Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crime story

About those strawberries. All week they've been ripening just fine, but then the ripe ones would just...  disappear. 

Today I think I found out why. I was reading in my yard, a bit out of sight, when I looked up and saw my neighbor on her hands and knees in my strawberry patch. I ran over and yelled at her, and she jumped up, smiling nervously. In her hand were two prime red strawberries.

She is an older teenager, I would say, and lives with her extended family about five houses down the street. I don't know her at all though I've seen her from time to time. Her mother seems to speak only Chinese. Her grandmother grows bok choy and green beans--and a few strawberries--in their yard, and gathers huge loads of deposit bottles. The grandmother and I nod and smile when our paths cross, but otherwise my interactions with these neighbors are few.

 More disturbingly, her mother was waiting for her on the public sidewalk, not ten feet away, pushing a stroller that held the young woman's toddler son. This little heist was a family affair. Maybe that's part of why I blew up, yelling at the young woman, telling her over and over that she was "stealing," that she was a "thief."  She gave me back my strawberries and slunk off, chastened I hoped.

But now that some hours have intervened, I have to wonder about my reaction. Am I really that invested in ownership of a handful of strawberries? What happened to my belief in a communal ethic of sharing? This family of neighbors is to all appearances rather poor: why not give them some strawberries? And they are neighbors: all the more reason to be generous. Did the differences of race and language play a part here? Was this a case of "those people" taking from "us"? Maybe they bring different assumptions about property and ownership that would be interesting to learn about. Maybe I should have offered them some strawberries before they took them. Has my pride in growing things overwhelmed some more fundamental values? 

These are questions that cut in multiple directions, and I haven't reached any certain conclusions. If I see this girl or some other human predator in my strawberry patch again, I may temper my reaction, but to what degree I'm not sure. Turns out these reflexes of ownership, of "it's mine," are deeply embedded. One more reason to appreciate my urban garden, though:  as a microcosm of the urban, where these issues of anonymity, human density, strained relationship and cultural difference do arise.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Strawberries turning red!

June 1

Either it's a really early season, or these are a different strain from the last strawberries I grew. In any case they're here--three weeks earlier than expected.

Allston Skyline (2): compatible neighbors

Viewed from Allston, Peabody Terrace sets a high standard for what a riverside building should be or do. The scale is monumental, with hulking vertical and horizontal structures laid out in stone-gray concrete . And yet the details of balconies and windows are perfectly vernacular and village-like, decorative and domesticated at the same time. Peabody is the chef-d'oeuvre--locally at least--of José Luis Sert, the great Catalan architect (and dean of Harvard's design school). With its Mondrian-like boxes of shape and color, the effect is to humanize the modern and make it liveable (as Peabody Terrace has been, by most accounts, for more than four decades). The prominence of the design, projected over the flat expanses of riverway, is spectacular. 

Its neighbor directly across the river, the Harvard graduate dorm known as One Western Avenue, makes a worthy homage and pendant to Sert's achievement. Designed by the same Machado and Silvetti (Sert's successors at Harvard's GSD) who built our prize-winning Allston library, the much-belabored One Western matches Peabody Terrace not just in size but in its use of large vertical and horizontal blocks. While One Western's actual texture of patterned brick and randomized window placement fails to please my eye to the same degree as Sert's colored panels and balconies, the drama of the elevated horizontal wing, like a tower laid on its side to frame an open courtyard, more than compensates in visual interest. Most importantly, the similarities in shape communicate across the river like neighbors talking over a fence (as Robert Campbell might say), bringing coherence to this stretch of the riverway we in Allston share with Cambridge. 

Oddly enough both buildings have excited voluble opposition: out of sympathy, in the case of Peabody Terrace, for the Riverside neighborhood it displaced, or aversion to such incongruous effects as One Western's anti-gravitational illusion (and to be frank, cheap materials). Personally, I feel enriched every day my  biking, running, or walking path takes me past these buildings and their blue-collar neighbors, the Genzyme factory and the Western Avenue power plant. They do what big buildings on conspicuous sites are meant to do: make me feel like my neighborhood is something special.