Imponderables

News articles extoll Massachusetts’ wealth. From the Boston Globe on June 28: “The Massachusetts miracle: rich and thriving.” In January, “A Waterfront that’s rapidly transforming,” which reports that $1.5 billion of construction was taking place with $850 million about to begin. These new properties mean exploding tax revenue for Boston and higher revenue for Massachusetts with those construction workers’ salaries and the sales taxes contractors are spending on materials.
Massachusetts has been disappointed in actual revenues collected versus revenues predicted, but the numbers are still impressive for both the state and the city.
This leaves questions: If we’re so rich why can’t we afford public transportation at least as good as Paris, which has struggled with high unemployment? Why can’t we keep day care at UMass Boston, not to mention building excellent facilities? Why do our leaders cry poor when schools need funding, when roads need repairing, when rail needs expanding? Why are we so fearful of spending money, while at the same time everyone brags that we’re rolling in it? It’s a mystery.

Do you follow plastic surgery? If so, you might have noticed an interesting spectacle going on in the boobs department. Ivanka Trump and Melania Trump have matching chests. Same size. Same look. And they’re not even related. They don’t look like any of the women I know, except maybe Angelina Jolie, who has a good excuse. (I don’t actually know Ms. Jolie, but I’ve seen photos.) Maybe same surgeon? Maybe the company producing the product makes them only in one size. Who knows?

Then there is Charlie Baker. Will he become a Democrat? Not in next year’s election, since he is popular with voters from both parties.
But, as a Republican, where does he go from here? Nowhere. We saw Mitt Romney embarrass himself repeatedly in his presidential campaign as he tried to please Republican voters by walking back from all he told us he believed in while he was governor. Charlie doesn’t seem like that sort of person. While he hedged on global warming the first time he ran for governor, he finally split with fellow national Republicans and admitted he was concerned about it.
On most matters he’s more in line with Democrats than national Republicans. Charlie is unlikely to get an appointed position in Washington, given his opinions of Trump, and it is unlikely he could win the Republican presidential nomination given his opposition to many of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s policies. Charlie is the antithesis of those guys—the kind of old-fashioned Republican many of us started out to be before the Republican Party left us standing in the sea without a boat.
Charlie could become the head of some company that he’d relocate to Massachusetts with the appropriate tax breaks or be named president of a prestigious university, and he’d have a fine life. But if he hopes to achieve higher office—president, let’s say—he’ll find little support in his own party, and would be welcomed by Democrats. Interesting to watch.

Why are we building parking garages that will attract more cars when we don’t have enough space for the cars already driving into Boston?
City leaders are bringing two government-subsidized garages holding 2,100 cars to the Seaport rather than spending the money on trolley service or other public transit (Red Line extension, anyone?). Traffic is already stopped dead because the Seaport has only limited access to other parts of the city. As if we didn’t already know, The Economist concluded that, “the costs and availability of parking affect people’s commuting habits more than the rapid buses and light rail lines that cities are so keen to build.”
That means parking will only attract more cars. We shouldn’t build parking if, as the mayor’s Imagine Boston 2030 concludes, we want less reliance on cars. But without parking, we must provide those rapid buses and light rail lines. Technology in streetcars is sophisticated—Seaport leaders should visit Bordeaux, France. That city has streetcars powered by rails that respond to the streetcar passing over but can’t be activated by a person stepping on them or a bicycle crossing them. Street cars running on those wide Seaport streets could move people to transportation hubs like Andrew, Aquarium and South Station.
MassPort is in on the act too, building a new garage at the airport when other cities are putting their money into rail lines to airports. Instead of providing more parking, Massport could extend the Blue Line and improve the sad Silver Line, which now takes four or five times as long to get to the airport as does a cab.
Rapid transit doesn’t work unless it is rapid. That’s what we need, not more parking that will slow us down even more.

One immigrant’s story

In 1990 eight-year-old Victoria Glazomitsky stepped off a plane at Kennedy Airport with her mother and father, her paternal grandmother and grandfather and her three-year-old brother, Misha.
They were immigrating from what was still the Soviet Union. Her grandmother didn’t want to leave. But everyone else did, including her father, who as an engineer could surely get employment in the US.
He would finally. But for two years the Glazomitsky family lived on food stamps and welfare. They struggled to learn English. They depended on a family member who had come earlier. They moved around. Victoria and Misha went to school. The family finally could support themselves. The grandmother gradually lost her nostalgia for her homeland. They all became citizens.
In one way, Victoria’s story is like all immigrant stories—a hope for a better life, a long journey, a struggle to fit into an unfamiliar country, and eventual success, especially for the generations following.
But it is also her unique story. What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than by telling an immigrant’s story. After all, unless we are descended from the First Peoples in North America, we all have one, even if that immigration was forced upon us, as it was for so many Africans.
Victoria said she has achieved success in America because of good mentors and good luck. It’s possible, however, that her drive, persistence and determination to do well also helped her. But again, that is a typical immigrant’s story.
Victoria was a good student interested in art and art history, so when she enrolled at UMass Boston, that’s what she studied. She also was good at math, a native Russian speaker and believed she had a knack for business, so she also majored in International Management.
She caught the attention of Professor Paul Tucker, a renowned art historian, who became one of her important mentors.
After college, with financial stability as a goal, Victoria first went into the insurance world. After a couple of years, she knew it wasn’t for her. Professor Tucker helped her sort things out and steered her to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. At first she was an assistant to the director, but when the 2008 recession hit, the deCordova had to let several staff members go. Victoria took over their duties.
At first, it was a burden of more work and sorrow at the loss of co-workers who were also friends. Later, though, she realized that learning everyone else’s job and steering the complex projects other staff members have formerly managed gave her valuable experiences.
After about five years Victoria confided to the director that, having learned what she could there, she planned to move on. Before she could start a job search, however, the director himself found her a new job.
He had been at a conference with the director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. PEM’s director had a number of projects in his expanding museum that had no supervision. He needed someone who could take them over, even though some were still amorphous. The deCordova Museum director said, “I’ve got the perfect person for you.”
Victoria attributes that career builder to the luck of having her director sit next to the PEM director. Maybe.
During her three years at PEM, Victoria acquired a friend who would become her husband and a future stepdaughter. She and her stepdaughter often traipsed around Boston’s museums. One day in the fall of 2014, they stepped into the Nichols House Museum on Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill. They enjoyed their visit, and the docent told them about the upcoming house tour in December that the musuem has annually sponsored. She couldn’t remember the details, however.
Victoria looked up the house tour online and had good luck again. She found on the web site that the Nichols House was looking for a new director to replace Flavia Cigliano, who was retiring after 16 years at the small museum’s helm. Victoria applied and got the job.
Now with her Russian origin masked by her flawless, unaccented English and her husband Todd McKay’s last name, Victoria is moving on, too soon as she puts it, since she intended to stay at the Nichols House Museum at least five years.
She’ll become the managing director of advancement at the Boston Society of Architects Foundation. This job will help solidify her fund-raising skills.
It’s curious about immigrants. Soon they become so American that their talents and accomplishments mean that no one thinks about their more complicated story than those of the native-born.
Nichols House Museum President Kate Enroth’s comments reflect that.
“We are sorry to have Victoria leaving the Nichols House Museum,” said Enroth. “She had great ideas for new programs and events that brought attention to the museum. Most importantly, she led us in the final steps to gaining the significant honor of accreditation by the national American Alliance of Museums. We wish her well in the next stage of her career.”

HarborWalk—signs needed

Last Thursday, I took a walk along the harbor with four friends from downtown Boston and others from Iowa, Kentucky and Washington, DC, to assess how the 33-year-old HarborWalk is doing.
Time constraints confined us to the stretch between Lovejoy Wharf and the Fort Point Channel post office. I’ll take a walk at other locations later.
The post office is not officially on the Harbor Walk, but it’s a gem. Its spruced-up look has vents like ocean liner stacks. But never mind. We were assessing the walk, not the buildings.
Our verdict? Parts of the walk are dazzling. All of these were built and are maintained by private developments. Presumably their high rents or condominium prices pay for the upkeep.
The city’s properties and such older developments as Union Wharf, however, built and rehabbed before the walk was established, degrade it with lack of access, blind alleys, unsightly parking lots and poor conditions.
In some parts no one would realize the HarborWalk exists since it looks like a driveway. Few signs point to its location. Signs in general are poorly placed and often wrong. We decided the Harborwalk needs a Friends group to get the powers that be to pay attention.
Let’s begin with the fabulous. On a path next to Bobby Orr’s statue park we headed toward Lovejoy Wharf. There we found a passageway through the new building. Wow! That passageway enshrines a splendid view of the Bunker Hill Monument.
Like other parts of the walk constructed since the late 1980s by private developers, this walkway was wide and landscaped beautifully. Its view incorporated the locks, the police station, bridges and the Cambridge and Charlestown shores on the other side. We gave it an A-plus.
Other welcoming spots were along the Boston Harbor and Intercontinental Hotels. Atlantic Wharf had a grassy lawn filled with happy people eating and sunbathing. Also beautiful was Battery Wharf, but no signs let you know the public is invited. Boston Planning and Development Agency: Require Battery Wharf to put up signs inviting people to the public walkway.
On the other side of the Washington Street Bridge from Lovejoy was a stretch that led along the North End. We gave it a D. Crumbling asphalt abutted granite walls that were askew. The walk by the playground, tennis courts, ball fields, the Mirabella Pool and the Coast Guard facility was disappointing and mostly streetside. This waterfront space is wonderful—expansive and welcoming. But again, signs were non-existent and one was completely wrong. Surely that park could be redesigned to incorporate a repaired HarborWalk.
We deplored all the parking lots we had to navigate, sometimes unsuccessfully. The area behind the Aquarium, along the Harbor Garage, Harbor Towers and Independence Wharf were regrettable, forgettable or hunkered down against the public. We wanted pleasant seaside establishments where we could sit down and have a nice, cool drink. We wanted places where people wanted to be.
We were actually warned at one point. “You know this is private property,” said a woman passing into the townhouse section at Union Wharf, while we were standing trying to find a directional sign. I guess the owners there don’t like the public walking by their houses, as the public does past mine—without incident, by the way.
On the other hand, along one wharf, and I can’t remember, maybe Commercial or Sargent’s, the HarborWalk looked like an scruffy driveway, but beside the doorways were gas grilles and charming flower pots—signs that its residents know how to live in a public city. Surely there are carrots and sticks available to reclaim some of the harbor’s private spaces for the public—and get rid of the parking lots.
We loved Christopher Columbus Park. And we were happy to see Tia’s, the kind of outdoor restaurant there needs to be along the waterfront to attract visitors. The boats along the wharves were a treat, as was the harbor itself.
By the time we got to Long Wharf we were tired. (My phone said 12,000 steps by the end.) No one liked Long Wharf, which my coterie did not know has been the subject of lawsuits between some residents and the BPDA over installing a restaurant or something active there. It seemed uninviting and sparsely populated. It is not near residences and most wanted a restaurant. “With dancing on the wharf every Friday night,” said one. My companions suggested a farmer’s market or seafood market would be another good use, but saw it as dead now.
The HarborWalk’s barriers, poor condition, parking lots and general difficulty finding one’s way made it hard to convince the out-of-towners to stay with us. They preferred to get back to the events at the Copley Plaza hotel where their organization was holding its national annual meeting.
We Bostonians found that a problem. Tourism is a big industry in Boston. If the HarborWalk is unpleasant and hard to navigate, it’s not helping the city. While we loved the space behind the Intercontinental, we wanted tourists to appreciate Boston’s older parts also.
Right now the HarborWalk is falling down on that job.

Doing nothing at sea

When Hampshire House owner Tom Kershaw invited me to join him on the square-rigged, 122-foot schooner Lynx, based in Nantucket and St. Petersburg, Florida, at Saturday’s Parade of Sail, I immediately said yes. Journalists often get to do something special—once I walked the entire Big Dig tunnel while it was under construction, and I’m still jealous of my colleague who explored the part of Hanover Street still extant under City Hall Plaza.

Tom was able to invite about 40 guests to join him in the parade because he has been a long-time board member of Sail Boston. He has a special relationship with the Lynx, built in 2001 based on a privateer of the same name that participated in the War of 1812. His charity, Cheers for Children, has supported the Lynx’s sailing instruction and history programs, but are really providing kids a potentially life-changing experience. Three members of the Peacock family, who run the programs, were on board. Donald Peacock said sailors in his family go back to the early 1800s.

We arrived at the ship about 6 a.m. It was a good thing we got there early. Fan Pier no longer looks like the old Fan Pier, and without Anthony’s, Pier Four no longer looks like Pier Four. But we found the ship, climbed aboard and enjoyed a leisurely day, starting with coffee as we watched the crew ready the ship for a sail.

Most of the guests were long-time friends of Tom. A television crew led by meteorologist Cindy Fitzgibbon of Channel Five set up their equipment to broadcast all day, but no beauty shots were to be had.

The water was glassy, but fog enclosed the ship so tightly that we could only hear the airplanes taking off above our heads. We never did see them. About 8 a.m. the ship left the dock and joined a line headed for the outer harbor. When we passed the large Navy ship anchored near the Reserved Channel, a crew member stuffed the small cannon with a ball of explosives and bread—why the bread I never understood—and fired it at the Navy ship. It was a salute, but it also could have been a hostile act. The Navy, thankfully, did not return fire.

During most of our journey we could barely see the ship ahead of us or the one behind. A fine mist pelted our faces. Tom’s friend Lindy distributed thin plastic rain ponchos adorned with the Cheers logo.

The sea became rambunctious, making it difficult to maintain footing unless you were holding on. But the fog lifted somewhat, and the sea took on that glassy look again. The crew raised the sails, with one female crew member climbing to the top of the mast to do some adjusting and all the others heaving and hauling the lines to secure the unfurled sails in their rightful places.

We were sitting on wet wood, but it was not cold. The sea was not emitting that wonderful briney, fishy, kelpy fragrance that northern seas can achieve. Police boats flew through the water, slapping the waves as they bounced. There were few bird sounds, few clanks on what was mostly a wooden ship, and a low drone of motors. The major noise continued to be that of airplanes landing and taking off.

At one point, a Boston Whaler, the Annie Laurie, roared up to our ship. We paid no attention until a police boat roared even faster and megaphoned the Annie Laurie to get away from the Lynx. Oh. Security.

Land came into view as the fog lifted more, and we saw we were lingering, waiting for the delayed parade to begin, with all the other ships spread out between Nahant and south of Boston Light.

Gradually most of the ships began to raise their sails. About 10:30 a.m. our ship’s guests started to delve into big coolers, bringing out sandwiches and hummus dip. Soon we heard the parade had begun. We hung around for an hour or so though because we were in the ninth flotilla. Our lead ship would be the three-masted Gulden Leeuw, or Golden Lion when translated from the Dutch. We would sail in tandem with the smaller Ardelle.

The sail into the inner harbor, the turn-around and the return to our dock were accompanied by a few more cannon firings and the remarkable sight of sailors in uniform standing on the yards of the barque Guayas.
We docked and shed our sea legs as we walked into the crowds along the Harbor Walk, all the while thinking of the talk we’d heard on board.

This spectacle is expensive. Ships pay for crews, food, gasoline and all else that enables them to sail across oceans. Such groups as Sail Boston give ships “honorariums” so they can afford to participate.

It was reported, unverified, that Mayor Walsh has said this is the last time Boston will put on this extravaganza. The security costs are too high. Given the many police officers we encountered on land and the many police boats on patrol, we could see why this would worry a mayor who has housing to build and schools to support.

So maybe you should get yourself down to the harbor to enjoy a free boarding of these ships. It isn’t certain that they’re coming back.

Questions you’ve wanted answered

Why does the Hurley Building on Cambridge Street have chain link fence pieces around it?

A person from the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance who said not to use his name told me that there is a drop between the plaza and the sidewalk and his department is concerned that people could fall over the side. He said DCAM is looking into a solution, but there is no timeline.

The problem with that answer is that the fence is deployed around the whole building, even in places where there is no drop. The fence is not strong enough to stop a terrorist truck. It’s sort of thrown up against the building. It’s strange.

The plaza on the Merrimac and Staniford Street corner of the building has been turned into a permanent parking lot, rather than just a plaza entrance to the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center. A couple of horse chestnut trees along Cambridge Street are thriving, but the building is dirty, forbidding and poorly maintained, at least on the outside.

Parking lots degrade spaces. Scraggly trees should have been watered. Windows can be washed and concrete can be cleaned, sort of. Why can’t the state take better care of its property? Why is such a building allowed to denigrate the neighborhood? And, again, why do those chain link fences exist?

Maybe we’ll never know.

 

 

During spring snowstorms, limbs fall off Boston’s street trees because snow weighs them down, especially if their leaves are emerging. Why doesn’t the city’s Parks and Recreation Department pollard our trees, as they do in France, so their branches are thinner and less susceptible to breaking off?

 

Gregory Mosman, the tree warden and arborist for the City of Boston, said in an email that the drawbacks of pollarding outweigh the benefits. “Pollarding works only on certain species,” he said. “It is time consuming and labor intensive and if not done regularly creates weak branch unions that can fail. It also defeats the purpose of having canopy cover that is home to birds and insects and provides shade and all the other benefits of large shade trees.”

 

 

Why has Massachusetts tax revenue recently been coming in below the forecast? Are we citizens not spending enough or making enough?

 

Revenue forecasting is an art, not a science, said Andrew Bagley, vice president of policy and research for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Bagley does revenue forecasting himself, so he should know.

Part of the problem, he said, is that forecasters depend on data about how revenues have behaved in the past. Then they look at such factors as wages, personal income, current economic conditions, employment rate and sales figures. “We sit and stare at it and think if it is overly optimistic,” he said.

But there are problems in coming up with a sound prediction. First, they are forecasting the revenues six to 18 months ahead. Things could change drastically over that period of time. Then there is tax planning. Some people, anticipating that Trump’s budget will cut the federal capital gains tax, may wait longer than usual to sell stock, depriving Massachusetts’ coffers of the tax expected to be collected.

If people buy fewer cars or go out for dinner fewer times, their behavior reduces the tax collected on those items. If, instead of going to a local retail shop, they buy something on the internet from a company with no location in the state, Massachusetts loses sales tax on that purchase.

It’s hard to predict those behaviors, Bagley said. Then there may be long-term changes afoot that are hard to account for. Are Millennials not spending as much as we might expect because they are paying off student debt? How long will that continue? Are people having to pay more for health care, thereby not buying as many goods? Forecasters try to ferret out these structural changes in consumptive patterns ahead of time, but their findings can be incomplete.

Other states face the same problem as Massachusetts in accurately predicting tax revenue, Bagley said. For example, car sales are down in every state. People are staying in their houses longer so those sales are down, and a new house often drives purchasing of furniture or appliances. That behavior is somewhat countered by an increase in home renovations. Despite cranes on the horizon in Boston and a soaring stock market, “something is slowing down,” he said. But it is unclear what that is.

We’re dealing with small percentages here, but they have significant implications, Bagley points out. In a $40 billion budget, if the forecast is only one percent more than the actual revenue, that leaves about a $400 million shortfall. The fiscal year begins July 1 every year. “If you don’t find out until May or June, that leaves little leeway in balancing the budget,” said Bagley.