Tag Archives: Cambridge

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Murder Still a Mystery, One Year Later

3 Jan

 

District Attorney Marian Ryan steps aside at a Thursday press conference in Woburn so Elizabeth Dobbins can speak on the one-year anniversary of the death of her brother, Paul Wilson. (Photo: Tom Meek)

On the one-year anniversary of the killing of Paul Wilson, 60, in Danehy Park, law enforcement officials gathered at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office in Woburn on Thursday to assure the public they continue to investigate – and to ask again for the public’s help in finding the killer.

Joining them was Wilson’s sister, Elizabeth Dobbins, who reflected on Wilson as big man with a big heart, and a man who valued family and friends. “He could connect with anyone and everyone,” she said, calling his death “incomprehensible and senseless.”

While there was little new to be revealed by District Attorney Marian Ryan and Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro, it was made clear that a bat found at the scene of the crime was not used to kill Wilson.

“There is nothing that connects this item with the crime,” officials said. “A search of the park following the attack resulted in the collection of several samples of biological matter. Forensic testing has been conducted indicating that some of the blood found at the scene was animal blood; testing on further biological evidence remains ongoing.”

An image of Paul Wilson released Thursday by law enforcement officials.

Videos given to police by people in the area have not provided any answers, and Ryan said hundreds of park neighbors and visitors have been interviewed. “By revisiting this anniversary today, we are reminding the community of this crime and reinforcing the need for cooperation and information from the general public,” DiPietro added.

It was also noted that since the attack on Wilson, “investigators have also been made aware of some similar incidents that have occurred in Cambridge and other communities” but are not connected to his death, they said. “He was also found with his belongings on him, including an Apple Watch – suggesting robbery was not the motive.”

On Jan. 2, 2019, Wilson returned from work at IBM to the Porter Square T station and rode a Blue Bike home, parking it by his house on Sherman Street before walking through the park,  investigators said. Wilson was found by a passer-by shortly before 6:48 p.m. on an asphalt path near the Danehy Park parking lot and dumpsters, near New Street. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and pronounced dead from blunt force trauma at around 10:18 p.m. 

“There’s no reason to believe the crime didn’t take place where the body was found [and] there’s more reason to believe it did,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said at a public meeting a year ago. “Mr. Wilson was found right under working lights in a well-lit area. That wasn’t the problem.”

The discussion of motive was similar to what was discussed a year ago.  Wilson was “brutally murdered,” Bard said, and Ryan said at the time that there was no reason to believe the intention of the attack, in which “most of the blows were to the top of the head,” was a robbery. 

The death continues to be investigated by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, state police assigned there and by Cambridge police. “We have made some progress but have not ye identified a suspect,” Ryan said Thursday, renewing a call for anyone with information about the incident to call (781) 897-6600.

People with information are also invited to call Cambridge Police at (617) 349-3300. Anonymous reports can be left at (617) 349-3359; sent by text message to 847411 (begin your text with TIP650, then type your message); or by email by visiting CambridgePolice.org/Tips.

Cambridge goes to 20 mph

30 Oct

Nearly four-fifths of city’s streets turn 20 mph with installation of 660 signs come November

 

Speed limit signs for 25 mph will become more rare in Cambridge this fall, as nearly 80 percent of streets fall to a 20 mph limit. (Photo: Acquaforte via Pixabay)

Beginning in November, the city will begin to reduce speed limits on nearly 80 percent of streets in Cambridge to 20 mph from the statewide 25 mph. The move comes as part of the city’s commitment to its Vision Zero strategy to reduce road deaths.

If a 5 mph reduction seems insignificant, a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that pedestrians are almost half as likely to be killed or seriously injured if struck by a car traveling 25 mph versus a car traveling 30 mph.

The city enacted the measure in January when looking to expand areas designated as “safety zones,” which had been reserved primarily for roads passing by schools and senior centers. The rollout will see 660 “Safety Zone” signs erected starting in East Cambridge and spreading west over a loose three-month period. The map will be updated to reflect progress as the project moves along.

“We’ve heard concerns about speeding from people throughout the Cambridge community,” said Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department. “Reducing the speed limit is an important step toward addressing those concerns. This change will also inform the way that we design our streets and help support our ongoing traffic calming efforts.”

Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, speaks about road safety to the City Council in February 2018. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Bicyclists, who have testified to feeling at risk from sharing roads with speeding cars, embraced the announcement. “Changing to the lower speed limit is critical,” said Steve Bercu, a Cambridge resident and member of the board of directors of the Boston Bicyclist Union, “in that it impacts the design speed of all projects going forward.” Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, was more direct on the matter of design: “This change needs to be followed up on with citywide changes to the built environment that reflect the new speed, including narrower lanes, raised crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes on major streets wherever possible.”

One city councillor backing the initiative, Quinton Zondervan, hailed the move. “This will make our city much safer for vulnerable road users, allowing more people to walk and bike, leading to less pollution and a healthier community,” Zondervan said.

Addressing concerns of residents discussed on area listservs, vice mayor Jan Devereux added, “Of course, we will need enforcement to put teeth into this desire to slow down drivers – the lack of speed enforcement is another complaint I hear often. Automated enforcement by camera could help, and the council is on record in support of [a bill] pending on Beacon Hill.” Matters of privacy have always been a concern with camera use enforcement, though it’s the primary mechanism in place for cars without toll transponders on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The big difference between the reduction to 25 mph from 30 mph made optional statewide a few years ago and this city reduction to 20 mph is that signs are needed to mark the deviation from the statewide default.

Enforcement, the city said, would be data driven as it always has been. “When in doubt, go 20 mph,” said the communication from the city.

Liam’s Lunches of Love

7 Jun

Mission of feeding homeless Lunches of Love leads Liam Hannon, 12, to GoFundMe fame

 

Liam Hannon, 12, begins a weekly food distribution in April to the needy in Carl Barron Plaza in Central Square. (Photo: Scott Hannon)

This week, 12-year-old Liam Hannon speaks before a worldwide gathering of top brass from GoFundMe, the for-profit crowdsourcing platform that hosts charitable causes and promotes do-gooders. Liam, a Central Square resident who’s become something of a celebrity for providing free lunches to the hungry and homeless each weekend, will be one of the “young heroes” attending the internal conference in San Diego to share his mission, success and vision – and beyond his years, boy, does the kid has vision.

A sixth-grader at the Putnam Avenue Upper School who is quiet and introspective beyond his years, Liam has served more than 4,000 free lunches to the hungry in the three years since launching Liam’s Lunches of Love. Inspired by his father Scott’s journey to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to protest a pipeline being sent though Native American lands, he started the venture with just 20 lunches packed into a small wagon. “I was nervous,” Liam said.“I didn’t have to be nervous, because they were thankful.” 

Scott and Liam Hannon prepare sandwiches for distribution in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Scott Hannon)

Liam’s Lunches launched with PB&Js in hand-decorated bags; as word of the mission spread and the volume of lunches delivered grew, kids from across the country joined in by sending in hand-decorated bags to help the cause.

Almost every Sunday, Liam and Scott Hannon spend two hours preparing and packaging the meals before setting out to Central Square’s Carl Barron Plaza and, subject to time and logistics, making their way up to the Cambridge Common. “Never,” said Scott Hannon of those they serve, “has any of them ever asked us for money. Never.” The Hannons describe the project as being “judgment free.”

Liam’s Lunches of Love used a smaller cart upon starting in 2017. (Photo: Scott Hannon)

The lunches evolved into more easily mass-produced hot meals such as mac and cheese, soups and pasta. Because the cost of the lunches runs over $200 per weekly offering, Liam and his dad eventually launched a GoFundMe campaign. One of the early requests was for “a bigger wagon,” which pulled in a few hundred dollars. But awareness of Liam’s mission grew – Liam, who shuns the spotlight, has become the subject of media attention, including an award presented to him by actor John C. Reilly and Anderson Cooper nationally on CNN as well as local TV blurbs, a featured spot on a GoFundMe podcast and an appearance at a Celtics game – and the purse for Liam’s Lunches of Love skyrocketed to several tens of thousands of dollars.

A bit of help comes from GoFundMe itself, a company representative said. “We do this on a regular basis as part of our internal GivesBack program where every week, employees nominate a GoFundMe campaign that touches their heart, and if selected, a donation is made to that campaign,” the spokesperson said.

“Any time we get the opportunity to meet these extraordinary people in person, we not only welcome it, but look forward to it. These are the people who make all of us excited to come to work each and every day,” the spokesperson said. “We’re excited that one of our GoFundMe Kid Heroes will be spending time with our employees as we bring our GivesBack program to life.”

Asked about his classmates and the exposure he has received, Liam said, “Some of them help out, but most don’t really know about it. I don’t really talk about it.”

Liam sees his project growing even more. To that end, one goal he’s shooting for is the ultimate bigger wagon: a food truck. The father and son imagine free meals for the needy, quality food for pay for those who have means and jobs for those who need them.  “I want to stick with the model of going to them,” Liam said.

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.”