30 November 2009

A Weekend in Boca Grande

This past October, Urban Mechanic had the fortune to spend a weekend on Gasparilla Island in the town of Boca Grande Florida. While the state is not generally known for its great cities or towns Boca Grande truly represents some of the best of Florida's charms. The town welcomes you with a four dollar entry toll and encourages you to leave with a toll-free exit.

The quiet but still lively town is choc full of local flavor with establishments such as the Pink Elephant Restaurant, Whidden's Marina (with an eclectic general store that even carries Tab), and the Loose Caboose; to name just a few. Not to be missed are architectural gems such as the historic Gasparilla Inn and the Boca Grande Light House. History and architecture enthusiasts should be sure to drop by the Historical Society.

Getting around most of the island is a cinch on foot, bicycle or by golf cart. In fact rentals for bicycles and golf carts are available at Hudson's the popular general store. If you ever find yourself on the isle be sure to also hit the beautiful (and not too-crowded) beaches. Perhaps take in a beautiful waterside sunset. Just remember that most of the non-drinking/eating establishments on the island close-up shop early.

See more photos from Urban Mechanic's Gasparilla Island (and Florida) ventures from this past October on Flickr.

14 November 2009

Gotham Spires

See my FLICKR PhotoStream for more modern day Gotham Spires, Towers and Lights Photos!

05 November 2009

Tab and Tacos

04 November 2009

Cincinnati Get's Progressive (Almost)

Yesterday saw some big wins for a city close to Urban Mechanic's heart, Cincinnati. (Boston is my beloved home, but Cincinnati is where I fell in love with cities.) Re-elected is the astitute, experienced, and practical mayor, Mark Mallory. Plus, Cincinnatians, known for bone-headed ballot initiatives (i.e. billion dollar stadiums) rejected a ballot initiative designed to kill rail transit (beyond buses) in the city. Ballot initiatives are well-known for their lamentable after-effects; just look at the state of California. The failure of this initiative may just help the city progress towards building a streetcar, commuter rail, or even regional high-speed rail (between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland). Who says that saying no is just negative.

Any (or all) of these opportunities could become reality in the near future; and not-too-soon. Cincinnati, once among the nation's largest cities, has repeatedly lost-out due to its indecisiveness. It decided against establishing a stock exchange, when New York's was in its infancy and the Midwest (of which it was the center) was booming. Rail was shunned over the city's once dominant river-canal industry. Decades later the city abandoned a subway project after spending $13 million (roughly 1.3 billion in 2008 dollars)  on the most expensive part; the tunnels. It instead favored highways (and still does) that motored residents and business straight out of the city along with billions upon billions of private incomes and tax dollars.*

BUT, there is great room for hope (as the title of this post suggests). The city, under the leadership of Mayor Mark Mallory (also re-elected on Tuesday), has an ambitious, but credibly realistic agenda. Finally there is a streetcar and transit plan in the works that is realistically scaled that's not too big to scare people, but is big enough to bring together players that will go to bat for it (universities, downtown employers, developers, and such). AND, after years of hard-work 3CDC, a sort of mega community development corporation for downtown and near-in neighborhoods, has a critical mass of success and has much more in the works. Just this morning, the group announced plans to preserve and renovate a historic SRO into a world-class museum-hotel. These developments join efforts underway to redevelop the city's riverfront. And after spending a billion on replacing stadiums in the late nineties, the city has been hard at work spending a billion or so on replacing public schools!

Add all of this to the city's amazing historic, architectural, culinary, cultural, and even multi-national corporate assets. What do you get? Well, you may just get a world-class city ready to claim its place on the world stage. Of course, we don't want to overstate things here. The city, which under a previous mayor eliminated its planning department, still lacks a good neighborhood community development strategy. Further, the city still lacks awareness of its amazing assets and confidence of what a few, small, but significant investments can do for it.

Take neighborhood development. Boston's Main Street Program has done wonders to bring real community development throughout the city and not just downtown; and has done so for a fraction of big-ticket pork barrel projects. The program has brought grocery stores, dry-cleaners, restaurants, shops, and services along with jobs, historic building restoration and new construction all within a walking distance to nearly all Bostonians. Cincinnati, home to the largest grocer in the Country, Kroger, still lacks an urban grocery store. The head of Kroger needs to come to Boston and see our dozens of extremely profitable and very urban (i.e. no or little parking) grocery stores.

For now, Urban Mechanic won't insist on labeling Cincinnati as progressive. After all, Mark Twain's suggestion that the city would be an ideal home during the apocalypse (because everything happens a decade later) is still considered a complement by locals. Unfortunately, its been over eight decades since the city abandoned its subway mid-construction and much more has been lost since. So no matter how realistic the current plans and developments are progress is all-too precious for this city with otherwise such amazing potential.

* According to analysis conducted by Sean P. Bender (Urban Mechanic) and utilized by Robert Manley in an open letter to then Mayor Charles Luken and head of City Planning, Elizabeth Blume, the City of Cincinnati lost at least $10 billion in tax revenues (from 1970 to 2000) related to urban renewal, excessive use of eminent domain in downtown areas, and poor zoning choices that suburbanized the city. That's enough to pay for the current streetcar proposal, at about $100 million, 100 times. Seen another way, that's enough to have paid for the original subway to actually be completed and opened (estimated in 1924 to require an additional $6 million by 500 times over what had been spent).

Photos Courtesy of 3CDC

03 November 2009

Tomorrow the Race Begins...

Certainly nothing is over until the polls close at 8 pm, but lacking a political earthquake, the proverbial fat lady is warming her vocals chords in Boston.  According to most polling, only two of the four at-large council seats look remotely competitive. None of the district seats are competitive. While vigorous, the contest for Mayor seems to have come down to a question of margin of victory more so than victor.

While this last round of mayoral campaigning has been more spirited it has hardly been substantive. On one side we had Menino = Good, Floon = Better? Albeit, seasoned with a few mini-scandals and certain union of public servants getting feisty. The other side, well 60% of Bostonians have met (and according polling support/like). Not that he doesn't rub a good many the wrong way it seems. 

BUT, in a year of "change," none of the challengers (here at least) have been all that convincing about the change they envision, let alone their capacity to make it happen. So aside from some fresh faces on council, Boston will likely make history and extend tenure of Thomas Menino. 

Urban Mechanic (no relation to Mayor Thomas Menino) bets the real race begins after today. Legacy building for some? Vying for 2013 for others? The question is, what ideas will come forth? What dialog will take place, and whom will it include? 

How do we fix urban schools? Even with its progress over the past decade, the system, like any other large system in the country fails too many. What about youth jobs?

With the Big Dig behind us, what potential is there to really think about transit and transportation in the city? Boston may have built the country's first subway, but other cities such as Denver, Portland, and even LA are taking ambitious steps towards investing in and building transit not just commuter rail, but urban transit while we languish over half-finished BRT lines that aren't really all that "rapid."

How about someone looking at Greater Boston? While we're not likely to erase century's-old boundaries are there ways the more built-up areas like Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline and the remains of Suffolk (that isn't Boston) could leverage their weight with ideas such as cost-sharing or with the legislature or even abroad?

What about rethinking zoning, with 21st century industry, residential, commercial, and common considerations? How could the city turn its massive stock of schools, community centers, and other public facilities into 21st century public assets but green assets?

Should Boston (or the Commonwealth for that matter) have professional legislators (city councilors) or citizen servants? What about local campaign finance reform? Where does civic engagement really meet political engagement in Boston?

These are the questions, and so many more, that Urban Mechanic hopes to see come front and center starting tomorrow and beyond towards 2013. There are bold, innovative ideas percolating out there that need to come forth. The get elected, and your in for life system might not change (at least any time soon) here in the MA, but now's the time to focus on who will be elected next.

02 November 2009

Lobstah Rolls and Aeroplanes

What's the most interesting thing you might imagine finding within a couple hundred yards of runways 4R and 4L at Logan?

Belle Isle Seafood; of course! This joint, sandwiched between the Belle Isle Marsh and situated on a neck of land just feet from the East Boston-Winthrop line, and just hundreds of yards across the water from Logan, defines "no-frills." But after all, you don't go to Belle Isle Seafood for the decor and ambiance...

...unless your idea of ambiance involves chain link, billboards, various dockside smells, and the frequent hum of planes landing. That said, you'll be hard-pressed to find a vacant curbside parking spot within a hundred yards on a good many days. Locals, and the enlightened foodie alike know that this is the place to get fresh seafood of all sorts or to enjoy a hearty lobster roll that leaves out the "recipe twists" and piles-on the lobster.

Urban Mechanic (a former Eastie denizen) can't make the trek through the tunnels enough to get his fill of seafood; or other culinary delights to be found throughout Eastie! While locals may not give much thought to the ignorance of their fellow Hubsters on the mainland, any half-serious, self-respecting foodie in Boston should pay serious attention to this neighborhood. Seriously!

Without giving more than a moment's thought, Urban Mechanic also recommends checking out eateries such as Dough Pizza, Restaurante Montecristo Angela's Cafe, Rino's PlaceSantarpio's Pizza303 Cafe, and the delightful It's Slush Time Again! (summer) served from a window (and not the drive through sort either). The Hubster Blog provides a good deal of coverage to the food and life and Eastie for those interested in digging further!

Oh...if you make it over to Eastie, don't just dash to dinner and back. Take your time, perhaps enjoy the several beautiful waterfront parks. The place has some great history to take in, and amazing cultural life today. 

A recent visit to the Belle Isle Seafood also led to a venture through Orient Heights. The sights from the plaza of the Madonna Queen of the Universe Shrine are great! Plus, the 1950's complex is itself worth a visit it for architectural geeks. Think early 1950's modernism!

31 October 2009

Bascart Chronicles: Cart on the Run or Tending the Shubbery?

Normally, shopping carts in their natural environs (i.e. parking lots) don't make the cut for the Bascart Chronicles. This one however was worth the capture. It's either definitively trying to escape or tending the shrubbery. Your call.

30 October 2009

How can you save a buck, your health, your city, and the planet!?

Americans love their cars right? So much so that we nearly have one for every person in the country (by count at least) and every newspaper has an automotive section. For decades the car has been the only transportation choice for 90% of Americans. New car sales has been a leading indicator of the economy.

With car-makers gaining more coverage in the headlines than the automotive section of the papers recently, a new story is percolating. Attitudes are shifting noticeably among the young (Gen Y'ers), and even older Americans. So much so that the LA Times car blog recently used the headline "A Rebel Without a Car?" while pondering a new JD Power and Associates report.  Naturally, these stories have generated skepticism and slight. After all, this is the American way of life. Yet, big car folks (i.e. Ford, the only non-bankrupt US automaker) have taken notice and even started to look at ways to embrace the trends.

And why not. These trends seem to follow a perceptible arc of young people and retirees moving back to cities. Further, both are groups who have been literally behind the wheel or passengers in cars for a significant portion of their lives. All of the creature comforts on earth don't make motoring down 16 lane, traffic clogged suburban shit strips any better.

Ok, so there might be a case for a movement of certain demographics (i.e. young professionals, empty-nesters) to desire more urban surroundings and more urban transportation options. This would certainly explain a great deal of the trends reported over the past decade with increased downtown and urban development across the country. It would also explain the trend of light rail development in dozens of places. Bicycling and plain walking seems to have grown in popularity too. Groups such as the ever-innovative Livable Streets Initiative have certainly made an impact in that regards.

Yet, it is almost certainly true that Americans won't just give up what has been not just a cultural icon, but an economic engine because of a severe economic downturn and a planetary crisis. Well, not if they have a choice. However, one thing that might just offer that choice and actually do a fair bit of good in the process is car-sharing. Now before the advent of RFID (radio-frequency ID chips), the mobile telephones (and internet), and GPS tracking the idea of sharing a car was what you had to do with siblings or parents.

Today, if you're a Zipster*, you can literally access thousands of cars conveniently parked in your neighborhood, on campus, near work, shopping, or transit stops all on your mobile phone or via the a quick reservation over the internet. Rent by the hour or day and don't worry about insurance or gas. Just follow some quick and easy to remember rules and you're all-set. Wave that member card over the windshield (or tap an app on your phone) and...

...it unlocks, wherever you're car is. No worries about maintenance, parking. Have a Scion Xb with lots of cargo space for a couple hours today and later this week pick up that important new client from the airport with a BMW. Want to get out of the city for a day-trip or weekend get away?ab a different vehicle fitting the weather, your needs, or your mood.

Oh, and you can do all of this and...
  1. save lots of money (hundreds of dollars a month for most car-sharers)
  2. live a more active, healthy lifestyle (car-sharers walk, bicycle, and use transit more)
  3. and help avert planetary disaster (on average one shared vehicle may take as many as twenty off the road)
    What's the Catch? Rules! If you share something you want those who share with you to be respectful of certain rules right? So return on time, with gas (gas-card is included), clean, no smoking and please keep pets in a carrier. That sort of stuff. Oh, and there is of course ensuring that the vehicles are serviced and then dealing with potential mishaps and market demand. What happens when a car you booked isn't back on time or you can't get a car when you need one?

    The leading, company in the US, ZipCar, and its for and not-for-profit counter-parts, have attracted amazingly satisfied and loyal-followers despite such challenges. They have honed service and in many ways perfected some of the most obvious challenges (i.e. your car is late in returning when you pick it up, "how about switching to one in the next spot over or at the worst let us reach the person who has it and let's change-up your reservation and make it gratis for your wait?").

    What makes this service so compelling to Urban Mechanic is that it has the ability to scale (as its already in scores of cities big and small) and is something that is clearly commercially viable. For so many situations to list here it improves upon having to own an automobile unless you literally live in the middle of nowhere. Further, for cities lacking significant transit options, car-sharing offers an amazing opportunity to supplement transportation choices. Car-sharing could work quite well if you ride the bus downtown to work, but also might need a car some evenings for big hauls to the grocery store.

    *Zipster is what Zip Car, a leading (for-profit) car-sharing company calls its members. Of which there an estimated 325,000 plus. The company, which has been featured (everywhere) was part of a larger look at car-sharing in a CNN Story from August of this year. The story takes a fairly in-depth look at the phenomenon, the forces behind it, and ZipCar (the good the bad and the ugly).--

    NOTE - Urban Mechanic is a member of ZipCar (and uses the service frequently, along with numerous other modes of transport). ALSO NOTE - This post is but an introduction (albeit a bit lengthy) to car-sharing as a topic. Urban Mechanic will continue explore other facets of car-sharing, beyond ZipCar, such as non-profit models, and a separate, but related phenomenon, bicycle sharing.

    29 October 2009

    Cooking at Home

    One of the real joys of city living (so Urban Mechanic believes) is food shopping at various places around town...

    ...and the equal joy of taking it home (most of it) and putting together a fantastic dinner. This evening's meal featured a fresh basil and tomato sauce over Gemelli pasta topped with shavings of aged Pecorino Cheese (From Back Bay Shaw's). Accompanying this hearty dish was a tomato and cucumber salad with fresh mozzarella (from the Pru's Farmer's Market) soaked (not drizzled) with an aged balsamic vinaigrette.

    The meal went exceptionally well with a San Angelo Pinot Grigio (2008) from Castello Banfi Montalcino (Italy). Props are in order to the kindly folks at Liquor Land (across from Victoria's and next to the Hen House on Mass Ave) for the "Fright Night Wine Tasting" that landed this one in the cart!

    Save any room for something sweet?  Hot chocolate seemed only appropriate on this crisp autumn evening. After nibbling on a delightful  Madagascar "Purist Bar" from Hotel Chocolat (previously discussed on this blog), the remains of the bar were melted and blended with Vodka, Coffee Liquor, and steamed milk...

    ...and of course topped with fluffy froth for effect.

    For tomorrow...maybe some butter curry chicken over Basmatti rice cooked in coconut milk and paired with a Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc (2008) from Concha Y Toro (Chile)...

    ...maybe a warm chocolate cake (another visit to Hotel Chocolat perhaps) topped with brandied cherries?

    o a few errands to run tomorrow; and for good measure.  All of the walking keeps the Urban Mechanic from weighing as much as he eats.

    28 October 2009

    Shopping Cart Takes Out Recycling

    Shopping carts and Boston denizens across the city are in love with the new, large "carts" distributed by the City for recycling. The new carts are being distributed throughout the city of Boston over the Fall, Winter, and Spring...free of charge.

    In addition, recycling throughout Boston is now single stream for a wide array of materials. Urban Mechanic has re-deployed one of his small recycling boxes to indoor duties (transferring recycling as it builds...very geeky). More important the weekly payload of garbage has reduced from one bag to about a half a bag (for his residence of two plus a cat).

    Find out more about recycling in Boston by clicking here

    A note for transparency. Urban Mechanic does not arrange, pose, or abscond with bascarts. The bascarts chronicled and photographed here are only done so as found objects. Further, only bascarts found outside of their normal environments (i.e. stores or store parking lots), are chronicled. Submissions are gladly accepted and will be credited. Just think to yourself, what is that bascart up to?

    27 October 2009

    City Squirrels...

    ...cute, fuzzy, and friendly the Boston Public Garden Squirrels (like most city squirrels) are also armed with the cunning of a well-seasoned member of the special forces.  

    If you're going to tempt them roasted cashews, be quick on the second course or quick on your feet. Otherwise you might discover that being climbed like a tree isn't as much fun as it might look. Of course it does make for entertaining YouTube posts for friends and onlookers.

    Music Video Disses Cul-de-Sacs & Suburban Sprawl

    The Congress for New Urbanism has released a "music" video titled "Built to Last" on You Tube. A  Psychoesque set of violin chords opens the video with the question "What is the greatest threat our planet? The cool, animatronic slide-show doesn't just give a big open-handed slap in the face to suburbia. Shifting into a jazztronic beat, the clip showcases urban living and its inherent green cred. A bit didactic? Perhaps. Yet, irresistible for geeky urban mechanic sorts.

    24 October 2009

    DOT Abuzz This Weekend

    This weekend is a abuzz in the DOT with events crisscrossing the neighborhood, including open studios and Boston's first annual Barista Throwdown.

    Dorchester Open Studios (Saturday and Sunday 12 to 5 PM)

    Around the neighborhood artists are opening the doors to their studios and showing off not only their works, but often fabulous work spaces (and sometimes residences). Organized by the DAC (Dorchester Arts Collaborative), more than 60 artists will participate in the event. For more details check out the official program (PDF document).

    White Chrome; Boston's First Annual Barista Throwdown (Saturday 2 to 9 PM)

    Hosted at Flat Black Coffee Company's Ashmont Location (just steps from Ashmont Station), this event promises to be not only a Boston first, but likely a soon-to-be Boston must. Baristas will square off in competition to claim the title of Boston's best with spectators enjoying the fruits of their labors and enjoying special demonstrations of equipment, coffee and espresso techniques and much more. The event will wrap-up at Tavolo's, just down the street, with an awards ceremony and celebration. Proceeds will benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank.

    22 October 2009

    Bascart Runs on Dunkin

    A note for transparency. Urban Mechanic does not arrange, pose, or abscond with bascarts. The bascarts chronicled and photographed here are only done so as found objects. Further, only bascarts found outside of their normal environments (i.e. stores or store parking lots), are chronicled. Submissions are gladly accepted and will be credited. Just think to yourself, what is that bascart up to?

    11 October 2009

    Boston's Neighborhood and Best Block

    Ahh Savin Hill. Perhaps one of Boston's best kept secrets, it has beautiful Victorians, a hilltop park with stunning views and unrefined wildness, a beach (affectionately known as Malibu Beach), a smattering neighborhood retail including an awesome cleaners, a package store (or two), pharmacy, a bubble tea shop, a couple Vietmanese markets, clinic, and McKenna's Cafe...add nearly a dozen Zip Cars in the area and the red line stop in the middle of it all and you have the makings of a fabulous little neighborhood.

    Even more wonderful than the neighborhood as a whole is Auckland Street, perhaps one of Savin Hill's best kept secrets.A stone's throw away from the red line, stroll down Savin Hill Ave; west of the bridge. Take a left off of Savin Hill Avenue onto Auckland Street and walk the block down toward Bay Street.

    In this singular block you will find...wonderfully clean and tidy sidewalks. I know, not the most stellar proof of being the best block you might think. BUT, we have the very best sidewalk sweeper in the entire city. She is out day after day tirelessly sweeping not only nearby DOT ave, but her very own stretch of Auckland Street! You'll also notice a fabulous fire hydrant. It's currently painted red, white and blue with stripes and stars and all. Each year, block organizers circulate a simple hydrant outline on a sheet of paper to every house. Inspired and ambitious designers can submit their hydrant styling ideas, with the most popular design taking over the hydrant for the year.
    "Urban Mechanic might be a bit biased, but this little stretch of Auckland Street, is truly Boston's best residential block."

    Residents of the street also are known for organizing seasonal block parties where traffic is closed off, kids play ball in the street and make chalk drawings for half the block. Neighbors fill the street enjoying food, company and even a local band or two. Then there is Dorchester (DOT) Day, whereby the block's residents poor onto the neighboring Dorchester Ave, which is still a bit gritty, for a truly authentic parade. Halloween in its own turn features porches and stoops filled with trick or treating.

    Of course you might be tempted to think this idyllic street is just a yuppie haven filled with condos. NOPE, there are but a handful of condos on the block. There are a number of families who occupy various parts of their triple deckers, renting out one or more floors to others. There are elderly, there are young professionals, there are families. There are not only the old-guard (largely Irish) but also young professionals, Vietmanese (not new to the area either), a Latinos and African Americans, and yes this is all within one little block. It is the best of Savin Hill, Dorchester, and Boston.

    10 October 2009

    Gritty, Glistening, & Bustling

    With Filene's and more significantly, Filene's Basement, shuttered and a giant crater occupying much of the former store site (the Historic and best bits remain) Bostonian's might note that Downtown Crossing seems to have seen better days. In fact a great deal of other area properties are either vacant or under construction. Yet, Downtown Crossing on any given day (week or weekend) is a bustle. There are streetcar vendors, random street performers and people of just about every walk of life imaginable.Though much-maligned, there are also a great deal of (re-)development projects planned and underway.

    Despite the current and recent conditions both economic and development related, Downtown Crossing remains true to its namesake. It also remains one of the most successful nearly all-pedestrian environments in urban America. The reason? Good bones. It really is that simple.

    In the case of geography and placemaking, good bones can be seen as transit, roads, and other elements of the built environment. Downtown Crossing has the best of all of this. All five of the MBTA urban transit lines converge on/around the Downtown Crossing area. South Station and the emerging South Boston waterfront area; next door. Boston Common and the Public Garden is but a block away. The Financial District is; well right there. Emerson College and Suffolk University are right in the neighborhood. Tufts New England Medical Center is next door. Beacon Hill; across the way. Government Center; next door. The Theater District (and the 19 screen Boston Common Cinemas); right in the neighborhood. That doesn't include any of the data and such of course...

    The neighborhood just plain has good bones (you can see some data here); density, parks, transit, wide-range of uses that brings activity to every hour of the day. So, current conditions may feel a bit dower, but one thing seems completely certain to Urban Mechanic. Downtown Crossing will remain vibrant, hopefully always a bit gritty, definitively urban and uniquely; Boston.

    08 October 2009

    Geny Y and the Car?

    Does Generation Y (roughly those born between late 70's and early 90's) hate the All American car?

    "James Dean might be rolling in his grave" about a recent JD Power and Associates study on Generation Y attitudes towards cars; that is if you share the view of the LA Times Auto Blog. Not surprisingly the study finds that Gen Y'ers have lower opinions about automakers. The study also seems to indicate a lower interest among particularly young professionals in cars and car ownership. Unfortunately, the study and the writer of the blog seems to miss the more than obvious reasons why.

    It is Urban Mechanic's professional view (aka opinion) that young urban people don't just have low opinions of cars and car companies as factors of a bad economy or bad marketing. Young people get that being totally auto-dependent is horrible for the environment no matter what type of hybrid you drive. It's also expensive. A young urban professional can cut her expenses by as much as a $1,000 a month without owning a car.

    Also, a great deal of those who have grown up being shuttled around in cars recognize that complete automobile dependence is plain bad for us. Not only does it (car dependence) help contribute to being antisocial and getting fat, but car accidents are among the leading causes of death among young people. Driving is not all cruising through picturesque Acadian landscapes. Urban Mechanic's suggestion for JD Power and Associates and the Car Industry...

    Don't spend the next decade and billions of dollars trying brain wash young people back into cars.

    Young people are discovering the joys of bicycling, walking, transit, and even ZipCar. More important, they're discovering that real communities aren't built around cars, but people and interactions with people, not just "free motoring."

    04 October 2009

    A Captivating Character

    Does this get your attention? Would you feel compelled to at least stop, maybe peak inside, maybe even walk inside if you came across this display? Urban mechanic found this while perusing Down City (aka Downtown) Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn't the only storefront tin the area to present intrigue or such wonderfully well-thought quality either.

    02 October 2009

    Worcester, a lovely little place...

    About once a month the Urban Mechanic visits Worcester for a board meeting for a statewide group (plus other "statewide" events throughout the year). After having carried out this routine for the past several years Urban Mechanic has discovered quite a few things that make the city interesting, beyond its "centrality," which apparently is the attraction for all of the non-Bostonian Bay Staters who insist on meeting in Worcester (and not Boston) for such statewide functions.

    First off, in any other state Worcester would be known as quite the college town with nine colleges and universities. That may not hold up to the nearly 100 or so colleges and universities (30 or so within Boston proper) around greater Boston. Yet, it is still a sizable mass of higher education.

    Along with all of those colleges and universities comes of course some of the usual town and gown, but also the trappings of the modern "knowledge" economy (i.e. research and development, knowledge economy).

    Further, the city has some physical character and charm. There are lovely hills aplenty. The city hall (above) doesn't give off the appearance of being a concrete packing crate surrounded by expanses of stale brick. The Union Station is classy and actually is used as a train station (which isn't a total shocker in New England, but still).

    Another little area, Shrewsbury Street, has some pretty cool places to hang out, eat, and drink. Urban Mechanic (and his peeps) frequent the Flying Rhino (left) most often when visiting town for meetings and such.

    Of course there are still a good few drawbacks that keeps Urban Mechanic deeply rooted in Boston over Worcester. This includes things such as lacking real local transit, having a cute but not truly vibrant downtown, and way too much parking everywhere...though locals think otherwise; as they always do. Also, they don't have any major bodies of water to enjoy, which I suppose they can't quite fix too easily. It's still well worth visiting and poking around, and who knows, one day good Quinsigamond might just clue-in on the things that hold them back from being a bit more urbane if not urban itself.

    25 September 2009

    A Hands-on Saturday in Boston

    This Saturday, Urban Mechanic has no less than four events going on from Allston to Dorchester and in between.

    Starting the day is a public meeting to review the master plan proposal for Columbia Point, which includes redeveloping the Boston Globe complex and the Bayside Exposition Center. Anyone interested can find out more about the event on the BRA's website.

    After a brief introduction to that Urban Mechanic hopes to skip over to Allston Village for their street clean-up for a couple hours. Specific event details can be found here.

    By noon-time it's back across Boston to do a Ribbon Cutting Crawl with Uphams Corner Main Streets featuring BBQ, a wine-tasting and an appearance by the Mayor. (NOTE - Urban Mechanic is not to be confused with the Thomas Menino who also uses the moniker.)

    Finally, in the late afternoon its over to Jamaica Plain for the 16th Annual Open Studios.

    It may sound daunting at first, but the Urban Mechanic can assure folks that it sure beats just cruising the shopping malls. Of course, one doesn't have to do a marathon of events to get a real feel for Boston. Just pick one of teh cool events above or find another of your liking by visiting Boston Main Streets website. There's a great calendar of events and links to every Main Street district in the city!

    23 September 2009

    Experience by Design

    Ask a successful retailer, or any successful business owner, and they will tell you that experience matters. But don't just assume that only means the experience of the sort you or your employees bring to the job or running of your business. Another type of experience matters just as much and it is part science, part art and all by design.

    The experience of which I am speaking is what your customers, or even the casual passerby, encounter as they walk past your store or establishment. What's in the windows? Does it capture their attention? Does it beckon them to peak inside, or does it send them scurrying a little quicker down the walk?

    Once someone walks in, what greats their senses? How are they treated? Are they drawn to act, maybe to sample a fine chocolate and inquire "what makes you unique?" Hotel Chocolat (pictured right) provided me such an inspiration this evening. Somewhat new to the area (Newbury Street), a bicycle and basket brimming their product is perched in the window with a bright interior adding a pop to the display, which is actually still under construction. As I walked in I was instantly greeted by a staffer who warmly welcomed me to try a sample of their chocolates. As I sampled and asked "what makes you different, better?" she smiled and offered an informed and genuinely enthusiastic pitch that truly became a conversation as we spoke of the best ways to use certain chocolates for baking.

    After perusing the store further I decided to try one of the recommended chocolates to bake with and another treat, Kirsch (Brandy) soaked cherries covered in dark chocolate. As I was ringing out I complemented the staffers on their new store and the displays. They were most gracious, and noting my interest they shared their idea for putting the bicycle outside as a prop to offer samples to the passerby. They inquired if I was local to the area, and upon discovering that I was, encouraged me to drop back by to share with them my opinion on the Kirsch Cherries and to perhaps enjoy a tasting of other treats they have. (UPDATE - After getting home, the significant other and I are both agreed...the Kirsch Cherries are fantastic!)
    You don't have to be a boutique chocolate retailer on a trendy shopping street to provide an amazing retail experience by design...
    That is what I would call experience by design. Of course, you don't have to be a boutique on a trendy shopping street such as Newbury to get this right. Oop! in downtown Providence and nearby Craftland, are also great examples by design, both physically and in their business model. Take a look at the photos below. Any guesses why?


    20 September 2009

    Fives Years Running...

    With a turnout of 181 students, faculty, staff, alumni, runners, volunteers, a leopard (mascot) and Otis (an adorable, real dog), Wentworth for the fifth straight years has claimed the much coveted Pudding Pot at the Annual Mission Hill Road Race. (Disclosure - Urban Mechanic is Director of the CLP@WIT)

    More pictures and a write-up on the event as a whole will be posted soon.

    18 September 2009

    Simple Things

    Breakfast, brunch or lunch. Sit down, or take out. Family, friends, or solo. Reasonable prices, fun and friendly service, plain and simple. That's McKenna's Cafe in a nutshell. This Savin Hill establishment, just steps off the T and at the heart of the Savin Hill community, wouldn't call itself an institution. Residents and loyal customers aren't stuffy enough to care about such acclaim either. For everyone else, foreign to this unassuming, but fabulously authentic part of Boston, you'll either fall in love or lament the lack of any attempt to be chic or designer.

    For Urban Mechanic, McKenna's is just one more reason to love calling Savin Hill home. Oh, and hipsters take note, there's already lines-out the door just about any weekend. AND, the locals have plenty of flair already. That's not to say visitors won't be welcomed.

    16 September 2009

    Who will win the Pudding Pot?

    Runners, walkers, and volunteers of Wentworth Institute of Technology have captured the Pudding Pot for four straight years. The much coveted trophy is awarded at the Annual Mission Hill Road Race to the organization that turns out the most people; plain and simple. BUT, who will win this year!? (Disclosure - Urban Mechanic is Director of the CLP@WIT, a Wentworth department)

    Though WIT has so far had a lock on the prize for the entirety of its short history; competition has only mounted each and every year making for a fierce (but courteous) battle generating what feels like a century's-long rivalry among colleagues and neighbors. Will Wentworth clinch it's fifth straight victory, or will the Pudding Pot be relocating from 550 Huntington after Saturday's race? 
    More importantly, all of this turnout goes to a fantastic cause, the road race event itself is a fundraiser and celebration of Kevin Fitzgerald Park. Tucked behind (and above) Brigham Circle, the northern anchor of Mission Hill's business district, the park offers stunning views from Longwood (up close) down toward Back Bay and downtown Boston. Learn more about the fascinating story behind this very special place here.

    For decades the park area was actually an abandoned quarry that once produced Roxbury Puddingstone. Now, as a park the former "ledge site" also features shopping, dining, and offices developed by Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services (a community development corporation) and the New Boston Fund.


    The Road Race features Boston most scenic and toughest 5k run, walk, and a bit of celebration. Imagine a course half dozen or so "Heart Break Hills." Walkers are fired off at 930 am and runners at 10 am...this Saturday, September 19th. The race does issues officiated/metered results and awards various categories of runners/walkers by age and gender, and time ranking. Registration (walkers and runners) is available the day of the event for $20. For that Jackson, you'll get food, water (of course), your official number (and results) and a fantastic t-shirt (usually in a vintage swoosh style). Just be warned, be there early if you haven't already registered as the Pudding Pot crowd and the residents at-large make this an immensely popular event.

    See more photos of Kevin Fitzgerald (Pudidngstone) Park on the Mission Hill Flickr Group page.

    15 September 2009

    The Pear in the Square

    Public art in Boston sometimes can feel a bit understated or just plain lacking...

    ...especially when you consider places like Chicago, with its Millennium Park filled to the brim with sculptural, architectural, landscape, and even digital installations.

    The bronze sculpture of Clapp Pear at Edward Everett Square offers up a classy exception to this rule. Though some may feel it too is understated, I find it a perfect punctuation mark for what is an interesting, if yet unrefined part of town. If anything, it offers a glimmer of the potential for the square as a more urban (and therefore less auto-centered) place.

    Those who are interested in such notions might take an interest in the local Main Street organization based in nearby Uphams Corner. If you enjoy public art and haven't visited the Pear, it is highly recommended (especially while the weather is mild). It's a short walk up Columbia Road from the JFK Red Line stop (See it on the Map). You can also take in some local dinning with the always enjoyable Restaurant Laura and hip 224 Boston both close by.

    14 September 2009

    Props to the CLP@WIT Crew!

    Many props go the crew of students and staff who joined scores of equally dedicated Mission Hill residents and business owners for last weekend's 'Neighbor Hill' Celebration organized by the Community Alliance of Mission Hill (CAMH).

    The CLP@WIT crew (let it be known, 'Urban Mechanic' is the Director for this organization) put in an 8 plus hour day and lent a hand to everything from planning (before the event), hauling equipment to the event, set-up at the event, cooking, cleaning, photography, playing with kids, chatting and mingling with neighbors, and breaking down the event. Again, much, much more work remained and a big shout out goes to those who came out from across all of Mission Hill to make the event happen and successfully so. Great Work!

    I personally look forward to next year (yes my CAMH friends you're on the hook to keep doing it now). If you want more of Mission Hill before then, come out to annual Mission Hill Road Race to benefit Kevin Fitzgerald (formerly Puddingstone) Park.

    See more photos of the event (and Mission Hill in general) on the Mission Hill Flickr Group page.

    10 September 2009

    Neighbor Hill Event

    Whether you've just moved-in, you've been the neighborhood for decades, or you simply haven't made it to this part of town recently...
    ...come to Mission Hill on Saturday to take in the sites, sounds, food and music of the Neighbor Hill community block party. Organized by a diverse group of residents, institutions, businesses and spear-headed by the Community Alliance of Mission Hill...the event follows weeks of move-ins, and other end of summer excitement.
    Oh, and be sure to check out the Mission Hill Road Race next weekend. You can walk, run, or just hang out  and watch the action. You can register with this form, or the day of the race.

    05 September 2009

    Food in the City: The Best Iced Cappuccino

    If you find yourself strolling the Rose Kennedy Greenway on a sunny afternoon (or elbowing your way through Haymarket...or just in the vicinity) make a point to meander up to the North End to the Caffe dello Sport to quench your thirst, enjoy light eats and take in a football match.

    If you are a fan of iced coffee but want something more smooth than Dunkin, try the iced cappuccino. Unlike the sad iced cappuccinos you get most anywhere else in the city, dello Sport uses a classic milkshake blender to create a divinely smooth beverage topped with a subtle cocoa powder.

    Dello Sport also offers delightful freshmade foods such as sandwiches and a wide-array of deserts. Best of all, while there is always brisk businesses, it's rarely jammed-packed like many other North end establishments. NOTE for first-time customers, dell Sport is cash only, they "trust in God, all others pay cash."

    Food in the City is a series of notes on food and drink found in the urban condition.

    30 August 2009

    Flowers make a difference!

    What's right with this picture?

    Flowers, lot's and lot's of well-placed, well-managed flowers. Also, you'll notice a well-kept side-walk, and clean/uncluttered windows. Those three simple things make a difference. In fact, Main Street experts will tell you that keeping up with these three things alone can boost a business' bottom line by 10%. Don't believe me? Ask Marianna Hayes, the guru of downtown and small business coaching will set you straight.

    One might also note in this photo a well-maintained facade that includes a classy paint job and appropriately fitting awning. These may all be hallmarks of a hardworking business owner and downtown improvement district, in this case the Canton Development Partnership. However, whatever resources there are (a chamber of commerce, a Main Street organization, or a band of vigilant merchants) if your business (and downtown) doesn't have this look and feel (by this I don't necessarily mean old-timey) then you should get to without any doubt or debate.

    Some things to keep in mind.
    Do not attempt to do this on the cheap! It is worse than having nothing at all.Use quality (and durable) plants and planters. Water and maintain!

    Keep the sidewalks clean no matter what...

    ...and de-clutter and shine those windows! No hodge-podge of cigarette adds, menus, and posters! Vigilance, vigilance, vigilance.

    28 August 2009

    Boston Neighborhood Takes A Bow

    Mission Hill, one of Boston's most diverse communities takess a bow this weekend as it's famed Mission Church and Basilica of our Lady of Perpetual Help (pictured) hosts a funeral mass for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. While Massachusetts and arguably much of the nation mourns Kennedy's passing, Mission Hill has been granted an opportunity to not only honour him, but also strike out a new image locally and nationally.

    After decades of often tumltuos change, the community today truly represents a crossroads for Boston's diverse population of young and old, student and lifelong resident, rich and poor, and ethnicities from across the globe. The neighborhood's assets, which include a stunning geography and landscape including parts of the emerald necklace, urban wilds, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and eclectic architecture to match.

    Mission Hill is home to a substantial portion of the Longwood Medical and Academic Area (home to Harvard Med and dozens of hospitals, research labs colleges and other institutions), but also boasts numerous grassroots and citywide agencies and community anchors and a resurgent community business district.

    As Peter Schworm from the Boston Globe acutely points out, the community brand over the past decades has been one also of strife, change, and transition. However, those who love Mission Hill know it's quality and character to hold much, much more. It seems that thanks can be given to Ted for understanding likewise.

    27 August 2009

    Street Banners Gone Bad

    What is wrong with this picture?

    Look closely. This photo shows a banner that can be found on telephone poles throughout the Summit neighborhood of my hometown in Canton, Ohio (a Midwestern city struggling to find it's way in the post-industrial world). This banner is similar to banners found in "redeveloping" areas throughout the city.

    What we see here is a fantastic demonstration of best intentions gone seriously wrong. The banners were deployed by the previous Mayoral administration (Janet Creighton) to "spruce" up and give struggling communities and "fresh image." Does this banner say "This an up and coming place, or a "we're a family friendly neighborhood," or a "proud historic community"?

    Sadly, their poor design only drives home the point that the neighborhood is not up and coming. Not that the "rear entry" video store nearby helps any, but the banner pictured doesn't either. If you look closely, you'll see this banner depicts a mountain "summit." There are no mountains or mountainous features in this neighborhood or all of Northeast Ohio. The banner is comically out of scale. The banner is attached to a telephone poll, almost as an afterthought.

    Moral of the story: Banners can be effective in creating an image for a place. But what the folks behind this banner scheme did not realize is that they are (1) only part of a solution (along with other improvements) and (2) if they are implemented badly (like this) they do more harm than good.