Archive for August, 2007

Drive-in JP Caves

August 20th, 2007

Woodbourne garage 2
Early auto artifacts speckle the cityscape in lower Jamaica Plain. Cave-like built-in garages remain in over a dozen homes in the Woodbourne section.

They were the first in the Boston area, maybe in New England. These narrow and short rooms nestle under the compact houses. When they were included in the houses in the 1920s, they were perfect for the reigning Model-T Fords. Yet quickly as Americans emerged out of the Great Depression, their passion for the long, wide muscle cars meant most of these garages became storage and junk rooms.

On a JP Historical Society tour of the section, we saw the original — 22 and 24 Eldridge Road, and subsequently walked just to see and consider these quaint relics. It’s our neighborhood, but mini-garage surveys had not been our thing.

More tours: The JPHS continues its tours in the pleasant months. There are several more of various JP areas this year, including one another of Woodbourne on September 29th. Check the society’s site. These are free and led by two or more members.

The society dates the original built-in garages: (Martin) Herbert is the first developer in the Boston Dwelling House Company property to plan his homes for the automobile age with built-in garages. The earliest documented houses in the district designed with built-in garages are numbers 22 and 26 Eldridge Road. Number 26 was designed by Max Kalman and completed on September 29, 1928. It is a two-family house set on a high robust foundation of red granite and brick. Many houses in Woodbourne had garages built at or shortly after construction of the main house in the second phase after 1922, but it was done almost as an afterthought and none has any detail to match the house. Only in Herbert’s small subdivision were the house and the garage planned and built as a unit. Numbers 9, 11, 12 and 15 each have garages below the first floor, as does number 50 Northbourne. All take advantage of the slope of the land by having the garage below the grade of the street.

An interesting change in use occurred in 1938, when John S. Goodway took a garage built in 1930 by Alexander Mc Donald at number one Meyer Street, directly below number 17 Goodway, and hired Albin Brodin to convert it into a three room house. The new house was completed on December 31, 1938.

A bit of irony with these garages is that the Woodbourne section was not about automobiles. Just below the Forest Hills station and end of the trolley line, it was a trolley commuters’ suburb. You didn’t need 0ne of those newly affordable cars to live there.

While this section was specifically to enable middle-class home ownership, the Boston Dwelling House Company used more than affordable price to attract residents. The small houses were carefully landscaped to give a rural flavor. Some touches reflected the increasing class differentiations of the emerging middle class, such as a block-long apartment building (now a retirement home) on Hyde Park Avenue to shield the houses from the clatter of the passing carriages. Let the workers take the noise while the managers slept in quiet!

The garages were another effort to enhance the houses. Amusingly, this illustrated more mundane nature of this development, in contrast to early adopters of automobiles. Before the inexpensive Model-T, automobiles such as Oldsmobiles and European models were toys of the very wealthy. These fragile vehicles had garages, often sharing elaborate carriage stables and later having separate luxurious buildings added to estates for them, a far cry from Woodbourne’s caves.

For example, in a wealthy Buffalo, New York, area, “As automobiles become part of the American scene, Parkside residents began to build garages. Many featured turntables that were used to conveniently turn the car around after arriving home so that the drivers did not have to back out in the morning.” Today, we think a remote starter is a big deal!

It is a bit arcane, but you can walk this small area to see which remains as is, which have modern garage doors, and which have been converted to rooms or entryways. Woodbourne garage 1

With the popularity of compact cars, some people do squeeze their cars into these built-ins. However, many who use them do this only in the winter. It’s a tight squeeze and a lot of care to keep from scraping the sides or knocking a mirror.

Maybe one day when a more enlightened Boston mayor leads to make bicycling easier and safer these cave owners will sell their cars and park two or more bikes in these units. Meanwhile, the early history of automobiles in Boston remains in the granite or cinderblock garages of Woodbourne.

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Rack ’em Up in Newton

August 19th, 2007

There’s still solid justification for the Snooton nickname for Newton, Massachusetts. Like neighboring Brookine, it has parking restrictions to limit hoi polloi, fur bearing blue hairs, and countless men trying to weasel special treatment as doctors with their Ph.D.s in English Lit.

I was puerilely and preemptively set for disappointment when I decided to combine a rare shopping excursion to the pretentiously named Chestnut Hill with a bike ride. The middle-brow shopping center at the bottom of the hill is literally and figuratively looked down on by the tonier mall up top. I think both are the lesser to the Atrium across Rte. 9. Nonetheless, all three are kind of glorified strip malls, as so many suburban shopping centers are now, filled with dozens of chain stores, even if those stores are Movado, Coach and Bloomies instead of Target.

Using my bike more for such 10 to 20 mile trips recently, I figured this was just what I’ve been doing otherwise. I had one thing to pick up in each of mall and shopping center. I was ready to be outraged at their lack of accommodation for cyclists. These are really SUV and luxury car lots and garages. Many of their shoppers can’t park in the lines and circle repeatedly to find a spot 100 feet closer to their store or the cinema.

I have a bad, whiny attitude about anti-egalitarian locales. I go to these particular areas a few times a year. I have never seen a bike rack and figure they figure their customers have motors under their butts.

Checking the net for details, I see that sure enough the mall and shopping center text and maps make no mention of racks or any accommodation for cycles. In contrast, the local planning committee had some docs, like this one, saying they should make sure racks were where people would need them and cautioning that a rack is not adequate encouragement for cycling instead of driving.

Coming up (stroke, stroke, stroke) the Hammond Pond Parkway hill, my fears found justification. Cruising the parking lot and garages, I not only didn’t find bike racks, I didn’t even see reasonable posts to use to lock up my bike. Then I tooled the front of the mall, next to Rte. 9. Nada. On the back side, there was a sever metal bench and picnic table, just the set up for masochists who want waffle butts. However, there was a sign post indicating for the intellectual feeble that the 11-f0ot walkway that led to the parkway was in fact a walkway to the parkway, not to a crosswalk or sidewalk but to likely death on the parkway.

Feeling self-righteous, but anal enough to be thorough, I rolled over to the storefronts. Oh, scandal and humiliation! By the Crate & Barrel toward the gap before Papa Razzi is a rusting bike rack. It isn’t bolted. It is grey on grey concrete next to grey walls, nearly invisible. At least that’s my excuse for never noticing it before.

I had a similar humbling experience down the hill. There too, the rack is a single, damned hard to find — grey on grey in front of grey. However, at the bottom of the ramp leading to the cinema, there is a bike rack.

There are quibbles to quibble. Why are there so few (probably matching the need; neither rack had any bikes)? Why are they so out of the way (likely that the stores don’t want their dolled up shoppers snagging their threads)? Why are they monotone to the point of invisibility with their surrounds (damned if I know; a contrasting color would make their obvious to cyclists and might keep cellphone slaves from walking into them)?

So, I came away from Newton with a little more on the plus side of the fulcrum.

Friends of ours who live in one of the seemingly countless villages of it like to joke about having gangs like urban areas do. Except in their case, the gangs comprise men who only have masters degrees.

If they decide to go cycling on one of their rampages, perhaps I can have a guidebook ready for them — Surprise Bike Racks on Newton.

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Cruising Lowell Canals with Dennis Weaver

August 16th, 2007

Dennis Weaver as ChesterFlog me with a camera strap. My digital picture box has such a long battery life, I did not bother to charge it…and go caught in Lowell. I was just starting to take pictures on the canal tour when I got the dreaded red battery image. I can’t show you the guide, a National Parks ranger, Amy Glowacki, who surely must be a direct descendant of Dennis Weaver as Chester, nor Motorman Tucker, who drives the trolley to and from the boat launch. Unlike the sharp jawed and wiry Amy, he is rotund with a comically sprouting bushy beard.

I’ll embed a couple of canal shots, but the voyeurism level is low. I am a stupid American.

Nits and Grits: The Park Service has a few canal tours by trolley and boat daily. The 90-minute full version is $8 adults/$7 over 62/$6 for 6 through 16 and free for mites. These tours tend to fill, so you need to call (978-970-5000 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and reserve spots. You can park behind the visitors center for free. Details are on the NPS site.

This is a serious geek trip, with engineering and history filling eyes and ears the whole time.

Our guide Amy came complete with a bag of place mats. Actually they were large laminated photos and drawings of Lowell before and after canals, of the dam on the Merrimack River and images of folk working on the projects there.

After a lecture about the history of the river and canals, we took the period trolley a few hundred yards to the boats. The lecture had the typical subversive undercurrent that so many NPS ones there do — after all, this is where trade unions got perking in America. Amy noted that the thumb of land where Lowell is had a few hundred farmers before greedy industrialists saw the waterfalls and knew it mean power and thus money just trying to fall into their hands. They bought out the yokels for spare change and proceeded to plan a huge industrial complex, using water power for the mills-to-be.

James B. FrancisOur next subtle pretext was in our boat, the Sarah Bagley, the only one of the four named for a woman. The next boat was the James B. Francis (the jowly fellow here), who planned the canals for transportation and for water diversion. On the other hand, Bagley was a rabblerouser. She strongly advocated women’s rights, organized labor actions, and was largely responsible for getting the workday reduced to 10 hours.

The tour is a fine leisurely ride on a summer day, but it is also a clear way to visualize how the canals interplayed with the factories. Helping realize the avarice of the capitalists meant some innovative and insightful engineering, under Francis’ direction. Many thousands were abused and overworked in the mills that came with it. Then again, as in the mini-computer industry in Lowell and elsewhere in the last century, this fed and clothed a lot of people and made New England more influential. (Amy didn’t say any of that.)

Lowell canalsBefore the factory-makers arrived, the locals had worked for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals to change the Merrimack. It was impassable by the falls and there was no way to move goods or people on it. Manual labor dug a single narrow canal to skirt the falls and let lumber and farm output get downstream without using carts and wagons. This project took only from 1795 to 1796…with shovels, barrows and pickaxes!

Click on the thumbnail to see Francis’ version of the industrialists’ vision. A dam on the river diverts most water through town, starting in the Pawtucket Canal. A spread hand of canals in town dispersed the water to power multiple mills in many locations. The transportation canal remained to bring in raw materials and take away finished good.

In 1821, the rich guys had bought out what is now Lowell (then part of Middlesex Village). A catalyst for their turning to Lowell was President Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo and the War of 1812. They were sitting on piles of cash that wasn’t earning anything.

We on the Bagley toured the navigable section of the 5.6-mile canal. We passed the backs of brick factories (which don’t look much different from their fronts, minus doors). The mills are largely abandoned, except those that have artists’ lofts.

Francis was damned good at what he did. His turbine that bears his name is still commonly used. As well as being chief engineer for the canals and locks, he was a founder and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His old group has a great booklet on the canals and power system here.

Down on the water, you see such fascinating aspects as the construction of the canal walls. The inner side was done by hand. Immigrant laborers moved and fitted large and huge pieces of granite. Like stone walls, they are without mortar and last because of the expertise and raw strength of the masons.

Lowell canal wallsThe other side looks perfectly serviceable, but the stones are much smaller, much more regular. These walls have heavy mortar, which will need maintenance.

The ride passes through one lock at (of course) the Francis Gatehouse. He designed the gates and the lock system for these, as well as the flood gate inside. We passed into a small lock to equalize the water depth between the Merrimack and Lowell sides — about four feet on our day.

While waiting for the lock system to do its seeping magic, you have to revel in what was called Francis’ Folly in 1850. That wacky blueprint guy figured that there was a high likelihood of occasional, unpredictable floods on the plains of Lowell, particularly with the river on one side and the canals in town.

He designed this monstrosity, like a huge wooden guillotine. In the image by Corey Sciuto, you can see part of Francis’ original and the 21st Century upgrade. He took the picture during last year’s flood.

Francis gatehouse

The original was a 25-foot tall curtain of huge wooden beams, rising into the gatehouse. Thick metal chain held it up to the roof. Someone had to climb up to and use a hammer and chisel to release the gate and hold back the diverted river.

The locals didn’t get much time to ridicule Francis. Two years later in 1852, a huge flood filled the Merrimack. The gate came down. Lowell was spared 10 feet of water.

Raising the gate afterward was a big deal, involving many teams of oxen and a lot of workers.

The gate stayed up and loaded until 1936, when another 10-foot flood threatened town. The gatehouse on the dam side of the river still has the highwater mark painted on it. Again, Francis’ plan saved Lowell.

Shortly before Lowell’s 2006 devastating flood, the gatehouse system was updated with a steel beam system, which is in place in the photo. It has the decided advantage of being put in place by using a crane to drop a stack of steel beams into slots in the canal walls. Amy did not say, but maybe they should go back to Francis’ system. Lowell was flooded this time and the water level was only 8-feet above flood level. What can we learn from this?

Leaving canal lock When we emerged from the equalized lock, we tooled up and out to the Merrimack. We went over to the dam, law the still impressive falls, and wondered at the archaic dam itself.

The Pawtucket dam uses some 300 metal bars stuck in granite slabs and topped with plywood. Yes, Home Depot denizens, plywood. An advantage of this is that water forces its way over the plywood, bending it. Of course, twice a year, they have to replace the wood. This anachronistic system involved reducing water flow with dams upstream and sending crews to gather the plywood and bars. A blacksmith shop on the river heats and repairs the bars and crews reassemble the dam.

Before Amy turned us back over to Motorman Tucker, we got our $8 worth. A drain-pipe level tour of the influence of water on the American Industrial Revolution is a better deal than any summer movie.

By the bye, this is a companion piece to the evening adventure in Lowell, a Spinners game.

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Throwing Rubber Chickens in Lowell

August 15th, 2007

Sub-eating contests, a line of chicken dancers, and speaking of, real rubber chickens heaved to eager fans are certainly not the Beacon Hill dignity hallmarks. But up in Lowell, they work real hard to make affordable fun at Spinners games.

I just did an afternoon and evening with my two youngest boys. A report on the canal tour is another post. I had promised publicly to spend more time in our fourth-largest city, and surely to be there for more than my beloved folk festival days at the end of each July.

A friend from Marblehead had long urged me to bring the guys up. Like me, he went to Red Sox games in the 1960s and beyond. We remember when 1) you could buy tickets, any tickets, and 2) when it wasn’t several days’ salary to take a family. Yeah, well, we’re older and remember when the Sox may have fallen apart in August or September, but a game was a great afternoon or evening. Plus everything from parking to tickets to franks was not some sucker’s game.

I can end that rant and just praise the Sox farm team in Lowell.

Perhaps you can’t appreciate the team without tasting the league. This Sox affiliate in sliced a little thin in being in the short-season, Class-A New York-Penn League. They play from mid-June into early September. They play against (with MLB affiliate teams):

  • Aberdeen Iron Birds (BAL)
  • Auburn Doubledays (TOR)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (PHI)
  • Brooklyn Cyclones (NYM)
  • Hudson Valley Renegades (TB)
  • Jamestown Jammers (FLA)
  • Mahoning Valley Scrappers (CLE)
  • State College Spikes (STL)
  • Oneonta Tigers (DET)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NYY)
  • Tri-City Valley Cats (HOU)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (WASH)
  • Williamsport Crosscutters (PIT)

Almost everyone is under 23 by the rules. They are up or out, advancing to their parent club or selling cars or real estate.

This means that while some great players have come from the league, the average play level is not MLB. There aren’t enough Ks for big-league fans and there are few monsters knocking one over center field walls (400 feet in the Spinners’ park).

I think those are the only drawbacks, other than not being on a subway line. Consider:

  • You’re almost on the field. The park seats about 4,800. There are no bad spots. Many are only a few rows from the baselines. You are part of the game, not part of the distant herd.
  • You get in for change. Hey, I was a big spender. I bought top-end tickets, for (drum roll) $7.50 each. There’s not misplaced decimal — $22.50 for the three of us. The range starts at standing room at $3.50, which is necessary because many games sell out. You just need to hop onto the Spinners site in early spring and grab tickets.
  • Golden wieners. If you want to pay steak and Cabernet prices for a frank and beer, go to Fenway. The high priced beer at LeLacheur Park (named for a local activist) is $5.25 a pint. Hot dogs were like $2.75. Also, in such a small park, a trip to the john or snack bar was a couple of minutes not a death march.
  • No parking thieves. The $20 and $30 parking slots near the Sox are far from Lowell. There you can come early and park next door, park a quarter to half-mile away at game time for free, or pick a lot a couple of blocks away and pay $5.

So the basics out of the way, how about the game? The most important aspect is that everyone seems to have a great time. That must mean that it is less professional than a bunch of rich guys in tight pants taking themselves seriously.

The players do try. Some are obviously more successful than others. Unlike MLB parks though the action is stop and go, with a lot of breaks between innings for those contents, for Ronald McDonald to autograph the free T-shirts they handed kids, for the gator mascot family to throw rubber chickens to eager fans.

By the bye, I sat behind a family whose dad was one of the sub-contest entrants, the winner in fact. It was mom in front of me, three elementary-aged kids, and dad, who barely squeezed into the wide seats. One of the Spinner staffers came to him in the first inning and he nodded. He told her about the contest and said loudly that he thought the kids would enjoy it. After the third inning, he and a sturdy woman headed to a table on the first-base line. Each had half a large, overly stuffed submarine. They had one minute to eat as much as they could. After the judge declared him the most rapacious, he headed up toward us, strands of meat and lettuce dangling from his lips.

I told his wife that he’d be eating that for a week. She said with disdain, “Yeah, this is really something to be proud of.” It was a Simpson’s moment.

Start to finish, the play was good enough to keep us interested. There was some very good fielding of hard-hit balls. The players were clearly hungry for the majors and tried.

Getting back to JP was easy enough too. We were home in 45 minutes or so, probably less time than if we walked to Ruggles or took two buses to Forest Hills. Surely, it was quicker and cheaper.

The Spinners beat the Hudson Valley Renegades 2 to 1. They beat the overall Red Sox experience by a lot more than that.

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Entitled and Interred

August 10th, 2007

Skeleton on bikeJerky endangerment may know neither age nor gender nor transport mode. On separate ends of a bike trip yesterday a young woman on a bike and a middle-aged man in an SUV nearly took me out. Both times, I called out pleasantly for them to look first, and both times, they replied angrily that it was my job to watch out for them.

In terms of Boston and Cambridge schmucks, if I can use that term with the woman as well, they broke the law, rules of manners and plain sense. Just because I had lots of time and it was a sweet, sunny day, I drew it to their attention in ways much nicer than I might normally. I was traveling to and from Winchester and had lots of time. Sometimes I rush and push it, but I was being a good cycling citizen.

Crazed collegiate

The young woman nearly got hit by both me on a bike and by a compact car. We righteous souls were tooling up Brookline in Cambridge toward Mass Ave. She totally blew through the stop sign (actually, I believe it has two signs at the intersections into Brookline Streete) heading east on Franklin. Both the driver and I were able to slam on brakes and not broadside her. Because I was ahead of the driver and he was going slowly, he squealed tires but stopped a few feet short.

I saw her at the intersection and she had not even tried to slow, just went straight through the signs. I called out, “Hey, you need to watch.” She uttered some obscenity and then, “No, you watch!”

If she does that another time or two, the police will be visiting to arrange for the transfer of the body to her family.

Uptight Unionist

Coming home a few hours later, I was going down Williams Street by Doyle’s, on the way thorugh the Forest Hills Cemetery. Right before Plainfield Street, with the stop sign, a union laborist by his bumper sticker had parked his SUV. He threw open the door right in front of me without thinking or looking.

I was able to swerve and keep from hurting both of us as he threw his legs out. Again and gently I called, “You should look.” He too swore at me and said I needed to watch, not him.

Each of these characters was:

  • Totally in the wrong
  • Breaking traffic laws and regulations
  • Showing bad manners
  • Being stupid and obnoxious

Yet, the weird parallel is that each felt entitled to risk another’s life and limb. Everyone else was supposed to watch out for them. If they wanted to run stop signs or block traffic without looking, that was someone else’s problem. I and the motorist had to accommodate these nitwits.

I suppose if that cyclist had caused a wreck with the car, she might have gotten it. If she were crippled but not killed and then cited for passing the stop sign, she might have felt less entitled. Maybe not. Maybe she’s such a princess that she’s claim the law was unfair.

The guy was likewise an ass. He apparently had no concept that he was in the wrong or that he had any obligation to obey laws and common sense. We could use stronger laws about dooring specifically, but the existing laws would make him responsible for a moving violation with its insurance costs, police charges, and civil liability.

As a cyclist, I may be too forgiving of other bikers. I don’t have an apology for this lady though. She put me at danger as well as herself, and then let me know she was entitled to do whatever she pleased.

These vignettes likely don’t even rate as traffic tales for this area. Boston cops are famous for acting like no blood, no ticket. These fools were saved the expenses and hassles of causing wrecks by quick reflexes and attention of a cyclist and motorist.

Is there any lesson here other than a general lament about society? I hope so.

For me, I continue to look at intersections even with I have the right of way and I watch windows of parked and stopped vehicles for rogue door openers. I also call out thanks to any driver who clearly looks before opening a door. I think smart and polite people need praise. I call a pox on the houses of the other two devils.

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When Did Cardinals Get Teeth?

August 4th, 2007

Haley school mural cardinal headPassing the Haley School in Rozzie, I have often noticed the inner-city cardinal on the mural. It looks tough and made me recall the shame of my own high-school mascot.

In my scholar life at Plainfield (NJ) High, I didn’t even consider our mascot. But as wrestling and swimming jock, and sports editor of the paper, I was less than thrilled by our cardinals. We had good teams, state championships, Olympic champion graduates and such, but forever linked to nut-cracking, worm swallowing birds.

We played against and I knew a lot of kids whose mascots were feral beasts. Those who had birds at least had raptors. Somehow, I doubt that a single human has feared the wrath of the cardinal. Was this some blue hairs’ committee idea of the mid-19th Century when that school opened?

Two of my sons went to Boston Latin — the wolfpack. Other high school and college teams tend toward fierce animals. Even my first college, South Carolina, picked a nasty bird, the gamecock. The big cheer I recall was, “Rip ’em up. Tear ’em up. Cocks give ’em hell.” What would that be for cardinals, “Steal their millet! Eat their seeds! Poop on their heads!”?

In fairness, some teams have fun with their mascots. Some are lame, naming them for an ethnic group (Scots or Irish), or conceptual and historical allusions (Macabees or Medics). Those with some healthy detachment from athletics include:

  • Mary Baldwin squirrelsBanana slug tee-shirt
  • Arkansas-Monticello boll weevils
  • Hawaii-Hilo Vulcans
  • Akron zips
  • UC Irvine anteaters
  • Oregon ducks
  • Hampshire frogs
  • And my personal favorite, the UC Santa Cruz banana slugs

You can see a slighty outdated list (Native American nations still included) here.

Meanwhile, the flighty, skittish cardinal has transformed in many places to a more formidable critter. Leading this seems to have been professional teams, like the NFL Arizona and MLB St. Louis cards.

Their human-filled mascots may be jolly and round, but their logos are not. Look at the examples below from high school, college and professional teams.

Ball State Ball State
St. Louis mascot St. Louis MLB
Beverly Mass Beverly, MA, High
Louisville Louisville
PHS mascot PHS mascot with uncustomed Peggy, 2006
PHS cardinal Current PHS cardinal from website

There’s a clear trend toward adding feral features, and another for teams borrowing heavily from the art of professional and college teams. The Lawson Missouri schools clearly researched, as the expression goes, and drew on the Louisville cardinal, down to the teeth (and when did grain-eating birds get teeth?), but the high school version got muscles too.

My own high school’s round, pleasant and anthropomorphized bird as a costume is in the mold of the baseball cardinals, as the Beverly High one is clearly a relative of the Arizona football version.

Yet the real trend is that the drawings are looking meaner, stronger, tougher, more awe-inspiring, at least as much as a tiny toothless bird can be. Alfred Hitchcock had a take on the concept, but that would require a large flock of cardinals to equal the fear power of a single big cat or canine.

It’s funny that they have never changed the mascots, just made them less like their true nature. Yet, I have every reason to believe that a cardinal would win the fight with a banana slug.

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