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Of Bike Lanes and Politics

4 Oct

With the installation of protected bike lanes comes a fast-moving issue for council race

By Tom Meek Friday, October 1, 2021

A bicyclist travels in a quick-build protected bike lane in Central Square. (Photo: MassAve4 Impacts Analysis)

A springtime study about bike lanes replacing on-street parking continues to send out shock waves, and is now playing a role in November’s elections.

Citizens groups have been formed, petitions are circulating and candidates are getting endorsements around the MassAve4 Impact Analysis report and other issues relating to the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance. Passed by the City Council in 2019 and updated in October 2020, it calls for around 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be installed throughout Cambridge within five to seven years.

When released in April, the MassAve4 report triggered panic among business owners and residents who feared that nearly all on-street parking spaces would be removed in favor of quick-build protected bike lanes along Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square to Dudley Street, including Porter Square. The city quickly assured that it was only studying the effects of achieving the ordinance’s goals with quick-build options such as flex posts, signs and road markings rather than curb cuts, sidewalk and road surface alterations that would demand more planning, cost and resources and be less likely to meet the law’s timeline.

The city has not released a plan, but by May the city manager expects to identify where quick-build bike lanes will work and get City Council approval for a timeline on installing other kinds of bike infrastructure, according to the MassAve4 project page. Outreach and community engagement will be part of the process. If the city fails to have a plan approved in 2023, quick-build lanes along the corridor will be mandated by the ordinance.

Mass Ave. 4 All

In the interim, the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, several businesses along the corridor – The Abbey, Guitar Stop and Ward Maps among them – and the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group have banded together to form the Mass Ave. 4 All group, which is sponsoring a petition to reject the impact analysis report and to urge the city to try again on reimagining Massachusetts Avenue. Members have posted alternative design suggestions on the site and encouraged residents to contact City Council members and project planners.

Cambridge Bicycle Safety pushed for the ordinance but found the MassAve4 report troubling.

“Our vision is for there to be continuous protected bicycle lanes for the full length of Massachusetts Avenue,” member Nathanael Fillmore said, “as well as improvements to ensure efficient and reliable bus service, a safe environment for pedestrians, a thriving business corridor and a pleasant and welcoming place for all residents to spend time.”

Bicyclists rally for safe infrastructure at an Oct. 17, 2016, rally at City Hall, before the creation of a city Cycling Safety Ordinance. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Fillmore praised the city for its change of approach when kicking off the northernmost stage of the ordinance’s charge, with protected bike lanes from Dudley Street to the city’s border with Arlington at the Alewife Brook Parkway. For that, the city did not issue an impact report, but held an online community meeting to share designs concepts – which also showed a majority of on-street parking being eliminated, but with 15-minute pickup and loading zones during certain hours within a bus lane; and with metered parking moved to side streets in key locations. Before the Sept. 14 presentation, the city reached out to businesses along the stretch to get their input and hear concerns.

Andreas Wolfe, the city’s street design project manager, said Friday that “targeted outreach is taking place as part of the Dudley Street-to-Alewife Brook Parkway section for businesses along that section,” and Porter Square outreach would follow before that project takes place. The stretch from Dudley Street to Alewife Brook Parkway will be complete before the MassAve4 project, because it is entirely quick build and there are no overhead catenary wires powering buses to contend with.

Some felt the process is inadequate. “As a business owner that will be directly affected by this rushed and poorly planned project to install much-needed protected bike lanes, I was never given a real voice,” said Robert Harris, owner of the Season to Taste restaurant at 2447 Massachusetts Ave. “Instead there was a virtual meeting to talk about thoughts and feelings, with 99 percent of the decisions already made, which only highlights the flawed process for this project.”

Save Mass Ave

In the wake of that meeting, the group Save Mass Ave formed and launched a website with materials that tout the approach taken by Mass Ave. 4 All but also promotes candidate for City Council who have not signed onto a Cambridge Bicycle Safety pledge to support the Cycling Safety Ordinance. That includes one incumbent, E. Denise Simmons, and several challengers for council seats.

Save Mass Ave also has its own petition calling for “meaningful engagement and planning with all stakeholders.”

“There are several petitions,” said Ruth Ryals, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association, referring to the groups’ overlapping online and paper versions. “It is messy.”

On the social media site Nextdoor, some North Cambridge residents and others unhappy about the loss of parking and a process say they feel they don’t have a voice, while bike advocates such as CBS leverage their power disproportionately to control and influence elections and policy. Boston area cycling advocacy groups such as the Boston Cyclist Union promote and canvass for city council members and candidates who support bike safety policy and bike infrastructure as a priority.

Business concerns

This isn’t the first time the rollout of bike lanes has been contentious. Back in 2017 there was pushback from businesses and residents on Cambridge Street to the installation of protected bike lanes that took away some on-street parking. Though the city says businesses have come through bike changes fine in Harvard and Central squares, some have seen big drop-offs in walk-in traffic resulting from a lack of parking, said Guitar Stop’s Jeanne Oster at a Wednesday meeting of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee.

The data can be confusing, though. City surveys show that in Porter Square, for example, the No. 1 item businesses said would help them was more parking, while 62 percent of respondents said they came to shop in the area by foot, with biking accounting for another 19 percent and the MBTA for 16 percent. Motor vehicles checked in at 33 percent.

And for all the infrastructure already rolled out, outdoor dining spaces on Massachusetts Avenue have been retained in their entirety, Fillmore pointed out.

The pledge, which has been signed by seven councillors running for reelection and six council challengers, “is important to ensure continued implementation of the ordinance on schedule and without delay that will lead to further injuries or deaths,” Fillmore said.

“Certainly the bike pledge has an impact [politically], particularly among the challengers who have to decide publicly which side they’re on – we already know where the incumbents stand,” said councillor Quinton Zondervan, a signer of the pledge.

Political overlap

But it can be difficult to draw lines around politicians’ policies. In addition to first-time candidate Tonia Hicks appearing on both of the new groups’ lists, there are candidates such as Paul Toner – who did not sign the pledge but is not opposed to bike lanes or the ordinance’s overall goal of separated bike lanes and safety for all. “I agree with the goals of the Cambridge Cycling Safety Ordinance,” he said in an email, “I believe there needs to be flexibility on the construction timeline in order to gather input from relevant stakeholders, such as neighborhood residents and businesses.”

Separated bike lane infrastructure continues to be implemented – last month it went in along the Mid-Cambridge section of Massachusetts Avenue from City Hall to where Massachusetts Avenue and Mount Auburn Street meet in Harvard Square.

Zondervan thinks there is going to be a natural shift away from trips by single drivers with the arrival of autonomous vehicles and microtransit options such as Bluebikes and electric scooters. “Just as we’ve always said,” Zondervan said, “if you build it, they will come. As we make it safer and easier for people to bike instead of drive, more and more people will choose to do that, and that’s exactly what we need. Also exciting about Massachusetts Avenue in front of City Hall is the clearly marked bus stop lane. It’s exciting to see us prioritize not just bike lanes but also bus lanes. We’re really heading in the right direction prioritizing public transit over private vehicle transport, and I’m just really happy about that and look forward to more to come.”

Asian Food Aid

31 Jul

Project Restore Us adds 150 families to its work delivering culturally appropriate food support

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

Project Restore Us, launched last year by restaurateurs Tracy Chang of Pagu and Irene Li of Mei Mei Restaurant of Boston, and others to help keep their businesses afloat while feeding the community, has expanded by partnering with the Asian American Resource Workshop and Vietnamese American Initiative for Development. On Sunday, working out of Mâe Asian Eatery storefront in Cambridge, 30 volunteers will cart groceries to an additional 150-plus families in need.

Instead of serving its enticing fusion of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, Mâe closes on Sundays – and this is when, Chang, Li and the Project Restore Us team perform their work of kindness.

Mâe is at 781 Main St., in The Port neighborhood between Central and Kendall squares.

One of the concepts behind the project was to provide people with nutritional and culturally appropriate food, replacing the random produce and low-nutrition processed fare that comes from most food pantries. The new partnerships allow Project Restore Us to more strategically deliver culturally germane groceries to area Vietnamese and Latinx families affected by Covid – bolstering the communities and hunger awareness in the face of a troubling uptick of hate crimes against Asians.

“The spike in acute anti-Asian violence has highlighted the importance of our work in combating the persistent violence of immigration and food insecurity that wearies and disempowers our Asian American and other immigrant community members,” said Marena Lin, one of the project’s co-founders with Chang, Li and Lily Huang, director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Chang adds that violence toward Asians is not new. “It’s just become more newsworthy during Covid because of the incidents in Atlanta. For instance, my grandparents owned a restaurant in Cambridge (Tokyo Restaurant) from 1988-2000. Multiple times, they were the target of hate crimes. They had a molotov cocktail thrown into their establishment. They were tied up, beaten and robbed on multiple occasions in their homes in Lexington and Winchester,” she said.

The project estimates it has delivered more than 300 tons of food to more than 8,000 households marginalized by the pandemic since May 2020. It plans to send two waves of groceries each month, or as funds dictate. Information is here.

Empowerment Mural Coming to the Square

25 Jun

Thaxton’s ‘Beauty of Everyday Living’ mural brightens Harvard Square kiosk construction

By Tom Meek Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living” mural sections will beautify a Harvard Square construction site. (Photo: Greg Cook)

The ongoing construction around the old Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square will be brightened this week, with unsightly fencing and Jersey barriers wrapped in a vinyl scrim of artist Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living,” a mural imbued with themes of Black joy and empowerment. The design honors Black Harvard students, is peppered with Harvard Square “Easter eggs” and weaves in nods to Cambridge community festivals and recent Black Lives Matter protests.

The mural, commissioned by the city, will expand as work by WES Construction expands in the fall. When the expected two years of construction ends, the renovated public space will have a community focus and is open to use by city-sponsored operators. Requests for proposals are ongoing throughout the rebuild.

A public event introducing the art awaits a clearer schedule from the construction contractor and coordination with the city’s reopening plans, Cambridge Arts’ Greg Cook said.

This is the first public art project for Thaxton, a Stoughton resident who grew up in Dorchester and taught home economics in Boston Public Schools until retiring in 2009. In her art career since, she has focused on mixed media works in which she said “no material is off limits.”

“I love the freedom I have with mixed media collage. Along my journey, I discovered the elements that fascinate me: texture, color and depth connect each work of art in my collection. Several pieces were inspired by images I’ve collected from newspapers, ads, magazines and photos that I’ve taken through the ages. I enjoy capturing the culture within and around our daily lives,” she said.

The Somerville Theatre will be back

25 Jun

Somerville Theatre will bring Davis more music with Crystal Ballroom replacing upstairs screens

By Tom Meek Sunday, June 20, 2021

Frame One is building the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The pandemic had its own victims in the film business, with the ShowPlace Icon and the ArcLight – luxe theaters that opened just before the pandemic in the Boston area – shuttered for good. On the upside, the Coolidge Corner Theatre just announced an expansion that includes two new screening rooms and a community space, and all Cambridge theaters have reopened or are about to. So what’s going on with the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square? The Capitol Theatre in Arlington, also owned and run by Frame One Theatres, has been up and running for a few weeks, but the Somerville cine, host to screenings and live performances since 1914, remains ominously dark.

“We’re undergoing renovations and a changeover,” theater manager and newly minted creative director Ian Judge said during a recent visit to the iconic structure. The lobby is in the middle of a refurbishing; the bar is now set back, and the concession and merchandise area has been expanded. That far too “homey” bathroom just off the lobby is getting a much needed makeover. The biggest change is upstairs, where two movie houses are being returned to their original ballroom format.

Ian Judge will oversee the Somerville Theatre cinema and its new performance space. (Photo: Tom Meek)

What that means is that the theater will now host a nearly 500-person-capacity performance hall dedicated to live music, special events and private engagements such as weddings and corporate gatherings. “We had remodeled the downstairs theaters and knew we had to do something with the upstairs,” Judge said. With the pandemic and six screens in Arlington (and potentially two more coming in Harvard Square), Frame One decided it could fill different needs.

The new/old hall has an airy amphitheater-like vibe and a space that could be turned into a cozy bar in the back, with a coatroom to boot. Judge said the room could also be used for special screenings, which is good news for Independent Film Festival Boston, but likely never would be opened as just a public bar. (“I could see us doing something like trivia nights,” Judge said.) The main focus will be booking music acts, something Davis Square has lagged in since the amps went silent at Johnny D’s back in 2016. The space, which was known as the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom back in the day – it’s in the Hobbs Building – will now be the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre. Its capacity will be far greater than the 300-plus that Johnny D’s seated, just short of the 525-person hall The Sinclair offers in Harvard Square. The main downstairs theater, which has a capacity of almost 900, will continue its mixed-use operation as a cinema and live performance venue. The new configuration will have two entrances for each space.

The Somerville Theatre lobby is getting a touchup as well. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Judge, who had been furloughed for a year, will oversee the cinema and the new ballroom, while longtime staffer Peter Mattchen will take on day-to-day general manager duties. The Crystal Ballroom is expected to open in the early fall; opening for the three movie screens should be mid- to late summer with, Judge said, a new ability to show 4K films and a re-honed focus on 70mm exhibition; the Somerville and Coolidge are two of few theaters in the United States equipped to exhibit the classic, grand format. Frame One’s involvement in a plan for two Harvard Square movie houses (replacing a cinema that went dark in 2012) continues, though the project is stalled.

Bike Lane Impact Report Sends Ripples

22 May

Study of bike lanes showing parking loss alarms, but even bicyclists reject most extreme options

By Tom MeekFriday, May 21, 2021

A bicyclist travels in a protected bike lane in Kendall Square in an image from the city’s MassAve4 Impacts Analysis.

Fallout from a report about quick-build separated bike lanes continued Thursday at a virtual meeting of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, with concerns from residents and business owners that parking would be eliminated along Massachusetts Avenue north of Cambridge Common.

“The city dropped the worse-case scenario,” said Ruth Ryals, president of the association.

No one at the meeting, bicyclists included, supported the most extreme options from the MassAve4 Impacts Analysis Report that would sacrifice significant amounts of parking along the avenue.

The report, released just in time to beat a May 1 deadline, is a byproduct of the 2020 Cycling Safety Ordinance, which calls for 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be built over the next five to seven years. Massachusetts Avenue is targeted for them as a major route through the city.

The ordinance acknowledges that quick-build bike lanes (defined mainly by flex posts and paint, but still relocating parking spaces, as happened with Cambridge Street) are easier to achieve than construction that involves adding concrete medians and shifting bus wires, which could force changes to the timeline to accommodate logistical challenges.

The city has said the report is not a protected bike-lane proposal, but about their potential effect on parking, but that’s a distinction some found hard to discern in the text. “I read the report and panicked,” Ryals said in her opening comments.

Bicyclists and business owners

Several members of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, the local activist organization that pushed for the ordinance, spoke Thursday, including Rebecca Neuman, Sam Feigenbaum and cofounder Nathanael Fillmore. The positive community and environmental impacts of cyclists and cycling was stressed by Neuman, organizer of a Cambridge Bike Delivery initiative that engages volunteers to deliver food pantry items to community refrigerators in Cambridge and Somerville and to people with limited mobility. Others highlighted cycling deaths in areas with deficient cycling infrastructure – including Amanda Phillips in Inman Square; Bernard “Joe” Lavins in Porter Square; and Darryl Willis in Harvard Square – and shared city-gathered survey results showing that only 20 percent of those responding felt comfortable biking without a protected or separated bike lanes; 70 percent said the lanes would make them feel safer and more likely to take to the street by bike. Feigenbaum, a Harvard Law student, walked the audience through the details of the ordinance.

Fillmore summed up, saying what was illustrated in the report “was too extreme and not necessary,” and walked thorough some possible protected bike lane solutions that would not eliminate parking along the northern stretch of the avenue.

Business owners expressed concern for cyclists’ safety – and began their comments by stating their own use of bicycles and mass transit – but also fear for the economic impact resulting from the study’s findings. “Elimination of parking would be disastrous,” said Jeanne Oster, of the family-run Guitar Stop, opened by her father in the 1960s. Steven Beaucher, of Ward Maps, said if he had no way for people to come in and pick up large maps and the heavy transit signs sold by the store, he’d have to take his business online. He also conceded that losing some parking could be for the greater good.

More agreement than disagreement

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of the Cambridge Local First small-business group, attended the meeting. City councillor Dennis Carlone joined briefly to share his sympathy and concerns for cyclists and local business owners, and pointed out that while the council approves policy such as the cycling ordinance, it does not approve roadway and traffic changes. That work is handled by the city manager and his staff.

The evening meeting showed no signs of the battling among cyclists, residents and business owners seen over bike lane proposals after an initial rapid rollout in 2017. All groups wanted the others to succeed and be safe, and an improved quality of street life and amenities along the avenue. A “road diet” was discussed that including removing some stretches of Massachusetts Avenue median to make room for bike lanes; having the median was called something of a “religious” adherence by long-time residents, but ultimately people at the meeting didn’t consider it vital. Ryals said the avenue still has “that highway feel to it.”

“I came away from the meeting feeling quite positive, since from the discussion it sounded like there are broad areas of alignment between business owners, Porter Square neighbors and bicycle safety advocates – much more agreement than disagreement, in fact,” Fillmore said. He was optimistic roadway changes could be made “in a responsible and technically feasible way that will improve rather than detract from the ability of small businesses to thrive.”

City staff said the next steps would be to determine if quick build lanes are possible, and to provide protected bike lane options for review by the public.

Weed & Wine

17 May

Comparing cultures in her doc ‘Weed & Wine,’ Cambridgeport’s Cohen found the relationship

By Tom MeekThursday, May 13, 2021

Cambridgeport director and producer Rebecca Richman Cohen presents her documentary “Weed & Wine” on Saturday as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston. (Photo: Weed & Wine)

The bridge between law and documentary filmmaking has strong precedent in the Boston area. Cantabrigian Frederick Wiseman, whose filmmaking style is pretty much the embodiment of cinéma vérité, was teaching law at Boston University when he set off to make “Titicut Follies” in 1967; Mary Mazzio was working as an attorney at Boston’s Brown Rudnick when she decided to go to film school and make socially conscious films (“A Most Beautiful Thing,” “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon”). This week, the virtual run of Independent Film Festival Boston brings focus to Cambridgeport filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen, who graduated Harvard Law School and now lectures there. On Saturday, the IFFB will screen her third documentary “Weed & Wine.”

Cohen, like Wiseman and Mazzio, is driven by the human side of her subjects. The continent-spanning film that details two families, the land they work, the challenges they face and the tradition of agriculture across generations began as a late-night conversation about terroir in a Parisian wine bar. Cohen describes the French-originated concept of terroir as “the way the land expresses itself in agricultural produce and the history and tradition of that land.” On the rooting of the project, Cohen says, “I woke up the next morning and still thought it was a great idea.”

One of the challenges in making the film was finding a French vigneron family to partake; many found the juxtaposition of wine grape growing and cannabis agriculture off-putting. “People kept telling me I was comparing apples and oranges,” Cohen said via Zoom, “but in the end, it was about family.” Ultimately Cohen gathered with the Jodreys in Humboldt County, California, and the Thibons of France’s Rhone Valley. The patriarch of that Californian cannabis farm, Kev Jodrey, is a New England transplant (you can hear a trace of it in his accent) and has been growing his product outside legal boundaries for years. The Thibons, on the other hand, have been tending to the same vineyards for hundred of years.

Cohen fell into filmmaking by happenstance while attending Brown University. “I got a job as an assistant editor when I was studying aboard in college, because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. Then I got hooked. After college, I worked for Michael Moore as an assistant editor on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’” Cohen’s other documentary features include “War Don Don” (2010), which puts the Serra Leone justice system under a microscope, and “The Code of the West” (2012), which looks at medical marijuana growers in Montana as regulations and policies are reevaluated.

French vintner Hélène Thibon in “Weed & Wine.”

Cannabis farmer Kevin Jodrey in “Weed & Wine.”

Before making “War Don Don,” Cohen had been in Serra Leone using her legal knowledge in a humanitarian capacity. “I’m not an attorney,” Cohen points out quickly. “I’ve never taken the bar.” The subjects she lectures on, human rights and humanitarianism as told through the lens of documentary films, and using video and media as evidence and advocacy, seem to meld seamlessly with her social focus behind the camera.

It took nearly five years to make “Weed & Wine” since Cohen imbibed the idea in that wine bar. One of the realizations the filmmaker had along the way was that her thesis about land focus shifted some, becoming more about those using the land and their kinship to it and each other. Cohen said that sense of family and community became increasingly meaningful to her because during the filmmaking process she became pregnant and had a child. “A total pandemic child,” she says of her 15-month-old.

Covid delayed the release of “Weed & Wine” for nearly a year. Cohen had imagined that the Jodreys and Thibons would meet in person at the premiere or a festival screening; instead that happened by Zoom, Cohen says with a tang of sadness. “But the funny thing is,” she says, “is what do you think was the first thing they talked about? The weather. What else do farmers talk about?”

One of Cohen’s key cinematic influences is “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Cambridge filmmaker Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary about a lion tamer, a robotics expert, a topiary gardener and a specialist in naked mole rats. Interestingly too, one could argue that Morris has a link to law; before coming to filmmaking he was a private investigator, a skill that helped mightily when digging into the gunning down of a Texas police office in “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), a film that helped get an innocent man out of jail. What resonated with Cohen about Morris’ film was the juxtaposition of diverse endeavors and the common themes that linked the subjects. “It’s kind of a bit like what we did with ‘Weed & Wine,’” Cohen says.

Cohen wants to next examine mass incarceration in conjunction with such social movements as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. One thing Cohen was adamant about during our interview was that film is a collaborative process, mentioning that the film would not have been possible without her committed team of producers and crew – and the final product is impressive in terms of production values and synergy. Screenings of “Weed & Wine” will be accompanied by a prerecorded Q&A.

Turkeys take over Harvard Square

1 May

Turkeys take over Harvard Square traffic island, prime real estate amid top shopping and dining

By Tom Meek Thursday, April 29, 2021

The turkeys that have made themselves at home on a traffic island in Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

There are fewer students hanging out in Harvard Square, but in their stead is a trio known on social media as Larry, Moe and Curley Joe – or as Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, or Tom Sr., Tom Jr. and Tom III: Three turkeys now at home for three weeks on the traffic island at Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Street, across from the Hong Kong and Grafton Street eateries.

The trio looks to be two toms (mature males) and a perhaps very young jake (immature male) or hen. Toms are easy to tell by their size and majestic splay of tail feathers, as well as the telltale blue-white head coloring, turkey beard – the tuft of a hair jutting from the breast – and big red wattle dangling from the chin, which is both a display piece to attract mates and a sweat gland because turkeys, like dogs, don’t sweat.

The birds seem happy to just hang out on the 30-foot triangle mid-triangle. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The birds seem happy to just hang out on the 30-foot triangle, with the dominant male puffing to make a threatening display as he swaggers over to any gawker who gets too close to his mates. April is the middle of turkey mating season, and males can get aggressive. Last year in Somerville, a turkey known as Mayor Turkatone was euthanized after too many attacks on humans, called the fault of people who kept feeding him. The city and state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife implore residents not to, but also to not let them intimidate you – while staying aware that their claws are sharp and strong.

Besides digging in gardens and gobbling ghoulishly from roosts that are often overhead – they can fly but not very well – turkeys’ biggest impact on city dwellers is blocking traffic with their too-leisurely saunters across streets. Folks snapping pictures just add to the spectacle and delay. (Though one of those might be Brookline photographer Aynsley Floyd, who’s working on a “Turkey Town” documentary about the challenges of living with wild turkeys.)

Turkeys, seen as a symbol of old New England, were largely extinct here 50 years ago, when conservationists decided to capture some of the birds from upstate New York and rewild them here in the 1970s. The demise of small farms and deep eradication of apex predators (catamounts and wolves, coyotes and foxes – now making a comeback as well) helped their resurgence, with between between 30,000 and 35,000 estimated statewide; in recent years they’ve been all but ubiquitous, though neither Animal Control nor state wildlife experts would guess how many turkeys live in Cambridge.

“Anyone who says they know how many turkeys there are in any town in Massachusetts, let alone Cambridge, is selling you a story,” said biologist David Scarpitti, of MassWildlife. “The number is really not important. What is important is how the density and abundance of turkeys affects residents and their position relative to what we call ‘cultural carrying capacity.’ What this means is how many turkeys are people willing to deal with before it becomes a nuisance and undesirable.”

Vax Appointments made easy by Parent initiative

14 Mar

In overcoming obstacles of vaccination signups, parent volunteers were teachers’ secret weapon

By Tom MeekFriday, March 12, 2021

A sidewalk chalking at The Maria L. Baldwin School in the Agassiz neighborhood shows “love and encouragement” from parents, educators say. (Photo: Tom Meek)

News that educators and staff were eligible for Covid-19 vaccines as of Thursday was welcomed by school district employees, but didn’t address the dreaded task of trying to sign up and actually get an appointment. The horror stories are well documented from Phase 1, when seniors waited hours to sign up, then saw appointments vanish before their eyes as the time to book expired before they could enter required information.

At The Maria L. Baldwin School in the Agassiz neighborhood, that burden was lifted by an initiative led by parents Amanda Steenhuis, Nina Farouk and Angela Wong.

To date, the trio have booked appointments for more than 30 of the school’s 90-person faculty and staff, putting together a toolkit of best practices, hacks and key contacts with a central spreadsheet to help with the mobilization. Steenhuis called the work “relatively easy” – but scoring appointments means waking at 3 or 4 a.m. to get online, while still getting the kids off to school and taking care of other daily responsibilities.

“We found that it really took two to three dedicated volunteers searching at 4 to 6 a.m. for best results,” Farouk said. “Although over 20 people volunteered for the early morning, wake-ups were tough.”

Steenhuis, a defense attorney, said she’s texting friends, fellow parents and collaborators all day about vaccine appointments. “We call ourselves the Scheduling Psychoz,” she said.

“I want to cry”

The effort is not the first or only of its kind. Steenhuis, the parent of a third-grader in North Cambridge, learned of the idea from friends doing the same in Arlington and Lexington. Farouk, who has two boys at the school, saw similar efforts on Facebook. The two and Wong united and floated the idea by principal Heidi Cook, who embraced the effort.

The effort has resonated with the school and the community. “I don’t think the teachers would have gotten through it without the parent-led initiative,” family liaison Susan Tiersch said. The volunteers were thanked by one faculty member who, hearing the news of a scheduled appointment, told them, “I want to cry, what a wonderful way to start my day.”

“It feels amazing to know that you’ve helped someone access the vaccine,” Steenhuis said.

Parents supporting educators

More sidewalk chalkings at The Maria L. Baldwin School. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Parent-led initiatives in general have been a big boost to morale and the community during the pandemic, Tiersch said. “When we came back to school,” she said of the return to in-person classes for younger students, “parents had chalked up the sidewalk with messages of love and encouragement.” Parents last year also assembled 90 gift bags for Christmas in addition to the typical work of a parent appreciation week.

The difficulties of getting educator vaccinations may be about to ease.

“Hopefully things will get better with the site going live tomorrow,” Steenhuis said of online booking improvements promised for Saturday, “but where’s the fun in that?”

“We’ll still be up at 4 a.m. searching for those CVS appointments,” Steenhuis said.

Price Shopper in 02138

7 Mar

Daily Table vs. Formaggio? Comparing prices among staples brings results you might expect

By Tom MeekWednesday, March 3, 2021

The new Formaggio has all the cheeses you might expect (and then some). (Photo: Tom Meek)

Formaggio Kitchen opened its (re)located Huron Village shop Monday at 358 Huron Ave., a sparkling space that offers the amenities of the original 244 Huron Ave. site and more. Making good on a commitment to the neighborhood that it would try to fulfill the services and products Fresh Pond Market had for the village enclave since 1922 (closing three years ago), there are batteries, Band-Aids and aspirin and other grab-and-go home needs in the store – but not, to my eye, some essentials such as toilet paper. There are great cheese and bakery spreads like the speciality food chain became famous for since opening in 1978, plus a beguiling butcher shop station abutted by a small offering of fresh fish (salmon, mostly); a prepared foods and deli/sandwich station has much more room to breathe and show its wares, and the same with the wine, a separate and spacious nook with an open, refrigerated display. The newly laid wooden floor, high ceilings and generous light infusing from high windows add to the regal, fresh and inviting atmosphere.

Fans of Formaggio’s old store will certainly revel in the ample space to navigate without having to tuck into a side nook to let another shopper pass, especially during these Covid times. Neighbors hoping for more of a Fresh Pond Market model with affordability in mind are likely to be disappointed, but this is early in the opening. Tweaks and changes will come with feedback from the community, co-owner Ihsan Gurdal has said.

Produce at the newly opened Daily Table in Central Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Grocery and home goods alternatives include a relatively close-by Star Market, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, and options farther away range from a Market Basket in Somerville to H-Mart and the Daily Table in Central Square, which opened in January with a mission of providing fresh, affordable food. We compared costs at Daily Table, the Star on Beacon Street near Porter Square and the new Formaggio locale, selecting five dairy items as similar as possible across the three stores. (Only three items were able to be compared across all three.) Here’s the chart; some figures are an approximation and subject to market fluctuations.

Formaggio does not sell Hood milk, but offers organic options. Daily Table does not sell home goods, just dairy and produce. Whole Foods, Star and Shaws’ and Market Basket provide all-in-one shopping needs stops.

Casablanca, Hill of Beans

28 Feb

Books: Here’s looking at ‘Casablanca,’ with author Leslie Epstein

By Tom MeekFor The Patriot

This Monday, Leslie Epstein the longtime Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, debuts his latest work of fiction, “Hill of Beans: A Novel of War and Celluloid,” which like several of Epstein’s books weaves history and real life characters seamlessly into the fabric of fiction with a typical tight focus on the evils of the Holocaust and its repercussions across time. 

Epstein’s release party will be a free and virtual affair put on by the Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. Monday. The conversation will be hosted by writer/film critic A.S. Hamrah.

At the epicenter of “Hill of Beans” is Jack Warner — yes, one of THE Warner Brothers — and his epic struggle to get the film “Casablanca” made and exhibited to the world in a strategically timely and specific fashion. As the teaser tags it, “He has an impossible goal: to make the 1942 invasion of North Africa by British and American forces coincide with the film’s release.” That 1942 Warners classic about WWII refugees stranded in Morocco starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and peppered with massively quotable lines — and an eternal Valentine’s Day offering at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square — was written by Epstein’s father, Phillip and his uncle Julius (along with Howard Koch, adapting Murray Burnett’s stage play). The brothers Epstein (twins mind you and an important plot point later in the book) factor into Epstein’s novel that both celebrates and digs into the not so pretty underbelly of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Told from multiple points of views, the book has a bit of Rothian swagger to it, as well as devious wit, deft humor and hard truths; Hitler, Stalin and Goebbels all get to express themselves in their own voices.

That’s a pretty unholy trio of historically reviled icons.  Churchill and Patton join the mix as does the infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and many of Hollywood’s top personalities — Bugs Bunny included. No matter, Epstein hangs it all on his protagonist who he sees as a complicated man and potential stumbling block for readers,  “He was a  swaggering  male misogynist  and a racist, an all too typical figure of Hollywood and America of the 1930s and 40s, which may be a problem for the book, but he has so much exuberance and confidence and so much skill, I just fell in love with him.”https://8937e0d70ab4c2ceeec03fce0fd1533f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

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