observations


In his column “Make Boston bicycle-free,” appearing in the Boston Globe on Friday, July 15, Brian McGrory rails against bicyclists for their supposed self-righteous superiority. By profiling people based on their preferred means of getting around, McGrory betrays his own narrow-minded approach to our urban transportation landscape – and betrays his city’s future in the process.

Unlike the self-celebratory, proselytizing, Lycra-wearing enthusiasts McGrory describes, I only recently – and timidly so – purchased a used three-speed and began biking to work one or two days a week via a route that avoids street traffic as much as possible. I have enjoyed this new infusion of variety (and physical activity) in my arsenal of available transportation options, which already included the increasingly unreliable T and bus system, my Zipcar membership, and the forgotten art of walking.

My new (old) three-speed at the Esplanade

My reluctance to join the world of bicycling stemmed primarily from safety concerns. While McGrory berates the city’s bicyclists for their reckless actions, Boston’s infamous drivers speed around in enormous high-powered vehicles capable of inflicting much more severe bodily harm than a bicycle. McGrory is right to scold bicyclists for dangerous behavior. But rather than mocking programs that pass out free bicycle helmets, he should promote safety and education programs for bicyclists. Unlike motorists, who receive state-mandated drivers education, bicyclists cannot be expected to consistently understand safe biking practices without similarly pervasive education programs.

Another grievance sounded in the article is the sense of entitlement bicyclists feel on roads that were “built for cars.” According to MassBike, most areas of Boston and Cambridge are considered business districts, where bicycles are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk. This arrangement leaves bicyclists in no man’s land, to which McGrory responds that, while “these cyclists are more than welcome in the suburbs,” once they get to the city line they should lock up their bikes and look for the nearest cab.

From a purely economic standpoint, this proposal makes little sense. Despite McGrory’s claims about who has the right to the road, both bicyclists and motorists presumably pay taxes. In fact, bicyclists are perhaps more likely to live and pay taxes in Boston than auto commuters. Yet, despite paying the same taxes as the owners of the mammoth SUVs that pound the pavement every morning and evening rush hour, bicycles contribute comparatively little to the deterioration of our roads. The gas tax is the only tax that charges drivers more per vehicle mile traveled and should be raised to more accurately reflect the contribution of these miles on the cost of road maintenance.

Furthermore, urban real estate is expensive, especially in Boston. Whereas one commuter on a bicycle has a footprint of maybe 15 square feet (6 ft by 2.5 ft), the same commuter in even a modestly-sized Honda Civic would take up some 85 square feet of prime real estate, more than five times the space (not to mention the discrepancy in carbon footprint). If the Civic driver asked a real estate agent for five times the space as the bicyclist for the same price, the agent would surely direct the driver (not the biker) toward the suburbs. But McGrory’s policy proposal would do the opposite. An alternative solution used in cities like London and Stockholm is a congestion pricing system that charges cars for bringing their bloated Filet-of-Fish-stuffed cabooses onto the high-priced city streets.

The National Complete Streets Coalition and local groups such as the Livable Streets Alliance promote road design that takes into account the safety and enjoyment of all users, including cars and bicyclists, but also public transportation users and vehicles, and pedestrians, regardless of age or ability. U.S. transportation policy for nearly the last century has favored McGrory’s supposed victims. While the addition of bike lanes throughout the city has encouraged more Bostonians to adopt this active means of transport, most parents would not expose their children to bicycling along a tightrope between speeding traffic and the unpredictability of parked car doors – a protected bike lane would provide a more complete solution.

Rather than a ban on bicycles, Boston needs to promote safety and education programs for bicyclists, sounder pricing approaches for urban streets, and better roadway infrastructure to allow all users to move around in transportation harmony.

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other Israeli cities

Tuesday, May 24 – Thursday, June 2

In late May, I traveled to Israel as part of the Birthright program, an incredible experience I would recommend to anyone who is eligible. The stringent requirements to stay with the tour group did not allow me to explore nearly as much as I would have liked. And we did not spend a lot of time walking around the cities. But here are a few non-expert observations about the Israeli urban environment:

Light rail bridge with pedestrian walkway in Jerusalem

  • Because Israel is such a relatively young independent state, much of their infrastructure and many of their public buildings are very new. For instance, I got to see Jerusalem’s brand new light rail system undergoing test runs. The beautiful new bridge that was built for the light rail system has an elegant pedestrian walkway attached along the outside. In general, Israeli cities felt very modern and westernized.
  • Many pedestrians I encountered were extremely pushy and impatient – even when they bothered to say excuse me, it was usually after they had already shoved their arm into me to push me out of their way. I noticed this phenomenon especially at the Shuk (the open-air market) in Jerusalem.

    The Shuk (open-air market) in Jerusalem

  • I saw very few people on bicycles. There does not seem to be much in the way of bicycle infrastructure (i.e. bike lanes, parking, etc.), which could be the cause or the effect of a lack of interest in this mode of transportation.
  • It was very cool to see people crowded outside bars in front of large outdoor screens projecting the Champions League final match between Barcelona and Manchester United. I wish we had more outdoor sports watching in the US.
  • All of the cities I traveled to – Haifa, Zefat, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ra’anana, and Jerusalem had very beautiful natural settings with rolling hills, mountains, beaches, and/or coasts.

Overlooking the Port of Haifa

The Knesset - the Israeli Parliament building

The Landmark Center, Park Drive and Brookline Avenue

Tuesday, March 15th, 5:54pm

It’s a beautiful, sunny day in mid-March. I’m soaking up some rays on a bench in the courtyard outside an office building. Rows of protruding metal triangles lend an art deco feel to the building and direct one’s gaze inexorably upward to the bright blue sky above. A plane trails a fine line of exhaust as it jets across the sky from right to left.

Two guys in worn-in jeans and T-shirts are up on eight-foot ladders in the process of blocking out a new sign for the entrance to one of the new offices moving in to the building. On both the ground level and the second-floor deck, palm trees rise out of planters and fill the courtyard with the feel of summer. After a particularly brutal winter, I am reveling in the fact that the weather is finally warm enough for me to sit outside…

For a moment, the sun, the warmth, and the architecture have transported me to an everyday scene in Miami or LA in the 1920’s or 30’s. But I am in Boston. It’s 2011. I can now see the new sign being spelled out is for a Harvard Medical School research center. And the courtyard I am sitting in is an enclosed atrium within the Landmark Center office tower. My view of the sky is actually filtered by glass panes supported by an eccentric white metal grid.

Originally inhabited by Sears, Roebuck and Company for much of the early to mid-twentieth century, this complex was rescused from decades of abandonment and dilapidation about ten years ago. The old beige brick exterior has been re-finished and accented with broad glass window panes and metal art deco ornamentation. The grandeur of the front desk, the glossy floors, and the rows of new lighting fixtures continue to persuade me I have traveled to a busy urban office tower in some decades-old era.

However, I need only step outside to return back to reality. The complex has become a mixed-use, transit-oriented development where office tower meets shopping mall. The facade of the building fronts onto a particularly harrowing traffic intersection where the Riverway, Park Drive, and Fenway merge together into a confusing roundabout that intersects both Brookline Avenue and Boylston Street. A few links of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace traipse unhappily through the center of this commotion to connect parks from the Muddy River to the Fens.

Staples, Best Buy, Bed, Bath & Beyond, REI, AMC Loews Theater, Panera Bread, and the other ground-floor chain retail locations are accessible from the Fenway Green Line stop or by braving the aforementioned intersection, parking lots, and indoor garage at the Landmark Center. While these transportation modes theoretically qualify the development as transit-oriented, for pedestrians the journey is rather trying. Only by crossing Dante’s first traffic circle of hell or surviving the cross-parking lot trek from the T can the most talented Froggers even hope to reach the stores. Upon arriving safely on the sidewalk that wraps around the building, these fittest survivors are reminded they are not in Miami by massive wind tunnels that make passage from store to store more intimidating than expected.

The Landmark Center has been a foundational anchor for a revitalized area of the Fenway. The salvation of this historical treasure with such care and creativity was unimaginable as recently as fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, as an avid pedestrian and transit rider, the development leaves me wanting something more. I wish I could go back in time and tell them to tweak a few elements of the redevelopment plan. Or maybe I just wish I lived in Miami.


The Liberty Hotel, Cambridge St. and Charles St.

Tuesday, March 1st, 5:54pm

“What is that?,” I have wondered the several times I have walked by in recent years. The sign out front establishes the place as a hotel, but I cannot fathom the construction of such an imposing and dignified stone temple as a gorgeous luxury hotel. Tucked against one of the new gleaming glass towers of a Mass. General Hospital complex, the edifice seems especially out of place on what has otherwise become a rather industrial medical campus.

A row of expensive luxury cars parked out front deters the average plebe from even approaching the nattily attired doormen who guard the entrance. I bow my head and infiltrate the building. I emerge in a dimly lit vestibule with a low ceiling. The darkness swallows the fading vernal twilight outside.

Angled escalators with a modernist tile mosaic between them lead up through an opening to the floor above. Hip music with a driving beat courses through the place. The darkness and music fuse to fashion the chic atmosphere of the place. Ascending to the second-floor lobby, I see well-dressed professionals seated around the room at various trendy ensembles of furniture to enjoy an after-work cocktail from Clink, the bar presumably named for the sound of martini glasses colliding in celebration.

The square symmetrical floor plan of the grand central atrium sits on a diagonal, with the escalators leading from the entrance on one corner toward the opposite back corner of the building. Truncating each corner of the room, four tall arching glass windows rise up three stories from the second floor. Each of the side walls of the chamber features a central brick interior wall flanked on each side by a white panel with the painted-on silhouette of a dark autumnal tree twisting its way toward the ceiling. Three successive balconies rise along the walls to form a Catwalk that encircles the room and lends the name to the lounge on the upper floors. The four massive wrought-iron, chain-link chandeliers that hang heavily from each corner of the ceiling project a peculiar blend of elegance and foreboding. Above the fifth floor balcony, the interior wall extends in worn brick up to a wooden vaulted ceiling – a dead giveaway that this hotel makes adaptive reuse of the building. I should have known.

Looking for a way to reach a better vantage point from one of the upper balconies, I test the hallway to the left of the reception desk and find an elevator that leads upstairs. I enter only to find that I need a guest room key to go up. I stall until I can sidle up to an actual guest waiting for the elevator. My ploy works to perfection until I reach the third floor and find myself trapped in a hallway of guest rooms that leads nowhere. Descending again, I notice a set of informational panels describing the history of the old Charles Street Jailhouse and suddenly the building comes into clearer focus: the Liberty Hotel, Clink, the Catwalk. The bars of prison cells line the wall outside the bathrooms.

I leave that hallway and try another where I find a different elevator leading up to the Catwalk and the Jailhouse guest rooms. I alight at the third floor balcony and appropriate a low leather couch on the far side of the balcony. All the while I worry someone will notice me, catch me, tell me to leave. I suppose such a fate would be better than being locked up, but the driving music keeps me on edge nevertheless. The chatter from below drifts up through the jailhouse. I steel myself, rise from my cot, and make a run for it.

Museum of Fine Arts, Huntington Ave. and Museum Rd.

Wednesday, February 9th, 5:22pm

I don’t know why but I expected something different when I walked. Maybe it was the monumental entrance. The MVSEVM OF FINE ARTS inscription emblazoned above four Ionic columns and below the ornate pediment over the front entrance. The broad curved stone driveway wrapping around an enormous mesa of white snow. Floating above the snow, a Native American thrusts himself forward atop his horse. He spreads his arms wide in welcome. As I walk up along Huntington Avenue, one sweeping wing of this grand classical building is framed by the two tallest buildings in Boston.

The first hint was an engraving on the stone embankment that flanks each side of the front staircase: Bank of America Plaza on the Avenue of the Arts. I walk in the building to see a row of people staring at me. Some combination of bored and fatigued, they splay themselves on padded benches. They are lined up behind a marble statue whose back is reflected on the glass wall behind them. Through the glass I can glimpse a marble staircase and some columns. There is no window-shopping to be done here. Even if anything interesting were in sight, the glare of the glass would be too blinding.

In this front hall, the ceiling is low and the space is cramped. There is competition for the limited seating options. They don’t roll out the red carpet for you in quite the same way as, say, the Boston Public Library does. To the left of the row of benches, two electronic ticketing kiosks stand begging for money. Further to the left, I see an opening, a hallway leading into the bowels of the museum. Not so fast! A sign printed on the stone wall on either side of the opening warns, “EXIT ONLY: PLEASE DO NOT ENTER.” An empty black swivel chair covers for a guard who lets the signs do the talking. I am not the only one misled by this hallway – even visitors waving their member cards in the air walk through the entrance and look around like little lost lambs until a guard returns to direct them around to the opposite side of the vestibule where the entrance is located.

Turning to my left, there is a tunnel of light – the Huntington Gift Shop. I take a few steps inside and just as quickly turn around, too apathetic to proceed any further. Next, I try the right side of the front hall. I see another hallway, parallel to the first. Foiled again. This time, the two guards chatting at the entrance have an official stand. Another beam of light beckons from further to the right. I turn to see the bright LED screens and white ropes of the ticket counter. I approach just close enough to see “Adults $20” and promptly turn around.

I had no intention of sneaking into the museum. I was simply hoping to explore a bit, to take a look around before deciding whether I wanted to see more. Instead I snag a low seat in one of the small compartments immediately on the right and left of the front entrance. Each chamber features a marble statue and a low heater, which serves as a de facto bench. One of the heaters has already been claimed, so I head for the other spot and take a seat near Cleopatra.

The marble queen of the Nile leans her head back in a moment of respite from her responsibilities. As she reaches her left arm up and behind her to support her head, her gown slips and exposes her right nipple. A much better customer service experience.

I didn’t need to see the full monty; I just wanted a little peek.

World Famous Bull Market, Quincy Market

Sunday, January 23rd, 6:24pm

I have lived in Boston my entire life. Have walked along the Freedom Trail and over the cobblestone paths, past Faneuil Hall. Have climbed the stairs, walked between the columns. Never once have I heard this place called Boston’s World Famous Bull Market, which the front door says should have closed at 6.

Forcing my way in through the cracked-open door left ajar by someone who has just exited the market. I hustle past the closing-up ice cream stand, Starbucks, the bagel shop, the chowder counter with the stools flipped up on the counters, and past a fair number of people still strolling the main artery. I am still recovering from the bitter, bitter cold of my walk over here even as I claim a table near the center-most spot in the great rotunda and eating hall that serves as the origin point of this entire market complex. A janitor is walking around wiping down tables (including the unoccupied other half of my table) and emptying the trash, which is no small task as it turns out. The large, standard-issue gray metal drums are everywhere it seems, lest anyone wander more than a few steps through this assembly line of consumption without having somewhere to discard the empty containers of the already-consumed to make room in their hands for the still-to-be-consumed.

The large open space of the two-story brick building bears the marks of determined adaptive re-use. Retro advertising signs – whether authentic or reproductions – adorn the interior brick walls: Scales*Cutlery*Baskets; Carroll & Liley: Butcher Supplies, Grinding, Saw Filing; Empire Fruit Co: Distributors of Applecrest Apples; EGGS. One can imagine this place filled with the sounds of vendors hawking their home-made wares and skilled services. What were large-framed windows and doors are now apertures into the outer wings of the building, which house rows of Boston-themed souvenir carts under a canopy of glass reinforced by a cross-hatch of thick, black, steel beams. Through the glass, I can see the speckles of white Christmas lights on the trees and the “Urban” of Urban Outfitters, one of the South Market Shops across the way.

Gazing up and around me, I notice a saying that wraps around the inner rim of the second floor balcony: This Building Has Served the People of Boston as the Central Market of the City since its Dedication in August, 1826. Through this oval ring, the ellipse of the grand domed ceiling looks distorted and two-dimensional. Like the ceiling, the white, plasticky, Doric columns that support the balcony and that line the arcade of the food court mingle classical style with shoddy modern-day commercial workmanship. The array of placards and signs that jut out along the entire length of the colonnade to draw customers in erases any aura of a pre-capitalist, industrial, or ancient space. A triangular yellow caution sign stamped with the red logo for Rubbermaid Commercial Products sits smack-dab in the middle of the rotunda as a safety measure against any potential lawsuits.

As I climb the steps to the second floor, it seems fitting that the balcony is temporarily closed for remodeling. Equipment for the renovation is neatly arranged in one corner, as if set up for a picture. Nearby, a contractor stares out the window and yaks into his cell phone. A couple, seeking peace from the frenzy of the downstairs, sit together in intimate conversation with their backs leaning against the far wall. Now a painter stands on the stairs I have just ascended and uses a long roller to paint a new coat of whitewash on the interior of this historic building.

I imagine not all that much has changed here. A sales job is a sales job. Looking to buy a taste of Boston? The shops are closed for the night. But if you do make it back to the market, don’t believe the bull: no matter how they paint it, they’ve all sold out.

Boston.com just ran a cool photo slideshow comparing images of Boston: Then and Now (including a great one of Quincy Market)

Boston Public Library, Copley Plaza

Monday, January 10th, 5:33pm

I am sitting in an upstairs reading room. There is a general quiet that is not quite silence. The shuffling of feet against the smooth stone floor. The tapping of laptop keys. Scattered footsteps. But also the low rumble of the city outside. Once in a while the blare of a car horn interrupts the still.

Rows of wooden tables straddle the central aisle which runs the long length of the room. Each table has eight wooden chairs – four on each side – with two elegant bronze lighting fixtures, each with two symmetrical lamps sheltered by green lampshades. At each end of the room there is a low wooden wall of bookshelves lined with well-worn volumes. The center aisle continues through this wall on each end under an archway topped with a gold-faced clock.

Similar rows of tri-partite bookcases continue along each of the long walls of the room. They are punctuated by tall stone columns that rise to form the vaults of the ceiling. These vaults and the rotundae at each end of the room evoke the vast space of a cathedral. Meanwhile, the tall metal lamps with large round white bulbs front each column between the bookcases, like streetlamps lining the sidewalks of one of the nearby Back Bay streets.

The three entrances along one long wall of the room each pass under a grand rectangular archway. Those near the ends of the room feature dark marble Corinthian columns finished with bronze. The center arch features delicate ornamentation and sits under the canopy of a second-floor balcony. Classical marble busts stand sentry here and along the entire length of the wall.

Looking up through the casement pattern on one of the large arched windows, I see a narrow perspective on the lights of a tall office building that must be the John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in Boston.

The tone in the room is focused and serious, a stark contrast to the last time I was here the previous Thursday night. At several places in the room, servers dressed in white tended to extravagant spreads on the buffet table. A bar at each end of the room served local beer, wine, and spirits. Jazz musicians in groups of two, three, or four were playing in every room on this floor. It was the Governor’s second inauguration celebration and people were elbowing for space along the center aisle to greet Deval Patrick and his Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray as they came through. Later, I followed Patrick downstairs to see him share his first dance with his wife as a second-term Govenor.

The venue and the party were fit for a king – or an emperor – as I could sense the second I beheld the grand marble staircase flanked by stately lions inside the entrance to the building. Large murals on the walls of this chamber depict classical scenes. The windows look out on the cloister of a snow-covered courtyard with a bronze sculpture posing in the center. Tonight, the party is over and everyone is hard at work trying to restore the empire.

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