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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 MeekThursday, 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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Formagio Kitchen on the move

8 Feb

Cost and coronavirus complications change plan, forcing a hybrid Formaggio-Fresh Pond Market

By Tom MeekThursday, February 4, 2021

Fresh Pond Market’s 6,000 square feet at 358 Huron Ave. is being transformed into a new Formaggio. (Photo: Formaggio)

Formaggio Kitchen announced last week that it would close down its original store at 244 Huron Ave. and relocate fully to the old Fresh Pond Market locale at 358 Huron Ave., though when rescuing the closing grocery store in 2019 owners said they planned to keep both businesses.  

“Incredibly disappointed,” one poster wrote on the site Nextdoor, saying Huron Village residents expected Formaggio to run the market as it had been, as well as keeping its specialty offerings and famous cheese cave where they’ve been since 1978.

While that was the intent, the coronavirus pandemic, economic challenges and other unforeseen factors – most having to do with the reconstruction of the circa 1922 market – have forced a change, Formaggio co-owner Ihsan Gurdal said Tuesday.

A sign on the new Formaggio location shows the same product categories as at the original location up the road. (Photo: Tom Meek)

“When we tore down the walls we found structural problems. The fire department had us put in a sprinkler system. And then when Covid hit, the city shut down construction for five months – and then after, it was really hard to get people to come back,” Gurdal says. Fresh Pond Market was initially expected to reopen last spring. Now the goal for opening is March 1.

Even in the fall of 2019, the Gurdals were finding that renovation of the 6,000-square-foot space needed a gut rehab costing “more than we wanted” – that even “scared” the couple to think about. The property was listed in the millions of dollars; in addition to rehab costs, the pandemic meant months of paying rent with no progress on the work.

After 42 years, it will be a bittersweet departure from 244 Huron Ave., Gurdal said. From that address he and his wife and co-owner, Valerie, have launched three other Formaggio locations, one in the South End, one in New York City and the last where Edible Arrangements was on Hampshire Street, just outside Kendall Square. Cognizant of the neighborhood’s expectations, the owners say they look to have a blend of classic specialty food shop that has become the mini-empire’s signature, as well as the bodega-plus offerings Fresh Pond Market brought to the area for nearly 100 years. “We’ll sell dishwasher liquid, Band-Aids and other essentials,” Ihsan Gurdal says. “We’re going to listen to neighbors and their desires. We’ve been having conversation with those who provided to Fresh Pond Market.”

The Najarian brothers held off selling their family-owned market until they were satisfied they’d found the right buyer, an independent owner who would keep it a market as neighbors were used to, including a full-service butchery.

Butchery gear is ready for eventual use at the new Formaggio location. (Photo: Formaggio)

“The new place is twice as big as our current place,” he noted. “In the old place we were all on top of each other – the butcher shop staff, the bakers and then there was catering.”

That world-renowned Formaggio cheese caves also will move down the street. The subterranean expanse – a series of multi-climate chambers accommodating the environmental needs of varying European varieties – will be bigger and perhaps allow Formaggio to age its cheese organically, keeping it longer and providing customers with new and even more nuanced offerings. Customers should expect to find $10 to $15 organic wines and not just higher-end labels that have been standard at Formaggio, though not more commercial and lower-quality brands such as a Yellow Tail. “Balance” is how Gurdal describes the undertaking. “We’ll flex and bend and go with what works.” 

As to the location he’s leaving behind, Ihsan Gurdal hoped it might become something that would enliven the neighborhood, such as a restaurant or flower shop.

Holiday Hunger and Restaurants in peril

9 Dec

Holiday hunger and dark kitchens have solution with funds for Project Restore Us food initiative

By Tom Meek
Monday, December 7, 2020

Project Restore Us food is prepared for delivery in November in repurposed space at Mae Asian Eatery in The Port neighborhood. (Photo: UFCW Local 1445 via Facebook)

Winter and subfreezing temperatures are here as restaurants continue to struggle to make ends meet and families struggle to put food on the table. Eateries such as Colette, Miracle of Science and The Asgard have chosen to hibernate until warmer times – and perhaps a coronavirus vaccine – while others have taken a leap of faith to launch (Source and Smoke Shop in Harvard Square) or reopen (the Newtowne Grill Express, for takeout). Others, such as Pagu and Mae Asian Eatery, both in the Massachusetts Avenue neck between Central Square and MIT, feel that being “safe and responsible” means no indoor dining, in the words of Pagu owner and chef Tracy Chang. As a result, they have found other ways to leverage their resources, keeping their businesses afloat while feeding the community.

To that end, they’re involved in Project Restore Us, a regional initiative allowing restaurants to tap their food supply channels to provide sustenance to those in need while keeping workers employed and the lights on.

The program, which operates off grants and sponsorships, assembles customized boxes of goods for delivery to food-insecure communities through a volunteer network. But with the holidays here, Project Restore Us has a sudden dearth of funds that the team is scrambling to augment, cofounder Marena Lin said.

Food boxes prepared for delivery by Project Restore Us in November lean heavily on healthy produce. (Photo: UFCW Local 1445 via Facebook)

The project has delivered more than 160,000 pounds of food to more than 900 families, the founders say. Lin estimated that $2 million would sustain 2,000 families for three months and provide 25,000 hours of work for restaurant workers.

But the most recent fundraising goal is $15,000 – a month’s worth of support for local restaurants and food for another 101 families.

That’s broken down into bite-size chunks of tax-deductible giving. For instance, $45 means 35 pounds of groceries to a working family in Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Everett, Chelsea or East Boston, and “each $1 donation buys one meal and pays restaurant workers,” according to the project. Donations are accepted here through Apple Pay, credit card or PayPal.

Along with Chang and Lin, a Harvard scholar whose academic work has focused on climate change and food security, the principals of Project Restore Us include Irene Li, of Boston’s Mei Mei restaurant, and Lily Huang, director of Mass Jobs with Justice.

There are other charitable food distribution networks, including the Boston Food Bank, that supply area food pantries. But those programs often provide random boxes of food that are not necessarily “nutritious or culturally appropriate” and don’t provide the opportunity for restaurants and their workers to partake in the process, Chang said. Restore Us customizes boxes based on outreach to the communities, and advice from partners in those communities.

This isn’t the first time Chang has engaged her Asian-Spanish themed restaurant for charitable causes. Early in in the pandemic her slimmed-down kitchen staff joined the volunteer effort Off Their Plate, which was set up to feed frontline medical workers with good, safe and high-quality meals when their facilities’ cafeterias got shut down. Chang and Lin say such hybrid efforts offer fiscal security to potentially marginalized workers, including undocumented or immigrant workers feeding families back home; they might otherwise have few economic options.

Also in the fight against holiday hunger: The Sheraton Commander Hotel’s Nubar Restaurant is contributing to the Cambridge Community Foundation’s Cambridge Covid-19 Emergency Fund. If you place an order this month, proceeds from add-ons such as a bottle of wine or desert go to the relief fund.