Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Big Issues of 2009 Already Taking Shape

Only a few days after posting my own thoughts on the big Beacon Hill issues to close out 2008, and we're already getting a peak at the issues that face us to start 2009.

1) A neighborhood school downtown. A story in the new edition of the Beacon Hill Times talks about a new community movement afoot in the West End to build a new public elementary school as part of Government Center Garage proposed project. The story in the Times includes a photo of West End parent Chiara Rhouate, who is apparently leading a group called The Coalition for Public Eduction: Expanding Quality Education for Downtown Neighborhoods, which already has the support of new President of the West End Civic Association, Duane Lucia.

It will be interesting to see if the new group gains support from parents on Beacon Hill, who no doubt are still recovering from a campaign to bring a public school to their neighborhood. A few years ago, some Beacon Hill neighbors pressed the City to convert a former Emerson dormitory on Brimmer Street into a public school. The City opposed the idea, and today that building is a private school.

The issue of a neighborhood school raises a lot of emotions that often overshadow the very nature of the Boston Public School system, something even I don't fully grasp. But I know enough to understand that even with a local elementary school, parents are in no way guaranteed that their children will attend there. The Boston Public School system uses a lottery to determine the schools children will attend.

2) The deterioration of Downtown Crossing. A post on Universal Hub best summarizes concerns about crime in the Downtown Crossing area, given the economic crisis and the fact that many retail storefronts along Downtown Crossing streets are empty. Gunfire in broad daylight last Friday has risen the recent concern.

You can bet I will be watching both these issues closely in the weeks to come and will be adding my own thoughts as I learn more about them.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 5 Beacon Hill Issues/Stories to Finish 2008

With less than a week to go in 2008, I take a swing at summarizing the top five news stories or issues that have affected my neighborhood of Beacon Hill from July 1, 2008 until today. I created a similar list to review the first six months of the year, which I posted at the end of June. I figured I would start a tradition.

Here goes:

5. Street lights. Beacon Hill residents take sidewalk space very seriously, since we don't have much of it. Boston Transportation officials negotiated with the Beacon Hill Civic Association to install new street lights on Charles Street, replacing old mechanical devices with new digital ones that are connected to a central location where city officials can monitor and manage them. The problem was the new lights brought with them boxes that ate up valuable sidewalk space. Ultimately, the Beacon Hill Architecture Commission gave the green light on the project, and most of the lights on Charles Street have been upgraded.

4. The completion of Cambridge Street. It's finally done. Cambridge Street renovations, performed by the State but designed by the City, finished over the summer. More importantly, a public-private partnership with the City has emerged to maintain the plantings down the center of the street. The partnership includes the Cambridge Street Development Corporation (CSDC), funded by businesses on the street. My friend Ted Furst is among the volunteers on the CSDC, and he represents the Beacon Hill Civic Association. From what I understand, the completion of the Cambridge Street renovations ends a decades-long effort. My neighbors Peter Thompson and Karen Cord Taylor were among the most passionate shepherds of the project.

3. Clark Rockefeller. In late July, he allegedly kidnapped his daughter, Reigh Storrow Mills Boss, from their Back Bay home and fled the city. The story hit very close to home. While Rockefeller did not live in the neighborhood, he spent a lot of time on Beacon Hill. The infamous picture of him and his daughter outside a church was taken by a photographer hired by our very own Beacon Hill Times. Stories of Rockefeller sightings surfaced everywhere. He apparently attended the Beacon Hill Civic Association Winter Dance last year at the Liberty Hotel (an event I also attended). He apparently held meetings with various individuals at the Starbucks at the corner of Beacon and Charles.

2. The proper use of the Boston Common. Almost all of Beacon Hill is represented in the Boston City Council by Councilor Mike Ross, soon to be the President of the body. One of Councilor Ross's big issues in recent months was the use of the Boston Common. Along with other Councilors, he issued a report in December that provided recommendations on changes to the Common. He suggests a commercial eatery on the Common, for example. He also created somewhat of a controversy by suggesting that the Common be managed by a public-private partnership (the final set of recommendations did not contain this recommendation). The Boston Common promises to be a big issue in 2009 and beyond. The public park is heavily used, and a master plan related to the Common is incredibly out of date. A discussion on such a public space will raise many related issues, among them spending priorities given recent economic troubles, the role of public-private partnerships in managing spaces open to all, and the needs and rights of our neighborhood's pets (a dog run is among the recommendations made by Councilor Ross's committee).

No doubt you will be reading more about all of these issues on this blog in the weeks ahead.

1. The 2008 Election. The end of the year wraps up my first calendar year as a member of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee. What a year it was. Most of Beacon Hill is represented by the 2nd Suffolk Mass. Senatorial seat, a seat that was highly contested this election cycle. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a challenger and former school teacher from Jamaica Plain in Boston, defeated the sitting State Senator, Dianne Wilkerson, in the primary and went on to win in the general election. Along the way, Chang-Diaz earned significant support from Beacon Hill, where she won better than 60-percent of the vote in the primary.

The Presidential election also energized Beacon Hill. Hundreds of residents traveled north to New Hampshire during the election season to volunteer. The neighborhood is heavily Democratic, and Barack Obama signs were visible in many windows, some even hanging from window flower boxes. Lines at Beacon Hill's four voting locations (West End Library, the State House, City Hall and The Hill House) swelled during election day. The election's energy has given many a reason to be optimistic, as we look ahead to the beginning of 2009.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Signs of the Times

Mike's Pastry
Hanover Street
December 24, 2008

Annual rituals die hard. This afternoon, hours to Christmas Eve, I walked to Mike's Pastry on Hanover Street in the North End to pick up a dozen cannolis, assorted. It's what I have brought back to Christmas dinner in Connecticut for many years. I leave in less than an hour to drive south to meet up with my parents.

There is an art to buying at Mike's pastry the day before Christmas and Thanksgiving. You need to feel the crowd and the lines, and look for a "soft spot" where the attendant-to-customer ratio is the highest. And if you are at all interested in the last sentence, then you know I tend to spend a lot of time in line a Mike's, allowing me to think of concepts such as an attendant-to-customer ratio. Success was had, however.

In the conversations leading up to the holidays this year, I was somewhat confused talking to my friends about going "home." To me, home is Boston, but to many of them, "home" is the house they grew up in. I call that location "home home," but not many of my friends understand the semantics.

To all out there reading this, I wish you a very safe, healthy and happy holiday break. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reflections on being in the air, from the ground

I traveled quite a bit in 2008. There was the 10-day trip to London. The series of trips to San Francisco. Four trips to Austin. The most recent swing through Florida and Texas. You know you travel a lot when you start reading the "Itineraries" section in the New York Times regularly.

You also know you travel a lot when you have gripes.. errr.. suggestions for the airlines. Suggestions is probably a better term. My dad always says that with the airlines, you get what you pay for, and one cannot expect to receive a wide seat, free amenities and service with a smile while also demanding the cheapest rate for a ticket.

He also tells me that a large percentage of an airline's operating budget is spent on jet fuel (He should know, he's a retired aerospace engineer). So why is that while the price of fuel has dropped more than 50-percent in recent weeks, I still have to pay for bottled water on USAir?

My most recent trip shows the various ways airlines have started charging fees.

I flew JetBlue from Boston to Fort Lauderdae. Free soda, no charge for a checked bag, and a fairly comfy seat. I know that JetBlue charges for headsets and pillows, but I didn't need to make a purchase.

I flew Continental from Fort Lauderdale to Austin. Free soda, a 15-dollar charge for a checked bag, and packed in like a sardine can.

I flew USAir from Austin to Boston. No free drinks (2 bucks for a bottled water, in my case), a 15-dollar charge for a checked bag, and the seat was ok.

On my first flight ever as a kid, from Bradley field in Windsor Locks, Conn. to Chicago, I remember cringing when the drink cart came by. I wanted a soda, but didn't want to have to ask my parents to buy me one. "Go ahead," my dad said. "It's free." Those days are quickly going buh-bye.

The reality is while the charges are inconvenient, I will most certainly fly USAir or Continental again if the price and schedule is right. Which I guess proves my dad's point-- it all comes down to who offers the lowest fare.

One thing I cannot understand at all is why airlines charge for checking a bag. As if passengers needed additional incentive to bring their bags onto the plane and try to jam them in the overhead compartment. I typically am assigned an aisle seat, which means in most cases I get on the plane last (airlines with zoned-boarding assign later zones to those sitting on the aisle to speed up the boarding process). By the time I get on the plane, there is no overhead space. I always check a bag, so I am stuck with no overhead space after paying to have the bag flown with me to my destination.

There really is no incentive to check a bag. Even if you get on the plane and find no room for your roller-style suitcase, they will "happily" gate check it, put it on the plane right before they close the cargo door, and the bag is waiting for you as soon as you get out of the plane and onto the jetway. What service! And for f-r-e-e free.

It should be the other way around. They should charge passengers to bring a bag ONTO the plane. Business passengers would still pay, and passengers would receive an incentive to check a bag and make the cabin experience better for others.

In reality, I really don't have much to complain about. I have no real airline horror stories. Most of my flights are on time. And I have only lost my bag once. But a friend recently told me that the airlines design airline seats for individuals much smaller than the average sized person today. Guess that tells me where I stand on the totem pole, especially if-- I admit-- all that matters is price.

Oh and by the way, no more travel for me until next year, except in my Honda.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Holiday Decorating Days on Beacon Hill

L to R: Me, Karin Mathiesen, Councilor Mike Ross, Ted Furst, Lori Bate, Michelle from Mike Ross's office
Charles Street on Beacon Hill
Boston, Mass.
December 7, 2008

Without question, it's my favorite neighborhood event. For two days in early December, neighbors throughout Beacon Hill come out, climb up ladders, and decorate the more than 1200 lamp posts that line the historic streets.

Sounds easy, right? Well, when the entire volunteer effort begins during the fall, when the Beacon Hill Civic Association solicits donations to pay for the greens and bows that ultimately hang on the lamp posts.

Then there's decorating day weekend itself, spanning two days and involving more than 100 volunteers. I love the weekend because everyone is so happy and full of Christmas spirit. I also love it because I meet several new neighbors each year.

I also think the event represents the best of Beacon Hill. Neighbors come out and help each other to make the streets look great. It also coincides with the annual tree sale at the Hill House, which includes Christmas carolers. You can't get any better than that.

Decorating days always take place a few days before the Beacon Hill holiday stroll, which is scheduled for Thursday. It's when Charles Street is closed to cars, and the shops stay open late. We light the neighborhood Christmas tree (provided by the City of Boston), and you will probably spot a caroler or two. Not to mention very decorative lamp posts all throughout the neighborhood.

A couple of side notes: Hats off to Historic New England. I became a member this weekend. The house they manage, the Otis House on Cambridge, is the center of operations for Decorating Days. Also, the van in the picture above, which I drove delivering greens with Ted Furst throughout the weekend, once belonged to a Banjo group that appeared on the Letterman Show.