Author Archives: Karen

Dear Readers,

U.S. Representative Niki Tsongas is retiring. Harvard President Drew Faust and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also are doing so. I’m following their lead. I’m retiring. This is the last Downtown View column I will write.

I’ve enjoyed creating them. I’ve enjoyed interviewing the people who participate in Boston matters. I’ve enjoyed visiting such places as the Commonwealth Kitchen to which I probably would never have gone if I hadn’t had to find something to write about.

It’s been a privilege to write about this city that I’ve lived in for half a century. It has its problems, but I’ve also observed kindness and a true urge to make things better. Sometimes I wish our local leaders were bolder, more visionary. But I trust their goodwill, honesty and managerial talents. Sometime soon I hope to be able to say that about our national officials.

I have enjoyed your comments about those columns. I’ve even enjoyed the comments that call me stupid, delusional and dreadful. Comments, letters to the editor and such usually say more about the person who is writing them than they do about the article or column that triggered the response. I also have enjoyed how the first comments in all articles, not just mine, address the content but then devolve into commenters calling one another names.

But I’ve been meeting weekly deadlines without fail either as an editorial writer or a columnist for more than 20 years except for a few months when I recovered from two rotator cuff surgeries. I’m ready to do something else.

What that will be I’ve not yet determined. I’m going to do nothing for awhile to collect my thoughts.

One thought is that I will become civilly disobedient. I might even get arrested. There are certainly enough dreadful things going on in this country to find it easy to protest. As a woman of a certain age, I find I’m not afraid of much. I’ve got some friends who might join me.

Another possibility is to spend more time with those friends. It was hard, with a demanding job, to escape to sit with my dying friend 14 years ago during her chemotherapy infusions. I traded with other friends and managed to go for several of them. Now, I will go with friends any time they need me. I’ll throw lunch parties. I’ll help friends arrange their bookshelves. I actually might re-arrange my own bookshelves.

I probably will spend about the same amount of time with my family, since we spend much time together anyway. This past summer, my husband and I decided we might as well move to South Station since we were there so much, picking up one child from the Dartmouth Coach, putting her back on it, collecting three teenage boys from the Acela from New York City, meeting one teenage girl coming from Maine, and ferrying those kids on to their next destination after feeding them well.

I’ll take more walks. I used to meet friends at 6 a.m. at the Taj. We’d walk down Newbury Street and back along the river. Then my friends stopped working. They didn’t want to get up early any more. I still needed to be at the newspaper at 9 a.m. so we fell out of that habit. Now I, like them, can meet at 10 a.m. for a nice, long stroll.

I might write a book. Often, in jest I guess, I have threatened that when I quit newspapering I would write a novel entitled, “Love and Sex on Beacon Hill.” My grandchildren, embarrassed though they are by the title, voted last Thanksgiving that I should stop this column and write that book.

I’m no fiction writer. I can tell other people’s stories but I can’t easily make up my own. I might, however, give it a shot and see what happens. If I could spend a month in Italy at the Bellagio Center’s arts and literary arts program, I’d give it an even better shot. That is unlikely, since those chosen by the Bellagio Center are mostly more accomplished and promising than I. But what the heck. Give it a try.

If I write that book, I say: you are all going to be in it. Even if you live in Charlestown, the Waterfront, the North End, Back Bay, Downtown or the West End, you won’t get off scot-free. You’ll be in it since the story will really be about downtown Boston. I’ll just change all the names and let you guess about who I’m writing about.

These are lots of “ifs.” I’ve not been in this position before. It’s an adventure. But if Niki Tsongas can do it, so can I.


Books for reading and giving away

Sometimes I read recent books by Boston authors and describe them in this column. The following three books fit the Boston criteria, but vary widely in their subject matter. One of them might be just what you are looking for either for yourself or a holiday gift.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt

Ms. Holt, a resident of Roslindale, has done a prodigious amount of research for this book about formerly obscure women, talented in mathematics, who worked together in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California beginning in the 1940s.
She tells how they grew as a team, working under the guidance of an older woman who earned their loyalty. Calculating over and over to make sure they were accurate, they first worked on paper, then on huge, early IBM computers and finally on individual PCs.
We read about Wernher von Braun’s visits. Von Braun, as you know, was a premier rocket scientist in Germany during World War II, but was welcomed to the U.S. afterward to move American rocket science forward. Hmmmm. That’s what the rocket girls also thought—hmmm.
The author revisits the milestones of rocket history, Sputnik, the fire that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee and Ed White on the launch pad, moon landings, the explorations of Mars and deep space.
Naturally, being women, the rocket girls’ domestic lives influenced their success. Those whose husbands shared the burdens of maintaining a household and raising children had greater success than the women whose husbands were non-participants. The latter typically divorced.
Holt has a good story to tell and she tells it well. My only problem was keeping the characters straight because there are so many of them.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. After all, it is rocket science, and we can all enjoy the women’s story.

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

There is so much to like about this book. It takes place in Boston in the 1950s. You’ll recognize where the locations of the action. It’s got the tribes of Boston doing what the tribes do, but it is not as cliché-ridden as, let’s say, Ben Affleck’s movies. A bonus is that the book is filled with 1950s photographs, adding to the sense of time and place.
The sentences are good. This team knows how to write. For example, “She chopped some parsley, filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove top, then opened the fridge, peering in, but, as if she had forgotten what she was looking for, closed the door and shuffled back over to the stove and turned on the gas to boil the water.” That long sentence, filled with prosaic detail, hints at the character’s intention to put up with her situation.
But I could not finish the book. I realized that reviewers rarely divulge their biases or preferences. But I will: I can take only so much violence, sadism and mayhem. This book was too much for me.
The story ends on a high note, or as high as these characters can get. I know because I read the last pages.
If you can stomach such characteristics then you won’t be disappointed by the book’s pace, story telling or interesting characters. So it’s up to you, as it always is.

Make Way for Nancy by Nancy Schön

The sculptor who fashioned Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings for the Boston Public Garden does a fine job of telling her story and that of her creations, even though she warns readers that she is a sculptor, not a writer. She also tells the story of public art, its squabbles, its setbacks and successes and the difficulties of getting funding.
While she’s most famous in Boston for the ducklings, you’ll learn she has created bronze prairie dogs, bears, dragons, owls and pussycats, giraffes and Greek goddesses for display in the U.S. as well as in Moscow, where the only copy of the ducklings statues stands.
She fashioned the ducklings as close to the original drawings as possible. But her other animals are often pared-down versions that project movement and intention. An example is the dynamic Tortoise and the Hare pairing in Copley Square. How can she get bronze to look so lively? We learn how the project moved in fits and starts and how long it took to install it, finally in 1995 near the Boston Marathon finish line. Before that these heavy pieces made a trip to Washington and back, as well as taking a trip to Symphony Hall.
We learn how Schön creates her pieces, starting with a skeleton of plumbing pipes and ending with the finishing after the foundry casts them. She includes a bit of Boston history, a lot about art and, best of all, some insight into the life of a determined, talented, happy woman. We can use a bit of happiness in this world.
One complaint—the book’s layout and quality are not up to the typical standards of the publisher, David Godine. The pages, filled with awkward spacing and widows and orphans, look as if the book designer flowed the text without checking the result. The photos are interesting, but look as if no one took the time to Photoshop them. Strange.

What makes good public art?

You know it when you see it.
For Lucas Cowan, public art curator for the Greenway, it is the bean, or, more formally, “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
For Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston, it is the 1971 Corita Kent painting on the big gas storage tank in Dorchester, so visible from the Southeast Expressway. She sees it as perfect for the site, but being youngish and not living in Boston during the Viet Nam war, she doesn’t see the same Ho Chi Minh profile I do. I see Ho Chi Minh so prominently that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that the gas tank painting supposedly has a name—Rainbow Swash.
For Todd Lee, FAIA, former head of Boston Society of Architects Urban Design Committee and president of LIGHT Boston, it is Edgar Allan Poe’s statue, complete with raven and telltale heart, at the corner of South Charles and Boylston streets.
For most people good public art is also probably Maya Lin’s Viet Nam memorial, Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Boston Public Garden that entice children, their parents and seasonal hats, and the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s sitting statue hosts marches and demonstrations. It wept at John Kennedy’s assassination and, in a recent cartoon took a knee in front of Donald Trump in support of the NFL players who protested the sorry treatment of African American men and women. It follows Burros’ rule for being site specific. Positioned at the opposite side of the mall from the Capitol it is as if Lincoln is challenging that building’s occupants to remember that they serve America, not themselves.
For everyone I interviewed it was also Janet Echelman’s 2015 colorful woven sculpture magically billowing above the Greenway.
It seems a good time to consider public art since the Esplanade Association has installed its first piece of public art—a new mural along the bike path, and there have been murmurs of a memorial to Martin Luther King.
Cowan, who pointed out that the Greenway mostly hosts temporary art, said he looks for art that enlivens spaces, that helps onlookers experience an environment in a new way, as Echelman’s tapestry did. “It transforms space in a way you never understood,” he said. “It should be strong, something that stops you in your tracks.”
Visual artist Ann Forbush of Watertown agrees. “Good public art is arresting,” she said. “It makes you pause to ponder both the formal qualities and the conceptual aspects of the piece.”
She also mentioned that it should be indestructible.
Lee was interested in art that amuses. The Poe statue does that for him, and he said Harbor Fog on the Greenway is another piece that surprises you if you’re sitting near it eating a sandwich and it suddenly starts to puff out mist. Cohen said Harbor Fog was successful also because it spoke to the history of the Wharf District.
Art that invites interaction is another desirable characteristic. That is, of course, one of the attractions of Nancy Schön’s animal sculptures, but it can also take place in more formal settings. Lee pointed out that the Appeal to the Great Spirit, the statue that depicts a Native American astride a horse, sometimes gets adorned with a Patriots’ jersey.
I wonder if some people see that as disrespectful. I see it as embracing, but everyone is hyper-alert these days to every metaphor.
Holocaust memorials are typically not site-specific unless they are in Germany. But the one in Boston is beautiful and moving, so maybe that makes up for having no connection to the site. Mayor White’s statue seems right in its space. It’s big. He’s caught in mid-stride, looking at City Hall. It can’t get more site-appropriate than that.
The statues in the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall run a gamut of a product of their era, okay, and pretty good, said my informers.
What most can agree on are the pieces of public art that don’t work. Remember the Polish horsemen who appeared on the Common, causing bewilderment? Apparently they found an obscure resting place in South Boston.
Burros remembered Richard Serra’s 1981 Tilted Arc in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan as an example of noticeable failure. It blocked views, interrupted walking paths, was declared ugly and eventually removed.
At least two others in Boston attract scorn and need to find a resting place out of sight. The fallen fire fighters who stand behind the State House and the Irish famine statue on Washington Street seem more suited to comic strips than to memorials and should be replaced by something better. They are too literal, said Lee, and something more abstract might work better. But then there are the ducklings, literally copied from a children’s book. So it depends.
Meanwhile, Lee reminded us that public art is more than statues. He points to the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Now that is a wonderful piece of public art.

What happens to the millionaires?

The constitutional amendment that imposes a “millionaires’ tax” will likely be on our ballots in November, 2018, along with the candidates for governor and Congress.
You probably already know that this amendment would levy an additional tax on any person or couple who makes more than a million dollars in a year. We all pay a federal income tax, which varies depending on many factors. We also pay the state 5.1 percent of our income, no matter whether we make $50,000 or $500,000. We cannot claim many deductions on our state income tax, as we can when filing our federal taxes.
If this amendment passes, in the year 2019 anyone making more than one million dollars would pay an additional 4 percent on the amount that exceeds one million.
Supporters estimate the new tax would affect about 20,000 people and predict that the additional revenue would reach about $2.2 billion—all to be used for education and transportation.
Those who support the measure say that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” Those who oppose the measure say it would hurt the state’s business climate and cause the wealthiest among us to move to another state. While Gov. Charlie Baker says he’s against more taxes in general, I bet he’s secretly hoping this amendment will pass, giving him some wiggle room in a budget that never seems to be enough.
While I understand the basics about this amendment, I’ve never seen an example of how an actual family would be affected by it. So I’ve created one.
Joe and Sally are in their forties and work in real estate development and finance. Together they will make $2 million in state taxable income for the year 2019. They live in a nice but not lavish house, and they have no mortgage. Their second house in Maine also has no mortgage. Their kids are in private school, since I’ve placed them downtown, and they decided to forego the uncertain public school process. Those kids are expected to be responsible, do well in school and not give their parents grief with drugs or any other problems.
Since they live downtown and don’t want the hassle, they have only one car, again nice, fully paid for, and Joe has a driver he can call on when he needs to get around. They have health care through their work, and they don’t worry much about spending, but they are not profligate. Their kids will be loan-free in college and throughout graduate, medical or law school, should they choose to go.
I’m thinking they might be typical for people in their income bracket, since not every rich person desires expensive jewelry, aspirational handbags and gold-plated fixtures, especially in New England. I’m thinking they are responsible people who want to pay their fair share. Of course, fair is subjective.
So how would this amendment, if passed, affect them? They would still pay Massachusetts 5.1 percent on their $2 million income or $102,000. In addition, they would pay an extra 4 percent, or $40,000, on the million dollars more than the first million.
How much will they notice forking over an extra $40,000? Will it reduce their standard of living? Will it cause them pain? Will it prompt them to move to New Hampshire and commute long distances or change jobs? Will it hurt Joe’s real estate development plans or Sally’s finance business? Will it seem worth it since they may get better T service downtown and better roads and their businesses could prosper more since their future employees, Massachusetts kids, could be better educated because of the extra resources for education that this bill promises to provide.
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I imagine paying an extra 4 percent on incomes over a million will play out differently for each family, depending on their outlook on life. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Bring back the draft

As you could probably surmise by my name, I’m pretty white. One time at a political convention in Worcester, a man who must have considered himself ethnic compared to me, called me derisively, Karen Lord Taylor. I thought he was pathetic. After all, we were in the same political party, and most of us we were way beyond that.
But with white supremacy types whipping themselves up into a frenzy, thinking they will face few consequences, I wondered why some white people feel they need to be supreme and some white people are comfortable including everyone. I thought about my own family, where I never heard a bad word about any group from any of my relatives.
But my father was especially emphatic. “Everyone is as good as you are,” my father said again and again as we were growing up.
How did he know, and why was it so important to him to convey it?
I’m pretty sure it was because he was drafted in 1942. He went to war and met Americans of every stripe. When he returned home, a natural inclination had grown into a determination. He had finally met people who did not share his heritage but whom he learned to like and count on.
Like many Midwesterners, his ancestors had been in America a long time. He had not traveled much outside his farming community. Migration patterns from New England and the Chesapeake Bay to central Illinois meant that until he went into the Army, he had met almost no one who wasn’t descended from English settlers.
The soldiers he served with must have seemed exotic to him at first. But gradually he must have come to trust them, admire some of them and also realize how like him they were—young, away from home, doing boring jobs punctuated by terrifying moments. He talked about them with fondness and a few times later got in touch with them even though they lived far away.
It wasn’t the war that changed him in that way, although it changed him in other ways. It was the draft that made a difference.
We did away with the draft in the 1970s. At the time we thought that was progress. For one thing, the military during Vietnam was class-ridden. Young men who were in college were exempt, while the others were drafted.
The draft in World War II was different. Everyone except farmers and those working in certain industries, such as aircraft manufacturing, who had “essential labor exemptions,” had to go. Since my father’s brother could run the farm, my father went.
Thrown together, rich and poor, easterners and westerners, got to know one another. Of course, this scrum was mostly European. At that time, however, sons of Greek, French, English, Scandinavian and Italian families must have seemed exotic to one another. But after serving with people of other ethnic backgrounds for several years, it must have become familiar. African-Americans were not part of the mix, we’ve learned, but that is another story altogether.
One of the saddest parts of the 2016 election was learning that many of our fellow Americans today do not have good will toward those who are not like them. If they had to serve in the military with everyone, would they have more appreciation for others? I’d say it’s a good bet.
A draft now would be different in many ways from the draft in past wars. It would have to be more like national service—in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as well as the military. Women would be part of it.
With this Congress who is so eager to give every responsibility back to the states so they can do their will without the federal oversight that has reduced discrimination, improved health and made companies more responsible, the idea that they might go for a national service in which everyone participated is laughable.
But when we did away with a draft, there were unintended consequences that may be part of our current problems. That is a lesson to be learned whenever we make a change.

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 and I’ll set you up with them.


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.