Wednesday, May 12, 2010


So the big North Harvard Street construction project started this morning, the beginning of our summer-long martyrdom at the hands of Boston Water. But there's no use in complaining--the work needs to be done, and at the end of it we'll have shiny new water mains, a new stretch of bike lane (we hope), new improved crosswalks, and more.

Meanwhile (and for the next several months) traffic patterns were predictably dicey, with half of North Harvard Street closed off, and our typically busy flow of cars, trucks, buses, and bikes funneled onto one side of the street. Public safety problem? Maybe, but lucky for us, the BPD sent THREE
uniformed officers to take charge of things (and pocket their astronomical overtime wages) in order to ... have a conversation. (One of them slipped away while I was getting my camera, but the other two are making do with each other's company.)

Now you may remember all the recent controversy about replacing these law officers with mere flagpersons at a fraction of the cost. Terrible idea, said the police union. Untrained laborers, unskilled in the intricacies of traffic management, oblivious to the greater public safety concerns which are second nature to our officers in blue. So we have a compromise in place, where the high-cost, high-yield police are assigned to serious high-risk worksites, where their presence might save lives.

Surely our major north-south artery, with its complicated traffic now navigating half the roadway, would constitute such a public safety emergency, and
sure enough, here they are, chatting away as a pickup truck, a cement mixer, and several passenger cars play chicken in the one open lane, dodging a parked car and the excavation site with no interference from this oblivious pair. In all fairness, these guys or their replacements actually DID start to direct traffic later in the morning; one of them even helped me cross the street to take the first photo. But honestly, with all the public controversy, wouldn't you think these guys would try just a little to look like they were earning the large sums they so earnestly demand to perform this vital service?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Close to the 'Pike

When we settled in Allston many years ago, we thought its proximity to Harvard Square was one of its best features. Close to St. Elizabeth's (where my wife was working), close to Brookline and the Charles River, close to downtown--those were all things we liked about it.

But we seldom really thought of it as "close to the 'Pike." and when we did, it was not normally in praise. Which is why I was taken aback the other day when one of my neighbors, an old-time Allstonian, remarking how fond he was of the neighborhood, cited "close to the 'Pike" as his first reason.

But why?, I wanted to ask, but didn't. To make a quick getaway? The thought of going somewhere, anywhere, else? Or was it just another facet of Allston's many-splendored romance with the car?

But finally I have to confess that I too have always loved something about the 'Pike: the relentless forward thrust of its traffic at all hours, the energy, the speed. Before we had kids I would wander up to the Cambridge Street overpass at rush hour and ... rush, gazing wide-eyed not only at the commuters whizzing along the 'Pike but the long red and white chains of lights whisking up and down Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive or stalled in blurry lines, even the lone headlights along Lincoln Street and the occasional clank of a freight train through the Beacon yards. All that motion and power and flux made me feel like I was looking into the open heart of a monstrous organism. Later on I would wheel a restless child in a stroller to the same spot in the hopes that primal wonder at this most un-natural sublime would overwhelm and reduce it to silent, Kantian awe.

OK, I'll say it: the view of the 'Pike from the Cambridge Street overpass is as fine an urban landscape as any post-impressionist ever painted, its sunsets some days as rich and full of life as Turner's.

So yeah, close to the 'Pike, and proud of it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Forget what you've heard about how "wood warms you three times." Yes, I did get a bit overheated stacking all this wood--about two cords' worth. And yes, we'll be plenty warm when we burn it (if we stand near the stove--it's a very central sort of heat).

But what really gets me fired up about burning wood is the sheer beauty of it. The way these pieces, split by my arborist neighbor from the many trees he cuts all over greater Boston, fit together to make a solid stack--like the tiles in a mosaic, in three dimensions. Their heft and hardness against my chest when I bring them in to burn. The little thrill of ignition as the kindling leaps into flame, I add a few small pieces, and the fire quickens. Even the ash, so pure and fine when I shovel it out and bag it for use in the garden later on. And the smell, drifting down the street in one direction or another, speaking to passers-by of woods and campfires and the out-of-doors, so that strangers sometimes stop to tell me, when I'm outside hauling in more logs, how glad they are for the smell of it.

Wood warms in so many ways, it would be a cold season without it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Our neighborhood is merely Allston, and yet it has a portal. You can see it from a distance: two columns rising, a domesticated version of a Brandenburg Gate. Even though--like the Brandenburg Gate for so long--it leads to nowhere, to a steep grassy slope, buttressing the Cambridge Street overpass, our neighborhood's rough edge.

We lived on this street--Royal Street--for about ten months once, long ago. This strip of no-man's-land was there then, an urban waste, litter-strewn, barren of all but the toughest weeds. An eyesore, a blight, the scene of lurid crimes. Half-hearted clean-ups, tentative planting schemes came and went. Nothing helped.

Then a few years ago the site was claimed by a local visionary. Grants followed, landscape artists arrived, volunteer crews pulled out weeds. Sprawling raised steel forms were mounted sideways across the slope, filled with earth and seeded, along with the slope itself. Last spring it turned a rich green as the grass grew two, three, four feet high. You could hardly see the forms. A debate broke out between those who found it lush, and others who thought it looked unkempt. The grass was trimmed and the forms reappeared. It has found its shape and goes on, a modest but eminently successful earthwork, a monunent.

The portals are a little cheesy. Literally--they look as though maybe mice have been nibbling away at the fragile metal plates that define the columns. The curlicues of capital and urn are derisory in their quotation of classical forms. And yet the columns, the portal, as I like to think of it, introduces the whole structure, the whole work, as a work. Gives it definition not just as a form in the earth but a work of art. Here in Allston.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I haven't been as faithful to this blog as I intended, and my plan to document the full cycle of my garden will have to wait till next year. But I do want to show off these ears of corn I harvested a few weeks ago from my plot in the Herter gardens. They were small but sweet, and you can't get'em any fresher. Yum!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Salve Festa Dies

We went to a wedding in Allston this afternoon. Well actually it was in Watertown, but the two principals were our Allston neighbors, Rita and Carol. And actually it wasn't a wedding--it was a blessing of their relationship, 45 years strong and counting. But it sure felt like a wedding, with clergy joining their hands and saying prayers over them. Or maybe an anniversary, since at their ages the honorees were somewhat more retrospective than the average bridal couple. But whatever it was, it couldn't have been more celebratory, and in a number of details I found it full not only of joy but of interest.

First of all the location--not a church but the VFW hall. Rita and Carol are lifelong Catholics, but pairs of ladies don't get married, or even blessed, in Catholic churches. And the priests included a man and a woman who were themselves married to each other. Something odd in this picture. And a nun, who actually presided as if she were a priest. When we all joined in the blessing, we did so in the name of God, but also of the Goddess Sophia. So while in many respects it felt like a traditional Catholic service, these clergy are American Catholics, and they are moving the Church, as the Spirit moves them, in new and interesting directions.

And then there were the invitees and onlookers, family, friends, neighbors, including two of our children, who are Rita and Carol's godchildren, and like some others in the room, part of the sizeable cohort of children they cared for in their family day care. In short, it was the sort of gathering you would expect in a traditional neighborhood, where people live their entire lives in the house they were born in, as Rita has done. It is true that on the dance floor there were more couples of women than of men and women. Chatting, I heard about Rita's nephew's recent wedding from his new husband, and there was at least one couple of young wives. We in Massachusetts are perhaps a little ahead of the curve in the forms of sociability we encourage.

For all the innovations, though, the whole event, I want to say, was deeply conservative, from the boards of photographs preserving memories back through the last century, to the half-century-old recordings of crooners played by the DJ. And above all in the accounts of how Rita and Carol's lives are woven into the fabric of our durable little community. Family, church, community--these are the conservative values that were broadly in evidence, slightly reconfigured to suit the occasion, but not so much you wouldn't recognize them. It was a beautiful occasion--and I know that's something people say, but in this case it was true--and we came away enriched. L'Chaim.

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.