Lydia Edwards

^ reform is coming to Boston’s zoning process. Councillor Edwards’s proposals invite serious discussion even if the details merit adjustment

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Several proposals have come forward recently to change how the City of Boston makes its planning decisions. They’re drawing plenty of  attention, too, thanks to the coincidence of a zoning board scandal and an ongoing, almost city-wide unease with development projects and how they get approved.

All of us have read of the bribery scandal involving a former member of the Zoning board of Appeal (ZBA) and a developer who sought the extension of a development permit without undergoing ZBA review. A member of the Board resigned soon thereafter when it was revealed that he acted as broker for the sale of properties whose ZBA variances he voted for. His doing so was not illegal, but it wasn’t well received by Bostonians who feel that the ZBA approves zoning variances regardless of the law governing them.

Last week Councillor Lydia Edwards — who represents East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End — called for reforming the way ZBA members are appointed. I will discuss her proposal later in this column. Its ante has now been upped by Councillor at-Large Michelle Wu, who today called for abolishing the BPDA — Boston’s Planning and Development Agency, which oversees all development proposals from beginning to permit grant. I will discuss Wu’s proposal, too.

Before I talk assess the two proposals, Edwards’s and Wu’s, let’s talk about the ZBA. It is a seven-member body, appointed by the Mayor, which votes on whether or not to grant a “variance” from the requirements of the Zoning Code. Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code sets forth the entire process as administered by the BPDA. ( You can read Article 80 here : ) There is also the State zoning law, found in MGL c. 40A, which you can read here : The Massachusetts statute establishes zoning purposes and guidelines, and even though the City of Boston has its own zoning code, the law of variances is governed by c. 40A.

What are variances, and what is the law that regulates them ? ( 1 ) a “variance” is an exception to a particular zoning requirement ( 2 ) it is supposed to be granted SOLELY because it enhances the purposes of the law that it is an exception from. In other words, for example, an owner wants to build an extra bedroom onto his home, but that extra will extend into the side setback requirement of the “residential 2-family” district the property is in. The owner argues that granting him this exception, i.e., this variance, will strengthen his (and the property’s) commitment to maintain a two-family residence. Or, an owner may want to raise the height of his roof beyond the, say, 35 foot height restriction governing his zoning district. He proposes that his third floor apartment have a large picture window, say, that will require lifting his roof to 40 feet, five feet beyond the 35 foot height restriction. Abutters may object to this lift as impeding their view or their sunlight, and such objection will be entertained by the ZBA. Nonetheless, the ZBA may well grant the roof lift variance as improving and thus stabilizing the three family dwelling the owner wants to renovate.

In all such cases, the zoning law expressly states — and Massachusetts courts have repeatedly affirmed — that any such variance from the code must conform to the zoning law in force and even strengthen it.

Yet for the past several years, and especially during Mayor Walsh’s years in office, the ZBA has seemed to grant almost every variance request that comes before it, many of them appearing, at least to me, to defy flagrantly the applicable zoning restrictions. Properties are built to the street, or to the very lot line; or they propose 9 units where 3 are allowed and exist; or they offer half as much as parking — or less — as the code requires; or they propose five stories and even six, where the code envisions a limit of three. Or they propose many of these variances altogether. State zoning law makes clear that zoning restrictions are intended to safeguard a neighborhood’s character. Yet the ZBA constantly approves proposals that alter neighborhoods radically.

Little wonder that residents in the most developed zones of Boston — East Boston, South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mission Hill, the Seaport, South End — have had enough and are finally in a mood to take no prisoners. The neighborhoods I name face hundreds of current requests for zoning variance, few of which — so residents worry — will be denied.

Voters sense — correctly, I think — that the free-for-all on variance grants result from Mayor Walsh’s insistence on the City creating 69,000 new housing units by 2030.

Into this already angry situation comes the ZBA scandal. Is it any wonder that residents and their political voices want the whole avalanche of variance and building to take a serious time out ?

Now to Lydia Edwards’s proposal. The East Boston Times summarizes Edwards’s comprehensive proposal thus :

“…real estate interests would be removed from the board and no named organizations or interests would have a permanent seat. Members and alternate members (seven each) of the ZBA would represent perspectives from affordable housing, civil rights and fair housing, environmental protection and climate change, urban planning, homeowners, renters, and expertise in zoning and the general laws.

Staff for the ZBA would be prohibited from engaging in other permitting, planning, development or real estate functions, and prohibited from engaging in private business in these areas…”

This is stiff medicine. I do not support removing real estate interests from a board that regulates real estate interests. Nor does it make sense for the ZBA to include civil rights and environmental interests. The ZBA is not a Court, and it is not a planning agency. It is tasked with one duty only : enforcing the zoning code and the purposes a variance must adhere to.

That said, it is smart for the seven member ZBA to represent actual neighborhoods. Perhaps ZBA membership might be expanded, so that all the larger neighborhoods of Boston would have at least one member, regardless of whether said member be a real estate person, or an architect, or a planner.

Edwards’s desire to see civil rights advocates, environmental people, fair housing interests, owners and tenants involved in the development process makes more sense when we think about reforming the BPDA. The agency’s public comment hearings and design approval tests were devised to give all of Edwards’s interests a required voice in planning decisions. I support some means by which Edwards’s interests are regulated into the planning process. (I am being general here because this column is already long, and specifics might be the subject of a follow-up column.) One difficulty with BPDA public comment hearings is that, in general, only those opposed to a project show up at hearings. Because that is so, and the City knows that it is so, the BPDA seems to take the position that it is free to represent — and to favor — the proponents of a project, who are certainly there even if they do not attend and speak up at a public comment hearing.

Another difficulty with the BPDA’s public comment hearings is that notice is given only generally to the public, and few voters are aware of where to find these notices. Even when aware, it is hard for someone to find a particular notice. The best locus is on a neighborhood face book page, where activists usually post meeting notices. I think the City owes us at least that much diligence. Perhaps if the City made an extra effort to notify us, it might find a greater number of supporters of a project coming to the comment hearing ?

And proponents are indeed there. Density advocates say that the City’s prosperity requires greater residential density. Business es that depend on there being more customers want developments that will bring in new residents who will then patronize those businesses. Owners of buildings know that if developments are approved, the value of their own property likely goes up.

In any case, greater diversity of opinion at public comment hearings might satisfy Edwards’s desire to see all interests heard and spoken for.

Now to discuss the Michelle Wu proposal:

Wu asks that the BPDA be abolished and that City planning be entrusted to neighborhood-based citizen’s groups. I vigorously oppose such a proposal. It would be the triumph of NIMBY and the end of unified planning that adjusts for traffic, transportation, water and waterfront access. Boston before the BPDA and its predecessor the BRA was a hotch-potch of commercial, residential, and industrial parcels jumbled all together, a public health mess as well as a guarantee that people living in it would leave as soon as they could — as they did. Councillor Wu will have to do better than her blanket abolition of central planning before I’m likely to get aboard.

That said, I recall current Mayor Walsh saying, at candidate forums during his 2013 campaign, that he would abolish the then BRA. Thus Wu’s call isn’t something unheard-of. Walsh’s argument at the time was that the BRA’s planning process was too centralized and so too high-handed. This is the same argument that Wu and her supporters now make.

When Walsh took office, he soon found out that city planning had to have a central point of decision. The City’s neighborhoods are quite different, and they have separate histories, but if planning becomes localized, all kinds of disconnect can ensue. Streets cannot do one thing in neighborhood A and another thing in neighborhood B. The City’s housing policy can’t go in one direction in Neighborhood C and another in neighborhood D. At some point the neighborhoods have to have common practices with respect to public works, zoning codes, school location, and access in and out. Thus the BPDA cannot simply be done away with and planning ceded to un-elected neighborhood activists. All such activists claim to represent “the neighborhood,” but they don’t. They represent one point of view. Others exist, as I have shown. Why should planning for a neighborhood be limited only to its residents ? Neighborhoods contain businesses, and work places, and they attract visitors who spend money there. Don’t these businesses, work places, commuters, and pleasure visitors have a money interest in the neighborhood as well as the residents ? Only a central planning agency can represent these other interests.

Wu knows this very well but for political reasons has chosen to evade the facts. Everybody knows that she is planning a challenge to Mayor Walsh in 2021. That’s fine, that’s her right, but it is not her right to go un-responded to. I can well agree with her that residents of a neighborhood have a proprietary interest in maintaining the character thereof, and I agree that the ZBA must be reformed so that it doesn’t as a matter of course override the law of variances because the Mayor wants 69,000 units of new housing built pronto. But it is NOT BPDA public comment hearings that’s the problem. At those, neighborhood residents have, if anything, overwhelming control of the discussion because supporters of a proposed development barely show up. The problem is the ZBA. In which case Lydia Edwards’s proposals are to the point, and Michelle Wu’s miss the mark.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ impeachment must be only the beginning of assuring that this sort of lunacy never happens to America again

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We have all seen that Mr. Trump has zero respect for the rule of law and basically thinks that a President can do whatever he wants. Unfortunately, plenty of the outrages he has done arise at least in part from authority that prior Congresses have given to the holder of Article 2’s office. The next Congress should take back authority that never should have been given in the first place.

Before I get to my list of legislation I hope the next Congress enacts, it’s useful to look at Article 2 of the Constitution, Section 3, which tasks the President :

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

Also needing your consideration is Article 1, Section 1 :

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

BUT : Article 1, Section 6, gives the President a check on said power, namely, a veto, which may be overridden if both houses of Congress vote to override the veto by “two-thirds of that House.” “Two thirds” is not defined, but the common meaning would seem to be two thirds of the membership rather than two thirds of those voting.

—>> I have highlighted the “take Care” clause of Article 2, Section 3 because in so very many cases, Mr. Trump has undermined, if not outright refuse, to take such Care. With respect to immigration laws, he has basically made his own, violating all sorts of basic rights and procedures. Same for environmental protection, for civil rights, and for the conduct of foreign policy. In addition, he has refused to comply with the entirety of Congress’s powers of oversight and investigation of his performance of office.

That said, much of what he has done, by way of executive order and otherwise, he has done pursuant to legislation that gives him such authority. With respect to immigration, to declarations of national emergency, and in his engagement with his cabinet officers and their departments, he has perverted their duties to the service of his won, personal and political needs. He has also done the same with his personal conduct of foreign policy.

As Article 2, Section 2 says in part —  He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law — all heads of the executive branch’s departments charged with “taking Care that the laws be faithfully executed” are nominated by him, subject only to the Senate’s confirmation. Because all such department heads serve at his pleasure, and can be terminated for any reason, they are vulnerable to the President’s asking them to do other things than their appointed “take care” tasks. Mr. Trump has bent both his Attorney General and his Secretary of State entirely to his political purposes, and he has abused almost as badly his Secretary of the Treasury, the Commerce Department, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Interior, to cite the most obvious examples.

When he has not outright perverted his departments, he has set them upon an agenda which is his only, entirely apart from the law. He has forced Defense, Commerce, Education, Housing, Environmental Protection, and Homeland Security to disregard the law, discard requirements, and substitute his policy whims.

Most significantly, and the occasion for his impeachment, finally, by the House, he has violated laws in place, criminal and otherwise, by pressuring and even extorting foreign governments to participate in his election needs.

He has been to get away with these many violations of his oath of office because the Senate has a majority belonging to the same political party that he claims to belong to; and in modern America, political party is everything. It’s the vehicle for big donors and money influence of all kinds, it’s the cloak covering all sorts of corruption and shell games, it’s the obstacle to useful legislation and, as we saw from Senator McConnell in 2016, it’s the instrument by which the Senate violated the Constitution in refusing to grant its advice and consent to the nomination by then President Obama of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

The only practical antidote to the destruction of Constitutional government by the Republican party these past 7 years is to assure that Congress and the Presidency are controlled, starting in 2021, by the other party, the Democrats. I am under no illusions as to the Democratic party’s flaws. Its leaders are not saints. They’re subject to the same sorts of  donor and special interest pressures that have corrupted Republicans. That said, the Democrats have so far stopped short of putting their party priorities ahead of the nation’s interests. I am ready to trusty that when they take full control in 2021, that they will legislate changes to prior enabling laws and will, hopefully, also clarify Presidential authority which, up to now, has assumed basic good faith on said office holder’s part.

Mr. Trump exhibits no good faith in it at all. If laws are not enacted, another Trump can come along, be elected, and do the same as Mr. Trump has done. Here’s how we can make it much harder for a future Trump to do stuff :

( 1 ) revise the National Emergency Act so that the President can only declare a national emergency and use emergency powers, if authorized by a vote of 60 Senators.

( 2 ) clarify the laws authorizing “executive orders,” so that it is clear that no executive order shall contravene legislative purposes, or use emergency or other exception to override Federal law, and that any executive order that appears to do so shall be void ab initio

( 3 ) require that any tariff the President wishes to impose, pursuant to authority to do so, must be confirmed by a vote of at least 60 Senators.

( 4 ) enact legislation forbidding any Executive Department, and its officers, including the Department head, from in any way using Department powers to further the President’s purely political or campaign interests, and include a substantial fine, personal to the individuals found to have done so.

( 5 ) clarify that no claim of “executive privilege” shall apply to any public record sought for investigative purposes by a duly authorized committee of Congress or Congress generally.

( 6 ) enact that any withholding, by an executive official, of a duly requested public record, absent excusable time for performance, shall be a criminal contempt resulting in a fine personal to such officer and, in case of a second offense, imprisonment until the contempt is cured.

( 7 ) clarifying that the “advise and consent” clause of Article 2 includes a presumption of good faith, and that such advice and consent must be given to Presidential nominations as promptly as feasible, including during an election year.

These suggestions will do for starters. I invite readers to suggest additional measures.

Lastly, i wish to remind readers that impeachment and removal from office need not be all the sanctions that a removed President might face. Here I offer you another quote from the Constitution we claim to honor :

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ nobody in sight, in the “who cares” Boston election

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On September 24th a mere 44,972 voters bothered to  cast a ballot in this year’s City Council primary. 7,848 of those voters voted in District Five, with its eight-candidate , local fight. Which means that in eight-ninths of a 700,000 resident, 500,000 voter city, only 37,124 people bothered to vote. In some of the City’s 255 precincts only two ( 2 ) percent of the voters voted.

I may e wrong, but I cannot recall such a high number of opt-outs by Boston voters. Time was,m back in the 1970s, when I had already begun my long life as a Boston political activist, that a turnout of 27 percent (1973) was considered unacceptable. 27 percent would mean about 135,000 voters ! For comparison, in 2013, in a multi-million dollar Mayoral campaign, only 37.5 percent voted. Mayoral elections in the 1970s brought out well over 200,000 voters. South Boston used to see 9000 votes cast. Today, maybe 45400.  Charlestown once delivered 6500 votes. These days, more like 2700. In the 1983 Mayor election, more people voted in Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale) than voted in the 1972 Presidential race ! Today, in a City election, Ward 20 votes maybe 50 percent of its Presidential turnout.

Why his this happened ?

I have no polling firm providing me information, and you might have to ask individual voters why they did not vote last Tuesday, but I think one major development, these past decades, stands out : patronage has, by and large, disappeared from the City’s political system, along with the jobs that it accorded, and the people who lived by that system have, most of them, moved out to the South Shore and the Cape.

Having removed the overwhelming majority of patronage work from the system, all that is left to vote are the ideologically committed and people who grew up before the 1980s and were taught that voting is a duty.  These two groups  don’t amount to much, and in addition to small numbers, they have changed the tone of City Council campaigns,. name recognition, family ties, tons of personal friends, and popularity with City workers used to be the essentials for a City Council win. Today, not so much.

Turnout would probably be even lower were it not for the city worker residency requirement, which keep s many employees living in the City who otherwise would live elsewhere. i have never been a fan of telling city employees where they can or cannot live, but at least these workers provide the City an electorate different from the ideologicals.

In the 1970s the City and Suffolk County had some 30,000 employees. Add in Boston Edison’s 10,00 — jobs that in those days were often patronage — and the  families of all, and very quickly you could expect 100,000 voters. And they voted ! In that 1973 City election that I mentioned above, 99 percent — !!! — of the School Custodians voted. And they all lived in Boston, By themselves they constituted two percent of that 27 percent turnout. You can best believe that when the  Custodians union wanted something from the then elected School Committee, they were listened to.

We monitored who voted. If you didn’t vote, and asked us  for a favor, your non-voting was noted. Not surprising, then, that when a Council candidate wanted to do a city-wide mailing — in those days  candidates did their own — there was absolutely no problem getting 200 “volunteers” to show up a t a church basement or school assembly hall to “do a  mailing” for hours. Heck, those folks WANTED to be there, wanted to be SEEN there !

Try doing that today !

On election day you didn’t just ‘work a poll,” you were EXPECTED to. And you worked it and wanted to be seen working it, just as a union member wants to work a picket line and be seen working it.

Today, when union activists work a political campaign, they come to the headquarters and are signed in. That’s how it should be when you are depending on a union being strong and seen. City politics was once like that too. It isn’t t.hat any more. Today, people who work mostly work in a private sector, or have a government job hired on merit of one sort or another. They get up, clean up, go to work, come hole, do family stuff. City Hall is a place they call to get a street light fixed, if they call it at all. Nothing in their lives is bettered by anyone in City Hall.  Yes, the voters are taxpayers, and that should matter; but it doesn’t seem to. Tax paying is accepted as just another electronic deduction from your bank account, no different from the mortgage payment or the auto loan.

Back in the day, when you had to write out a check to pay the tax bill, and mail it to City hall, you felt differently, maybe.

This indifference to, or lack of relationship with, City Hall, is reflected in what voters tell at the door when you door knock. So me have issue with the school system, that’s for sure, and many complain about City streets and snow plowing; but just as many say they’re very satisfied with how things are going. Unless these voters are your family or est friend, good luck getting them to vote in a  Council election.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




The lessons that I find in last night’s results should unsettle those of us who see the issues differently from the coming majority. So what are these ?

( 1 ) Labor-oriented candidates lost to social justice and climate crisis folks. That much is clear. But there’s much more to the lesson than this. Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s day, and to some extent before that, labor unions and government worked together to build  new, fairer America with securer jobs and higher wages, government aid, and stronger infrastructure. The GI Bill of Rights after World War II put millions through school and financed the purchase of homes. This partnership of labor and government found political expression in the Democratic party, and at times it fueled the Republican party as well. It was an immense social movement that fully engaged the immigrants, of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Slavic stocks, in big cities all across the nation. The partnership has continued down almost to our own day.

Yet this major social and political movement has been losing force for some time. The new Boston has been  created in large part by people from elsewhere in America who come here for school and stay to work and innovate. They don’t share the immigrant traditions of “old Boston,” and they aren’t labor union kids. They’re independent minded, or they work in offices, and they draw salaries, not wages. Many are professionals — doctors, lawyers, architects, financial advisers — who work for themselves or in contract partnerships. These voters are building a political movement entirely different from the partnership of big labor and government.

( 2 ) the new workplace isn’t only a place to make money. It’s filled with moral dictates. Notices are posted, on walls or in employee handbooks, or in company mission statements, to the effect that “we are an equal opportunity employer.” In these office-work organizations, “sensitivity training” is now mandatory, in which workers are taught — required — to respect everybody’s sexual orientation, skin color, national origin, faith, disability, etc. Breach of these dictates can result in termination. The same is true for accusations of sexual harassment — a term interpreted a s broadly as possible. After all, no firm or organization wants to be known on social media as a place of “rape culture” or of “hate.”

Nothing could be more unlike the customs of workplaces in which labor unions s were formed or in which their members do a job.

( 3 ) the new workplace of dictated — preached — morality is not something new. It has been done before. In the major economic expansion that took place in Europe during the  century from 1050 to 1150, the upsurge of commercial guilds and the creation of an apprenticeship workforce was spurred by a religious revival that led to the most important reform the Papacy has ever undergone. A similar religious renewal accompanied the Industrial revolution. It was the merchant aristocracy of the North that funded Abolition of slavery and sent its sons to the Union Army, often to die, in pursuit of a moral mission. (famously, among others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Robert Gould Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts and the Beacon Street Shaw family.) 

( 4 ) This new movement, of commercially-based moral idealism gains strength also from the population movements accompanying it. As students from away move into Boston and stay to work, so immigrants come into our City and, as immigrants do, join the trend for job and social reasons. Most unions in the City are closed to immigrants because it’s hard to get a union job, most of which are spoken for years in advance if not decades. Thus most immigrants go to non-union jobs no matter what their skills level. (In the past two decades they’ve also fueled powerful, new unions. Notably, these new unions — Service Employees International Union and Local 26 Hotel & Hospitality Workers –have ast tended to link with the business-moralism model rather than with the old Labor Union & Government coalition. In the City primary they backed the candidates who did best, both city-wide and in some District races.) In addition, as most unions have been slow to add African-American members, for that same reason — jobs long spoken for — and as City Hall has long been staffed by the descendants of the Labor Union – Government partnership era, most of the City’s African Americans have joined the new movement of commercial moralism.

( 5 ) residents of Boston don’t just stay in the city. They move out, to the suburbs, usually in search of schools systems they have more confidence in. 40 years ago the descendants of Irish, Italian, Jewish and (some) Slavic immigrants dominated all Boston. Today, immigrants from the Caribbean, Hispanic nations, Viet Nam, the Maghreb and the Middle East, Nigeria and Albania have moved in, even as the City’s Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African-American descendants have moved away. The demographic foundations of labor Union – City Hall partnership are no longer the majority, not even close.

All of the above ranks highly in why last Alejandra St Guillen, Julia Mejia, and Michelle Wu topped labor-backed, native Bostonian Erin Murphy and David Halbert beat out Boston-born Marty Keogh city-wide and why Ricardo Arroyo edged out Maria Esdale Farrell in the District Five primary. (Different dynamics drove the result in the District Eight contest, where both the top two finishers voiced the commercial moralism theme, albeit differently from each other.) 

We can expect more of the same. This movement last year placed Ayanna Pressley atop Mike Capuano and Rachel Rollins over Greg Henning. It will not be denied.

By the way ; this movement is not by any means socialist as the Trump folks think, nor is it uniformly Democratic, as its leaders want it to be. Governor Baker last year won 49.3 percent of Boston’s vote — 65 percent in the Downtown neighborhoods where mostly new Bostonians live — and close to 40 percent of its voters of color, the same voters who gave Rachel Rollins and Ayanna Pressley 75 percent support. (Baker also had the support of the Unite Here, Hotel & Hospitality workers and benevolent neutrality from SEIU locals.) It’s a business-oriented, salaried, free-wheeling and socially directed generation that behaves like an institutional establishment, which is not surprising, because many of its people are as institutional as it gets in their thinking and connections. 

These are the lessons that i draw from last night’s results. I am personally not thrilled by it; my world is that of the labor Union partnership with government, of public service jobs and workplaces physical and constructing. I like big skyscrapers. I love the sight of rodmen walking steel beams. I like the noise and odor of factories. Suffolk Construction is the sort of firm I would love to have worked for — if I weren’t a journalist. I wanted the 2024 Olympics here. I like to see city hall guys out working a poll on election day. You are heroes all, a great bunch to down a frosty or two with after winning an election.

I also don’t like to be preached to by moralists, commercial or otherwise.

Yet I recognize that my world is passing from the scene, as are our pubs and taverns, and me soon with it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




Joe and Ed

This week Congressman Joe Kennedy III announced that would seek the US Senate seat now held by Ed Markey. Pardon me if I do not see what, purpose this contest serves.

Those who applaud it might cite as an example Ayanna Pressleys’ successful challenge of Congressman Mike Capuano. I see no similarity. Pressley’s campaign messaged radical change. The Kennedy campaign merely changes the names on the desk, office door, and pay check.

Pressley’s record since winning is the complete opposite of Capuano’s, in keeping with what she offered the voters. Capuano was a workhorse who diligently took care of details and brought targeted Federal dollars to Massachusetts for specific, infrastructure purposes. Pressley has been a human protest sign. Capuano was all working class; you could almost see him in a hard hat (and sometime she wore one, at a ground breaking of some transportation project his Washington clout helped to fund). Pressley is all upscale, business, advertising, and bill boarding — she’s as comfortable with sales slogans as she is with the high fashion clothing that is worn to business functions and awards dinners. Capuano is all street corner; like Fiorello LaGuardia before him — or Tom Menino — he’s a physical presence when speaking and a “get things done” spark plug.

No such contrast exists between Kennedy and Markey. Both are establishment Congress people. Both men work on legislation. Both are exciting speakers. They agree on almost every issue. The only difference is age. Markey is 73, Kennedy is 38. Some voters claim that being 73 is a disqualification; me, I think it a bonus. Experience brings knowledge and wisdom as well as the respect of peers.

There is, of course, another difference. Markey’s Dad was a mailman. Kennedy is a son of Massachusetts’s most famous political family. (One might also cite the Bush family, but its feet are planted in Connecticut as much as in Massachusetts.) Some observers, particularly on the radical left, accuse Kennedy of “entitlement.” (Unspoken in that indictment is the suggestion that he is especially entitled for being male in the “me too” age of ubiquitous accusation.)

Perhaps he is thus entitled. I’ll grant him the honor of his ancestry. The Kennedys have given so much to America, by so many of the family’s members. Joe as well. If his call to public service arises out of honor for his forbears, I see nothing in it but good.

What then will this campaign be about ? Campaigns with no obvious purpose tend to the purely personal. I think it will be vicious, unfair, a hurricane of sentiments vicarious and irresponsibly unleashed. I may have to vote in it; but I’m glad not to be an active part of it. My political time is worth more than expending on such a groundless street fight.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



Met Hill

^ from Metropolitan Hill, all of Roslindale lies at hand and downtown looks so far away…

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Boston is a very lucky city. In addition to its downtown, it contains many of its own suburbs. Roslindale is one such. I know it well. I lived in Roslindale for 12 years and am still importantly connected to it — a linkage intensified this year as I canvass much of it on behalf of a City Council candidate. What I see in Roslindale this year has taught me a lot about smart city shaping. I say “shaping” rather than “planning” because Roslindale’s benefits to Boston weren’t anticipated by any generation of city creators. They exist nonetheless.

What are Roslindale’s lessons for the City ? Let’s try these :

( 1 ) it’s a family neighborhood, not merely a kind of dormitory for young singles. This means that Roslindale has stability. Those who live in it plan to stay, if possible, and every street has many residents who’ve lived in Roslindale their whole lives. Stability begets community, and community makes everyone in it feel safer and more at peace.

( 2 ) whence we are confronted by the singular importance of getting the school system right. People move out of Roslindale every week, almost always because they insist on the best school system for their kids, and they lack confidence that Boston’s school system offers that. Downtown’s neighborhoods of mostly young singles — regions of skyscrapers, night clubs, and trendy bistros that define “the city” for most — don’t depend upon successful public schools; but family neighborhoods do. Roslindale’s housing ranges from picket-fence single homes and huge Victorians to spacious “two-fam’s” to equally spacious three-deckers. Every bit of it is family housing, and Roslindale’s two playing fields, Healy and Fallon, bustle with kids’ activities. It’s suburban soccer mom living.

( 3 ) everyone who I meet at the door wants the same thing, regardless of their origins, skin color, native language, sexual orientation : good schools, well maintained streets, snow to be plowed, stop lights working, the trash picked up on time. Many who I meet say, when I ask them what are their concerns for a candidate to know about, that they can’t think of any; that they are satisfied. Given the quiet that I find almost everywhere in Roslindale, and the stability, I’m not surprised at all to hear this. Nor do the responses differ according to any of the identity issues raised by some politicians. Everybody wants the same thing.

( 4 ) over-development, as we see going on in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Downtown, isn’t immediate. There is some, in Roslindale Square, which on its own has characteristics of a City’s Downtown , and here and there one finds McMansions under construction on residential streets where their size jars the character; but for the most part Roslindale today looks not very unlike how it looked in 1983 hen I moved to it from Jamaica Plain.

( 5 ) what IS different is what we used to call “the melting pot.” 40 years ago Roslindale was almost uniformly Irish and Italian and Catholic. Today its’ Greek, it’s Albanian, it’s Haitian and Hispanic; it’s doctors, lawyers and chemists, it’s mental health workers and bankers and City employees and educators as well as advocacy people, of varied faiths and differing lifestyles. Customs differ, and tastes; but so it is in today’s suburbia, which is no longer the utterly milk-white, commuter universal that we grew up picturing.

( 6 ) Roslindale is a homeowner community, as is true of most suburbs, and its house prices track the median price of Boston suburban housing. Home ownership is itself a stabilizing fact, as is having sufficient income to buy and to afford. Between work, the kids, walking the dog, and neighborhood activities, people are far too busy — and too positively motivated — to bring public trouble.

Roslindale is proof that housing built for stability — for family — on streets wide enough for cars to park, and hilly enough to impose variety on the scenery has more power to shape people’s behavior than any other day by day factor. You move into Roslindale, and you soon become what Roslindale is, regardless of where you moved from. Safety also plays its part, a comfort arising from the stability that Roslindale houses impose on those who live in them. It’s not all roses, because nowhere that human beings are present is roses. But the devilries that make downtown Boston a nerve-wracking place to live or work — enormous traffic, noise, odors, parking costs, no parking at all, tall buildings blocking light, air, and views — have no claim on life in Roslindale, a suburb in a city that includes many suburbs within its expansive borders.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


annissa mike Wu

^^ our endorsees : Annissa Essaibi George; Micahel Flaherty; Michelle Wu

This year we at Here and Sphere decided to adopt another method of arriving at endorsement. Instead of just us, the founders of this blog, choosing, we asked a very diverse, City-wide group of political types, 29 in all, to give us their recommendations. Six of the 29 decided not to disclose their choices, but 23 others did so, and another person chimed in, and so we do have a result.

Our threshold for endorsement was nine votes. Only three candidates made that cut. We endorse them : Annissa Essaibi George, who had 18 votes; Michael Flaherty, who had 15; and Michelle Wu, who received the support of nine. Allo are incumbents.

Because there was no fourth endorsement, and because three candidates – all challengers– received seven votes each, we decided to “recommend” all three. They are : W E David Halbert; Alejandra St. Guillen; and Erin Murphy.

Several other candidates received votes. Martin Keogh had the support of 6; Althea Garrison, an incumbent, won 4 votes; Jeff Ross had two votes, and William King had one. I have stated that I was surprised by the result. I fully expected Julia Mejia to receive some support. What happened ? Julia is a very likeable candidate. She ought to have been in the mix, but the results are what they are.

About our endorsees

It was no surprise that the three elected incumbents received the most votes from our panel. They’re the best known. They have a record. If there’s a surprise here, it’s that Michelle Wu, who is the Council’s President, just barely made the cut. I also think that Annissa Essaibi George’s 18 votes — fully three-quarters of our voting respondents — may surprise many. She hasn’t received anywhere near the amount of publicity that Wu has: but perhaps that’s to her benefit. Wu certainly gained no friends with her suggestion that residents should pay a  $ 25 fee for a resident parking sticker, and her suggestion that the T should be free, while popular with some. could not have been welcomed by taxpayers. Meanwhile Annissa Essaibi George has quietly done her job, with flexibility and discretion : her focus on improving Boston’s schools performance, on many levels, surely helped her support, because Boston’s school shortcomings are by far the issue on most voters’ minds. She also sends staffers to community meetings all across the city,a s does the Mayor. It has been duly noticed, and clearly it is appreciated. As for Wu, we endorse her for re-election, despite the criticisms made above, because it’s good to have a Councillor who is willing, in good faith, to make suggestions which, being controversial, evoke discussion

Some will be surprised that Michael Flaherty won the support of 15 of our 24 respondents. They shouldn’t be. Flaherty knows the City budget as well as any Councillor in recent memory, and during a term in which several Councillors – not only Wu — proposed stuff that either doesn’t match what the voters want, or which won’t work, or which can’t be done without legislative approval that will never happen, Flaherty steered clear. He epitomizes long-term Boston and exemplifies the wisdom and caution that serve the City far better than impulse purchasing; and his support for Governor baker, in 2014 and in 2018, has certainly been noticed by the 49 percent of Boston voters who chose Baker — also a man of caution and thoughtfulness — for a second term.

About our Recommended candidates

Halbert  Erin st guillen

^ David Halbert, Erin Murphy, Alejandra St. Guillen

Rather than being disappointed at not receiving endorsement, I think that David Halbert, Alejandra St. Guillen, and Erin Murphy should be pleased at coming very close. All three received much more support than incumbent Althea Garrison — who, to be fair, was not elected to the Council seat that she occupies because of Ayanna Pressley’s election to Congress; Garrison was the fifth place finisher in the 2017 election; almost certain ly one of these candidates will win the Council’s fourth at-Large seat. I know Halbert and St. Guillen well and like them. They’re earnest, experienced in government, and are campaigning city-wide and effectively. I am skeptical of the “progressive” agendas that they seek to represent — and in some cases I oppose it strongly; but the “progressive” wish list has sufficient support in the city to merit representation on a Council in which diversity of opinion is a must. Erin Murphy, I know less well; but her campaign emphasizes support for unions, a view which I consider crucial to the City’s economic health. We aren’t going to alleviate the housing ‘affordability:” riddle if we can’t get much higher wages for average workers. Every other method I have heard either doesn’t work, or can’t, or actually makes the problem worse. Erin Murphy definitely deserves your consideration.

A few words about the other candidates who received votes

Martin Keogh, 6 votes : Keogh has chosen this year to campaign as the voice of the traditional Bostonian, many of whom object to the Council’s “progressive” proposals, and of everyone else who objects. There’s plenty of room for such a campaign this year. Much of what the City has put in place imposes unnecessary hardships on car owners, for example, and the law enforcement disconnect between the Boston Police and the Courts, on the one hand, and the newly elected Suffolk District attorney, on the other, also creates the need for serious discussion of where do we go from here in matters of public safety. There’s probably no issue in which the City’s “progressives” differ more radically from the views of average Boston voters. I would prefer to see the opposition candidate be a person of color, because the “progressives” have made policing and prosecution a skin color issue, and Keogh is white and, heaven forbid, an Irish-American — a heritage which some “progressives” consider particularly heinous. But Keogh is the public safety candidate we’ve got. Can he garner enough support to win ? Maybe, but it won;t, be easy for him to move past all three of Halbert, Murphy, and St. Guillen.

Althea Garrison, 4 votes : she’s an incumbent, even if not by election, and she has received notice and some support, on many fronts. Some of it arises from her very conservative views on many issues. Some comes from her personal life story as a transgender.. Some comes from her refusal to raise big bucks, some from her advocacy of rent control, and some from her unflinching candor. It is highly unlikely she can win. There just isn’t enough support out there for her unusual politics. Yet she is far from being a quirk. She’ll get her vote.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jeff Ross. I know him well. He was an at-large Council candidate in 2013. His views are progressive enough, and he has plenty of campaign money and has manged to canvass much of the city. Yet the organized “progressives’ don’t seem to have embraced him. Is that because he is a white male in an era in which  the politics of skin color and gender seem gateway matters to so many on the left ? Or is it that Ross is a gentle soul, with a more or less academic, ruffled look far from the Instagram glamour that seems as much a part of the Left’s politics as skin color and gender ? The Instagram Generation is fond of calling its idols “queen” and “king.” no one will ever call the modest, soft-spoken Ross a “king.” I am, of course, here speculating. I could well be wrong about why Ross is in the position he is in. Frankly, he deserves better than he seems to be getting.

William King, 1 vote : the one respondent who recommended King said this about him :  The other guy I recommended, William King, has ideas for improving community-based policing, and education.  I have never met William King, though I see many of his lawn signs in some parts of the City. I’m not sure what community-based policing means, but it’s never a bad thing for the city’s police department to involve the community in its work.

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So there you have it. You can follow our endorsements and recommendations, or you can differ from them, it’s your right. The one thing that I do urge you, however, is to vote. To me, it’s an obligation. Americans fought and died to assure that you have the right to vote. Honor them by going to your polling placer on September 24th and casting your vote for up to four  at-large City Council candidates.

—- Mike Freedberg / for the edditors, Here and Sphere





^ the new waterfront in Salem : emblematic of mayor Driscoll’s 14 years of city leadership

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Reading the many pronunicamentos published about Salem’s future by Mayor Kim Driscoll, I’m constantly wondering whether I’m reading something posted by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Affordability, bike lanes, theme parks, even Sanctuary City (which I supported and still do support) — the entire message is that which Walsh, as Mayor of a huge city — a metropolis — has to face and should face.

Yet Salem is NOT a metropolis. It’s not a big city at all. Why then does Mayor Driscoll want to address Salem’s future as if it were Boston ?

Perhaps she thinks that by creating an arena in which big city issues dominate, Salem will somehow become a city of 100,000 people, even 200,000, rather than the 40,000 who call this quite small city home. Of perhaps Driscoll simply envies big city Mayors, who can perform on the Big Stage dealing with the Big Urban Issues that Mayors worldwide confer about when they gather to exchange ideas about climate resilience, immigration, traffic, the opioid crisis, homelessness, school bureaucracy, international business and social media Woodstocks.

I can understand Driscoll’s thinking here. Much more satisfying to apply her quite extraordinary intellect and mastery of detail to major world issues that will be written about by historians, than to deal with water rates, real estate taxes, public works clean-ups, trash fees, and restaurant closing hours. Or perhaps Driscoll is a noise adept ? Big cities are noisy places — it’s a big part of their attraction. The ears get played to every hour of day and night: the cliche is correct, that the (big) city never sleeps. Salem, on the other hand, is a quiet place. When my Boston-born wife first moved to Salem with me, the first thing she noticed was how quiet our street was after nine p.m. In Salem you can hear the electricity transformers hum. It’s kind of like seeing the full Milky Way on a night up-country, far from Big City lights. Mayor Driscoll might feel as unsettled as my wife. Quiet can be like that. It can leave you feeling isolated, abandoned, whereas noise connects you to the world. It’s the glue of urban excitement.

Salem faces a next phase. We all know this. The 14 years of drama and development, the Pharaohs’ pyramids phase of Salem’s rebirth are over. Seven pyramids in Giza — apart from the city just as Downtown Salem is apart from the very local residential areas of Salem — were nice for Egypt, just as the huge new hotels and trendy bistros and Halloween tourist traps are nice for Spooky-town Salem; but once you’ve built it, you can’t just rebuild, You have to stop and actually use the fortune teller kiosks, the restaurants serving cheese with every kind of burger-greens-BBQ sauce dish, the Talbots-like clothing shops, the wine shops, the coffee houses, the law offices and investment letter research cubicles. There’s a lot of them, at least by small city standards, which are the standards that measure Salem, whether Mayor Driscoll likes it or not. So what comes next ? Not more of the same, because residential Salem IS NOT downtown Salem and has zero intention of becoming downtown-ish.

Residential Salem, which comprises at least four of the city’s seven wards and probably more, doesn’t need bike lanes. It doesn’t want 30 to 100 unit, pyramid-sized apartment complexes with “affordable” set-offs (if you think Salem is unaffordable, try Boston). Residential Salem isn’t at all happy with the anarchy of strip malls and one-offs that make Highland Avenue look like a forest after a tornado has buzzed it, and they sure don’t want more of it. Residential Salem would like its wages to keep up with prices — a policy goal that Mayor Driscoll can do nothing about. Residential Salem would like to be able to go about its business of commuting to jobs; sending the kids safely to a school worthy of taxpayer funding; parks that aren’t dominated by constructs and paving. Residential Salem would like the quiet of its Salem to continue.

There may well not be any meeting of minds between ( 1 ) the denizens of downtown, newly moved into funkytown and wanting more and more of beer bistros, doubled-fee parking meters, bike hobbyists, hotel festivities, water taxis, and noisy beehives of knowledge and idealism, and ( 2) the long-time Salemites who command Residential Salem and live in an entirely different world of commuting to wage jobs, bringing up the kids, and wanting the environment to be silent. Yet it would be good for Salem’s future if Mayor Driscoll were to recognize that her mission to create funkytown has been accomplished — that Salem must not and  cannot now adopt big city signposts — and that now it is time to address the needs of residents who are fed up with hearing about it and paying for it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



The Boston Calling case, officially titled United States of America vs. Kenneth Brissette; Timothy Sullivan, probably should never have been brought. There seem ways to have disciplined these men for what they did short of a criminal prosecution.

I will discuss the issues raised later. First I direct you to read the Appeals Court Judge’s finding that Brissette and Sullivan could be properly indicted pursuant to the Hobbs Act, which, says the Court, incorporates the common law definition of extortion :

We all know, thanks to years of public discussion, what Brissette and Sullivan did: they intervened in Crash Line Productions’ September 2, 2014 concert permit application to insist, as a condition of the permit being granted, that it hire workers from Local 11, workers that Crash Line said it did not need. This they had no legal power to require, and thanks to (City Director of Operations) Joe Rull’s directive to them, they knew it. Yet they did it anyway.

Thus the question arises : what should be done by way of disciplining Brissette and Sullivan ? And another question : are City officials barred from advocating for the hiring of Union workers, even to the extent of making union hires a condition of permit issuance ?

The second question is easy. In the Appeals Court opinion one finds this sentence : “The licensing agreement between Crash landing and the City did not obligate Crash landing to hire workers that it needed to put on a festival from any union or otherwise place restraints on Crash Landing’s hiring practices.” This sentence would suggest that the City could have a permit applicant enter into an agreement that would require hiring union workers.

The Court’s opinion also notes that Crash landing had a pre-existing contract, with another firm, to supply it the workers it needed for its event. By their holding up the permit issuance, Brissette and Sullivan disregarded Crash landing’s existing contract obligations. Instead of, from the outset, negotiating an agreement with Crash landing to require that it hire Local 11 workers — an agreement which the Court suggest they would have had authority to do — Brissette and Sullivan simply imposed, on their own hook, whether or not they realized it, their own demands on all concerned. They acted capriciously, carelessly.

Advancing the cause of union workers and union wages is a necessary undertaking and should be a political and economic priority at a time when wages have fallen behind the huge rise of housing prices. I applaud Brissette and Sullivan for their commitment to the union argument. I cannot, however, credit the amateurish way in which they applied their commitment in the Crash Landing case. They deserved to be admonished in no uncertain terms : suspended or maybe even fired by the City administration, including for the embarrassment generated.

Admonition ceased to be an option once the United States attorney brought her criminal indictment of the men under the Hobbs Act. Now the entire history of government regulation of union activity came into play. The NLRB has jurisdiction over what sorts of job action and organizing tactics a union — or its friends — may employ. Criminal sanction is available for actions that result in intimidation and worse. Extortion is pretty much defined by labor conflict intimidations, and when such intimidation is general to a union action, prosecution is a must. Yet it’s not always easy to tell where legal hardball ends and criminal action begins. A large number of NLRB cases turn on how the facts are delineated. In the Brisette and Sullivan case, however, there seems to be very little of  intimidation, just a lot of hurry, or maybe a desire on the part of Crash landing to be Mr. Nice Guy.  Amateurish, Brissette’s permit game surely was; annoying, too. But intimidation ? Hardly. Also this : Crash landing was legally entitled to its permit ; why did it not go to Court, on an emergency basis, seeking an injunction ordering the City to issue it ? Would that nit have put an end to the Brissette and Sullivan business ?

I have a hard time justifying the United States Attorney bringing a “corruption case” where the victimized party did not seek ordinary legal remedies available to it.

Even though Brissette and Sullivan were told that it was illegal to do what they did, I think their mindset was that they were just negotiating; that if push came to shove, they would have no choice but to issue the permit. Did Crash landing say to them, “if you don’t issue us this permit, we’re going to Court” ? It seems not. If so, then I doubt that Brissette and Sullivan felt they were intimidating anybody. That they have had now to entrust their futures to a motion by their lawyers for “:judgment notwithstanding the verdict” — a normal motion but hardly a common one — is a shame. I think those who are protesting the conviction have it right : that officials will now shy away from advocacy for unions without first consulting, and perhaps even having to retain, a lawyer.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



^ proposed new roadway along Chelsea Creek, showing its direct link to the Suffolk Downs site

Recently Cargo Ventures, Inc.,(“Cargo”) a warehousing business servicing Logan Airport, proposed a major reconfiguration of a half-mile long stretch of East Boston waterfront abutting Chelsea Creek. Cargo’s plans depend in part upon the State conveying the railroad right of way that it owns, as shown on the map pictured above. No sooner had these plans become public than opposition from some moved the State to withdraw, temporarily, its conveyance, pending “further study.” Clearly what the State means by “further study” is time for the various interests affected to weigh in on either the Yes side or the No.

We stand with the “Yes” side. Here’s why :

( 1 ) the plan will create a shorefront roadway that will offer some traffic relief to McClellan Highway, which is the only highway that commuters from coastal communities North of Boston can reasonable take to and from Boston.

( 2 ) Cargo will build a garage and warehouse that will greatly expand its footprint, creating hundreds of jobs for residents of East Boston and other nearby communities.

( 3 ) the planned  new road will connect directly to the entrance-way to Suffolk Downs, which will be undergoing enormous development during the next 20 years. Suffolk has already committed to mitigating traffic along McClellan Highway. This connector road serves that commitment beautifully.

( 4 ) the connector road will also relieve the traffic pressure on Boardman Street and Orient Heights’ main intersection, Saratoga Street at Bennington.

Much of the land area to be mitigated by cargo is today an eyesore of junkyards, auto repair shops, parking, and under-utilized old industrial buildings. Cities have learned to maximize their waterfronts’ appeal — and tax assessments. The new Chelsea Creek waterfront buildings will greatly increase these parcels’ City tax revenues.

It is difficult to find an objection to the Cargo plan that stands up to scrutiny. Will all the new jobs impact all traffic, not just the traffic relieved from McClellan Highway ? Maybe. Yet the new roadway’s direct link to Suffolk Downs suggest that it will reroute that development’s traffic increase far more effectively than any alternate suggestion that I have seen.

I invite your criticisms of our argument, yet I am doubtful that any such can overcome all the reasons for supporting this proposal.

Note : many thanks to Bayswater resident Mary Berninger for explaining to me graphically the positive benefits of this proposal.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere