Sunday, December 23, 2007

City and Youth Try to Butt Out Cigarette Ads

On the outside of one convenience store in Dorchester, at the corner of Adams Street and Centre Street, they spread like a rash: 23 ads for 8 brands of cigarettes. The ads run from doors to windows, and around the corner to the side of the building. There are even ads partially blocked by other ads.

For Mohamed Chibou, a compliance officer in the City of Boston Tobacco Control Program, the sight is fairly common among convenience stores in areas such as Dorchester and Roxbury.

“As you look at the advertising in front, it’s mostly tobacco ads,” he said, “and there’s a reason for it to be there.”

Youth activists from Mission Hill, Dorchester, and other neighborhoods say the reason is to get more young people started on smoking. And, Thursday, city officials stood with them to announce tougher enforcement of city regulations on advertising.

According to a survey by the youth group Sociedad Latina, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of store ads promoting tobacco products was Dorchester, with more than 49%. The figures were almost as high for Mattapan, South Boston, and Mission Hill.

“You go to Centre St in West Roxbury, you won’t see these signs,” said Mayor Thomas Menino.

“What we notice with a lot of stores in Dorchester and Roxbury,” said Chibou, “is that pretty much the whole front of the store is covered in tobacco advertising, and much of it at eye-level for children.” Even some stores with fewer ads visible from outside have several bunched together around their checkout areas, where they’re hard to miss.

Youth activists have been campaigning for ad restrictions for the last four years. They say the store ads often appeal to the young by design and their eye-level.

“They see the advertisements and they think it’s cool, it’s colorful,” said Shanaya Coke, a member of BOLD (“Breath of Life Dorchester”) Teens.

The survey by Sociedad Latina also shows that more than one-third of the tobacco ads were in stores near a school, community center, or playground.

“A lot of kids between the ages of 4 and 8 are going to see these advertisements, not adults,” said 15 year-old Jonathan Ondrejko, a member of the Healthy Roslindale Coalition, at a City Council hearing on storefront ads earlier this month.

Tobacco companies agreed to restrict marketing to youth under a legal settlement with 46 states in 1998. Lorillard, which makes Newport cigarettes, has a youth smoking prevention program. The makers of Kool cigarettes, RJ Reynolds, say on their website that their standards include minimizing “exposure of minors to tobacco advertising.” But another corporate standard says that communication with adult smokers regarding their brand choices “is essential for effective competition.”

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco companies increased their marketing budgets in the first three years after the settlement by two-thirds. “Most of the increase,” says the campaign website, “was in retail store marketing, which is highly effective at reaching kids.”

Officials and advocates also put some of the blame for smoking by young people on magazine advertising and earlier cutbacks in prevention programs by the state. But the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids notes that studies show 75% of teens shop at convenience stores at least once a week.

“Those signs are not just for business inside the store,” said City Councilor Mike Ross. “I think those signs on the front are driving business outside the store for future cigarette purchases.”

City regulations restrict advertising by volume and placement. They limit ads to only 30% of the area in windows, and ads displayed more than 15 days require a permit. At a City Council hearing chaired by Ross earlier this month, officials talked about possibly changing the regulations. But it’s expected any attempt to ban ads for one type of product such as cigarettes would trigger a legal challenge.

Even supporters of restrictions acknowledge there will be a financial price for storeowners who get paid to display tobacco ads.

“There needs to be responsibility in advertising. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” said the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Barbara Ferrer. “And some of the responsibility should be borne by storeowners as well.”

Officials announced their call for limiting ads at Tropic Food Market, a family-owned convenience on Blue Hill Ave, in Dorchester. The store sells cigarettes and displays some advertising inside, but no ads are visible from the street.

“Our concern is for the teens, young kids around here, what they’re exposed to,” said co-owner Karen Wint.

Wint says there’s also opposition to smoking at her church.

“We have three kids at home,” she said. “We don’t want them to get involved with these ads.”

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Foreclosure Rescue Vs. the Contractor Special

If there’s anything too hopeless for President Bush’s foreclosure prevention plan, it's the “contractor special” near Codman Square in Dorchester. Located in a three-decker (photo, right) on Whitfield Street, the condo is one reason why some believe the President’s plan falls short. And it helps explain why, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pointed out, the resetting of adjustable mortgages to higher interest rates is only one link in the subprime chain-reaction.

"The Bush administration's proposal is simply not enough,” the mayor said in a statement issued Thursday. “An astounding 80% of the City of Boston's foreclosure prevention clients in adjustable rate mortgages never even made it to the first rate reset. I hope that Congress understands that solving the nation's foreclosure problems is going to take a lot more than a little tweaking around the edges of the mortgage industry. We need Federal assistance to help save the working class neighborhoods across the nation that are being ravaged by the greed of the lending industry over the last decade."

Like Menino, others familiar with subprime lending in Boston agree the proposal announced November 6 by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is too limited. It would only apply to adjustable subprime mortgages starting from between January 2005 and June 2007, with resets scheduled for three years later. The five-year freeze on interest rates would be voluntary. And the result could still be a net gain overall for lenders and investors, since the diminished returns on interest might still be greater than proceeds from sales after foreclosure.

“The limited scope of the announcement will be disappointing for the millions of homeowners at risk of foreclosure,” said a statement from the CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America (NACA), Bruce Marks. “President Bush is abandoning the approximately one million homeowners already on the brink of foreclosure.”

But Marks credits the plan with setting a “new standard for government intervention,” comparing the interest rate freeze to the wage and price controls imposed by President Nixon in 1971. Those controls led to short-term relief, only to be followed by double-digit inflation less than three years later. If the current spasm of tight credit were to ease up and the housing market to reverse its downslide, then the comparison with Nixon’s strategy would seem more flattering.

Marks also credits Bush with avoiding a repetition of the government’s bailout of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s. But, while Marks emphasizes an influential step toward widespread relief on mortgage interest rates, the executive director of Americans for Fairness in Lending, James Campen, sees more obstacles.

“The plan, as it seems,” said Campen, “is going to involve a lot of individual processing to see if people meet the criteria.”

Even when a mortgage meets the criteria in the President’s plan, the property owner would have to ask for help. And to get help, the owner would have to live in the property that secured the mortgage. Real estate analyst John Anderson says that’s why the plan will have limited ability to stall foreclosures and their ripple effect on hard-hit markets such as Dorchester.

“Keeping mortgage rates fixed for 3 or 4 years is not going to have any effect,” he says. “It’s going to have no effect on a condo in Dorchester that nobody moved into.” Or at least where the owner on paper might not have a principal residence.

Which brings up the case of the three-decker with the “contractor special.” After its conversion to condos, all three units were sold to a single buyer in February, 2006, each for $330,000, and each with a mortgage from a different lender. On paper, the buyer was committed to using two of the units as his principal residence. On a third unit, the lender waived the occupancy requirement. Within 19 months, there were petitions to foreclose on all three units.

By October the “contractor special,” unit 3 at 43 Whitfield St, was on the market for $77,000. An ad says the unit has been gutted, with the start of a rehab and “some great extras,” including “the start of a marble bathroom,” not to mention a jacuzzi tub and “some new cabinets.”

At least unit 3 might be better than unit 1, which is on the market for only $63,000, and which an ad says is only “partially gutted.” Also mentioned in the ad: “There is no kitchen and no working bathroom.”

How could the price have fallen so much in less than two years? Was it wear and tear from the occupants? Were the units way overpriced (and over-appraised) when they sold in 2006? What’s more definite is that the seller in 2006 made more than half a million dollars, minus anything that might have been spent on improvements. The million-dollar three-decker might be an aberration, but sales prices were real enough to feed comparisons by appraisers, even for transactions in which the buyer was an owner-occupant who kept up mortgage payments. Now those buyers could once again find their property values affected by figures from 43 Whitfield St, though in the opposite way.

“You put these prices into ‘comps,’” said Anderson, “you’ll have prices dropping off the end of the table.”

“The problem is not the fraud,” he said. “It’s the people who buy the houses predicated on the fraud.”

Until the market started going downhill, there was always the possibility that even the worst case of a foreclosure could be followed by resale at a higher price. “The whole thing,” said Campen, “was based on being able to get refinanced.” And, as Campen notes, loans that went bad for buyers and investors still made money for another party, as may very well have been the case at 43 Whitfield Street.

The idea of a reprieve on ill-advised loans has also met with some backlash, since there would be a price passed on, at least to some investors. It’s possible the price of foreclosures avoided or deferred might be smaller than a loss of revenue from interest payments, but Anderson says the best way for a market to recover is to let prices fall as abruptly as possible.

“I’m a market person,” he says. “The quicker it crashes, and the quicker you get it over with, the better.”

But Anderson and Campen agree about the need for better regulation, even if it does little for people who’ve already borrowed trouble.

“Markets do work, as long as you have standards,” said Anderson.

And the tight credit that’s currently blamed for stifling demand has been equated with a loss of trust in financial markets. Lenders modifying loans on a large scale could be even one more reason for distrust by investors needed to replenish capital for mortgages.

“You can’t run an advanced market on trust. You have to have regulations,” said Campen.

The regulations that still apply to banks have largely been sidestepped by mortgage companies in the subprime debacle. That greater freedom to innovate did in a way expand home-buying opportunity, but innovation has also meant banks losing money as investors on mortgages they would have shunned as lenders. To make that less likely, Campen says the federal government should impose regulation on mortgage companies and appraisers.

“What really has dried up the market,” said Campen, “is a lack of regulation.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Northeastern, BRA Take Hits on Housing Deal

In Boston, the expansion of colleges and universities is even more normal than resistance from neighbors. What makes the latest acquisition by Northeastern University unusual, and even more a target for resistance, is that the property is an affordable housing complex, St. Botolph Terrace. And there’s one more reason: the acquisition also had to be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Located at the crossroads of Lower Roxbury, the South End, and the Back Bay, the 47 subsidized units are on Mass. Ave, just around the corner from Matthews Arena. They’re also on a border between residential neighborhoods and institutions that has been lurching deeper and deeper into the Fenway and Lower Roxbury.

At a City Council hearing last week, university representatives tried to allay fears on the part of residents and elected officials. The university says it will honor a contract that would continue Section 8 rental subsidies at St. Botolph Terrace through 2023, but residents are asking for a commitment to affordable housing that’s even longer and less conditional.

The hearing took place across the street from St. Botolph Terrace. By the time the hearing was over, two elected officials—State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner—said the only way to give residents a firm commitment to affordable housing would be to let them buy the property, possibly in collaboration with a non-profit development group.

The Northeastern University Housing Corp. bought St. Botolph Terrace in November from Kenneth and Cecil Guscott for $10.4 million. “It was not purchased to move people out,” Northeastern’s director of government relations, Jeffrey Doggett, told councilors. “It was not purchased to move students in.”

Even Turner agreed the public process for allowing student housing at the complex might discourage conversion into a dormitory. But the day after the hearing, Northeastern’s Director of Communications, Fred McGrail, said there has yet to be a decision about whether to use the property eventually for academic or administrative space, or even student housing.

“A property became available right on the edge of the campus. We have to take a look at it,” said McGrail. “It’s prudent to take a look.”

Even if the Guscotts held on to St. Botolph Terrace, the units could still be a converted to market rate at the end of the contract with the US Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. There’s even worry this could happen before 2023 if HUD were to cut back enough on money for project subsidies.

“This could be gone in two to four years, if HUD gets out of the Section 8 business,” said Wilkerson.

“Northeastern doesn’t have a mission focused on the tenants,” said Turner, “and that causes fear.”

Two residents of the complex told councilors they moved in after having been homeless. One of them was a 22 year-old single mother, Mercedes Rodriguez.

“Am I going to end up on the street again?” she asked.

“It’s not easy to find a good neighborhood for your kids,” she said.

Doggett told councilors Northeastern would try to help avoid a possible shortfall in Section 8 subsidy money in the federal budget. But the director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, Michael Kane, said it’s “not clear” whether there would be money for rental subsidies at St. Botolph Terrace for even the next 17 years.

Worries about the future of Section 8 were also expressed at the hearing by a resident of a neighboring development, where a HUD contract is due to expire in 2011. The president of the Mass. Association of Community Development Corporations, Joe Kriesberg, says tightening budgets and shorter subsidy contracts for Section 8 will affect projects owned by non-profit developers and conventional private owners.

“Just the uncertainty, let alone whether or not there’s going to be funding,” he said, “gives owners an excuse, if not a rational reason, to want to pull out of the program.”

Also coming under fire at the hearing was the BRA, which had control over use of the property as an urban renewal project. Some councilors and tenant organizers say BRA officials promised as late as April 2006 that units at St. Botolph Terrace would stay affordable even beyond 2023. And they say the approval of the sale to Northeastern, which came one day after a petition in July, would make the affordability hinge on yearly appropriations in the federal budget.

The BRA approval took place after the departure of former BRA director Mark Maloney and before the arrival of the new director, John Palmieri, in November. There was a BRA observer at the Council hearing, but no BRA official giving testimony.

Wilkerson said tenants were “completely shut out” by the BRA.

“It was a secret transaction,” she said. “And why was that? It certainly does not engender confidence in the word of these institutions.”

“No institution should buy up affordable housing to put their students or anything else there,” said City Councilor Mike Ross.

“The way this was done was equally wrong,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the BRA. The BRA made a commitment to the Boston City Council they would not move on this issue until there was a resolution on the council or the community level.”

Though Turner said at the beginning of the hearing he wanted a commitment to long-term affordability at St. Botolph Terrace, he later agreed with Wilkerson that Northeastern couldn’t be trusted to keep the complex affordable.

“There’ just isn’t reason or history to do the ‘Trust me,’” said Wilkerson.

But the chair of the Council’s Housing Committee, Sam Yoon, said arranging a sale to residents and money to maintain affordability would take time, and that a short-term assurance from Northeastern might bring more peace of mind than hopes for something better in the long term. Said Yoon, “I want residents to go home tonight feeling they’re going to be OK, for at least three months.”

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mixed Reaction to Plan for Catholic Schools

The consolidation of Catholic schools in Dorchester is meeting with mixed reactions among elected officials. Some view the closing of two schools and the infusion of as much as $60 million as the best hope for survival of Catholic education in Dorchester and Mattapan. But the schools that are closing—St. Peter’s (in photo) in Meetinghouse Hill, and St. Kevin’s near Uphams Corner—serve Dorchester’s most distressed neighborhoods.

It’s possible students from these neighborhoods will be served by the remaining Catholic schools. There are also plans to help the area near St. Peter’s School with new money for an after school program and a teen center. But the reaction Friday from area’s state representative, Marie St. Fleur, was negative.

“I’m really disturbed about the action of the Archdiocese today, where it closed two schools that are the heart of the immigrant community—a struggling immigrant community,” said St. Fleur, in a phone message to Neighborhood Network News. “It’s left me with a huge question,” she said, “about where was Christ in their decision Thursday.”

There was also a statement on the consolidation (“2010 Initiative”) Friday from State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. She represents the Lower Mills and Cedar Grove neighborhoods, though she and St. Fleur are both alumnae of a Catholic high school that closed, Msgr. Ryan. Dorcena Forry also attended St. Kevin’s. In her statement, she called the consolidation “a difficult, but necessary undertaking that is critically important to the education network in our city's neighborhoods.”

There’s total agreement that Catholic schools in Dorchester and Mattapan have to adjust to changes in population. For St. Fleur, that would have meant keeping schools open where she believed there was the most population growth. But observers say the changes in population—and in the engagement between church and community—make the old parish school model obsolete, especially for financial support. Where schools are closing, some families will give up convenience, but the end of parish boundaries for enrollment could also mean more choices. The five surviving schools (not including St. Brendan’s, which will remain independent) will have a joint administration, and plans call for changes in curriculum. There will also be renovations of the school buildings, which are all at least 50 years old.

“It is important to keep in mind that Dorchester has already watched as four other parish schools, including my alma mater M.R.M., closed one-by-one over the last seven years,” said Dorcena Forry. “I believe that, unless a concerted effort of the kind presented by the 2010 Initiative is earnestly advanced, several more schools in our community would inevitably suffer a similar fate.”

After the consolidation plan was announced, Mayor Menino invited students affected by the consolidation to apply to the Boston Public Schools. Officials will convey that invitation in a letter to 300 students at the two K-8 schools that are closing. According to the city, almost 400 students who were in a Catholic school last year now attend the Boston Public Schools, not including students in the three exam schools.

Note: special meetings to let families affected by the consolidation learn about options in the Boston Public Schools will take place Wednesday, December 5, 6-7;30 p.m., at the Codman Square Health Center, 637 Washington St., Dorchester; and Thursday, December 6, 6-7:30 p.m., at the Lower Mills Branch Library, 27 Richmond St., Dorchester.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Conflicting Reactions to Latest on Biolab

There are some initial reactions to questions about BU’s level 4 biocontainment lab in a report by a committee the National Research Council. At the request of the state, independent scientists on the committee weighed in on a draft review of the lab’s safety risk by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). According to the committee, the NIH risk assessment was “not sound and credible.”

The committee said the NIH’s draft review failed to adequately analyze the worst case scenario involving release of deadly and highly contagious germs. The committee also said the NIH draft lacked the “appropriate level” of information for a risk comparison of the proposed location in the South End with less densely populated sites in a suburb or rural area. And the committee said it was dissatisfied with the consideration of environmental justice issues concerning the lab, especially their effect on the surrounding inner-city population.

In a statement issued today, the NIH emphasized the committee was criticizing, not the risk posed by the lab, but only how it was measured. Mayor Menino’s press office and the BU Medical Campus issued statements saying they were confident that concerns raised by the scientists would be addressed in NIH’s final report.

An attorney for residents opposing the plant, Andrew Rainer, says getting to a final report that will fend off the legal challenges will take more than word-smithing. Because the scientists said NIH’s analysis was “not sound and credbible,” Rainer argues, there would have to be a new analysis, which could take months.

An attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, Eloise Lawrence, says it’s “highly questionable” that a federal judge would let the lab open, at least without a new risk analysis. “It is pretty distressing,” she said, “that the NIH, the agency that’s charged with protecting our health, can’t conduct a risk analysis.”

Monday, November 12, 2007

Acclaim for Pilot Schools Prompts Debate

As an example of the challenges met by Boston’s experimental pilot schools, a humanities teacher at Boston Arts Academy, Abdi Ali, talked about a gifted student from the Dominican Republic. The student lacked reading skills in English and his native Spanish, but he had what Ali said might be thought of as a primary language: a sense of color and design. So, in addition to work in visual arts, the student was trying to learn reading by telling stories from pictures.

“We have to expand our notion of what kind of students are coming to our schools,” said Ali.

Expanding notions is what pilot schools such as Boston Arts Academy have been doing since 1994. Freed from mandates of the Boston Public School (BPS) district and work rules of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), the pilots have been laboratories for innovation in curriculum, teaching practices, longer school days, and even the way performance is evaluated. The schools have long been popular, and their acclaim has been supported by test results. But it was only last week that a new four-year study by the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) showed that Boston’s pilot high schools get significantly better results while working mainly with students of color from poor families—the same population that dominates the BPS outside elite exam schools. The results were measured mainly by MCAS scores, graduation rates, and indicators of engagement such as attendance and out-of-school suspension rates.

When the findings were presented Friday, the disagreement at a panel discussion hosted by The Boston Foundation was much less about the pilot school advantages than how they can be multiplied. Only one new pilot school has opened in Boston in the last for years, though the new contract with the BTU aims for more openings or conversions. The disagreement was also about whether pilot schools had reached a tipping point: are they so much better that they have gone from being experimental exceptions to a whole new standard?

“The advice is to unstuck the pilot process in Boston right away,” said the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, Paul S. Grogan.

“I think it’s inevitable the kind of structural changes the pilot schools represent,” he said, “will be universal in the future around the country.”

Some common features of pilot schools include what CCE describes as a “small, personalized size,” with a customized curriculum and teaching strategy. They also have longer hours and an attendance rate much higher than that of other BPS students outside the exam schools. The higher attendance alone amounts roughly two weeks of study. Students in pilot schools also have a lower rate of out-of-school suspensions.

CCE Executive Director Dan French says the pilot schools put “much greater emphasis on performance indicators” such as student portfolios. Ali says teachers also spend more time talking to each other and working with students in ways less fragmented by subject matter. As French put it, “every teacher is an advisor in most pilot schools.”

Grogan says the structural autonomy that enables pilot schools to outperform other BPS schools is “absolutely essential.” As one result, he noted, all pilot schools and charter schools have a longer day.

“That’s one of the kinds of things that burst forth,” he said, “when you have that kind of freedom.”

BTU President Richard Stutman asked whether the pilot school difference might be explained by demographics. The answer from CCE is that students entering pilot high schools are less likely to show signs of risk for dropping out, to be English Language Learners, or to have severe learning disabilities. A high percentage of students entering pilot schools—roughly one-quarter—are also from outside the BPS (while much of the 16% outside enrollment in BPS high schools is thought to be from immigrant families).

Instead of accepting students by lottery, most pilot schools have an application process. Though the CCE found pilots are better in narrowing the racial gap in achievement, and in the achievement of students with risk factors, it also acknowledged the effect of self-selection: “good schools attract the interest of a disproportionately high number of college-bound students.” Since those students vastly outnumber the available seats in pilot schools, there’s reason to believe more options with at least the characteristics of pilot schools could get similar results.

“There are no obstacles to implementing those reforms in any other school in the city,” said Stutman.

But Ali said “contractual complications” sometimes create a culture that forces thinking “in terms of money and not in terms of what we care about.” Also vouching for the benefits of autonomy was the headmaster of Boston Community Leadership Academy, Nicole Bahnam.

“It’s all of us who own the school,” she said. “It’s a real ‘we’ of running the school.”

In addition to pilot schools, Boston families have also been able to choose from other new options: the charter schools outside the BPS, and the more specialized “learning communities” that were created by subdividing some of Boston’s district high schools. Grogan finds the changes at district high schools less promising than the pilot school ventures, despite the acclaim for some learning communities, such as the Excel High School in South Boston.

“There has been data from around the country,” said Grogan, “saying the smaller high schools all by themselves don’t provide much.”

Stutman warned that pilot schools could become too much like the charter schools with high-achieving graduates and a large percentage of freshmen who leave before grade 12.

“You are setting up a series of boutique schools,” he said, “that will never, never educate the mainstream Boston student.”

If anything, the CCE report questions the potential for pilot schools among English Language learners and students with more severe learning disabilities. That might be considered beyond the mainstream, or on the edge. But, as Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson pointed out, more than one-third of the BPS students come from homes where English is not the main language.

Though Johnson called the CCE findings “very exciting,” she warned against a rush to generalize. Figures showing an approach that works better for students across the board, she cautioned, can obscure problems with sub-groups, such as black and Latino males. And she said school performance depends not only on structure, but on other factors such as leadership and school culture.

“I think small matters,” she said, “but it only matters if you have good teachers teaching in these settings who care.”

There was little talk at the panel discussion about whether pilot schools were more expensive than other non-exam schools. The pilot schools do have smaller class sizes, and the new BTU contract requires additional pay for teachers who work longer. Even the CCE recommendations treat pilot schools as a model for change within the current system. While the CCE calls for expanding the number of pilot schools, it also says the assignment process should help families make “informed, intentional” choices among all the Boston Public Schools.

“Where families are actively engaged in making decisions about where their child goes to school,” said Johnson, “they tend to be more actively engaged in the school.”

The BTU plans to add one of the new pilot schools, but Johnson says others will probably have to wait until September of 2009.

“We want to make sure,” she said, “that equity is a key part of the work that we do.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

2007 Council Vote Triggers Electoral Slump

Yesterday's vote for City Council resulted in two changes: John Connolly replacing Félix Arroyo as Councilor at Large, and Mark Ciommo taking the Allston-Brighton district seat being given up by Jerry McDermott. But the most dramatic difference may have been the slump in voter turnout.
Even compared with the last off-year city election four years ago, with candidates only for the Council, the number of votes cast this year was down by more than 30%. Voter turnout was 13.59%. In the last two similar elections--for City Council only--the turnout percentage was much higher: 24.49% in 1999 and 24.60% in 2003. Though there was a very small change in turnout percentage between 1999 and 2003, there was still a noticeable increase in the number of people who voted (11.83%), thanks in part to an increase in voter registration.
In traditional high-turnout areas such as South Boston and Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale), the number of voters yesterday was down from 2003 by more than 25%. But the decrease was even larger in parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. In Ward 14, which goes from Grove Hall to Mattapan's Wellington Hill area, the number of people voting this year was down from November of 2003 by 54.85%. In one part of Boston's Latino community, around Hyde Square, the number was down by 56.06%.

Among the factors in the turnout was yesterday's rainy weather. Another factor was the decrease in campaigning. With only 9 candidates running at large, there was no preliminary election this year. Of those candidates, only 5 were competitive enough to get even 4% of the vote. Four years ago, there was a preliminary election at large with 14 candidates. In 1999, there were 15.

So how bad was the bad turnout? Given that some of the largest decreases in voters were in areas showing dramatic gains in recent years, the results may have been an aberration, saying less about voters than the field of candidates and their campaigns. The lack of a preliminary narrowed the spotlight in the mainstream media. In comments after the election, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino cited the drop in media coverage, but also the apparent lack of issues that could mobilize voters. There were differences among candidates about school assignments, how to make rental housing more affordable, and the level 4 biolab. Together with some less sharply contrasted ideas about public safety, education, and property taxes, the issues talk might very well have come across as a blur. That could happen in any off-year city election. So there may be something to the mayor's observation about one other factor: simply that running for City Council has become less attractive for potential candidates.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Three-decker Windfalls Cause Worry

Would you pay $355,000 for one floor of the three-decker shown to the right, at 310 Fuller St in Dorchester? That’s how much two buyers paid this year, one in May and the other in July. Even if it turns out the buys are phantom acquisitions, the mortgages for each newly converted unit are real. The documents at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds leave no doubt there was financing--$337,250 for each unit, from Wells Fargo and Homecomings Financial. Just as real would be any of that money passing on to the owner who sold the units, at least what remains after the cost of repairs and acquiring the whole house. In this case, the entire house was purchased from a previous owner for $585,000. There may have been some renovation before the condos were sold, but there appears to have been a need for a good deal more—at least to attract the buyers who would meet the sale price and lenders who would feel the property had value.

So, what about the value of the units? Mortgage payments, property taxes, water and sewer bills, and a condo reserve fund would easily make for monthly payments greater than $2,200. Unless a condo buyer simply wanted to live in the building, and wasn’t concerned about the fall-off in values (which began well before the units were sold), the purchase might make sense. But, for an absentee owner, the only way to have a chance of breaking even would be to use the unit as a one-floor rooming house.

Despite the credit crisis that took hold after the transactions on Fuller St, three- and six-family conversions in Dorchester have continued, with unit sales continuing into October (though with some fall-off in prices). Some of the buildings look much better than the one on Fuller St, and there are reasons to believe these conversions were preceded by upgrades. But even in converted buildings with upgrades over the past three years, some units have entered the foreclosure pipeline. Some of those have been resold at lower prices. And one was even bought by a developer who played a role in converting the same building less than 15 months earlier. After his foreclosure purchase, he sold the unit again, less than two weeks later, with a mark-up of $110,000.

If the investors doing conversions can make money even from distress, they must be getting help from appraisals. And, during the housing boom into 2005, many parts of Dorchester and Roxbury that suffered the most in past housing slumps were seeing noticeable improvements. But prices for some converted units in those neighborhoods—in one building as high as $375,000 for units purchased in April 2006 (with 100% financing, adjustable interest and a balloon rider) look scary.

If unit loans go bad, that’s certainly a problem for lenders, though not necessarily the ones originating the loans. Among two dozen condo unit loan defaults tracked in Dorchester over the past couple of years, nearly all the foreclosure filings were not by the originator, but by another company holding or servicing the loan. So there’s little wonder that the original lender had little reason to care about the unit-buyer’s ability to repay. And, if it mattered little that the buyer was a hapless would-be owner-occupant with good intentions, it might also matter little if the buyer were a transactional avatar, partly vouched for by a creative appraisal and, in some cases, represented by a proxy granted power of attorney. In other words, instead of targeting real buyers who might be more vulnerable, lenders could, in some cases, be leveraging a trade in the real estate market’s equivalent of “dead souls.”

When loans go bad, there are other repercussions. The fire sale prices for units foreclosed in one building can depress the values next door. As bad loans transmigrate through financial markets, more investors are spooked. And, as lenders get spooked by capital markets, they tighten the reins even on legitimate loans. That leads to a sharp drop in the pool of qualified buyers, which depresses property values even more. While some areas or parts of the housing market won’t feel much of that pain, others will be hit hard.

Housing markets have been through slumps before, only to bounce back. But what has changed since the last cycle is the shift of home mortgage lending from banks and credit unions—regulated by the Federal Reserve Bank and other federal and state agencies—to the much more loosely regulated mortgage companies. During a hearing earlier this week at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, the chair of the US House Committee on Financial Services, US Rep. Barney Frank, noted the effect of the lending shift away from banks and credit unions.

“If they were the only originators of mortgages,” said Frank, “we would not have this crisis.”

That’s why Frank envisions a new law that, as he put it, “will cover all mortgage origination with the same set of rules.” That would even include the requirements that currently apply to banks under the Community Reinvestment Act. But, even at this week’s hearing, fellow Democrats on the Frank’s committee (US Rep. Stephen Lynch and US Rep. Michael Capuano) acknowledged there could be difficulty getting the regulatory upgrade approved by the Senate and President Bush.

Even if there were new laws to make home mortgage lending less predatory and less volatile, some things cannot by undone by the next upswing in the market. As one housing investor in Dorchester pointed out, conversions of three-deckers weaken the pervasive (if less than universal) element of owner-occupancy that provides stability in hard times. It also appears developers doing the conversions bought some of these buildings from populations that put down roots and added social capital to the community—whether Irish-American, African-American, Cape Verdean, Haitian-American, or Asian-American. It could turn out that unit buyers—if they’re real people to begin with—might engage with their community in comparable fashion. But, for now, there’s reason to wonder.

See also story in the Dorchester Reporter for October 18.

Monday, October 1, 2007

New Superintendent Confronts Old Problem

In her appearance Saturday at Freedom House, Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson was expecting questions from the audience, but it was Ian Powell who made her stop and think.

“What motivates you in what you do?” asked the 21 year-old student of Boston Arts Academy from Dorchester.

“That’s a very good question,” said Johnson.

Powell explained his idea of motivation was “something that gets you started every day.”

“For me,” he told the superintendent, “it’s like my music.”

After taking more time to think, the superintendent began by recalling her childhood in Tennessee, when her grandmother and other African-Americans were overcoming fear to exercise their right to vote.

“I was born at a time when everything was segregated. I actually remember the first time my grandmother voted. I always get emotional about that. She was 60 years old,” said Johnson.

“I think my passion about the work,” she said, “is to make sure the sacrifices they made were not in vain.”

What began with a prolonged silence ended with a prolonged applause. But, for much of the five hours at a conference on education, the talk was about other kinds of barriers that have recently kept 40% of Boston students from finishing high school in four years. The conference took place three days after release of a report on Boston’s persistent dropout problem, done for the School Dept. by the Parthenon Group.

The report linked the dropout problem to indicators going back at least as early as middle school. Among the students with a high dropout rate were 9th graders who failed at least one subject, and 8th graders who missed school one day a week. There were also high dropout rates for students—many of them immigrants—who enter the system after grade 8, and students with learning disabilities. And dropout figures were higher for black and Latino students than for white and Asian students.

“Kids have been dropping out for many years before they hit the streets,” said the executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, Neil Sullivan.

“We have the potential to set up an early indicator system based on this research,” he said, “the challenge now is to set up a response that is effective at all these points.”

One response suggested by Johnson was to give failing 9th graders a chance to recover credits and graduate with their age group. According to Johnson, there’s also a national trend of black male students being over-referred to special education.

The coordinator for the Latino Education Action Network at Mass. Advocates for children, Samuel Hurtado, blamed the dropout problem on “a culture of cover-up” in the School Dept. Even Johnson spoke of a need to look at “the structural issues that are working against high expectations for all.”

“Kids are very sensitive to being respected or not respected,” said Johnson. “Without even verbalizing it, we convey our expectations.”

Students and recent graduates at the conference described their own struggles to overcome discouragement.

Cindy Printemps considered dropping out after her brother died from a shooting and two close friends were arrested. “At that moment,” she said, “I didn’t want to care.”

An intern with Freedom House, Printemps credited a teacher with talking her out of giving up. She went on to finish high school and currently attends Bunker Hill Community College.

According to a survey by the Boston Student Advisory Council, dropouts often report the lack of a “strong relationship” with teachers.

“As long as there’s a strong relationship, you probably will be in school,” said Moriah Smith, the student representative on the Boston School Committee.

Students and graduates at the conference also talked about how they were perceived by adults, and how those perceptions could be discouraging. A street research and referral special with the Private Industry Council, Emmanuel Allen left Jeremiah Burke High School, but eventually returned and went on to graduate from a four-year college. Even while in college, he wore clothing and jewelry that made a professor ask him if he was a drug-dealer. “Because where I’m from, everybody’s broke,” Allen said he told the professor. “And I don’t want to look like I’m broke.”

The District City Councilor from Roxbury, Chuck Turner, noted there were students coming back to school from lock-up facilities who lacked mentoring.

“We need as volunteers from the community,” said Turner, “to join hands with the School Department to do something about this problem.”

A deputy superintendent for schools in Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, Janet Williams, said students need to feel there’s an adult who believes it’s important for them to be in school. She said she tried to do this by visiting families at home or checking up on a high school student who was at the Holland School in Dorchester when Williams was the principal.

“It's that will in here," said Williams, "to establish a relationship with parents, so they know how important it is for their children to get an aeducation."

One former dropout who asked the superintendent a question was 19 year-old Ana Maria Rivera, a student at Boston Adult Technical Academy. Serving students ages 18-22, the academy is housed in the Madison Park High School Complex in Roxbury.

Rivera says she likes being able to work mornings before starting school in the afternoon, and she likes the smaller class sizes.

“The teachers give us more one-on-one time,” she said. “We get treated as adults.”

On Saturday Rivera stepped to the front of the hall to ask Dr. Johnson for the academy to have a school building of its own, where students could come in earlier and use computers. The academy’s headmaster, Sheila Azores, said the students were like guests in someone else’s school.

“These are the success stories,” said Azores. “They have dropped in.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

September 25 in Boston: Election Day Lite

In some parts of Boston, Tuesday, September 25, is election day.
In East Boston, there's a primary in the special election for a new state representative.
There are four Democrats on the ballot: Carlo Basile, Mary Berninger, Jeff Drago, and Gloribell Mota.
Also being decided tomorrow are the finalists for two district seats on the City Council.
To fill the seat being vacated in Allston-Brighton's District Nine, there will be six names on the ballot. The active candidates are Mark Ciommo, Gregory Glennon, Rosy Hanlon, Alex Selvig, and Tim Schofield.
And three candidates are on the ballot in Roxbury's District Seven: Althea Garrison, Carlos Henriquez, and the incumbent, Chuck Turner.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. There will be some changes this year in polling places, especially in District Seven. To get more information about where to vote, you can go online to the Boston Election Dept. or call 617 635-3767.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Local Politics Meets Global Finance

Standing on the podium in the hall at First Church in Roxbury, Maria Myers introduced herself as a “proud foster mother” and said her home in Dorchester was going into foreclosure.

“I take care of teenage boys,” she explained. “If I lose my home, I will be unable to do this work any more.”

When John Patterson took the podium, he said he was afraid of losing his apartment in Roxbury, due to foreclosure on the property owner by Deutsche Bank. Other speakers at last Wednesday's meeting talked about wages below Boston’s high cost of living, street violence, and how hard it was for people with criminal records to get or keep a job. Like traders watching turmoil in financial markets, the people in Roxbury had anxieties. In the middle of economic anxiety around the world, they were looking for a better deal from Boston’s largest property owners, including one reporting “fantastic” earnings growth for the 2nd quarter of this year, The Blackstone Group.

Local advocacy groups organized the meeting so that a Blackstone Group representative would appear and answer demands, or at least make a non-appearance. Either way, the organizers would make a point. After decades of losses in manufacturing jobs (many of them unionized), more of Boston’s wealth is being generated—directly or indirectly—by corporate administrations and other service sector jobs based in commercial property. One of the largest owners of that property is The Blackstone Group. With more wealth concentrated at the top income levels, while people at the bottom lose ground, organizers argue, Blackstone should narrow the gap.

A few hours before Wednesday’s town meeting, The Blackstone Group took a step in that direction by endorsing goals of the union representing Boston janitors, SEIU, Local 615. There was support for giving janitors more full-time jobs that would include access to health insurance. There was also a condition—for the new union contracts with cleaning companies to give managers more flexibility. The current contracts expire at the end of this month.

But a number of groups working together through Community Labor United have even more demands for the Blackstone Group to help, with either money or corporate leadership. The demands cover everything from help for job-seekers with criminal records to a fund for homeowners facing foreclosure. The tenant organizing coordinator with the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, Steve Meacham, called for a new form of “linkage” payments, a contribution of $1.00 per square foot, what he described as a “drop in the bucket compared to what they make.”

“We’re not stealing from the rich,” Meacham reasoned. “We’re getting back what was stolen from us.”

Between that statement and the income gap in Boston’s “hourglass economy” were some unconnected dots. At least during the meeting, there was no explicit connection made between the Blackstone Group’s profits and the chain of predatory lending that begins with homebuyers and mortgage brokers. And that would be one reason for the Blackstone Group to avoid discussing demands presented by groups at the meeting in Roxbury. The day after the meeting, Blackstone’s senior vice president for Global Corporate Communication, John Ford, said, “I think they’ve got the wrong idea of what we do for a living here.”

But the chain of global finance makes it more difficult to distinguish victims from exploiters, who are sometimes one and the same. Some of the difficulty lies in the virtual outsourcing of home mortgage lending from more tightly regulated banks to the more elusive—or slippery—transactions of mortgage companies. And the original loans are reconfigured in the world of asset management as securities, which provide money for more loans, good or bad. Even if none of the bad loans were enabled by Blackstone’s asset management, they could have been recycled by other companies making a living in some of the same ways. And nervous financial markets have more trouble distinguishing between bad debt and good debt that no one wants to buy.

“You got to wonder why things got so messed up,” said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, “and they are pretty messed up right now.”

That comment in the church hall was about the not-so-effective attempt to curb predatory lending at the state level. Wilkerson argued that attempt might have been more successful had there been more attention to the heavy concentration (or, as some call it, the targeting) of sub-prime loans among people of color. In other words, the best way to close the racial gap was to put it in the spotlight and mobilize a push for change.

“If you lift the boats for black and brown people,” said Wilkerson, “the boats get lifted for everybody.”

City Councilor Sam Yoon drew on his experience of trying to get the most community benefit from development in Chinatown. And he recalled the challenge from Wilkerson to get as much of the community unified as possible.

“We have to talk about race,” Yoon said, “and how all of us unite.”

In his advice to groups in the hall, US Rep. Michael Capuano concentrated on numbers—as in voters and money.

“The people you’re talking about tonight—they’re not looking for a fight,” said Capuano. His advice: build pressure through voter turnout, and elected officials will be more likely to lean on commercial property owners at pressure points such as zoning appeals. And Capuano said what a corporate player lacked in political goodwill might be offset by concern for money.

“If you want to do business,” he said, “and if the only way to make a buck is to share a dime, you’ll do it.”

But, if politics is local, the business of asset management is global. The business can mean investing in commercial property in downtown Boston, or acquiring a company with an eye on growing demand for hotels in India. The gains from those investments can be mapped for Boston or India, but the trickle-down can be spread more widely to pension funds or individual investors. From that perspective, it becomes more difficult for even a politician to distinguish between one dot representing the global investor and another representing the woman from Dorchester who invests in the well-being of foster children.

From a global perspective, the whole meeting hall in Roxbury was just another dot on a map. Outside the hall, the grounds of First Church looked very much the way they might have appeared more than 200 years earlier. On a warm, early evening in August, the glow of sunset deepened behind the outlines of church spires and a minaret. Surrounding the dot, as far as the ear could follow, were the sounds of crickets. Instead of a perch for viewing Boston’s downtown skyline (which it is), Eliot Square seemed more like the center of a small village, and the white clapboard of Boston’s oldest frame church looked as carefully preserved as a photograph from another time.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hart to Stick with State Senate

State Senator Jack Hart (D-South Boston/Dorchester) has decided to pass up on a chance to lead the Mass. Biotechnology Council. In a statement issued this afternoon, he said: “I no longer wish to be considered for the position of President & CEO of the Massachusetts Bio-Technology Council. Although the MBC does important work and I am grateful for their interest in me, I have decided to remain in the Massachusetts Senate serving the wonderful people of the 1st Suffolk District. As Senator, I cherish the extraordinary honor and responsibility to positively affect the lives of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Unconnected Dots to the Biolab

The road to the biocontainment lab planned by Boston University passes through a tangle of forethought and conjecture. On one side are the multiple layers of official reassurance. On the other side are the alarming, though not totally implausible what-ifs of grassroots opponents. Between those sides at a hearing Monday, July 30, were members of the City Council Public Safety Committee. One member, Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, reaffirmed his opposition to using the lab near Boston Medical Center for “level 4” research involving the deadliest pathogens. But even his colleagues, Councilors Steve Murphy and Mike Ross, had their moments of disquiet.

The hearing was supposed to provide information about how biological agents would be delivered to the lab. But there was no representative from Boston University, which Murphy said would have plans ready for presentation later this year. The Council has practically no say over the lab, though a committee hearing does provide some leverage for inquiry. By the time BU’s plans are discussed before the Council, even that leverage could be diminished if an upcoming federal court decision gives the lab full approval.

The Council did hear testimony from city officials in charge of public safety and public health. The executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Bárbara Ferrer, said she expected dangerous pathogens would be shipped to the lab only 4 or 5 times a year. “I would say we’re talking about a very limited number of pathogens coming into the lab,” she told the committee, “and a very limited number of experiments that involve using the pathogens.”

Regulations for shipment would have to be cleared with the Boston Police Dept. Superintendent in Chief Robert Dunford said there would be “point-to-point tracking” of shipments, which would have to comply with regulations for packing and security. This would include security clearance for carriers.

Councilors were told shipments would probably have to avoid “areas of high concern” such as tunnels. In the event of an accident, would all first responders know they were rushing to a level 4 bio-hazard? Not necessarily. Instead, councilors were told, responders would take an “all-hazard approach,” exercising “universal precautions.”

Turner even wondered if information about the arrival of level 4 shipment might circulate too widely. He said he was afraid the number of people being alerted would be “large enough to raise concerns on the security of the information.”

Dunford said responders would try to avoid that danger by having information “compartmentalized.” For example, he said, firefighters would not be notified about a level 4 shipment unless there were “an exceptional event.”

Earlier this year, at BU’s less hazardous level 3 lab, the notification traveled the other way, when medical waste caught fire in a sterilizing machine and the lab building had to be evacuated. The Fire Dept. responded immediately but, according to the Boston Globe, the Boston Public Health Commission was notified three hours later. There have been no reports of any infection from the fire, and it might be argued the incident wasn’t serious enough to trigger the regulatory requirement for notifying the commission immediately. But incidents in the level 3 lab were used by opponents to argue that even the best regulations and protocols won’t always be observed.

An opponent of the level 4 lab from Hyde Park, Mary Lee Marra, said hoping all biological agents would be safely contained at all times was a “Hail Mary pass.”

“Once they get out,” she said, “you can’t get them back in the bottle, even if you have the best cardboard box in the world.”

When Dunford said the city would be “in the driving seat” for security requirements, Councilor Mike Ross raised the possibility that local officials might have to yield to another authority. Ross was also less than fully persuaded about the dependability of the company that would be making shipments to the lab.

“I’m just not that comfortable with FedEx,” he said, “even if it’s FedEx Plus.”

Turner said the information at the hearing only reinforced his opposition.

“It should convince those of us who are not convinced that we should ban Bio-4 labs in Boston,” he said.

For Public Safety Committee chair Steve Murphy, the case was still incomplete.

“Legitimate transportation questions have not been answered,” he said, “and BU owes it to the public to answer those questions.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Six for City Council in Allston-Brighton

When the six candidates running for City Council in Allston-Brighton’s District 9 gathered for their first pre-election forum, there wasn’t even a hint about naming a bridge or a library for their future predecessor, Jerry McDermott. After serving less than three terms, McDermott is on the way out at age 39. Not only is he forgoing a run for re-election, but he’s moving out of Boston, most likely before the end of his term. Though McDermott inspired only one negative comment during the forum, his exit looms over the new campaign trail like an evacuation sign—saying more about trouble in the city than where to find a safe haven.

The forum was held at the Oak Square YMCA, and it can be said the surrounding neighborhood is less of a haven than before. Just a few blocks from the border of Newton, Oak Square is about as far as the candidates can get from expanding colleges without leaving the district. But the neighborhood is one of two in District 9 where a Catholic school has recently closed. In Oak Square, community activists are raising money to convert the former Our Lady of the Presentation School into a community center. That would be one more reason for families with children to stay, but McDermott has already mentioned the closing as one reason for moving out.

“People are leaving the city. Property values are going up. Water rates are going up. Homeowner’s insurance is getting more expensive,” said candidate Gregory Glennon. An assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Glennon narrowly missed getting elected state representative from Allston-Brighton in 2005. His example of flight from the neighborhood was a family whose child was assigned to a public school in East Boston.

“I hear over and over again that people are leaving because of the schools,” said Tim Schofield. An attorney with an office in Brighton, Schofield also ran for representative in 2005.

The youngest candidate, 26 year-old James Jenner, said Allston-Brighton was becoming another Amherst, Massachusetts—a college town with very few families.

To varying degrees, census figures analyzed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority show this is happening in several neighborhoods, including South Boston, the South End, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, and even West Roxbury. According to the same figures, the number of family households in Allston-Brighton declined from 1990 to 2000 by 6.5%. The BRA also reports that, over the same period, the number of housing units in Allston-Brighton has grown, but so has the percentage that is absentee-owned.

And, while some residents in a park near the YMCA were letting their dogs frolic off-leash, the candidates inside were putting even more blame for the flight of families on expanding colleges, with their rippling of disruptive students into the off-campus housing market. One of the candidates talking about the students was Alessandro “Alex” Selvig, a Lake Street resident who wants to keep Boston College from building a baseball stadium on conservation land acquired recently from the Archdiocese of Boston.

“This is the biggest issue facing in Allston-Brighton: the party houses, the kids. They’re driving us crazy,” he said.

To crack down on party houses, Selvig and candidate Mark Ciommo favored increasing the staff in the city’s Inspectional Services Dept. Schofield wants to add any unpaid fines for code violations to property tax bills. “We can increase enforcement,” he said, “but if we don’t increase the pain, it’s not going to do much good.”

There was also a question about a proposal to give tenants in large buildings the right to negotiate collectively over their rent. The candidates who took the question, Ciommo and Selvig, were both opposed. “It only scares investors away,” said Ciommo, adding, “We need more development of affordable units, not less.”

Taking even more heat than landlords were colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there,” said Glennon. “There’s this sense the institutions will do whatever they want to do.”

Glennon said he would oppose new housing for undergraduates on the land in Brighton that Boston College recently acquired from the Archdiocese of Boston. Jenner called for more give-backs to the community, including revenue based on the income generated by expansion. He’s also opposed to Harvard’s attempts to relocate residents of Charlesview Apartments complex near Western Avenue and North Harvard Street.

The executive director of the Veronica Smith Senior Center, Ciommo called for Harvard University to allow new businesses on property where it has no short-term plan for development. Schofield said long-range plans for university expansion should also include open space set aside for the community.

Another candidate, the executive director of the Brighton Main Streets program, Rosie Hanlon, has been a member of the advisory task force on expansion by Boston College.
“I worked to get the students back on campus where they belong,” she said.

But Selvig said there should have been more notification of task force meetings among the college’s neighbors.

“The process has to be changed,” he said. “We have to know what’s going on right across the street from us.”

Selvig sat through the forum with a pair of blue-and-white boxing gloves. He said they was supposed to show that he would fight for the district, but he also boasted a diplomat’s skills in negotiating and an entrepreneur’s skills in making a deal.

A mother of five, Hanlon described herself as having “a very maternal, pit-bullish approach to getting things done.” She also took credit for getting the local New Balance Factory Store to donate sneakers to a walking club. “I have the experience,” she said. “I have the commitment. I get results.”

Glennon spoke about delivering constituent services while he was working as an aide to former Allston-Brighton State Representative Brian Golden. Glennon also said he would “absolutely oppose” Mayor Menino’s attempt to raise city revenue by increasing the meals tax.

A fourth-generation member of his family in Allston-Brighton, Ciommo spoke of his work in social services and being active in the community on parks, public safety, and as a parent representative at the Gardner Elementary School.

On his law firm website, Schofield cites experience in litigating “complex business and partnership disputes,” along with cases over zoning and land use. A US Army veteran and former congressional aide, he said he’d be “an effective advocate” who would know when it’s time to bang fists and when to negotiate.

Jenner has lived all his life a few blocks from Oak Square, on Kenrick Street. His most recent jobs were driving for UPS and making deliveries for Papa Gino’s. He said he’ll devote 20% of his salary as a City Councilor to a fund for the community, and he described himself as “somebody who is not prone to the old way of politics—money politics.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

For Council at Large: Later and Less Often

The Boston City Council is trying to make an off-year election more streamlined and less expensive. At a special meeting July 12, the Council approved a home rule petition that would make it possible to skip this year’s preliminary election for its members at large. Nine people are running for the four seats, and a preliminary vote September 25 would only eliminate one candidate. If the petition were to be signed by Mayor Menino and approved in the State House, there would be a special law allowing all 9 at-large candidates to appear on the ballot once, in November.

One of the 7 councilors who voted for the home rule petition, Stephen Murphy, calls it a “sensible” way to save money.

“I don’t think anybody’s hurt by it,” said Murphy. “The taxpayers save three-quarters of a million dollars.”

That’s based on having a preliminary vote for councilor at large, with police and civilians at polling places for 196 precincts. The remaining precincts would have at least three candidates running for a council district seat.

Voting against the special law were Councilors Michael Flaherty, John Tobin, Charles Yancey, and Sam Yoon. Councilor Félix Arroyo voted present.

“We didn’t have any public hearings on this,” said Yancey. “We didn’t have any of the other candidates weigh in on the issue.”

More difficult to predict is how the change would affect election results. Arroyo and three of the “no” votes have all seen their fortunes improve dramatically after trailing in a preliminary election. Flaherty won his first term in 1999 by moving up from 5th place and bumping veteran Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who finished third in the preliminary. Four years ago, Arroyo ran fifth in the preliminary, then finished second, displacing Patricia White from her spot among the top four. In 2005, it was Sam Yoon who went from fifth place to third, switching spots with John R. Connolly. In 2001, John Tobin won his first term as councilor in District 6 (W. Roxbury/Jamaica Plain) after trailing Mike Rush in the preliminary.

If there’s any change in an electorate from preliminary to final, it’s size. The larger pool of voters is usually more diverse. That might have been a factor in the slippage for candidates whose political names had more recognition. The difference might even pose a problem for Murphy, though he says that’s unlikely. “I’m not concerned about a primary,” he said. “I’ve got more money than anybody but Flaherty.”

Murphy also argues the lack of a preliminary for councilors at large this year will have little effect on voter turnout. “An at-large race does not drive turnout,” he said. “A district race does, and a mayor’s race drives turnout.”

There was agreement from the president of the Boston League of Women Voters, Mary Tamer. "If they do go ahead and eliminate the preliminary election," she said, "nobody's getting hurt here."

While the home rule petition would mean less work for the Boston Election Dept. this year, Tamer noted the unusually high number of special elections to fill local seats vacated before the end of a term.

"Our primary concern" about the City Council race, she said, "is that the people who want to be on the ballot are there, and that has been taken care of with this proposal."

It can also be said that a preliminary for councilor at large would only subtract marginal candidates. Some of them, such as Anthony Schinella, at least made the rounds at forums and contributed to the pre-electoral discourse. But some of the other discards included Dan “The Bagel Man” Kontoff and Arthur Lucky Craffey. And, in some years, the discards were very few: one in 1997, and two in 1999 (when the 9th place candidate received 2,137 votes). There was no preliminary in 2001, because there were only 7 candidates at large. That number doubled in 2003 and went to 15 in 2005.

Between the candidate forums and coverage in the media, a preliminary election helps put people on notice about the upcoming final. But what’s obvious in the larger picture is that fewer people have been running for City Council since the last time it was reconfigured, in the election of 1983. In the last preliminary election for the all at-large council in 1981, there were 40 candidates for 9 seats. This year (also with no mayoral election), there are only 27 for 13 seats. Take away the six running for an open seat in Allston-Brighton, and there are 21 for 12 seats. Five of the 8 district councilors on the ballot this year are unopposed. Two others are having a rematch with a challenger who previously won less than 20% of the vote. That leaves only one district with a new challenger.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Dropout Rate Down? Not So Fast

The statewide figures on the annual dropout rate show a “slight decline,” but the rate for the Boston Public Schools is going the other way. In 2005-06, the rate for Boston’s district schools was 9.9%. That was higher than the figures for the 7 previous years.

Among the more conventional high schools, there were four with an annual dropout rate in double digits: Brighton High, East Boston High, Jeremiah Burke High, and Boston English. The rates had increased for all of these schools, except Jeremiah Burke, where the rate decreased from 17% the previous year to 14.9%, or 117 students. There were even higher rates at some of the innovative subdivided high schools. School Dept. spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo says this might reflect students who entered the larger district high schools before they were reconfigured into smaller, more specialized units.

Hardly unusual in the new figures are the differences by race and gender. The highest rate in Boston involving a large number was for Hispanic students (12%). The rates for other racial groups were: Black (10.9%), White (7.4%), and Asian (2.6%). There was also a gender gap, with the rate for males at 11.6% and for females at 8.3%.

Palumbo notes that annual figures don’t tell as much as the figures that track a group of students over a number of years. Though the annual figures do fluctuate, the ups and downs of the 4 most recent years follow 4 years of a steady decline, from 1998-99 through 2001-02. That change coincides with the start of a requirement for high school graduates to pass MCAS in English and Math. But this year’s figures also suggest the dropouts are motivated by other reasons besides struggles with MCAS. Other figures show a steadily rising percentages of students in the Boston Public Schools who satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement by the end of grade 11. Of the 12th graders who dropped out of school in 2005-06 throughout Massachusetts, more than two-thirds had already met the MCAS requirement.

In reaction to the 12th grade dropout figures, State Education Commissioner David Driscoll issued a statement saying, “It is concerning to me that so many of our older students are getting within striking distance to earning a high school diploma, but dropping our before they can graduate.” The Dept. of Education surveyed school superintendents about the problem and found two main reasons: family and academics. The department also says many students reported dropping out “to begin working because they didn’t think they could afford the cost of college tuition.”

The executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, Neil Sullivan, says some of the students who drop out in grade 12 are short of the academic requirements for graduation by only a few credits. That would still be enough to require repeating a grade. Sullivan explains, “They don’t relish the embarrassment of returning to that high school after their peers have graduated.”

According to Sullivan, the missing links are an alternative that would let students get their diplomas more quickly, without going back to the same school, and—by way of dropout prevention—more attention to how grades 11 and 12 are a launch to college or a career.

“We have to integrate the end of high school with the beginning of something else,” said Sullivan. “If we do that, we’re going to bring down the dropout rate among 11 and 12 graders.”

But he says that also requires bridging a gap in motivation that holds back many students from disadvantaged backgrounds—a gap that the Private Industry Council has tried to narrow by having at-risk students combine academic work with experience in a workplace. “We have to give young people the experiences that motivate them while they’re in high school,” said Sullivan. “We can’t just be lecturing them on delayed gratification.”

Updates. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau reports the dropout problem is getting even more attention from the School Dept. The revised budget approved last week by the City Council contains a supplement of $500,000 for student attendance problems and the dropout rate. The problem is also under study by the Mauricio Gastón Instititute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy at UMass Boston, which notes that the cohort dropout rate in Mass. for Latino students with limited English proficiency was 33.2%.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Dorchester Days: A Tradition of Change

If Boston has an official rite of neighborhood change, it's Dorchester Day. The first celebrations, in the early 1900's, took place when Dorchester was experiencing rapid growth. That growth meant the loss of open space to housing, increasing numbers of immigrants, not to mention more bars on Dorchester Avenue (a matter of concern to temperance activists). On the day of the parade, people showed neighborhood pride with displays of red, white and blue, but Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, a son of immigrants who lived near Codman Square, displayed the Irish tricolor. For decades, public speakers at these celebrations would pay respects to Dorchester's first European settlers, sometimes even dressing up and re-enacting their arrival. But over years of retelling, the tale of settlement goes adrift, seemingly from one time and group of arrivals to another. Maybe in this way, attachment to history makes a changing neighborhood feel more at home.

In the 21st century, immigrants are still coming to Dorchester, and maybe also still moving on. In general, the bars on Dorchester Avenue are noticeably less seedy. They’re also less cloistered, and patrons at the Blarney Stone--with utmost civility and enthusiasm-- could reach out to Dorchester Avenue and almost touch the parade. As these processions go, there could be better pacing, and maybe more precision displays by marching bands. But it’s hard to compete with the display of diversity, from Irish step dancers to the Cape Verdean youth group from St. Peter’s, the Vietnamese lion dancers, Estrellas Tropicales, and Caribbean contingents in masquerade.

As with carnival, there is an element of dressing up and playing a part—“playing mas.” Cultural and ethnic traditions are dramatized, even celebrated, but there are also closeness and intermingling. And some of the suiting up refers to life in the neighborhood, especially for the local color guards and the highly competitive Pop Warner football team. If the pageantry is too utopian to be true, it’s also a bit unusual. Instead of hearkening back to historical grandeur, there’s almost a nostalgia for the future. And there’s a striking correspondence between the variety of people who pass by a given point and what they see looking back as they go down the avenue.

Parade highlights on multimedia.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day: Marching Through Dorchester

After the march to Cedar Grove Cemetery and a volley from the rifles, people took their time scattering. It was one of those intervals when a solemn observance dissolved into a holiday weekend. Children played with flags and make-believe swords. As the sprinkles became more noticeable, many took refuge under trees or claimed a spot for their folding chairs. Members of veterans posts who had filed down Dorchester Avenue were trickling back into formation before the speakers’ platform. One of the veterans, dressed in a cap and white shirt, scanned a row of gravestones until he came to a stop. For a moment, he snapped to attention, gave salute, then moved on.

In the unchanging ritual of Memorial Day, all wars and veterans seem very much alike. People who served in Vietnam listen to speeches about World War II and Iraq, and the roll-call of the deceased skips from war to peacetime and one era to another. Among the Dorchester veterans who died in the past year was 29 year-old Army Specialist Edgardo Zayas, who was killed in a roadside bomb explosion while on patrol in Baghdad. A Dorchester native, 19 year-old Kevin J. King, died while training for Iraq in the US Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Also mentioned during the roll-calls was the man for whom the John McKeon Post is named. He died 65 years ago in a reconnaissance plane over the Philippines and, before the war, had taken part in the same ritual at Cedar Grove as a member of St. Brendan’s Band. And, while Brigadier General Thomas J. Sellers was giving his address about the National Guard in Iraq, and politicians were setting up their umbrellas, a veteran of an earlier war ran a comb through his white, rain-slicked hair.

After the speakers finished, the veterans reassembled and got ready to head back out. For a while, there was some confusion in the ranks of the McKeon Post about whether there’d be a march past a reviewing stand. The commander went to ask the veterans just ahead of them in a trolley bus. He came back and reported to a tall man with a banner, who announced, “We’re going to climb a hill.” The commander then gave an order: “Follow the bus.” But, before they could advance, another post member added, “Tell the bus to go.”

When the last soldiers had withdrawn, the clouds retreated and the plod of a bass drum gave way to the treeborne ricochet of bird calls. Because it was Memorial Day, many of the gravesites looked freshly spruced up. They stood in tight, orderly rows, many of them with personalized markers. There were angels, fairies, teddy bears, butterflies, even a leprechaun, a pine cone, and a golf ball in a flower bed. To judge by the things left behind, Memorial Day was the opposite of Halloween. Instead of the living dressing up as the dead and paying a visit, the dead were decked out as the living and receiving visitors. Their outpost was the house next door with the freshly planted flowers. And, once again, it seemed a flier who never grew old could be a kid playing in the band.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

District 2: One Decision, Two Undecided

The voters have decided who will be the next City Councilor in District 2, but two candidates who ran to succeed the late Jim Kelly are still considering whether to run for a full term later this year.

In yesterday’s results, the winner was Bill Linehan, a city official from South Boston, with 52.6% of the vote. Susan Passoni, a financial analyst from the South End, received 46.5%. As expected, Linehan carried all the precincts in South Boston, along with two neighboring precincts in Dorchester. Passoni carried all the precincts covering the South End, Chinatown, the Leather District, and Bay Village.

The most pronounced change in voting was in Chinatown, Ward 3, Precinct 8. In the preliminary election April 17, Linehan carried the precinct decisively, with 246 votes to Passoni’s 97. The difference between the two candidates in that precinct alone was greater than the spread between Linehan and the candidate with the most votes from South Boston, third-place finisher Ed Flynn. What made the result even more surprising was that Passoni had carried the precinct when she ran against Kelly in 2005. After this year’s preliminary, visitors to Linehan’s campaign website could find a testimonial from an influential Chinatown supporter, Frank Chin.

In the final election, the results from the same precinct were the other way around, with Passoni getting 52.1% of the vote. It’s also possible that Passoni, despite losing throughout the district, may have turned out more people who failed to vote in the preliminary. Short of proving this, it can be noted that, compared with the figures in April, the vote in precincts carried by Linehan increased by 6%, while the vote in precincts carried by Passoni increased by 42%. It’s also possible that Linehan found new voters in South Boston and Dorchester, while some people from those areas who voted for other candidates stayed home.

Even though candidates for City Council had to file for nomination papers by 5 p.m. the day of the special election, it’s still unclear how much opposition Linehan will face for his first full term later this year. As of this afternoon, Passoni was still undecided.

Also among those filing for papers in District 2 were two of the other five preliminary candidates from South Boston, Ed Flynn and Bob O’Shea. This afternoon, Flynn said he wanted to leave his options open. He said, “I’m very positive about finishing first in South Boston and finishing first in Dorchester.” Should he run against Linehan, he’ll be taking on a candidate who was endorsed for yesterday’s vote by all elected officials from South Boston.

By this afternoon, knowing that the incumbent would be from South Boston, O’Shea had decided against running. “There was enough division. We got a guy now. We’re going to get back to the business of governing and let this settle out,” he said. “I don’t want to go through that again, and I don’t think the neighborhood wants to go through it.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Walking Toward Peace: Mothers' Day, 2007

The image of Eric
“Emoe” Paulding was in a white border. He wore a red tee shirt, with a Cleveland Indians logo. Ten years ago, he was the only young person to be murdered in Boston, at age 16.

Cedirick T. Steele appeared on a placard carried by his brother Dametre and his father, Kenneth Way (in photo above, right). In the middle of the placard was a photograph of Cedirick in a blue pinstripe suit and a New York Yankees cap. He was killed in March of this year.

There were several small photos of Siugerys García, a 17 year-old from Dorchester who was killed little more than a month ago in Florida, allegedly by her boyfriend. On the placard with one group of photos, it said, “Siempre te recordaré,” or “I’ll always remember you.” On the placard held by her mother, Dominga Ortíz, it said, “Espero verte pronto,” or “I hope to see you soon.”

One group of thirty people in the Mothers’ Walk for Peace was going the route in memory of Luis Geréna. He was fatally shot in January at age 13, in Jamaica Plain. His mother, Wendy Jiminián, remembered his smile. “It made me happy,” she said, “and stronger.”

Before setting off on the 11th annual walk, Christopher “Kit” Chandler was looking at the dozens of faces in round badges pinned to a traveling memorial. It was hanging from the wall of a clubhouse at Town Field. Chandler was there mainly for two people, sons of his best friend and his mother-in-law. Looking at the rows of faces, he said he could recognize others. “So many people I know,” he said. “It’s shocking.”

Donald Averett stepped up next to Chandler.

“Don’t make no sense. All kids,” said Averett. He started going on the walk in 2002, after the death of his son.

“Something’s got to change,” he said. “These kids got to learn, got to put the guns down.”

Before the walk got under way, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis called for reaching out to mothers not taking part in the walk. “The only way that we could avoid a situation of retaliation, retribution—an eye for an eye,” he said, “is the criminal justice system.”

Mayor Thomas Menino told marchers to share the city’s responsibility for preventing violence. “Each one of you,” he said, “can reach out if you see a young man or young woman who’s going in the wrong direction.”

After going along Dorchester Avenue to Peabody Square, the marchers turned toward Codman Square and Four Corners, before looping back along Columbia Road and Geneva Avenue. Many were chanting loudly for peace, while others did something quiet. Two children, Derrica Stone and Jonathan Gomes, wheeled a plastic "peace marker" down the middle of Dorchester Avenue, leaving a squiggly trail of symbolic purple. Eleven year-old Ivana Douglas walked silently, carrying a placard with a picture of her brother Geoffrey. He was killed at age 16 in 2001, when two other teens tried to steal his gold chain while he was on the Red Line in Dorchester.

Along the way, the walk passed within view of recent murders, on Washington Street, Columbia Road, Olney Street, and Geneva Avenue. On Geneva Avenue, there were also houses posted with “No Trespassing” signs and the wall of a corner store overspread by twelve images of a woman with a handgun. These were an ad for a magazine and a feature about “war” between entertainers and paparazzi. As the walk passed, a bystander noticed the incongruity and said, “It’s ‘war,’ and we’re talking about peace.”

At the end of the march, there was more outreach at Town Field. Marie Larose, mother of Hardy Celestin, who was fatally shot last October at age 17, went up to console Wendy Jiminián, saying, “You are not alone.”

Among those making connection with the faces on the traveling memorial was Zinha Gonçalves (in photo above, left). One connection was with her cousin, Jason Fernandes, Boston’s first homicide victim of the year, at age 14. Gonçalves could identify four relatives. “We know a lot more,” she added.

See also NNN'S multimedia photo essay on the walk.

Note: a survivors group for men meets every other Thursday at the office of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, 1452 Dorchester Avenue. The next meeting is Thursday, May 17.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Quiet City: Hopper’s Reticent Landscape

When the nighthawks come to roost, everyone else is supposedly asleep. As Edward Hopper shows them perched by a counter, their glassed-in space looks unnaturally bright—like an overexposed photograph or, yet, the real world in the dilated pupils of a dreamer suddenly roused. When Nighthawks was painted, in 1942, an all-night diner would have been fairly common in New York City, but Hopper makes the setting look almost paranormal. Instead of a public place that can be seen by anyone, it seems we're looking at something reserved for the eyes of an undercover detective, or a voyeur. Yet the frisson that comes from Hopper's paintings seems to have less to do with any choice of subject than the overall impression that even inanimate objects are presented in a different way, somehow more explicitly

With their transcriptions of commercial and social banalities, the paintings betray Hopper’s training as an illustrator. They also approach, or mimic, the mechanical visualizing of a camera. By suggesting the absence of a human observer, or at least the concealment of an observer, the paintings give viewers the sense of being a fly on the wall, even if the wall is across the street and one story up. In Hopper's wide shots, city locations may be spacious, but they’re devoid of crowds. Because the human figures are usually viewed from a distance, they often convey less about themselves than the size or tone of surroundings.

For all their detachment, Hopper’s paintings are also striking for their minute detail. They faithfully reproduce features of buildings, signage, and the mundane props of commerce, not unlike the depopulated inventory of Parisian streetscapes and architecture in the photographs of Eugène Atget. But the details in the paintings are also about reproductions—the way the world is configured in mass production for mass consumption. This can be seen in the generic symbols of commerce, or the repetitive patterns of its infrastructure. In Hopper’s best known paintings from New York City from the 1920's through the 1940's, even the interiors are usually mass-produced: apartment buildings, hotel rooms, or offices. If there’s a single space, it has multiple, look-alike parts: rows in a theater, seats on a train, tables at a restaurant, or stools at a diner. Hopper’s Hotel Room, minus the occupant and her belongings, is so barren as to look more like a storage compartment than a surrogate home. In these massively reproduced settings, it’s easy for the human figure to look more generic than singular. Instead of the painter’s individual portrait, the impression is more like seeing a photographer’s proof sheet.

In Hotel Room, there’s at least the hint of a secret. A woman who’s almost completely undressed sits on a bed and reads a piece of paper. Though a black rectangle in the window indicates nighttime, it appears the unwrinkled blanket and sheets have yet to be pulled aside for going to sleep. The paper almost certainly hints at some kind of relationship, and possibly disappointment. Whatever that may be, the melodrama would hardly be new. What is new for its time is how it’s easier and more common for that relationship to involve a stay in a hotel room. But there’s little to be read on the woman’s face, which is in shadow. Rather than reveal an event in her life, she blends in with her surroundings—a room not of her own, where intimate matters are concealed, even in the absence of others. Against this interchangeable backdrop, with the occupant in a quadrant among quadrants, it is hard to distinguish between romantic attachment, a honeymoon, or a one-night stand. But, rather than inadequately signifying only one of these scenarios, couldn't the painting also convey how all of them--even if only by association or undertone--could overlap in a single time and place?

It might even be said that some Hopper paintings are less real than realistic. Like Atget’s photographs, the paintings show settings with little or no visible trace of function or personal narrative. In the 1940 painting, Gas, there’s man at a pump, but no car, and no grease-stained rag hanging from his trousers. In Chop Suey, there’s still no food on the table shared by two women—just the anticipatory marker of a teapot. In New York Movie, there’s a disconnect between the shadowy zone of theater seats (some still empty) and the glow of a lamp on the blond hair of an idle usher. Dressed in a blue uniform, she stands against the back wall of the auditorium, with a hand pensively on her chin, oblivious even to the likely discomfort of keeping vigil in high heels. Office at Night shows a man sitting at a desk and a woman standing at a file cabinet. They certainly seem as functional as any office workers, but the woman’s outfit—highlighting graceful calves and the swell of haunches—is much more distracting for the viewer than the man at the desk: enough to dramatize the absence of any other form of interaction, or its concealment. Even when there’s a hint of interaction, whether between the women in Chop Suey, or the man and woman side by side in Nighthawks, we can infer little more than the faintest evidence of conversation—a few crumbs of dialogue, or even gaps between words (as if the scene had been caught by a shutter pressed at random).

The disconnect between surface and function that made Atget an accidental Surrealist has a similar effect in Hopper’s paintings. In Hopper’s freeze-frame, even a mechanical object or the plain grid of storefronts, as in Early Sunday Morning, breaks loose from the tyranny of the functional and claims, if not exactly a life, then a presence of its own. One reason for this is that the grid isn't entirely plain. The molding at the roofline and the cornices over the windows are a touch of decorum, but also the mark of a style outmoded in the age of skyscrapers and Art Deco. Their obsolescence is still fresh, still untouched by the aura of preservationism. Once meant to embellish function, or even disguise it, these features become all the more noticeable--more crystalised, as it were--as the storeblock's functions, with passage of time, seem more transitory.

By contrast with the likelihood of quiet conversation between the women in a Chinese restaurant, the large fragment of a sign outside the window speaks all the more loudly to an unseen horde of potential customers. No longer directed only at people walking by, the sign is meant for people moving in traffic, even at some distance. Changing the view of common figures by the way they are juxtaposed is what Hopper also does even in one of his most straightforward paintings, The House by the Railroad. What is almost too obvious to notice is that the figures in the painting seem deserted, with neither inhabitants in rooms nor a train on the rails. The house seems unusual because it is not juxtaposed with other buildings that have similar characteristics. True, this could be an isolated house in the countryside that could very well be glimpsed from a train. But, instead of a more natural streak passing by, Hopper gives the surveillance of the stationary viewer. This makes the house, or at least its ornamental surface, look all the more monumental, like some ancient edifice encountered in a wasteland.

It is easy enough to say that many of Hopper’s paintings are sparsely populated—not only by human beings, but by everyday objects that rival them as centers of attention (a hydrant, a radiator, an idle cash register, a typewriter, a barbershop pole, even the lustrous pair of coffee urns in Nighthawks). Is this an obsession with objects, the dehumanization of people, or the surrounding vacuum that makes them stand out as dissimilar equals? In Hopper’s urban settings, there’s even an absence of litter, as if a crumpled paper bag or a dented can might be loaded with narrative distraction.

Commentators usually describe the human figures in the paintings as solitary or even lonely. Maybe it is more appropriate to say that, in the city paintings, the people are deprived of solitude. For anyone who grew up accustomed to smaller communities (including Hopper himself), it must have been very noticeable how a big city imposes reserve. Far from necessarily being trapped or in some personal crisis, the people in the paintings might be--not entirely unlike some of Hopper's buildings and roofscapes--maintaining decorum: when among strangers, their personal business, except when discreetly announced, should be kept inside. That even extends to the painter and viewer of the paintings, who are, as it were, kept at a distance.

Even when two people might be speaking to each other, as in Nighthawks, their intimate exchange is masked by the semblance of disengagement. Surrounded by a world of strangers, they adapt by putting on a psychological armor that makes them seem impenetrable. And the strangeness from which they defend themselves is registered less by the presence of other people (who are hardly in abundance) than by their absence, as in the empty seats ignored by the usher at the movie theater. Do these individuals strive for singularity amid so many interchangeable reproductions, or do we see only the surface: a mask that copies the mechanical surroundings, to avoid standing out? Not only are Hopper’s urban landscapes a far cry from the prototypical familiarities of Norman Rockwell, but also from the vernacular spontaneities of urban villages. Considered as a real-world model for a representational painter, the impenetrability of Hopper’s figures can simply be a fact of life, at least for their time. What could make him an accidental documentarian is how much cities have changed. If their zones of spacious impersonality remain, they are more taken for granted, but also more porous and more adjustable. After all, in the age of wireless and digital reproduction, even crowded public space can be punctuated by absorption in a laptop or iPod, the encryptions of graffiti, or the invasive privacy of talk on a cell phone.

Regardless the distance in time for viewers, Hopper’s paintings condition them to see that appearances are not always to be taken at face value. A piece of visual surface can just as easily be a mask, a mirage, or a sign (literally or figuratively)—such as the framed landscape on the wall of a hotel lobby, so much like the landscape rolling by in the window of a train (where, as in the hotel lobby, the view is disregarded by a woman with graceful legs reading a book). Against Hopper's non-descript backgrounds, ordinary clothing (whether a man’s fedora or the woman’s single glove in Automat) can seem a trifle genteel or at least calculated—even if no more a declaration of status than the strain of decorum put in relief by impersonal surroundings. Because of her glove, the woman sitting at the table in the automat looks almost fastidious, but Hopper places her slightly off center horizontally, making her compete for the viewer's attention with a radiator on the floor and a flock of lights reflected overhead.

In the real world of cities, these combinations of appearances are what civility and schedules only allow us to glimpse on the fly. By freezing that almost photographic moment, Hopper lets us observe watchfully and head-on for as long as we please. Too invisible to feel self-conscious, we are free to contemplate what the Surrealist Louis Aragon once referred to as the “poorly lit zones” of human activity. “There, where the most equivocal activity of the living is pursued,” he wrote, “the inanimate sometimes assumes a reflection of their most secret motives: our cities are in such a way populated with unrecognized sphinxes who don’t stop the passing dreamer and pose deadly riddles unless he turn toward them his meditative distraction.”

Once we have the power to do that, even the impenetrable becomes revealing.

An exhibit of Edward Hopper’s paintings and sketches is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from May 6 through August 19, 2007. Photographs of Hopper paintings courtesy of the MFA.