The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Moving to Jackson

Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

“I’m moving to Jackson Square,” I said in the break room.

“Oh my word, why?” my colleague replied.

Jackson Square doesn’t have the best reputation. Finding itself directly in the path of a proposed new freeway in the 1970’s, the intersection of Columbus Ave and Centre St suffered demolitions that tore a barren strip down lower Boston, parallel to the T tracks. Though neighborhood advocates successfully fought off the freeway, the neighborhood was largely neglected for the next four decades. During that time, the area has become associated primarily with the nearby BHA Bromley-Heath low-income ousing projects and a rash of violent crime, often in the same breath.

Now a $250 million effort at redevelopment is well underway. The new fine residential building at 225 Centre St is the first of a planned 14 new developments. While a big step up in the standard of housing for the area, the building has also maintained one-third of its units as affordable housing. Subsequent developments are slated to add many more affordable units as well.

The T station sits between 225 and the Bromley-Heath. The station is a microcosm of the larger forces around it. Jackson Square itself is the bridge between the rapidly gentrifying (and mostly affluent white) pond-side of Jamaica Plain to the west and the generally lower-income (and mostly black) neighborhood of Roxbury to the east of Columbus Ave. In between is what some are trying to brand as “Boston’s Latin Quarter”, a diverse neighborhood that includes many locally-owned Latin American restaurants and businesses of Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican origin.

Change is coming to Jackson Square, along economic, social, and ethnic lines.

Will the community steer itself in a direction that preserves the neighborhood’s character while advancing quality of life and economic opportunity for all? Or is Jackson Square doomed to be another chapter in the ongoing gentrification of urban America, pushing the working class out to make room for the luxury condos of the rich?

225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

Jackson Square has a chance to become the model of new urban living: community-driven, environmentally responsible, diverse, and, most importantly, mixed-income residences — built around public transit and strengthened by an array of nearby local small businesses.  Boston has a chance to show the country what urban development done right looks like.

The next few years will be telling.

This blog post is the first in a year-long series that aims to explore the Hyde Jackson neighborhood and the issues surrounding it. My friend (and soon-to-be roommate) Larissa agreed to join me on this project, and together we will be posting photography and essays from and about Hyde-Jackson.

We invite comments, questions, and feedback on the series as we go. The most direct way of joining the discussion is by leaving a reply on a relevant blog post. You can also comment on a specific photo in the gallery or send us a general message from the Hyde-Jackson project page.



Holding my nose

The national war over American public education is playing out right in our backyards. A recent article in the Boston Globe reveals that the last surge of spending in what was a ridiculously expensive mayoral race here in Hub was from the AFT.

The American Federation of Teachers confirmed Friday that it was the donor behind One Boston, a mysterious political action committee that paid for a $480,000 television commercial supporting Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh during the final days of the Boston mayoral race.

The national teachers’ union exploited discrepancies in state-by-state campaign spending disclosure laws to anonymously fund nearly a half million dollars worth of advertising on behalf of Walsh.

Full disclosure: I am a member of AFT Local 66, the Boston Teachers Union. In the mayoral race, I absolutely supported Walsh over Connolly. It wasn’t so much that I liked Walsh and his policies, but that I was vehemently opposed to Connolly’s corporate-influenced agenda for education reform.

Better the “able steward of the status quo” as the Globe painted Walsh, than a pro-charter, pro-standardization, “reform” candidate like Connolly. So, in the absence of any of my preferred candidates (Arroyo, Barros, and Golar-Richie all lost in the preliminaries), I decided to hold my nose and vote for Walsh.

Part of me wonders if I actually managed to pick the lesser of two evils. I am adamantly opposed to money having an outsized influence on politics, especially national money on local politics, and especially especially money that forces a false choice between two distasteful alternatives.

No single entity — union or corporate — should be able to unilaterally influence public policy in this way, especially with such a lack of transparency.

And at least Connolly called for a moratorium on outside money (an offer that Walsh refused).  So I can’t say I approve of where my dues are going or how I am being represented (not that I really have a choice… membership is mandatory).

On the other hand, what is AFT to do? Since Citizens United, so much money is now flowing into races around the country, much of it from sources that are seeking to control public policy for private (and corporate) gain. Should the defenders of public education, flawed as they may be, simply stand by and watch as Boston becomes the next bloody front in the national reform war… like Chicago, New York, DC, and New Orleans? I reluctantly see ground for AFT to argue “how could we not”.

As a broad generalization, I think I’d rather have union (ergo middle/working class) control over policy than corporate (ergo wealthy) control over policy. But what kind of choice is that?  At the root, I think what most disgusts me is the frustration of knowing that political process, from local to federal, is no longer truly accountable to the people. Why should I have to hold my nose when voting between two ugly alternatives in the first place?

Restoring faith in government, and by extension faith in the social contract, is going to be a long road if we are to recover ourselves. I’m for making that long march, but it’s not going to be easy.



Jamaica Pond in April

Some photos from this morning’s walk around Jamaica Pond for my 2013 photography project. This year seems to be rapidly disappearing. I think last I checked it was February and I’m not sure what happened. March was a joke. This morning I was still kicking myself for missing March for the project, and wasn’t going to let April slide by as well. So here it is… lovely, lovely Boston spring. It’s been SOOOOOOO HARD to get any work done with the weather as nice as it has been the last couple of weeks…

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Jamaica Pond in February

I’ve been getting behind on my 2013 photography project to document Jamaica Pond through photos every month this year. I actually missed March in the craziness of prepping for my BTR Spring Gateway, so alas you cannot see the early stages of the lovely way Boston unfurls in spring. However, I do have (belatedly processed) February and (just taken this morning) April for you!

The winter of 2012-13 was a tumultuous one for Boston, with the whole region repeatedly weathering winter storm after winter storm. In February, a vigorous Category 3 Nor’easter (erroneously called Nemo) delivered hurricane-force winds and a whole lot of snowfall to New England. Boston Public Schools declared snow day after glorious snow day as the city struggled to dig itself out from the 24.9 inches of wet snow. Here are some photos from the aftermath at Jamaica Pond.

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Lehane: Messing With the Wrong City

Dorchester-born and raised author Dennis Lehane has an OpEd in the NYT that helped me think about how Monday’s events fit into the overall story of my new city.

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”

via Messing With the Wrong City – NYTimes.com.

It’s strange, but Boston feels like home now. I don’t think it was just this terrible event that did it, but I do think the bombings were a catalyst that made me think about and realize it. I don’t have much more to say right now, so I’ll leave it there.



Boston a Big City? Maybe Too Much So in Some Ways

Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” runs the headline for a recent article in The Onion. The beloved king of nothing-is-sacred, satirical journalism was hilarious of course. Boston.com ran a good-natured satirical post in response. Not surprisingly, the “Pretty Cute” article also raised some hackles around what is, apparently for some, a sore subject around here.

The satirical back and forth is all in good fun of course, but Tom Keane’s Op-Ed Column in the Globe smacks of something worse than taking a joke too seriously: rose-tinted glasses that see right past serious social problems.

Keane rattles off a number of ways in which Boston just can’t be a truly big city, all of which help paint the lovely image of the progressive “Athens of America”  that Boston projects with such pride. While I have very little doubt that his statements are technically true, they are also maddeningly selective in the story they tell.

You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago.

The median is a tricky statistical value; there are so many different income distributions that can arrive at a particular median value that the number in itself doesn’t really tell you much. But what about Radio Boston’s report just over a year ago on WBUR that Boston’s income inequality is among the worst in the United States? Which income indicator is a better measure of how we live up to our stated ideals?

Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.

Who gets that great Boston education? Lee and Orfield in their 2005 paper “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality from the Harvard Civil Rights Project reads

“Our study of metro Boston shows a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality, test scores and dropout rates. In the entire metro region, 97 percent of the schools with less than a tenth white students face concentrated poverty compared to 1 percent of the schools with less than a tenth minority students” (p 6).

So as not to start a rant specifically on education (though that may come later), I’ll move on. Back to Keane:

Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent).

Poverty and employment are related, but not the same thing. People can be underemployed, which means they don’t count toward the unemployment rate but still make less than enough to live on or less than their education should permit — thereby pushing lower-skilled workers to leave the workforce entirely. Or they could be among the rapidly rising tide of the legally disabled, who also don’t count toward unofficial unemployment numbers. Even if Keane had looked at Boston’s poverty rates (which are actually lower on average for US cities), looking at the overall rate misses the stark geographic segregation and ethnic disparities of just who is in poverty here in Boston.

And if being poor weren’t hard enough — the classism in recently exposed exploitation and corruption in the Boston taxi system, with city officials complicit, is but one example of social injustice is systemic, not isolated and extraordinary.

Ok ok, I’ll stop ranting. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love my new city. But it is a love formed (and really, still forming) based on the work I do to help make it, and by extension our shared future as world citizens, better.

If Keane wanted to fire back on the joke with a serious point, I think that he could have at least been balanced about it. There’s no harm in city pride, and I’m sure Keane is well aware of the caveats himself. But there’s a lot of people outside (and let’s admit it, inside) this city that would rather pretend that we live in an affluent yuppie paradise that is the bastion and example of the Democratic Party way.

Columns like Keane’s can give credence to those who’d rather not open their eyes to the ways in which we, unfortunately, are very much like other big US cities. And that’s a comparison we have yet to face down successfully — as a city and as a nation.



Students: Take Advantage of the BSO

IMG_20130115_193645If you’re a student in Boston and not taking advantage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s College Card program, you are missing out on  one of the best deals in town.

Here’s the deal: you pay $25 once to buy a College Card for the season. Once registered, at the beginning of every performance week you can check via web or automatic email/txt what shows still have tickets remaining. You then stop by the Box Office and pick up whatever tickets remain on a first-come, first-served basis.

The experience has been incredible. My seats have ranged from the nosebleeds to the balconies, and just this week all the way up to the 7th row in the orchestra section where I could even see the facial expressions and gestures of the musicians (and thus exacerbating my nerdcrush on Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang).

The programs are detailed and interesting, giving me an insight into not only the music, but the composers and the nations, political structures, times, and cultures in which they lived. This season has been heavy on Russian music in particular — in the strains of Shostakovitch, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff I’ve gotten a glimpse into the clash of cultural influences and political ideologies that have shaped Russian art from the Tsar through the Soviet era. In the classics by Haydn, Brahms, and Beethoven, I am reminded of the classical roots of western thought. And more personally unfamiliar composers like Sibelius have intrigued me with their struggle for individual and national identity (Finnish identity, in the case of Sibelius) — a struggle that makes me reflect on my own identity and history.

Especially given the stress of the BTR graduate program, as well as the heavy nature of the moral and social questions we are asked to face each day in the residency/practicum, the chance to lose myself in the beauty of music has been a wonderful (and I repeat, outrageously affordable) recharge for the mind and soul.

Fellow Bostonians: take advantage of this engine of beauty in our city.



ATM Performs at Boston City Hall Plaza

My friend and colleague performing as ATM, live at Boston Green Festival 2012. And if you dig his sound, you can download three albums of his music for free.



bostonianresolution:

I seldom end up where I intended to go, but think I have ended up where I intended to be

This felt apropos right now.



Review of “’78”, by Bill Reynolds

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City‘78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City by Bill Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Reynolds dives into far more than a great baseball game in this account of the 1978 American League East playoff game between the Red Sox and the Damnyankees. Here baseball in Fenway Park is placed in the context of the racial, social, and economic divisions ravaging Boston at the time. Reynolds tells the tale of a city struggling to reconcile a view of itself as an enlightened center of civilization against the ugly hatred and violence that was daily tearing Boston apart during the bussing era of school integration. Underneath it all, we see more than racial questions — the story of a suburban elite sacrificing the futures of inner city children like checker pieces, playing the suspicions of the city’s poorest (Blacks and Irish) against each other for the sake of politics.

‘78 seems well-written but poorly edited. The juxtaposition of jumping between a play-by-play of the baseball game itself and the zoomed-out view of the contemporary context is not managed well, and the overall impression becomes one of disorganization. Similes and metaphors are sometimes repeated often enough to get tiresome. The chapters feel less like parts of a whole and more like individual columns pasted together.

Despite my criticisms, I did find it to be an enjoyable read. I was repeatedly brought into the historical foundations for many of the modern fractures I will have to confront myself as a future teacher in Boston’s urban neighborhood schools. I liked getting a look into the past of the Red Sox certainly; but I think more importantly I have taken away a more thoughtful view of the present state of the city.

View all my reviews.




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