Monday, January 28, 2008

Commuting by Bike in Boston and Staying Alive

So we've established that you're invisible. One solution, and a good rule of the road, is to make yourself large. No, no skippy boy, I don't mean that way. Put those donuts down. The beer, too. Put it down.

Take up some space

Friday, January 18, 2008

Have you heard the one about...?

A man walks into a neighborhood. He wants to build some condos. The neighborhood says no so he goes to the City. The City says no. He goes to the State and the State says sure, go ahead, build your condos.

So the man builds his condos, oh, just around the time the housing bubble is on the verge of popping. He's only able to sell 4 or 5 of the units. To avoid losing his shirt, he converts the parking garages and basements into bedrooms and opens a Sober Home. Vulnerable recovering drug addicts and alcoholics are crammed into two and three bedroom condos without any support services. Units intended for 4-6 people squeeze in 4-6 people per bedroom, garage space, and basement, each person paying up to $120.00 a week. With garages converted to bedrooms, there’s no room for parking and small neighborhood streets become choked with cars.
Within a year at least three people in these Safe Haven Sober Homes are dead of overdoses.

Still waiting for the punch-line? So are we.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Parking permitted

A petition is circulating Fort Hill to institute Resident Parking Permits in the neighborhood.

How can an objection be phrased delicately? The city is no place for cars. As global warming and the obesity epidemic increase, it may be the planet is no place for cars.

That said, there is nothing like driving in a convertible, top down, on an American road at twilight in the Autumn. Red, orange, and pink smears trail the setting sun. The air glows with a nearly supernatural golden light, the breeze unfurls dulcet. It’s not the same experience on a bicycle – you’re too engaged in the activity and it’s not the same sitting on your front porch. Gliding through that golden air, the sky wide open above you in an automobile can be a taste of heaven.

There’s also nothing like a car when you’ve got a 10 pound bag of potatoes or free, seven foot tall bookcase from Craigslist to schlep home. Even better to schlep home that bookcase is a pick-up truck, my latest vehicular love. The last car I owned was a truck and I can’t wait to do it again. But home ownership beckoned and it was either home or vehicle, both were not an option. Home won.

Though there’ll be housing market downturns, housing, especially in Boston, is a good long-term investment. A vehicle begins depreciating the moment you drive it off the lot. Everyone needs a place to live.

Parking in many areas of Boston, even with a resident parking permit, isn’t easy. On Symphony Road, near Symphony Hall, it often meant circling the block several times or, more often, parking several blocks from the house. After unloading the potatoes, of course. Dinner parties were infrequent as were family gatherings because how do you invite your elderly aunt to your house and then tell her the only place she can park is in the garage 2 blocks away for $25.00?

Not currently owning a car, I rent or Zipcar. Generous friends lend me their cars when they’re out of town. I commute self-propelled, walking or biking, or riding the T when the snow’s too high or the rain’s too thick. After years on Symphony Road and in Mission Hill and JP, I appreciate how difficult finding a parking spot in dense urban areas can be. It’s currently really difficult on Juniper Street for a variety of reasons, not to be addressed here. Depending on the time of day and who’s got what guests, parking in front of my house is only sometimes an option. Walking around the corner if that’s the closest place I can park is ok. I can still park. If the street becomes resident permit only, where will I park my Zipcar or my rental? Where will my dinner guests from the ‘burbs and my elderly aunt park?

The push for Resident Parking Permits in Fort Hill stems, in part, from the congestion created by Roxbury Community College students who park on Elmwood, Gardner, Roxbury and Centre Streets rather than in the RCC lot. Most of that lot remains empty while students park to avoid a longer walk to classrooms. (Has anyone mentioned the obesity epidemic?) Has RCC been pressed to take measures to enforce student parking in the lot? That is one place to begin to address parking issues in this neighborhood.

Beyond that, Resident Permit Parking isn’t a bad idea but the Boston system is so antisocial. Residents get permits, their visitors vie for the impossible to find two hour Visitor Parking spots. Somerville residents are at least allowed 2 visitor passes from City Hall so guests can park anywhere on the street. Two passes makes for a small dinner party but it’s better than eating alone while your guests circle the neighborhood.

(Added 27 Jan 10: I stand corrected. A big part of the parking problem is commuters driving in to the neighborhood, parking, and walking the short distance to the Roxbury Crossing T stop. Still not sure about a solution. Permit parking only from 9 - 5? That doesn't curb the RCC overflow which I still maintain is part of the problem, though maybe more so at night. Two years have passed with no resolution. It can't be that bad or residents would be howling.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

How to commute by bike in Boston without getting creamed. (By someone who’s been doing it for 25 years and has only been creamed twice. Knock wood).

First rule: you are invisible. Be proactive.

They do not see you. Do not assume that they see you. Even before the days of personal portable technology, they didn’t see you. They may pass you 3 or 4 or 10 times but still they do not see you. It used to be they’d be watching for a parking space or reading a map or applying makeup and eating or just eager to get to that appointment on time. Now they’re looking at the Garmin and texting and dialing and eating. Their eyes are rarely on the road, why would they notice you on a bike? Given that you are invisible, act accordingly.

That Corolla, which you’ve passed 4 times, and is about to take a right turn at that corner a few feet ahead of you? Doesn’t see you so don’t assume that he’s going give way and let you pass him on his right. If he’s got his blinker on (a miracle in itself in this town) to take a right turn, go around and pass him on his left. Sometimes, if he’s in a real hurry, even if he does see you, he’ll hook you – cut you off to take the right hand turn. Better to get in the lane behind him if there’s a chance he’ll be making a turn.

For the above example, I’m thinking Mass. Ave. bridge heading from Boston to Cambridge and the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Mem. Drive. – or any of the other right-hand turn-offs of Mass. Ave.

That Taurus - creeping along Mass. Ave., slowing and speeding up, with her blinker on, weaving left and then right? She may be drunk, but more probably, she’s looking for an address or landmark. If she were texting or talking on her phone, she wouldn't have bothered with the directional. Either stay directly behind her or, when it’s safe to do so, get directly in front of her, so she can't help but see you.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Get Lost!

Franklin Park, while a wonderful relief from the urban environment that surrounds it, can scarcely be characterized a 'wilderness'. One is always within earshot of a road so getting seriously lost would take some effort.
According to the history page of the Franklin Park Coalition’s website: “Olmsted wanted Franklin Park to soothe city residents who were stressed by modern life.”
We come to the park to rest and revive, to breathe and to escape the stress and sensory overload of the city. A big part of that overload is the signs, signs we tune out the same way a teenager tunes out her scolding parents.The rest of the city is increasingly (if you can believe it’s possible to have more signs!) marred by signs - many, but not all of them useful. I'm not a fan of those advertising behemoths in public spaces. Yes, yes, the revenue is useful but keep them out of Dudley, please.
Public space needs to remain public space and that means not leasing it permanently to private concerns. Though signs in Franklin Park would serve a different purpose – one of direction – maybe we also come to the Park to get lost a little – in our thoughts, in the moment, in our connectedness to Nature. Even “useful” or directional signs could prove a distraction from that path to relaxation, a path more easily trod without the distraction of signs. Meandering through the Park won’t get us anywhere fast or faster but didn’t we come to slow down a bit?
Though they might be somewhat useful, leave the signs where they belong - in the streets with the traffic lights and the asphalt and the honking horns. Save the Park for all that other less useful stuff: sunlight streaking through tree limbs, the crunch of leaves or crisp, new snow underfoot and vistas uncorrupted by someone telling us where to go.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

This is my neighborhood

Roxbury, Massachusetts gets a lot of bad press. As a matter of fact, the only press it gets is bad. But there is more to this predominantly African-American neighborhood of Boston than the gun-slinging youth gangs portrayed in local mainstream media. Here is a different view of one part of the neighborhood, a neighborhood which the people who live there consider an oasis of tranquility (yes, tranquility!) right in the heart of Boston.

(The slideshow that should be here is being recalcitrant. Stay tuned.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Remembering the fallen: NOT soldiers, children.

One memorial had barely disappeared and another was raised. A cross made of sticks tied with some strapping is all that’s left of a memorial to a young man shot nearby the KittredgePark. When asked how long ago the murder occurred, a neighbor sitting in the park replied that it had been about two years. When told that two years seemed like a long time for an outdoor memorial to last, the neighbor said, “we love our children”. And that's all they are really - children. Children with guns.

This is the newest shrine, on Bartlett Street, wrapped in plastic to survive the winter elements. Alongside the "why" plea are gang tags.

Rest in peace, David Jones, 1990-2007. Though even those who never met you wish it could be the case, you obviously will not be the last.


Community Again

One view of community implies togetherness, shared values, and common goals. Attend a community meeting and these attributes can be evident depending on subject.

A session on the development of Bartlett Yard, an 8.5 acre parcel, formerly the garage and service site for MBTA buses, brought out another dimension of community: self-interest.

There is the local, minority contractor who calls for no mandate of union labor in construction bids so he can grow his business. There are the underemployed who want permanent jobs. Local realtors yearn for fresh sources of capital to create mixed use development and enhance real estate prices. Finally, the fabric of the neighborhood people who have lived in here forever – 20, 30, 50 years - and the people who have just arrived, all seeking, in individual ways to make the neighborhood a better place.

Monday, January 7, 2008

This is who we are: the wide shot.

According to, these are the people who live in Roxbury:

"1. Foreign-born Urbanites - Foreign-born individuals who live in city.
2. Immigrant Blues - Low-income, foreign-language-speaking urbanites.
3. College Life - Students in higher education. These individuals are enrolled in college or graduate school."

And this is why they’re unique:

"• They tend to have high rent compared to income.
• There's a larger concentration of wealthy retirees.
• They walk to work."

A similar search on the site for Jamaica Plain, an adjacent neighborhood yielded these results for type and uniqueness:

"1. Non-native Newbies - Foreign-born individuals who just moved to U.S.
2. Power Singles - High-income urban singles.
3. Immigrant Blues - Low-income, foreign-language-speaking urbanites."

Boston residents are unique because:

"• A larger number have earned bachelor's degrees.
• They get to work by bus.
• They tend to have high rent compared to income."

Zillow curiously listed JP as Boston when it, like Roxbury, is a neighborhood of Boston.

The College Life category can undoubtedly be attributed to the student population of the Mission Hill section of Roxbury. There aren’t many college kids in Fort Hill although that seems to be shifting slightly. And unfortunately. This is a neighborhood in transition and neighborhood transition in Boston tends towards transitioning the working people who have lived in the neighborhood elsewhere as developments and rents go up. Gentrification is the cleaner word for it.
Back to zillow: Why Immigrant Blues? Isn’t it an adventurous and even joyful, if difficult, thing to be an immigrant because you’re escaping whatever it is you’ve fled and you’ve got a whole new life in front of you? And if that characterization is slightly too Pollyanna-ish, Immigrant Blues has unclear negative connotations but it’s a good guess that the blues is related to being low-income. Or maybe zillow subscribes to the idea that poor and happy couldn't possibly go together.
No one who lives here can dispute that Boston residents are unique because of their high rent to income ratio but do we get carbon credits for all that walking and riding the bus to work?

Zillow derived their categories this way:
For who lives here
"About These Groups
The information in this section was derived from analysis of data (such as age, occupation, and income) from the 2000 U.S. Census. Using segmentation methods, our analysts created groupings based on the demographic and socioeconomic composition of each city and neighborhood."
And for what distinguishes them from surrounding areas:
"Based on census data, a larger number of this area's residents have these characteristics when compared to the people in surrounding areas. In other words, the characteristics listed in this section are what make the people who live here unique."

A great site for perusing real estate listings anywhere in the country (if anyone has the fortitude to do that these days) , zillow offers a slightly antiseptic view of Roxbury but that, too, has its merit.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

How to Build Community, One Shovel at a Time

Urban dwellers habiting northern climes are familiar with the phenomenon of snow piles that are built between cars as the cars are dug out during or after a storm. In really congested areas where on street parking is some of the most valuable real estate, the cumulative effect of these piles is the disappearance of several parking spaces, depending on the size of the piles and how long they take to melt. The erosion of spaces contributes to that petty and anti-social practice of
parking piggery.

The dense mountains of snow remain days and days after the streets themselves have cleared. So how surprising is it to find neighbors digging not a space but the abutting pile of filthy, space hogging ice? Pretty surprising, yet it did happen. I was stunned to watch a mother/son neighbor team hack away at a big pile of snow that could become a space for a small car, if removed. They already had parking spaces. Digging out that particular pile of snow would serve them no immediate personal benefit (cardiovascular improvements aside) but it was of benefit to the entire car-parking street. More space was cleared which meant more people could park. And once they cleared the space did they install a chair or cone or trash barrel as a marker of ownership? No! They left the space free for anyone on the street to use! Did I ever love those two at that moment. And now.

Could it be they learned their lesson of community caring and social responsibility in Cambridge, where they used to live? Maybe. Maybe they’re just decent people who had a little time to kill on a snowy weekend morning.
How do I bottle that and distribute it to all the other shit-for-brains in this town who believe cause they've dug a space, they own it?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Roxbury's safe, isn't it?

Clara decided she needed a roommate, or as her London friends called it a lodger to help defray expenses. It's a big ol' house with lots of room and the repairs it needs won't come cheap. She advertised on craigslist and her first, and only, respondent was a gentle man who meditates and teaches and heals. Good energy things, the type of energy this big ol' house needs, she thought.
They chatted on the telephone, a conversation as much about this is who I am, who are you as how much the rent would be and whether or not utilities would be included.
And finally, it arrived, the Big Question.
"I'm familiar with that area from work I've done and driving through," he said. "Is it safe?"
Is Beirut safe, she thought. But she said, "I'm a middle aged woman who lives alone. I don't own a car so I'm walking to and from the T at all times of the day and night and I feel safe."
He again questioned the safety of the neighborhood.
He believes everything he reads in the newspaper, she thought. Poor man. "It is Roxbury," she said. "I feel safe but I'm not other people. And it is Roxbury.
Statistically, and sadly, she has a better chance of being killed by a husband or lover, if she had one at the moment. Statistically, and sadly, a big part of the reason she feels safe is because she is not an African-American male between the ages of 15 and 34.
But as far as she's concerned, Roxbury is safe. It's those damn automobiles that'll kill ya.