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Of Start Ups and Pop Ups

8 May

Pop-ups such as Community Phone fill a void where view could be long-empty storefronts

 

John LaGue, with business partner James Graham, has moved Community Phone, a small phone service provider, into pop-up space in Harvard Square: a former Starbucks on Church Street. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone, a small phone service provider, has been in pop-up digs in the heart of Harvard Square for three months now, and may be out on the street by midsummer. That might be nerve-racking for proprietors with tightly focused strategic plans and warehoused inventory; the youthful founders of this startup aren’t worried at all. They’re month to month in the old Starbucks coffee shop on Church Street and, like the low-cost cellular plans they offer and tailor to customers’ needs, are adaptable, lean and flexible.

The company, incorporated more than a year ago by James Graham and John LaGue, 20-something Wisconsinites, began hawking its product on the street, but with help from the Harvard Business Square Association and executive director Denise Jillson, reached an agreement with 31 Church St. landlord Janet Cahaly. She had her own motivation: not having a storefront vacant for a long time before finding a longer-term commercial tenant that would pay market rates.“Landlords really do want to do the right thing,” Jillson said.

The Starbucks closed in November, while the Cambridge Artists Cooperative down the street announced in April it can no longer afford to stay in Harvard Square and will be gone by June 30. A basement-level Fire + Ice restaurant that closed in September 2016 has yet to be filled – though its signs are still up. The clothing store LF closed on Church Street, telling The Harvard Crimson that “Harvard Square is not a shopping destination anymore,” while keeping a Newbury Street location in Boston.

Community Phone, whose customers have an average age around 58, has installed a rotary phone to help test customers’ mobile phones. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone buys service wholesale from cellular networks such as AT&T and Sprint and passes savings on to end users. What’s special is the customer service, LaGue said. “There’s no waiting on a phone or in a long in-store queue. You just walk in and talk to one of us,” he said, literally helping an octogenarian with a cane enter to ask a question. “Plus it’s 100 percent hassle free. You don’t have to do anything – we take care of moving your plan and setting you up.”

The space is inviting, spartan yet cozy, with crate-like barriers and a café ambiance. Up front, a giant stuffed bear – nearly twice the size of an adult – greets customers, and old Starbucks Christmas decorations still frame the large window pane. The store keeps a classic rotary-dial phone (operating off the cellular network) on hand to dial the mobiles they set up, a way to test a plan and phone activations.

Community Phone’s primary aim is to make cellphone use affordable and simple. “Many of our customers are people over 55 who aren’t tech savvy,” and the average customer age is around 58, LaGue said. The other side of the customer base, now a few hundred thousand people, is small businesses and students who aren’t on family plans. The company offers flip phones in the $20 range, but also iPhones and other high-end smartphones with plans as low as $15 for unlimited calls and texting.

The real killer is data costs; LaGue cited an example of couple with a $240 monthly cellular bill. “They had a big data plan but hardly used much of it.” By dialing back the data plan and creating a family account, LaGue was able to cut their costs to less than $40 monthly. There are no contracts with Community Phone – like the company’s housing arrangement, it’s all month to month – and should it disappear tomorrow, the network providers would take over the service and accounts, though costs would likely increase by a small percent.

The company is looking to expand and offer new products, which likely means getting venture funding, LaGue said. For now, it remains on Church Street. “We are actively looking for a new location in Harvard Square, Somerville or possibly Back Bay. We are still trying to find the best way to help the most amount of people, and have several exciting partnerships in the works. No matter what, we’ll be available 24/7 over the phone and online as we always have been for our members in over 30 other states,” he said. Continue reading

How to Recycle Right

5 May

City’s recycling and composting is changing, and doesn’t always work the way you’d think

 

Cambridge recycling director Michael Orr leads a tour of the city’s Zero Waste efforts. (Photo: Kyle Klein)

The Department of Public Works announced last week that paper liquid containers such as milk cartons and juice boxes are no longer acceptable for curbside recycling – the wax and aluminum that coat the inside being extremely hard to separate during processing, according to recycling director Michael Orr.

Most coffee cups are also coated with a light plastic to prevent seepage, and also better off in the trash than in the recycling bin.

Not recycling, it turns out, is a big part of recycling.

“Waste is overbearing, and we’re trying to simplify it,” Orr said. “Much of it is knowledge and being up to date. But if you know about 80 percent, that’s a good start.”

Cambridge recycling goes to a processing facility in Charlestown before being sold.(Photo: Kyle Klein)

Changes in recycling rules results from shifting markets – you have to pay to get it removed and processed, and there are buyers for the processed materials – and changes in technology and capacity. One big ripple came early in 2018 when China, which processed nearly half of U.S. paper waste, stopped taking it, citing contamination.

A more local example: The plant our glass materials went to for processing shut down because the number of bottles dwindled, with blame going to beer manufacturers moving wholesale to cans. Orr says this is a good thing overall, as metal recycles better than glass, but created a short-term problem for the city. Such shifts in the recycling universe can mean an annual municipal expenditure for recycling that varies wildly from as low as $50,000 to a whopping $500,000 or over. Still, the cost of landfill disposal is almost double that, making recycling worthwhile fiscally as well as environmentally.

Recycling – from your kitchen into a reuse such as becoming a carpet or another beer can – is a long, multistep process. Curbside recycling is picked up by Russell, a specially equipped subcontractor based out of Somerville, and taken to the Casella processing facility in Charlestown where “single-stream,” all-in-one bins of recyclables are sorted, processed and readied for shipment to other processing facilities and sale, still primarily in Southeast Asia.

Throw it out

High contamination (such as enough of those waxy liners in milk cartons mixed in with papers) can render a bulk shipment low quality or, worse, cause it to be rejected, meaning it comes back. That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Orr says. (A few things to note: Pizza boxes, which used to be considered contaminated if they had grease stains, are now accepted and considered highly desirable as long as the wax paper and cheesy residue is removed. Clothing hangers, no matter what material, are are not accepted curbside. Most to-go food containers are a no-go, except plastics, when cleaned. “We always talk about plastic being bad, but in this case,” Orr said, “it’s more preferable.”)

If you’re uncertain what to put curbside for recycling, the city has a website (and a “Zero Waste Cambridge” app for Android and iPhone) that lets you simply plug in what it is you want to get rid of and it tells you how to do it (including divertables such as electronics and clothing). 

The bottom line, when in doubt: Throw it out. You may be creating a bigger savings overall, even if your ecological heartstrings say otherwise.

More composting

Curbside composting – technically a waste process, not composting, because the food and organic waste doesn’t go to the countryside to decay into organic fertilized soil, but to a Waste Management processing plant in Charlestown to become high-energy soil pellets – began as a test in 2014 with 5,200 households of buildings of 12 units or less. In April 2018 it went to 25,000 households of Cambridge’s more than 44,000. It received approval and funding recently from the City Council to roll out citywide in September to the full 33,000 households participating in municipal waste removal (the other households do it themselves or use another service), and the council has asked for the program to go to small businesses and nonprofits this year also. 

The city provides residents with biodegradable compost bags, kitchen sink bins and secure outside containers that are designed to be raccoon proof, and curbside composting has helped reduce landfill waste by 7.3 percent in a year, Orr said.

Paper towels, napkins and tissues can be added to composting food waste, but only if dirtied by water or food waste. Mopping up animal vomit or tossing in materials with mucus, blood or any other bodily fluid introduces pathogens and contaminates the stream.

Things can, mind you, get a little rich on the nose anyway during the dog days of summer, but it’s all for the bigger good.

Given the cost of landfill ($100 per ton) versus recycling ($70) and composting ($60), the city runs a “Zero Waste” program with goals of landfill reduction from a 2008 benchmark of 22.8 pounds per household per week by 30 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Currently the city is at 16.36 pounds per family per week.

Down in the Weeds in 02138

1 May

Proposed pot seller has an occupied address: Stereo Jack’s Records, in business for 37 years

 

Stereo Jack’s, at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., has been targeted for replacement by a seller of recreational marijuana. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The owners of a proposed pot shop called Budega did community outreach this week to potential neighbors of the business at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., an address occupied by Stereo Jack’s Records.

“Someone has applied for a license,” according to person answering the phone at Stereo Jack’s, “but we have no plans to close.”

At 37 years old and still run by founder Jack Woker, Stereo Jack’s is one of the longest-running retail stores along the corridor linking Harvard and Porter squares. Budega has begun an application process, but zoning for recreational cannabis has yet to be approved by the city. Arish Halani, the company’s chief operating officer, said opening the shop would take at least a year.

Stereo Jack’s owner Jack Woker in a video made last year by Will Marsh in collaboration with Newton North TV. Click through to watch the video.

The pending law and city officials both favor economic empowerment applicants – basically, people of color who were targeted disproportionately by police and courts during the war on drugs – and Budega’s letter leads with the information that it is a “women-, minority- and family-owned business.” It is signed by company president Sareena Halani and assures residents that it is “different than the big corporations currently in the cannabis space,” and wished to “work together to create a safe and secure dispensary.”

The letter also says to direct questions, comments and concerns to “me,” though the “me” is Arish Halani, not Sareena Halani.

The Halanis are brother and sister, South Boston residents whose parents live in Florida and have run jewelry stores and fast food eateries, Arish Halani said. He is a recent graduate of Babson College who works in commercial banking and co-owns a tax prep service in Chicago; his sister will graduate Northeastern this spring.

They plan to make a formal community presentation May 9 at Lesley University, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, with their father, Sohail Halani, and walk residents through the timeline for opening and other details about the shop, Arish Halani said.

Their first attempt at selling marijuana as Omnicann was in East Boston, but the application was denied by the city, Arish Halani confirmed. Now Budega faces a competing license for recreational marijuana sales for the empty space at 1908 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, formerly a Chinese restaurant called Wok N’ Roll. The locations are less than a half-mile apart.

Arish Halani said his company has signed a letter of intent with Crete Realty Trust, landlord of the Stereo Jack’s property.

“There’s a rumor out there that says Stereo Jack is planning to retire, and that is complete and utter bullshit,” said the person answering the phone at the vinyl shop. Asked who was speaking, the voice said, “Why, I’m Stereo Jack.”

WBCN and The American Revolution

25 Apr

‘WBCN and The American Revolution’ tunes IFFB into rock history at weekend screening

 

The WBCN airstaff circa 1969 included Michael Ward, Steven Segal, J.J. Jackson, Al Perry, Sam Kopper, Jim Parry and Joe Rogers, aka Mississippi Harold Wilson. (Photo: David Bieber)

It’s been 10 years since WBCN, the radio station that defined rock ’n’ roll in Boston for more than four decades, went off the air. For anyone living in Boston before the Internet boom, ’BCN was as big a part of Hub life as the Celtics and the Red Sox – and now in a documentary by Bill Lichtenstein, “WBCN and The American Revolution,” the early days of the envelope-pushing radio station get their nostalgic due. The film plays this weekend as the Centerpiece Spotlight Documentary of the Independent Film Festival Boston.

The anniversary of the station’s demise wasn’t quite the impetus for the film, Lichtenstein said. “What drew me to the project, besides my roots, was that in the mid-2000s, in wake of 9/11 and Bush, there was a lot going on and people were not speaking up. John Kerry was running for president and Bruce Springsteen did a benefit concert and he was critiqued for being too political, and the same time, Napster started to bring back old songs and Bruce’s first interview at ’BCN showed up on the Internet,” Lichtenstein said. “I thought maybe I could go back and see what there was out there on ’BCN, because ’BCN had no archival footage.”

Lichtenstein, a Cambridge resident, began as a 14-year-old intern at the station in 1970, eventually becoming a DJ and newscaster. After leaving ’BCN, he worked at ABC in New York on news shows such as “20/20” and “Nightline.” Continue reading

Division in Cambridge Discussed

24 Mar

Diverse hiring in tech, ending school tracking, taxation called ways to close ‘Growing Divides’

 

Sarah Gallop of MIT and the Kendall Square Association speaks at “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” on Thursday. With her are panelists Chuck Collins and Damon Smith. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The experts at Thursday’s talk on “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” came with suggestions and progress reports on handling the city’s widening socioeconomic chasm.

As part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Conversations on the Edge” series and moderated by Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, the panel included Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Gallop, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations; and Damon Smith, the principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Smith pointed to work on the “Level Up” program, now two years in to eradicating a structure that put students on two tracks through high school, only one headed for college, that was separated largely by family income and race. “It’s been difficult,” he said, in a city that can be most “progressive when looking outward,” but an education that was the same for every student was his offering as a solution for keeping Cambridge a united community.

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, moderates the panel at the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch Thursday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Gallop spoke as a co-founder of the Kendall Square Association, which represents hundreds of businesses in a variety of industries. Building diversity and equity into business models is demanded by young employees as part of their working environment, she said, and will be “part of the success equation.”

Collins had the most potentially controversial part of a solution for the “global city phenomenon supercharging … four decades of extreme inequality” in places such as New York, San Francisco and Boston: a luxury real estate surtax. Kicking in on property transfers of more than $2 million, it could produce $350 million annually in Boston that would be earmarked for building affordable housing. (Boston is also looking at a “flipping tax” on property resold within two years of purchase.)

Each could help Cambridge, a “prosperous city with more jobs than people” where 15 percent of the city lived below the poverty level and “one in six children are poor,” Pradhan said – the “Tale of Two Cities” from the event title.

The “Conversations on the Edge” series was initiated by CCAE staff and board members in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to talk about issues that had no “clear answers” and engage the community. Thursday’s event drew a diverse crowd to the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch. Though the event was sold out in advance, more than half of the 120 seats were empty –possibility the result of sharing a night with the fourth installment of the city’s Cambridge Digs Deep diversity series, taking place at the same time at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High school.

Wage Theft

28 Feb

Managers underpaid, stole tips, threatened, Happy Lamb Hot Pot workers say at protest

 

Protesters march and hand out fliers outside Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square on Wednesday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A frigid Wednesday night threatening snow didn’t deter about 40 to 50 workers and supporters, including officials from Cambridge and Boston, from assembling outside Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square to protest alleged wage theft by management.

The rally aimed “to call attention to the pervasive wage theft, retaliation and abuse [workers] have experienced since working at the popular restaurant,” according to a Chinese Progressive Association press release. A legal action seeking an eye-grabbing $800,000 was filed late last year, based on triple damages for violations of failure to pay minimum-wage workers for labor and overtime, ignored sick time mandates, tip theft and retaliation against some plaintiffs, said Bethany Li, an attorney and director of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services representing the nine Latino and Asian workers. The claim is “just at the beginning,” but lawyers have already “begun to exchange numbers” and negotiate with Happy Lamb management, Li said.

Happy Lamb Hot Pot, which opened March 2016 and operates under the umbrella of an international chain called Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, is managed by northeast regional manager William Cheung. A second Happy Lamb Hot Pot opened in Chinatown in October. Li said it’s unclear if the restaurants are franchised, spun off or part of the bigger international organization.

Only one plaintiff still works at the Cambridge location, at 485 Massachusetts Ave., Li said.

State Rep. Mike Connolly, rear, and Boston city councilor Ed Flynn, by the restaurant’s “open” sign, join the rally. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Happy Lamb’s culinary appeal is its assortment of boiling Mongolian broths used to cook ingredients at the table. Broths come mild or spicy, and diners can choose half portions for “the best of both worlds.” The main meat offering is lamb shoulder shaved thin, like prosciutto. There’s also beef, ox tongue and chicken – and Happy Lamb has a strong  4.5 rating on Yelp.

According to Li and Chinese Progressive Association executive director Karen Chen, the wage theft came to light during a legal clinic put on by Greater Boston Legal Services at the association’s center in Chinatown. Chen said there was real fear among many of the plaintiffs. One former worker cited being threatened by a butcher knife, and others who testified at the rally said they were subject to physical abuse.

The rally – headlined by the chant, “Happy Lamb, you’re a sham, treat your workers right” – also featured a festive dragon dancer in colorful garb and several members of Jobs With Justice, who marched and chanted in an elongated oval under the watchful eyes of bundled-up Cambridge police. Adding political clout to the proceedings were Cambridge city councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Quinton Zondervan; state Rep. Michael Connolly; and Boston city councilor Ed Flynn. 

Employees inside Happy Lamb seemed unfazed, though some early diners and passers-by seemed impressed and amenable to taking fliers calling for “justice” in English and Spanish. Attempts to reach Cheung or other management for comment were unsuccessful before and after the rally. 

Get on the Bus

28 Feb

Proposals to change four Cambridge bus lines draw concern, little enthusiasm, at a hearing

 

The prospect of longer walk times to some bus stops and longer waits at others raised eyebrows Tuesday at a “Better Bus Project” hearing with the City Council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee, but residents’ ability to alter MBTA plans seemed limited.

Proposed Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority changes to some bus lines were “a real concern” that held “academic implications” for children who rely on the buses, councillor Alanna Mallon said, and other councillors had other concerns, such as Dennis Carlone’s note of still unmet needs for more robust public transportation in business districts such as Kendall Square and around the Alewife T station.

State officials plan to roll out the changes Sept. 1.

As presented to the committee Tuesday at City Hall by Tegin Teich, a transportation planner with the city’s Community Development Department, Cambridge bus lines will see the removal of two Harvard Square loop stops on the Route 1 bus (down Massachusetts Avenue to Dudley Square in Boston); more Kendall Square and less University Park on the Route 64 bus(Central Square to Oak Square in Brighton), creating an all-day link between Allston-Brighton and Kendall Square along Main Street; a combining of the 70 and 70A buses to Waltham; and changes to lines between Harvard Square and Belmont that would run the 72 line to Aberdeen Avenue only at peak hours and shift 75 buses from Fresh Pond Parkway to Huron Avenue all weekdays and Saturdays. Continue reading