Monday, December 29, 2008

crowded furniture

29 December

We live in a small house, an Allston house, so that every late-December a little drama arises around fitting in the tree. I was brought up to resist trimming the tree until a day or two before Christmas, so the question usually erupts on the 22nd or 23rd: where do we put it? The answer involves moving chairs and tables around, so that our normally crowded double parlor gets even more so, and you have to pick your way from room to room. Disused wrapping paper and seasonal catalogs only make things worse.

The tree itself, all dressed up in lights and ornaments, is some compensation for the added clutter, as are the colored lights on the outside windows and the delicacies that appear on the table. But apart from those trade-offs  I find that I like the crowded furniture for its own sake. That's why we have so much of it: three rockers and a couple sofas, miscellaneous chairs and end tables of many shapes and sizes, garnered from elderly relatives and sidewalks and god-knows-where. And lamps, standing and table, old and new. To be frank, our downstairs already looks like a second-hand furniture warehouse, and when you add in an eight-foot pine, the consequences are ... cozy.

My temporary apartment in Montparnasse was an even smaller space, just one room and an alcove, 180 square feet at best. But the effect was just the opposite: clean and spare, with only the most essential furniture and blank white walls. While my landlady's quite antithetical taste in décor gave me--I'll admit it--a certain psychic relief, it is equally true that I spent a lot of time imagining how, if I owned my own apartment in Paris, I would fill it up with the most wonderful furniture.  I thought this while browsing the second-hand furniture market along the Boulevard de Reuilly on a Saturday, when dealers set out cherished collections of old chairs or dining sets, even oil paintings and old silver, a whole history of former apartments laid out in booths along the sidewalk. Or window-shopping the lower Rue Jacob, a fancier antique district, I would imagine the most ornate second-empire interiors for myself, with gilded statues and tasseled lamps. You would have trouble just getting from one side to the other of my imaginary Parisian studio, but it would please your eye, in a homey sort of way, as you did so.

This attachment to crowded spaces isn't limited to interiors; in fact, it's what I like about the streets themselves of Paris or New York or other great cities. In Paris I loved how the storefronts ran elbow-to-elbow along many of the streets, how the cafés spilled out onto the sidewalks and the markets even took over the streets at times. I liked how close everything was, how much was crowded into a small space. These virtues of crowdedness and clutter are not exactly native to us Americans, though I very much appreciate this effect in parts of Boston like the North End, the newly-named Ladder District, or even Harvard Square. There is something warm about a crowded sidewalk, just as there is about our holiday clutter.

I labor to accept the reality that North Allston will never be Paris, that it's not really a city district at all but an old suburb without even a town center. Still we don't have to feel that we are condemned forever to lack urban clutter. With a little ingenuity and the resources of a wealthy developer Barry's Corner and Brighton Mills and the stretch of Western avenue in between could give us a little swatch of crowded cityscape--just enough to feel a part of a city--without compromising our tree-shaded, miniaturized suburban residential streets. With some help from Harvard and the City of Boston we could build a town center, cluttered and cozy, a genial contribution to the relatively new metropolis still taking shape along the Charles.

Monday, December 8, 2008

the view from allston mass

8 December 2008

This blog is a sequel to my Paris blog "Views from Montparnasse. " The view from the Charles River flood plain here in Allston is a bit different from the lofty vistas offered by Montparnasse. I'm still adjusting as I write this. But--apart from the unavoidable temptation of the rhyming titles--what can this blog have to do with that other, first venture of mine into the blogosphere? Visually, not much, as the attached photo might suggest. Allston is a gritty place, surrounded by highways and rail lines and truck depots, paved over and overbuilt though underused and largely unappreciated. Few would compare it with Paris.

But just as "Views from Montparnasse" was always a metaphor as much as a description, my intention in this blog will be to develop a point of view related to my living here in Allston. In choosing this title I am hoping it will be possible to retain something of the spirit that informed my Paris blog; that is, I hope to look at the world from Allston in much the same way I looked at it from Montparnasse. That other project involved looking at an urban neighborhood (and its larger metropolis) through cultural and historical windows that happened to present themselves, and this Boston blog will do the same. Just as the view from Paris included the very hopeful lens of a political movement whose goal is to build a whole new world of social and productive relations, these views from Allston will hardly be able to ignore the massive physical development planned for this neighborhood by our large institutional neighbor to the north. The new world taking shape in Allston, and the politics that shape that world, will be a regular topic of these "Views." Everyday life in Allston, in Montparnasse, and everywhere else is determined in part by politics, and the politics of Harvard's expansion into Allston are, like most politics, both threatening and promising. So these "Views from Allston Mass" will take in what they can of the maneuvers of that wealthy and powerful developer, and the response of our valiant little community, and much else besides. On with the blog!