Wake Up The Earth


Some photos from today’s 31st annual Wake Up the Earth parade and festival, the annual celebration of…well, I don’t know what, but it’s very fun and very JP.  Spontaneous Celebrations is the organization behind the festival that dates back to the days of (successfully) opposing the construction of I-95 through Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

The parade featured stilt-walkers, dragons, twirlers, puppets, marching bands, drummers, and lots of kids in strollers.  We followed the parade from the Loring Greenough House all the way down Centre Street to Lamartine Street to the field by Stony Brook Station.  We were just one of the many families pushing strollers down the street.  It’s fun to be in a parade.

There was lots of music, activity and social activism at the festival.  We were particularly fond of the taiko drummers of Odaiko New England.  If they didn’t wake up the earth, I don’t know what will!

We had a blast and will definitely return next year.

Boston By Foot Special Tour: Literary Landmarks, Continued


An entire week has passed, and I’ve yet to write about Boston By Foot’s special tour of 20th Century writers who lived and worked on Beacon Hill held on March 8th entitled Literary Landmarks, Continued.   This is a sequel of sorts to the regular Literary Landmarks tour which focuses on the 19th Century writers in the same area and is offered every Saturday at 10 am during the regular tour season from May to October.

The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial subject of Robert Lowell's most famous poem "For the Union Dead"
The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial subject of Robert Lowell's most famous poem "For the Union Dead"

The tour covered a number of sites including:

  • Site of Houghton-Mifflin publishing on Park Street
  • The Boston Athenaeum
  • The Massachusetts State House
  • Site of Little, Brown publishing on Beacon Street
  • Joy Street
  • The Beacon Press
  • Mt. Vernon Street
  • Louisburg Square
  • Cedar Street
  • Savenor’s Market
  • Charles Circle
Shadow of the Little, Brown name on a Beacon Street building
Shadow of the Little, Brown name on a Beacon Street building

More important than the sites are the stories of the writers and the literature they produced.  Sadly, the words “depression,” “alchoholism,” “failed marriages,” and “suicide” were repeated throughout the tour, so being a Boston writer was not an easy job.

Writer’s included on this tour include:

  • Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain
  • poet Amy Lowell
  • Samuel Eliot Morrison, author of One Boy’s Boston
  • historian David McCullough who researches his work at the Athenaeum
  • poet Robert Lowell
  • Frances Parkinson Keynes, author of novel called Joy Street
  • Atlantic editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich
  • William Stanley Braithwaite, poet who joined black and white poets together in an anthology for the first time
  • Frances Minturn Howard, who wrote Beacon Hill: Hub of the Universe
  • David MCord, children’s poet
  • Sylvia Plath, poet born in Jamaica Plain who lived on Beacon Hill with Ted Hughes
  • Robert Frost, probably the most famous poet of New England
  • Robin Cook, physician and author of medical thrillers
  • Archibald MacLeish, lawyer, poet and Librarian of Congress
  • John Marquand, author of The Late George Apley and the “Mr. Moto” series
  • W.S. Merwin, poet and playwright-in-residence at Poet’s Theatre
  • Annie Fields, writer, publisher, and host of literary salons
  • Sarah Orne Jewett, novelist and story writer
  • Willa Cather, novelist of My Antonia and other stories of the Great Plains
  • Julia Child, cookbook writer
A plaque commemorates Robert Frost residency as one of the many great writers who lived on Beacon Hill
A plaque commemorates Robert Frost residency as one of the many great writers who lived on Beacon Hill

If you’re kicking yourself for missing this terrific tour, make sure to sign up at Meetup.com so you will get reminders of Boston By Foot special tours. Better yet, become a member of Boston By Foot and take free regular tours, discounted special tours, and tours only available for members.  You can even become a guide yourself by signing up online and attending the Annual Spring Lecture Series which begins on April 11th.

Upcoming tours include:

  • Sunday March 29th, 2 pm – Great Women of Boston (meet at the flagpoles at City Hall Plaza)
  • Sunday April 25th, 2 pm – Revisiting the Waterfront, lead by yours truly (meet at McKinley Sq., by the entrance to Marriott Custom House)

See you on the streets of Boston!

Boston By Foot Special Tour: Bells, Bridges & Locks


On a sunny but breezy Sunday afternoon, a couple of dozen brave souls ventured out to explore the connections across the Charles between North Station and the Charlestown Navy Yard.  The occassion was a Boston By Foot tour for the Boston By Foot Meetup Group called Bells, Bridges, & Locks.  If you feel bad about missing this tour, fear not as it will be offered again on July 1st & July 3rd during Harborfest.  For more in-depth exploration of this area, you will also want to take the Tour of the Month called Exploring the Charles River Basin on July 26 (yours truly will be one of the guides).  Save money on all these great tours and more by becoming a Boston By Foot Member.

Until the summer comes, check out my online album of photos from the tour.

Peak up at the worlds widest cable-stay bridge
Peak up at the world's widest cable-stay bridge

Highlights of the tour:

  • The Zakim Bridge from below.
  • Crossing the Gridley Locks on the Charles River Dam.
  • Discovering how a fish-ladder works.
  • Learning that two of Boston’s bridges fought one another all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Saying the words “bascule bridge.”
A charming bridge with a litigious ancestor
A charming bridge with a litigious ancestor

Book Review: Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris


Manhattan ’45 (1985) by Jan Morris attempts to capture New York City at the time of its greatest success, optimism, influence and power, just as the Second World War comes to an end. This is not a travel book so much as an historical recreation.  The author never even visited New York until nearly a decade later.  Writing in 1985, the book is full of copious footnotes where Morris tells us what is gone and different.  Reading this an additional 25 years later my mind adds another layer of meta-analysis of things further lost and changed in Manhattan’s continuous build and demolish cycle.

This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews.  Everything’s discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools.  I kind of wish I’d taken better notes on this book since it’s full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes.  I’d like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what’s there and what once was.

I’ve previously read the following books by Morris: The World of Venice and Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress.

Author Morris, Jan, 1926-
Title Manhattan ’45 / Jan Morris. —
Publication Info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
Description 273 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 22 cm.

Book Review: A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles


A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America — One State Quarter at a Time (2008) by Jim Noles takes the State Quarter Program as a launching point for an engaging look at the 50 United States and the symbols chosen to represent them.  Often, Noles goes beyond simply telling the history of the image on the coins to delve deeper into the social and cultural history of the States.  For each quarter, Noles also discusses the other finalist for the quarter design, the process of approval, and circulation of each coin.  The only thing I could ask for is more illustrations of the people and things he discusses.

My favorites include:

  • revisiting my 4th grade social studies’ lesson of Connecticut’s Charter Oak (by far my favorite State Quarter).
  • the importance of the palmetto in fort construction in Revolutionary South Carolina
  • Rhode Island’s quarter inspires a history of yacht racing.
  • the “scandal” of Ohio depicting a living person by including an astronaut who must be John Glenn or Neil Armstrong.
  • Helen Keller’s Socialist ways make her an unlikely representative of Alabama as well as someone appearing on US currency.
  • Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds, where you can keep the diamonds you find (I didn’t know it existed).
  • exciting stories of storms on the Great Lakes make up for Michigan having the most boring quarter.
  • the Kansas quarter leads to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American cavalrymen who fought in the Indian Wars of the West.
  • Colorado’s purple mountains majesty hid a CIA training camp for Tibetan subversives.
  • Wyoming’s pioneering history in Women’s Suffrage.

The quarters open a door to learning about the states, their great people, buildings and places, arts, and flora and fauna (and their conservation).  Like the State Quarters themselves, A Pocketful of History will have a broad appeal beyond numismatic buffs.  I think it especially will be a good tool for teachers and children.

Author Noles, James L.
Title A pocketful of history : four hundred years of America–one state quarter at a time / Jim Noles.
Publication Info. Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, c2008.
Description xxvi, 324 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Book Review: Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger


Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) (2008) by Jeffrey Kluger is my first foray into reviewing a Advance Reading Copy of a book by of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Or maybe not since I saw this book last week in the window at Harvard Book Store.  At any rate, this is a brand new book and it’s a popular science exploration of the idea of complexity and simplicity or how simple things can more complicated than they seem, and complex things more simple.

Kluger refers to the work that’s being done in the study of complexity at places like the Santa Fe Institute.  Then he dedicates each chapter to the concept of simplexity in every day life in areas such as markets, crowd psychology, social structure, business, death, sports, fear, childhood development, liguistics, technology, public health, and the arts.  Particularly nice is his appreciation that hard-working blue color labor is overworked and underpaid. It’s hard to say whether or not Kluger sticks with his thesis, or just writes about a bunch of interesting things but either way it is a fun, breezy read that provokes thoughts and ideas.

I was struck by how many books I’ve read recently shared some basic concepts with this book.  I suppose at the very least Simplexity can be a good summary of a lot of recent literature, but better than that it can be a jumping off point to reading these other books.  Unfortunately, Simplexity does not have a bibliography (or even an index!) so here related books I’d reccomend, some of which were mentioned in the text:

Books I’ve read previously by this author:

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) by Jeffrey Kluger. Hyperion (2008), Hardcover, 336 pages

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month – The Greenway and Beyond 2008


This month’s Tour of the Month is a reprise of The Greenway and Beyond focusing on what has replaced the elevated Central Artery since the Big Dig and what’s still to come. I wrote about the tour in detail when it was offered last August so I won’t repeat that here. But I do want to mention a few quick things:

Avenir, a residential-commercial development by North Station was just a fence last summer. Now there is a frame for a multi-story building.

Last summer, the North End Park was still being paved. Now children can play in it’s fountains.

Less than a year ago the Wharf District Parks were a construction zone, now they are lush and lovely.

Boston Walking Tours


Spring is sprung, so it is a good time to get out and take a walking tour of Boston where one can learn about history, architecture, art, nature, society, or just get some fresh air. Since I love walking tours, I decided to pull together a list of the various tours available in Boston and neighboring communities. The two organizations listed below have primacy because I am a volunteer guide for them (don’t let that scare you away, the other guides are great). The rest are listed in alphabetical order. While I’m a fan of walking tours, I don’t tend to have the time to take as many as I like so be aware I only have personal experience with a few of these organizations so don’t consider making the list an endorsement. If you know of any good walking tours in Boston not listed below, I’d love to add them to the list, so please post in the comments.

  • Boston By Foot – Boston’s premier walking tours with 7 regular tours offered daily, tours of the month, and special holiday tours.
  • Jamaica Plain Historical Society -Weekly tours on Saturday mornings of 6 areas in the Eden of America.

  • Appalachian Mountain Club – The Boston Chapter has a Local Walks Committee offering hikes to condition oneself for the mountains, nature walks, and social walks.
  • Arnold Arboretum – Boston’s tree museum offers regular highlight tours and special theme tours. Come back again because the tour changes depending on the season.
  • Audissey Guides – Download a tour narrated by local personalities for your mp3 player.
  • Black Heritage Trail – A tour of African-American history in Boston led by National Park Service guides, or you can take a self-guided tour.
  • Evening Walkers – A Meetup.com group for people who like walking. No narration, just scenery and a chance to meet people.
  • Friends of the Blue Hills – Group hikes and nature walks in the Blue Hills Reservation.
  • Brookline Food Tour – The way to Brookline’s heart is through your stomach.
  • Boston Athenæum – Art and architecture tours of this respected independent library. They also offer tours for members should you be so fortunate. [Suggested by Charles Swift in the comments below].
  • Boston CityWalks – Four regularly scheduled walks and custom tours of Boston and Cambridge [Suggested by Alan in the comments below]
  • Boston Harborfest – Walking tours are among the many events of Boston’s Independence Day celebration, including special Boston By Foot offerings.
  • Boston Harborwalk – A self-guided walk along Boston’s waterfront.
  • Boston Movie Tours – Tinseltown comes to the Hub in this tour of film locations.
  • Boston National Historical Park – Tours of the Freedom Trail and Charlestown Navy Yard led by National Park Service Rangers.
  • Boston Nature Center – Birding tours, nature walks, and hikes in the heart of the city.
  • Boston Public Library – Regular art and architecture tours of the oldest municipal library in the US.
  • The Boston Spirits Walking Tour – A spooky walking tour focusing on Boston’s ghost stories.
  • Boston Town Crier – Freedom Trail tours led by character interpreters of James Otis and Benjamin Franklin.
  • Boston Women’s Heritage Trail – Nine self-guided walks exploring women’s history in Boston.
  • Boston Your Way – Hire a private guide for a customizable tour (I wonder if they’re hiring).
  • Cambridge Historical Society – The CHS events calendar currently includes a garden tour and historic house tours.
  • Discover Roxbury – Arrange a 90 minute tour for school, family, and adult groups of this historic and diverse neighborhood.
  • Fenway Park – Go behind the scenes at the home of the Boston Red Sox, the oldest and smallest ballpark in Major League Baseball.
  • Forest Hills Cemetery – Boston’s hidden gem is full of history, art, and architecture, all of which is illuminated by a good tour guide (read about a great tour we took last fall).
  • Franklin Park Coalition – A self-guided tour, trails, and special events throughout the year in the “gem” of the Emerald Necklace.
  • Freedom Trail Tours – You can follow the red line on your own or let a costumed guide show you the way with 3 different 90-minute tours provided by the Freedom Trail Foundation.
  • Gibson House Museum – If you’re admiring the Victorian architecture of Back Bay and want to see a house interior, stop in here for a tour.
  • Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Society – Explore the new public space replacing the elevated Central Artery with special tours supported by Boston By Foot.
  • Harvard Campus Tour – Free official tours of the Harvard University campus.
  • Historic New England – The HNE calendar offers neighborhood and historic property tours in Boston and throughout New England.
  • Irish Heritage Trail – A self-guided walk with guided tours in the works.
  • Learn English in Boston – Art and architecture tours of Boston for ESL students.
  • Mass Bay Railroad Enthusiasts – Quarry to wharf tours of the remains of the granite railway in Quincy and Milton (part van, part walking tour).
  • MIT Campus Tour – Learn about the innovative architecture by world-renown architects that speckle the MIT campus.
  • Middlesex Fells – Check the calendar for special hikes or join the regular Babes in the Woods walks for parents and children.
  • Museum of Fine Arts – Regular free guided tours of the galleries (with museum admission) plus art & architecture tours outside of the museum.
  • The Nichols House Museum – If you’re admiring the Federal architecture of Beacon Hill and want to see a house interior, stop in here for a tour.
  • North End Secret Tour – Tours of Boston’s oldest neighborhood lead by a local resident.
  • The Path to Independence – Character interpreters offer a first-person historical perspective of the Freedom Trail.
  • Phantoms of Olde Cambridge -The ghosties of Harvard Square get their own tour.
  • Photowalks – Walking tours combined with instruction in photography on four different routes.
  • Paul Revere’s North End Walking Tour – An experienced guide from the Paul Revere House leads tours of the North End in early July.
  • South End Historical Society – An Annual House Tour is offered in October.
  • Unofficial Tours Present Harvard University – Fun tours of America’s first college.
  • WalkBoston – Boston’s walking advocacy group offers regular walks around the city.
  • Walking Tours of Historic Boston – Families and groups can book tours of Boston’s historic center lead by a children’s book author.
  • Watson Adventures Scavenger Hunts – A unique spin on the walking tour where participants gather together in teams to solve questions and puzzles.
  • Women Artists in the Back Bay – A self-guided walk created by created in partnership by the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with the support of the City of Boston, the Boston Women’s Commission, and the MFA Ladies Committee Associates.

Book Review: Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook


Here’s a rare occassion in which I read a book in the year it’s published after reading this review of Timothy Brook‘s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008) in the Christian Science Monitor. This book is also my selection for April’s Book A Month Challenge on Beauty.

Brook uses eight works of art from the 17th-century (most of them by Johannes Vermeer) and uses them as doorways into the emerging global world. This book goes beyond simple art appreciation creating a James Burke’s Connections-style investigation of what is featured in the art and how it connects to the changing world of the time, especially in the Netherlands and China. It’s a fascinating and unique perspective and I recommend the book to anyone interested in art, history, and the human story.

The works of art are listed below with a synopsis of what Brook finds beyond each of these doors.

1. Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (1660/61)

Vermeer’s accurate landscape of his hometown includes the prominent headquarters of the local chamber of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compangie, or VOC). This shows that Delft has become a part of the growing commercial empire trading with the East, redefining capitalism and nationalism in the process.

2. Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658)

A familiar sight of a soldier flirting with a young woman focuses on the aspects that connect this domestic scene with foreign lands. The map on the wall shows the Netherlands as a growing maritime empire. The officer’s hat is connected to Samuel Champlain and his efforts by alliance and conquest to control the beaver pelt trade in the New World.

3. Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657)

A dish of fruit is prominent in the foreground and leads to a discussion of Chinese porcelain imported to Europe. The fine porcelain became a mark of taste and breeding in European homes. In China, the demand for porcelain created a export market for table ware used in ways different from the Chinese culture.

4.Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (1669)

The studious geographer calmly studies the growing body of knowledge of the world. At the same time a cultural exchange in 17th-century occurs between the Chinese and European merchants, missionaries, and shipwrecked sailors.

5. A Plate from the Lambert van Meerten Museum of Delft (late seventeenth century)

Delft became a center of creating European versions of Chinese porcelain complete with Chinese-style images to enhance their exotic appeal. This plate in particular includes an image of a Chinese man smoking, an image that appeals to Europeans although for cultural reasons Chinese artists would never depict someone participating in such a new trend. This chapter follows the quick spread of tobacco use across Europe and Asia, and creation of cultural traditions for smoking.

6. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (1664)

The woman is weighing silver which became prominent in trade in the 17th-century. Much of the silver was mined in the Spanish colony of Bolivia. Each year a large ship fulled of silver bullion sailed from South America to Manila where it was exchanged for silks with Chinese merchants. The growing community of Chinese traders in Manila leads to mistrust and massacres, yet the trade thrives all the same.

7. Hendrik van der Burch, The Card Players (1660)

This painting by Vermeer’s contemporary prominently features an African slave, something Vermeer never painted, but a growing reality in 17th-century Europe. This chapter focuses on journeys, ordinary people traveling to far-flung corners of the Earth, some of them to stay including Africans enslaved in the Netherlands and Dutch sailors settling in China and Korea. There’s also some good parts about pirates (or privateers depending on your perspective)!

8. Emperor Guan, the Chinese God of War, Depicted in Ivory from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

An image similar to one exhumed by a Chinese convert to Christianity and used as a standard for a Chinese insurgency against the Spanish in Manila.