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.

Uninhabitable

Karen is on vacation. Here is a column from February that you might enjoy again.

Samuel Eliot Morison in The Maritime History of Massachusetts describes our state’s liabilities—tumbling, shallow, un-navigable rivers that could never compete with the mighty Hudson or the St. Lawrence; “long-lying snow,” making for a short growing season; shallow soil too close to the underlying granite for successful farming, few natural resources beyond timber, and then there is the ice. Compared to the old country, Massachusetts presented daunting challenges to its early European settlers.
Morison goes on to credit those settlers with turning their liabilities into assets. Our forebears captured the power of the waterfalls that prevented navigation to turn the mill wheel, enabling them to grind wheat and develop industry. They used the snow’s slippery surface to haul big items, possibly the most famous being the captured British cannons that Henry Knox dragged on sleds from Fort Ticonderoga at the beginning of the American Revolution. He made it to Dorchester Heights, where General Washington trained them on the British fleet, which prudently left Boston Harbor on or about March 17, conveniently giving us a secular reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Finally, landowners, realizing New England’s soil was mostly only marginally fertile, quarried the underlying granite to build imposing architecture, headstones, curbs and now, kitchen counters. With few natural resources of their own, Massachusetts’ early entrepreneurs shipped other places’ goods. Then they sliced the ice from the ponds into blocks, packed them in sawdust in the holds of ocean-going ships, and sold the ice to tropical countries. I’m told that such entrepreneurs also introduced ice cream to show tropical-landers how to use frozen water.
Clever.
Nevertheless, Morison’s description reminds readers of how uninhabitable America was to early Europeans. It still is. New England? Morison spelled it out. But other regions were and are even more challenging.
The mid-Atlantic states, the South and the Midwest? So hot and humid that British diplomats assigned to Washington, D.C. in the 1800s were allowed to wear Bermuda shorts. Texas— same heat, with the added threat of fire ants. South and the Midwest? Tornedoes. The South? Bugs, big ones that bite and give you the creeps, not to mention poisonous snakes and the alligators that would get you if you tried to swim in the fresh-water ponds, rivers and lakes.
Arizona and some of Nevada? October through March is nice enough. But from April on you can’t go outside without collapsing. You will burn your hand if you touch anything outside. I once met a woman who grew up in the state before air conditioning. She said her family dipped their sheets in water before they went to bed and rolled up in them so they would be cool enough to sleep.
Arizonians say you won’t mind the heat because it is dry heat. They say this while sipping margaritas at an air-conditioned bar. They know better than to go outside.
In many other areas of the country you can’t go outside in the summer. That’s one advantage New Englanders have on most summer days. The southern states spend more on air conditioning than we do on heat. What kind of life is that to be forced inside all summer?
Then there is the West Coast, possibly the nicest place in all of America. Unfortunately, California is slowly tipping into the Pacific Ocean. It is wracked with earthquakes, fires and either droughts or floods. Oregon puts up with an active volcano.
With all the threats and challenges to human life in the rest of the country, Morison’s New England looks pretty good. We can still spend many days outdoors in the summer. Winter sports and a cozy fire in a fireplace, if we are lucky enough to have one, keep us going.
Still, we face global warming and sea rise, so that even in relatively livable New England we can expect overheated summers, winters too warm to stop the deadly southern bugs, and the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our doors. According to news reports, we might have to build a sea wall at the entrance to Boston Harbor to keep the rising ocean out.
We might get some solace from the fact the Florida, where the governor refuses to recognize climate change, will soon be a shallow salt marsh. But that also means that New Englanders won’t have Florida to flee to if they can’t stand weather or taxes.
We’ll just have to stay here and face the changes. Grist mills, granite quarries and ice seem pretty benign right now.

A recipe for cooking

Karen is taking a summer break. This column on a remarkable business incubator appeared last January.

Take one old hot dog factory. Add two big kitchens, eight convection ovens, 12 food truck spaces, several 15-gallon mixers, a frying pan logo, a 1,800 square-foot refrigerator and 45 start-ups. Stir in $15 million of public money, tax credits and donations. Cook for seven years while raising money, renovating the factory, and getting up to speed. Top it off with an executive director who knows her stuff.
Serve it to Bostonians at the Boston Public Market, the Greenway and commercial outlets all over the city.
Enjoy, as waiters say. You’ve just gotten the recipe for the CommonWealth Kitchen, a non-profit company in an old Pearl Hot Dog facility that nurtures start-up food businesses and also cooks for bigger but still personal food businesses that are so successful they can’t do it by themselves.
My friend Sally and I drove out to Dorchester, where the facility is, to see what was happening. I’d heard about this place from people at the Boston Public Market, since CWK, as is it known, prepares pasta for Nella Pasta and foods for other Boston Public Market vendors.
It helps to have the equivalent of a world-class chef managing the kitchens. That’s Jen Faigel. People like her are both commonplace and extraordinary. On the one hand, they’ve done what everyone is supposed to do. They’ve found their niche, educated themselves, gotten experience, grabbed an idea and made a success of themselves and their passion. On the other hand, when you find people like that, they seem rare.
Jen had worked in affordable housing, real estate development and economic development. The Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation was planning to tear down the decrepit factory and build affordable housing. Neighbors said no. “We want to keep jobs here,” they said. “What good is affordable housing if people can’t work?”
That was in 2009. By 2010, Jen, who’d been on the board of the former CropCircle Kitchen in JP, was brought in as a consultant by the Dorchester EDC to help create a food incubator that took advantage of the special conditions the 1910 factory offered. In 2014, Jen became the executive director of CWK, which absorbed CropCircle, and it opened with two kitchens.
One is for folks who have an idea for a food product, but don’t have the facilities or the know-how to make their favorite sauce, pickles or cake into a real business. Those budding entrepreneurs sign up at $35 an hour to use the large equipment CWK provides. Along with the space, they get instruction on crafting a business plan, getting the proper permits, scaling recipes, packaging their product, maintaining food safety, and handling finances, insurance and all the other nuts and bolts of running a small business.
So far, 45 businesses, including the Clover Food Lab, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and McCrea’s Candies, have gone through the program and grown to the point where they’re on their own.
Forty-five small businesses are now sharing the large kitchen. They include Sweet Teez Bakery, whose owner, Teresa Thompson Maynard, arrived while we were visiting to make her cookies, cakes and cupcakes. “I left corporate on January 16,” she said. “CWK really helped me know what I’m doing.”
She needed the help, she said, since she admitted burning the first cake she baked in the large convection oven.
Grace Connor, aged 17, was also in the kitchen while we were visiting. This tall, thin South End girl was making cookie dough ice cream for Little G, her nascent ice cream venture.
Jen said a Boston police officer makes chutney at CWK, but we didn’t meet her.
On the other side of CWK’s entrance is the second kitchen, devoted to cooking for outside vendors whose facilities can’t handle the volume they need. While we were there, three women were baking cookies and also preparing a bloody Mary mix for Alex’s Ugly Sauce. Owner Alex Bourgeois now has his sauce in every Whole Foods on the East Coast, so he is experimenting with new products.
CWK also makes sauce for Mei Mei Street Kitchen and pumpkin puree for Harvard’s dining services. In the fridge were fifty pounds of cilantro, which shows the volume CWK can handle. Nearly 60 percent of the fresh ingredients are local, Jen said proudly.
CWK has relationships that connects its businesses to lenders when the start-ups need investment to expand. It constantly cleans the fans, floors, drains and equipment. It creates a community of cooks who can keep in touch after they disperse.
CWK has 14 staff members and a $1.6 million budget, with 50 percent from earned income, matched with grants and fund-raising. Within five years, Jen projects earned income will cover 85 percent of CWK’s costs. She has space for more start-ups.
So if you are intent on creating your own culinary sensation and offering it to the world, contact Jen. Everything you need to sign up is at www.commowealthkitchen.org.

Thanks, Donnie, for the big reveal

Karen is taking a break. Since we were all recently laughing at Trump when he inappropriately complimented the French president’s wife on the good shape she was in after the age of 60, the subject of this column still seems up to date.

One good thing Donald has done for America is that the regrettable frequency of sexual assault is now out in the open, and it’s not just a bunch of drunk college sophomores committing the crimes.
I had read that women were revealing their own experiences with it to their mates and to other women. Then I landed with several women friends I see a two or three times a year. They started talking and talking and talking. I was observing the disclosures first-hand.
At first two themes emerged. One was that the men who had perpetrated these acts were pathetic, creepy creatures, and we suspected they had small “hands.” Another was that the women felt humiliation years after the acts had taken place.
Then one woman described an attempted rape. C. said that a busboy who’d been serving in her college sorority offered to walk her home, and she was happy for the company. But when they got to her place, he pushed her into her room and tried to rape her. Terrified, she could think of only one thing to do—she made herself throw up, all over him.
Disgusted and distracted, he paused, and she was out of there.
That set me to thinking: how many women have been threatened with sexual assault and prevailed? After an unscientific poll of my friends, it turns out that due to luck, height and clever thinking, many have done so.
Take S.’s experience:
“Some years ago, I was living with a large, chocolate point Siamese cat named Harvey and dating a professor from a local university. One evening after dinner at a lovely restaurant, we came back to my apartment for coffee and conversation. We were standing in the hallway leading from the living room to the bedroom when the professor began playfully backing me toward the open door of the bedroom. Before I realized this was not a game, the professor had pinned me down on the bed and was trying to disrobe me. I virtually bellowed my objection to no avail.
“In response, Harvey, issuing his great hoarse Siamese meows, leapt on the prof’s back and clawed him vigorously. Prof ran out the door with Harvey at his heels.”
Another story that may be more common than anyone realized was P.’s. She said her doctor pushed her against the wall as he was leaving the exam room and kissed her on the lips before slipping out the door. She retaliated by getting a new doctor.
Cleverness sometimes helps, although it’s hard to be clever when you are scared.
One woman told of being in grad school when a young teen approached her on the sidewalk. He was tall and skinny with a sweet baby face. She thought he was going to ask for change, but instead he knocked her books to the ground and tried to grope her. Astonished, she asked, “What would your mother say if she knew what you were doing?”
He stood back, looking really scared, and asked, “Do you know my mother?”
She replied, “Of course I do!!”
He disappeared down the street at record speed.
Having a weapon helps. In one tall woman’s case it was her elbows. She was married to a professor. As she came out of the bathroom at a department party, the head of her husband’s department pushed her back in and tried to disrobe her. This woman is about five-eleven, and she made use of her size, elbowing him and fighting him. She managed to get out. He came out soon after, continued having a good time at the party and never seemed embarrassed at subsequent social encounters with her. She wondered if he even remembered. She certainly did.
Another woman described using her door as a weapon. Some years ago a neighbor joined her as she was walking home through the colorful fall leaves in the Back Bay. He helped carry some of her heavy books. At her door, he returned her books and began to grope her. She pushed him away, but he still had one hand on the door frame. So she shut the door on his hand and kept it there, pushing against the door, as he wailed in pain. When she finally let up, he sprinted away. She laughed, then shook and cried.
Unfortunately, other stories of assault were less satisfying because the women could not get away.
The best news, however, is not that predatory men can be vanquished. It’s that so many men are dignified, caring, loving, respectful, and real friends and partners of women. Those kinds are the real men.