Archive for June, 2008

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month: Bay Village

The last Sunday of the month is Tour of the Month day on on June 28th Boston By Foot presented a tour of Bay Village. The neighborhood, once known as the Church Street District, is a small area neighboring Chinatown, the Theater District, and Back Bay.  For some reason despite being pretty much in the heart of the city, Bay Village is a hidden neighborhood.  It’s quiet, shady lanes are a nice respite from the buzzing commercial districts surrounding it.  Sadly, in some areas th experience is somewhat marred by the roaring noise pollution of the MassPike.

A photo album from the tour.

The tour began with an exploration of commercial buildings along Columbus Avenue, including the Park Plaza Hotel (formerly the Statler), the First Corps of Cadets Armory, the Youth’s Companion Building, and the Pope Building (the latter I remember because the name is conveniently carved on the top).  Then the tour ducked into the residential area of Bay Village.

Things I learned on this tour:

  • Columbus Avenue intersects with Isabella St. and the two once formed a triangle with Ferdinand St., but the latter was renamed as an extension of Arlington Street.
  • An narrow street called “Broadway St” once connected Bay Village to Broadway in South Boston.
  • The houses in Bay Village were built at the same time and in the same style as Beacon Hill, but on a smaller scale and less ornate as these were homes for artisans rather than the wealthy.
  • Our Lady of Victories is still a French National Church although no services are conducted in French.
  • The entire neighborhood was jacked-up and filled-in 12-18 feet in the 1860’s due to flooding in basements from ground water after the Back Bay was filled in.
  • Edgar Allan Poe was born here, although not at the site of the condo that bears his name and plaque.
  • In the 1930’s Bay Village was home to Boston’s film industry, including warehouses for MGM, Pathe, RKO, and Columbia.  The surviving buildings lend an Art Deco flair to the neighborhood.
  • The Cocoanut Grove nightclub stood here before being engulfed in a fire that killed 492 people.  A memorial plaque designed by the youngest survivor is embedded in the sidewalk.
  • The Motor Mart Garage proves that even parking structures can be attractive.

The tour of Bay Village will be offered again next year on October 25, 2009, so check it out if you didn’t make it this time.

Learn more about the neighborhood from the Bay Village Neighborhood Association website.

Peter & Paul

Since I made it through the cycle of saints last year I haven’t been writing as many Catholic things on this blog, but I do want to touch on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter & Paul even though I wrote about it last year in a hasty manner.

Peter and Paul are cornerstones of the early church so obviously this is an important day to celebrate if it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.  Like Steve Bogner, I relate more to Peter than Paul:”He just seems more accessible, and more like me. Peter has a sort of foot-in-mouth approach that I can empathize with.” Peter is obviously the patron of my son as well.

But today begins the Year of Paul, the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle of the Gentiles, so I can’t leave him out.  Paul didn’t just make simple mistakes like Peter, he persecuted Christ’s followers, repented of that, and then dedicated the same energy to spreading Christ’s gospel.  Pretty impressive.

Peter and Paul probably didn’t always get along as well as they seem to in the icon where they are embracing, but they both have a lot to teach us.

Here are some other (better) reflections:

Songs that remind me of the 70’s

Two songs that instantly transport me back to being a five-year-old boy.  Neither of the tunes are of the genres commonly associated with the decade: disco and guitar rock (ex. – Led Zep).  But they share in common screaming horn solos.

Chuck Mangione, “Feels So Good”

Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”

Ah, right now I could be in the back seat of my Dad’s Chevy Nova heading to the Arboretum for a walk in the woods or perhaps to the Danbury Fair Raceareana.

Yes, I went to stock car races as a child.

Every Book I’ve Ever Read *

So I’m a junior in high school beginning to apply for college and attending a lot of college-related events. Inevitably the following question is asked:

“Liam, what do you like to do?”

“Oh, I like to read a lot…”

“Really, what books have read lately?”

And my mind would go blank.  What have I read lately?  What have I read ever?

Thus, in the summer of 1990 I began tracking the books I read, a habit that continues to this day.  I started on scrap paper, then I kept the list in the back of my journal.  A few years ago I put everything in a spreadsheet.  Starting in 2003, I began writing short reviews/summaries of the books to help me remember the content as well as the titles of the books.  I’ve been putting my current book lists and reviews online since I started Panorama of the Mountains in 2006.

Now, thanks to LibraryThing, the whole world can see Every Book I’ve Ever Read* online and in one place.  The asterisk of course is due to the fact that I don’t remember what I read before I started tracking books in 1990, although I’ve brainstormed a fairly good list of what I can remember.  I wish I could remember the first book I ever read on my own which was about cats.

It should be noted that LibraryThing is kind of geared to cataloging books one actually owns, so the information about particular editions of books in my LibraryThing catalog is really not relevant.  I basically chose the editions with the prettiest covers.  I do like that I can add my old reviews and tags and sort the library in different ways.

For example, if you want to see what books I read in a particular years, here they are:

Pre-1990 1994 1999 2004
1990 1995 2000 2005
1991 1996 2001 2006
1992 1997 2002 2007
1993 1998 2003 2008

As I’ve posted previously, since 1996 I’ve made a list of the ten favorite books I’ve read each year.  I have those listed below as well.  It’s interesting to see what books made a list that I really don’t remember that well, while books I now consider all time favorites didn’t make the cut.

1996 1999 2002 2005
1997 2000 2003 2006
1998 2001 2004 2007

I hope this doesn’t come across as bragging.  For one thing, I still don’t think I’m reading enough books or enough of the right books.  I do like LIbraryThing as a place to share information and ideas about books, because reading is important.

So dive in, take a look, and enjoy.  Sign up for your own account if you’re so inclined.

Mist & Fire

Where is it?

The jungles of the Amazon?
A remote valley in the Appalachians?

No, it’s just a mist-enshrouded Peters Hill in the Arnold Arboretum as viewed from my porch in Jamaica Plain.

The sunset was pretty cool too.

I love living in the Eden of America.

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Beer Review: Affligem Blonde Ale

Beer: Affligem Blonde Ale
Brewer: Brouwerij Affligem (I generally don’t like flash websites, but check this one out because it plays chanting monks in the background)
Source: Draught
Rating: *** (7.0 of 10)

Comments: This is a Belgian Trappist Ale style beer and a pretty good one. Jacob Wirth’s paired it with their asparagus ravioli. My son paired it with his head. That that didn’t spill on the baby tasted quite good, refreshing and spicy, although the aftertaste was a tad bitter to my tastes. The beer pours out golden with a thick white head and leaves a signature Brussels Lace along the side. A nice beer for a summer’s day.

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