Posts Tagged ‘Boston’

Improving Public Space at Boston City Hall Plaza

The City of Boston has recently put out a call for ideas to re-envision City Hall Plaza.  Boston City Hall is a controversial building, a mid-century modern example of Brutalism that some people call the ugliest building in Boston.  I’ve even heard it called the ugliest building in the world!

There are some cool things I’ve learned about the architecture of the building such as the honeycomb of windows on the top floors indicating where the city worker bees have their office being joined to the public on the ground floor by the large shapes of the Mayor’s Office and City Council chambers.  The “brute” in Brutalism comes from the shape of the raw concrete that makes up the bulk of the building resting like a sculpture on a brick base.  I think the unadorned concrete’s aesthetic difficulties are what leads to City Hall’s reputation as ugly.

Nevertheless, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and while I will not offer an opinion on the attractiveness of City Hall, I do believe that it fails as a public space.  Some of these failures can be addressed by modifying the building. For example, the entrance from the plaza is hidden and unwelcoming and should be redesigned.  The gaping auto entrance on Congress Street should only exist at a suburban office park, if anywhere, and not opposite Faneuil Hall, one of the city’s most historic places.  The lower floors in the interior are also dreary and cavernous, with a long line of glass-plated counters along the far walls adding to the general unfriendliness of the building.  Architecture fans want to preserve City Hall and taxpayers appreciate not spending money on a new city building, but I believe these problems should be addressed to make City Hall feel more like it belongs to the people.

The biggest problem for City Hall, I’ve long felt, is not the building itself by the massive 200,000 square foot plaza that surrounds it.  The architects wanted to send a message by having their Brutalist sculpture on a plinth surrounded by open space providing a panoramic view, yet to many Bostonians that message is an extended middle finger.  The open space accentuates the inaccessibility and unfriendliness of the building making it feel more like a fortress than a Palace of the People that it ought to be.  While the plaza is sometimes used for concerts and public events, it is a generally empty with no protection from the elements.  I remember once attending the Scooper Bowl and had to give up because there was no escape from the hot sun.  That’s right, City Hall Plaza made free ice cream not fun!

So my idea for revitalizing City Hall Plaza is to fill it up with small-scale buildings broken up by winding alleys and parks spaces.  When I catch a glimpse of City Hall from Washington Street or from the alleys of the Blackstone Black, I’m impressed by how interesting and attractive the patterns of its structure look at the end of the street vista.  Since City Hall looks best in small bits rather than all at once, my plan would emphasize its architectural strengths while also bringing it back to the city from its island of isolation.  Filling the plaza would also allow for a variety of landscaping, architecture, and activity that will make the area around City Hall a welcoming and attractive place where people will want to linger.

I below I’ve drawn a quick and dirty plan I drew on a Google Map of what the new City Hall neighborhood could like. A more detailed explanation follows after the illustration.

chp

 

Green Space

On the map above you will notice that there is still a considerable amount of area dedicated to open, public space. These areas are indicated in green above. Unlike the sun-scorched, wind-swept City Hall Plaza of today these public spaces will be planted with trees, shrubbery, and flower beds as well as various fountain, sculpture, and other public art.  Benches and picnic tables will encourage visitors to linger for a while.  There are four distinct types of public space:

  • The Triangle – Beneath the overhanging balcony of City Hall is a triangular space which would have less landscaping and more open space (kind of smaller version of today’s plaza) that would encourage a gathering place for public demonstrations, celebrations, and street performance, as well as provide a perspective to view City Hall.
  • Promenades – three promenades lead to the Triangle: one from the MBTA station, one from Cambridge Street (and the Center Plaza complex opposite), and one to the federal building complex.  With landscaping to provide shade and beauty, these promenades provide a visual link among the architecture of the are.  They also are functional walkways providing direct routes for the 20,000-30,000 pedestrians passing through the area each day.
  • The Circle – a green area surrounded by buildings near the JFK Federal Building that can serve as a lunch spot for local workers and respite for tourists.
  • The Amphitheater – the stage on the north side of City Hall used for summer concerts and festivals will be upgraded into a permanent venue for live music, dance, theater, and public addresses.

The narrow alleys that wind among the new buildings will also be an important public space.  My hope is that a person wandering along the alleys will see something at each turn that will surprise and delight and be encouraged to linger.

Buildings

The black shapes on the map above represent the footprints of small buildings on the scale you may find in the heart of an ancient European city or more close to home, the Blackstone Block across Congress Street.  I drew 16 different buildings, which may be too many, but whether it’s 16 or 12 or 10 or 8, I believe there should be several buildings intersected by winding ways that prohibit motor vehicles. It is my expectation that these would be small-scale buildings, ranging from about 3-6 floors in height.

While there would be a master plan specifying general rules for design, I would like them each to have unique architecture.  Instead of one big project by one big architectural firm and built by one contractor, the land should be parceled out to multiple firms each creating their own building.  Participants in construction would be encouraged to experiment with architectural styles and materials, blending and contrasting with the variety of buildings already surrounding the plaza.  This smaller approach also means that many smaller local and minority-owned architecture and construction firms can be encouraged to participate instead of big companies that typically get to work on a project like this. In fact, a different building could be built by companies representing different neighborhoods of Boston, emphasizing the centrality of City Hall to this great city.

The ground floor of each building will be dedicated to retail space – restaurants, bars, and cafes (with tables spilling out into the alleyways and promenades in pleasant weather) and shops of all kinds.  As a contrast to Faneuil Hall Marketplace which features more tourist-oriented and high-end shopping, some effort should be made to have shops and services that meet the needs of Government Center employees and residents of adjacent neighborhoods with things like a dry cleaners, delis, or even a child care center in some of these ground level spaces.

The upper floors of the new buildings would be primarily office space, although I suppose one may make an argument for residential apartments or even a hotel in some of the buildings.  I imagine that some buildings could be joined together with a picturesque bridge over an alleyway connecting upper levels of the buildings to allow for larger companies.  I think a brilliant idea though would be for the city to retain hold of some office space.  The city can help fulfill its initiatives for innovation and small businesses by providing low-rent incubator space to innovative local companies.

My idea is a big idea but Boston is a city that has a history of building on big ideas – from filling Back Bay to building America’s first subway to the Big Dig. There would certainly be a considerable investment that would have to go into bringing this idea to fruition, and yet the new buildings would also provide a new source of taxable income.  And yet even with the income, I believe my idea would provide many tangible benefits to the city, including:

  • vibrant, multiple-uses of underutilized public space
  • preserve unique and varied architecture of City Hall and surrounding buildings in a way that shows of their best side
  • create a new city center where people come together to work, shop, dine, drink, and play.

I hope this plan would help make the greatest city in the world an even better place. Let me know what you think about my plan, and any ideas of your own in the comments.

Photopost: Samuel Adams Brewery Tour

I’ve lived in metro-Boston for close to 17 years, 8 of those in Jamaica Plain, and I’d never taken the Samuel Adams Brewery Tour. I decided to address this omission on a recent Friday when I’d taken a day off from work. I don’t know what the brewery is like in the high season, but on a random Friday afternoon in snow-encrusted Boston, there were still more than 30 people in my tour group.

Those in the know that while Samuel Adams is advertised as a Boston beer, the majority of the beer is brewed at contract breweries out-of-state. The Jamaica Plain facility is primarily a research and development facility with small batches brewed for local clients (such as Doyle’s Cafe). Thus the brewery is pretty small and the tour rather short in distance. Our guide offered a wealth of knowledge on the brewing process, passing around hops to rub into our hands and samples of malts to chew on. We also saw the big tanks that the beer goes through in the brewing process.

Not much happening there, so we went to a tasting room to sample some fresh Samuel Adams beers. The beers on tap included the flagship Boston Lager, Cold Snap white ale, and Chocolate Bock. After generous samples, we were invited to visit the gift shop where more beer was on sale, including unique brews not available elsewhere. I will have to not wait so long for my next visit, or at least swing by the gift shop when looking for a special beer.

Related Posts (Samuel Adams beer reviews over time):

Beer Review: Samuel Adams Boston 375 Colonial Ale

Beer: Boston 375 Colonial Ale
Brewer: Boston Beer Company
Source: Growler
Rating: *** (7.5 of 10)
Comments: On my recent tour of the Samuel Adams Brewery, I picked up a growler of this beer not widely available elsewhere.  It is a cloudy, dark brown beer with a big, bubbly head.  It has a sweet yeasty aroma with maybe a hint of orange.  The flavor is of sweet cream and a nutty smoked taste with a medium mouthful.  The head dissipates quickly and leaves behind no lacing.  This is a tasty beer and one that does Boston proud.

 

Beer Review: Samuel Adams Rebel IPA

BeerSamuel Adams Rebel IPA 
Brewer: Boston Beer Company
Source: Draft
Rating: ** (6.6 of 10)
Comments: Rebel IPA is amber-colored with a good-looking head, but not much visible carbonation.  The aroma is piney, and the flavor offers spicy grapefruit with an apricot aftertaste and a medium mouthfeel.  The beer leaves lovely lacing on the glass.  I’m not a fan of overly hoppy beers, and there seems to be an arms race to make the most bitter beer these days, but Samuel Adams has done a great job of extracting the best from the hops in this nicely balanced beer.

Photopost: The Snow Rabbits of Allston

A snow mound in front of my place of work has become a gathering place for at least five rabbits (there could be more but rabbits can’t count beyond four).

Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower
Summary/Review:

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****

2014 Year in Review: Memorable Events

I started a tradition back in 1996 of making a list of the most memorable events of the year.  My definition of memorable can include both the positive and the negative, but generally it’s the good things that make the list.  That first list in 1996 had exactly twenty items, so I’ve made the list a top twenty every year since.  I usually try to post this list close to December 31st, but late is better than never.

My 2014 list is a typical hodge-podge of activity.  Some of the events have links to when I wrote about them at the time.  Others I wrote a little bit more about in this post.

January – Furnace – Our furnace overheated and died during our holiday travels last year, and so we had a cold New Years at home, even with new space heaters bought for the occasion.  We got a new furnace installed, and it cost lots and lots and lots of money, but it works very well.  Definitely not a good thing, but certainly memorable, and it all worked out in the end.

January – Ice Skating – Peter took an ice skating class and I went ice skating for the first time in years.  My skates don’t fit anymore – ouch.  But we had fun.  Here’s my first ever animated GIF of Peter skating:

Through the year – Education activism – This year I learned a lot about the crises affecting public education, and joined other parents, students, and teachers to advocate for positive change.  There’s a lot more I could do and should do, but I educated myself on the issues, wrote some blog posts, attended a school committee meeting, and a rally on the steps of the State House.  And there were some positive results, including the defeat of a charter school expansion bill in the Massachusetts’ Senate.

February 1st – Wayne Potash concert – As aging folkies, it was a pleasure to take the kids to our old haunt of Club Passim for this special concert.

March 22nd-24th – New England Archivists Spring Meeting - My only business trip of the year took me to the lovely town of Portsmouth, NH.  Highlights of the conference include a keynote speech by punk rocker Ian MacKaye about his Fugazi Live Series archives and participating in a NEA Jeopardy! tournament (my team won!).

Pondering a Jeopardy! answer.

April 21st – Patriots Day – We took back the finish line on a beautiful spring day, with my whole family cheering on the runners in the Boston Marathon.

April to September – Red Sox season – The 2014 season was not as good as the 2013 season for the Red Sox, but we had fun attending several games, including a few with tickets given by friends who have much better seats than we usually get.  Since Peter is a member of Kid Nation, we can enter the ballpark early to watch batting practice from the Green Monster, and at one game Yankees pitcher Shane Green threw a ball to Peter. We saw rookies Alex Hassan and Garin Cecchini get their first major league hits.  And we sat behind home plate at McCoy Stadium and watching future Red Sox clobber their opponents.  We rode our bikes to Fenway and used the new bike parking.  But probably the coolest thing is when Susan and Peter got to help with the banner for the 2004 World Series Champions reunion in May.  You can see them below the 4 in the photo below.


April 22nd-25th – Spring Break in Virginia – Peter & I visited my mother in Virginia and spent time exploring Colonial Williamsburg and playing at Go Karts Plus.

June 15 – Father’s Day – Tradition dictates that Father’s Day is celebrated with brunch and a nature walk.  This year we dined at Nancy’s Airfield Cafe in Stow and then explored the swamps and caves at Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary.

June 12th – July 13 – World Cup – I loved getting sucked into the quadrennial event, and following the ups and downs of the US Men’s National Team.  Particularly fun was attending public viewing parties in Watertown (see the celebration of Clint Dempsey’s goal against Portugal below) and at Boston City Hall.  Then I spent the entire final making bad puns on Facebook.

June 21st – BTU School Summer Blastoff – Ostensibly a fundraiser for our son’s school, but moreso this was an opportunity to get out of the house and dance the night away with Susan.

July 20th & 27th – Cambridge Common walking tour – For the third time, I had the privilege of researching, writing, and leading a walking tour for Boston By Foot.  This time we explored the endlessly fascinating history of Cambridge Common and it’s environs.  The official tour had a good turnout despite a downpour.  If you missed it, we’ll be running it again on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at 2 pm.


August 17 – Crane Beach – All summer long my daughter Kay asked to go to the beach.  Finally, as summer was drawing to a close we made a day-long outing to Crane Beach in Ipswich.  It may have been the best day in Kay’s young life.  We’ll have to return to her happy place more often next summer.


August 30 – September 2 – Great Wolf Lodge – We met up with Susan’s parents at Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania for four days of swimming, sliding, playing, and eating.  It was cheezy fun.


September 20th – Baseball Clinic – My son loves baseball and so there was no doubt that he would enjoy a free baseball clinic for children  hosted by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Jim Rice Field in Roxbury.  Former major league ballplayers instructed the children. They practiced throwing with Rich Rodriguez and Joe Johnson, outfield drills with Billy Sample, baserunning with Al Severinsen, and infield drills with John Tudor (seen handing a ball to my son below).


September 27th – Rockin’ With Raptors – The annual festival at the Boston Nature Center, the Mass Audubon nature center closest to our house, was a blast. There was barbecue and cake, birdhouse building, face painting, music, live animal demonstrations and many other activities.  And of course, the stars of the show were the birds of prey.  Peter was particularly devoted to asking the volunteer lots of questions about the raptors.


October 11th to 13th – Cooperstown – We went away for Columbus Day Weekend to Cooperstown, NY, staying at the lovely Lake House Hotel and visiting the Farmers Museum during the annual Tractor Fest, the Cullen Pumpkin Farm, and National Baseball Hall of Fame.


October 20th to 27th – Jury duty – I served on a challenging criminal trial with contentious deliberations.  And I was appointed foreperson.  It was a stressful week, but hopefully we made the right decision.
November 23rd – Kay leads church in dancing – One day at the beginning of church service at Hope Central in JP, my daughter went up in front and started dancing in circles.  Then the pastor joined in.  Then several people throughout the congregation started dancing in circles as well.  It was a special moment.

November and December – Nana’s visits – My mother came to visit twice late in the year spending lots of quality time with the grandchildren.  Nana and Peter played chess, we visited the zoo, we saw “Peter & the Wolf” at Symphony Hall in November, and celebrated Christmas together in December.


November 29th – New England Revolution Eastern Conference Championship – Peter and I jumped on the bandwagon as the New England Revolution made their way through the MLS postseason.  We joined 10s of thousands of fans in Foxboro as the team won the Eastern Conference against the New York Red Bulls.  The next week we saw the sad MLS Cup Final loss against the LA Galaxy on tv.

 

Previously:

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