contain so much debris.
No matter what ethnic group, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or even whether you are a legal immigrant or not, you’ll be welcome in downtown Boston. Those things don’t matter here. You’ll be accepted happily as long as you put out your trash properly on the right day and keep your dog on a leash, pick up after him and dispose of the bag in that rare city trash barrel or your own residence.
If you have a car, you’ll be frustrated, since there will be no place to park. You might consider ditching it and using Zipcar, taxis, Uber, Lyft and the T.
You’ve probably already figured out that downtown living is easy. You don’t have to walk far to get everything you need. You’re probably paying a great deal of your income to live here so you’ll want to make the most of it.
The first thing you can do to ensure success is to adopt a downtown attitude. More than anything, that means you must learn to share. You’ll be sharing walls, ceilings, rooftops, floors, sidewalks, streets, shade, sun and noise. Be patient. The guy blocking traffic on your street that is lined with parking on both sides has no place to go if he has to unload a big bag or if he’s in a cab paying for his ride. You will be blocked many times if you are driving. Accept it happily.
Your neighbors will hear you if you play music too loudly. You’ll hear them too if they dance on your rooftop or walk heavily on the floor above you. You can let it annoy you. Or you can relish the thought that you are safe, with people around you making it that way. Isolation is one of the ways people get depressed, and if you take advantage of crowded downtown, there’s little chance you’ll be isolated.
Every neighborhood has all kinds of groups to join and you should do so to get to know people. Try the neighborhood associations first. They’re affordable and often sponsor social get-togethers. You should go to the zoning and licensing meetings they hold. You’ll get acquainted quickly with the people who style themselves as the movers and shakers. You’ll learn who is trustworthy, who is a crank, who wants advantages only for themselves and who is truly neighborly. Join the book clubs, churches and synagogues, dog groups, clean-up efforts, and decorating days during the holidays. Make use of the calendars in the neighborhood newspapers and local web sites to find out what organizations are doing. Drop in at your branch library. Get out into the shops for your supplies rather than ordering online because you’ll find the local shopkeepers will become good friends and can give you all kinds of tips.
You’re sharing more than space in downtown Boston. You’re also sharing time. And it’s not all about you. Unless you are in one of those new buildings with tiny spaces and big amenities, you’re living where people have lived for hundreds of years. You may have bought a house or a condo and think it’s yours, but think again. Someone will have come before you and someone will come after you. Respect that history and the future when you remodel. (One celebrity bought a house in my neighborhood and applied to the architecture commission to turn its front into a design with a southwest theme. What kind of a mind moves into a historic New England home and wants to pretend its New Mexico? The change was not allowed.
The restaurants are great downtown, and I’m always amused when people say they want to move here because the restaurants would be so convenient.
The restaurants are good, and, newcomers, please take advantage of them. But downtown living is not about the restaurants.
The great aspect of downtown Boston is that these are real neighborhoods, vibrant with people who know one another, who care for their communities, who enjoy the diversity of ages, groups, just people. If you’re up for that kind of life, you’ll love living here. You might even stay.