Saturday, August 08, 2020

Somerville's Brandon Wilson talks about the mission of The Somerville Historical Commission


In these times of pandemic and gentrification it was imperative for me to speak to someone about the preservaton of what we have . So I contacted Brandon Wilson, executive director of the Somerville Historical Preservation Commission



Can you describe the mission statement of the Commission?


The mission of the Commission is to ensure Somerville’s most important historic properties are preserved.  It was established by municipal ordinance in 1985 and is comprised of 14 volunteer members that typically includes architects, architectural historians, owners of locally designated houses, contractors, real estate agents and others with a strong interest in local history.  The Commission benefits from Staff provided by the Historic Preservation Division of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD). 


Together the Staff and the Commission members keep Somerville’s history alive by protecting historic properties, collecting photos and documents, and raising awareness of Somerville's history as a community. 

How have things changed or not because of COVID?

Interesting question!  Like most offices we have pivoted quite a bit, using Zoom for public meetings, working remotely with less access to helpful materials and colleagues, and figuring out ways to highlight Somerville’s historic assets to a variety of audiences, in a physically safe and hopefully interesting manner.  The pandemic prevents us from bringing groups of people together to enjoy our usual walking tours, bike rides, talk and film series, and docent guides, so we started virtual programming. 

Perhaps one of the most popular ideas that we recently launched is a ‘I Spy Somerville’ series.  Every week or so we release a sample image of an often-overlooked physical feature in “Historic Somerville” and we challenge our audience to find other examples around the City.  The goal is to highlight Somerville’s historic assets and charm, give helpful direction to folks’ regular walking and biking during COVID-19, and encourage all to explore different neighborhoods in the City, whether actively or via their computer.  We ask everyone to submit a photo, the address, and any lore they know about the image, to win bragging rights, possibly win a prize, and make others aware, and possibly find the object too.  Ultimately, we intend to create and map a collection of historically interesting and unique objects around Somerville, including some which may be changing, like artistic manhole covers, or disappearing altogether, like in-ground trash pails.

Not all cities have historical preservation commissions and if they do, I think many have less visibility than yours does.  Why do you think Somerville merits an active historical commission?


It is certainly my hope to give notable visibility to our Preservation Commission because Somerville has such a rich history and architectural legacy to showcase!  You often hear about Lexington, Concord and Boston as places to learn about the founding of our nation, but seriously Somerville, as far back as when it was known as ‘Beyond the Neck’ and part of Charlestown, has many claims to fame too.  It was here that the Redcoats’ Raid of the Old Powder House took place on September 1,1774 and was said to spark the American Revolution, and that the very high hill overlooking Cambridge and Boston served as the site for George Washington to command the raising of the First Flag of the United Colonies on January 1, 1776. 


In addition to our historical significance, Somerville can attest to an amazing array of architectural styles, distinguished architects, and unique buildings like the Round House, the Prospect Hill Tower, and the Somerville Armory, to name but a few examples.  The structures also reflect our rich heritage of skilled artisans and builders whose fine craftsmanship is difficult or unaffordable to recreate, so it is important to preserve them, for current, as well as future generations.


The Preservation Commission, in partnership with other local offices and organizations, needs to be both active and assertive, to ensure the City is recognized as “Historic Somerville!”


You have home preservation awards.  Can you talk a bit about this--and how does one qualify for such an award?


The Commission initiated an Awards Program in 1995, making this year our 25th anniversary!  Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 we have hit the pause button for any true celebration.  However, not to be totally deterred, we are amid recognizing the 9 property owners who are winning 2020 Preservation or Director Awards for work done over the past couple of years.  Owners may nominate their own property or may be nominated by others in the community.  Eligible projects include, but are not limited to, removal of inappropriate siding materials, repair or restoration of damaged or missing architectural details, removal of enclosed porches or inappropriate windows, repainting with historic colors, and additions that are “historically sympathetic.”


As part of our virtual programming, in a periodic newsletter to over 1,000 subscribers, we are highlighting the fine exterior work on the owners’ properties with Before, In Progress, and After photos.  Later more details will be posted on our website via a PowerPoint presentation which would normally be shown at our annual Awards Ceremony.  It is held as part of Preservation Month in May at the Somerville Armory, but naturally it’s on hold now. Also, each of the owners were personally interviewed, to hear what restoration or renovation work they did and any helpful lessons they learned.  The Somerville Times is publishing the interviews and photos periodically in their weekly newspaper.   


What really distinguishes our Awards Program from most other communities is that it involves the students at Somerville High.  They create an original piece of artwork representing one of the winning properties, using many forms such as watercolors, pen and ink, computer art, and ceramic tiles.  The winning pieces are professionally framed, and a copy is given to the student for their portfolio, as well as to the owner, following a yearlong mobile exhibit to different parts of the City, to showcase both groups’ impressive work.  The Awards Program benefits from the generosity of local businesses, including Century Bank, Stanhope Framers, restaurants, and several space exhibitors.


 What is your own history with Somerville?


I have been a city planner working with the City for several decades, serving under 5 different mayoral administrations, and enduring 40 years this past May!  During this time I have been involved with many different types of planning, beginning with citizen participation and school reuse planning in the 1980’s, land use and zoning as Planning Director for 14 years, and more recently doing community events, outreach and historic preservation planning. While not my hometown, I love living and working in Somerville where I raised a family, renovate old houses, and engage in lots of civic efforts.


 Is rapid gentrification of the city interfering with historical preservation?


Gentrification is a challenge for all cities, and Somerville is no different.  It’s ironic to me that when I first started working here in 1980 many native residents were leaving for the leafier, less dense, and newer houses in the suburbs, and seemed less interested in the older building stock and local history.  Over the years, with new folks coming from all over the country and globe, many of them have been excited to learn about their new community, its history and traditions, and are eager to fix up, adaptively reuse, and appreciate the older architecture here.  This change of spirit has made a welcome difference for those of us who care about preserving the beauty and charm of “Historic Somerville” evident in its architecture, artifacts, and community-wide celebrations. 

Friday, August 07, 2020

Norbert Krapf’s Southwest by Midwest (Dos Madres Press), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

 Norbert Krapf’s Southwest by Midwest (Dos Madres Press), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos 


In his new collection Southwest by Midwest, Norbert Krapf, a poet of the Midwest, opens his eyes and spirit to the native art and spirit of America’s Southwest. Focusing on the work of Native potter Jody Naranjo, images of whose work both illustrate and lend context to his poems, Krapf demonstrates a nuanced sensitivity to the ethos of the culture he learns to admire. In “Invocation,” he asks to be led to an appreciation of Jody’s art: “Help my eyes see/ how her pottery/ revolves with a charm that awakens my vision/ with a love as warm/ as a natural religion,” hoping that the images of butterflies that so often appear on her pottery will “inspire/ my imagination to fly/ into Jody’s creative fire.” The opening poem, “Prolog: The Pot Taking Shape,” Krapf establishes a connection that transcends geographical and temporal distance: “In this Midwestern morning/ darkness I see a pot taking/ shape in the red hills/ of northern New Mexico.” Connectivity on several levels proves thematically central. The potter’s physical presence, as she “coils local clay” connects “spirit” and “mystery” to create a work that carries a religious experience which is both a “blessing” and a “consecration,” and a “hymn.” Not only does her work forge “a connection/ between the pot/ in the making/ and the landscape/ out of which/ it has emerged,” the pottery also both emerges from and continues a connection to the generations that have preceded her, yielding, “something of the earth/ carrying her imprint/ and the spirit of those/ who came before her.” Jody Naranjo’s craft follows a tradition, Krapf writes in “The Girl in the Village,” that “her mother showed her how/ to do and as her aunts/ and grandmother and those/ earlier generations have prepared/ her and her children also to do. 

Krapf emphasizes the synthesis of the Native artist’s craft with nature, the land, and those who live upon it. In “Dine Daughter,” we learn that her connections to these are part of her essence: “When she is outside the circle/ of the Four Sacred Mountains/ she carries Dinetah in her big/ heart and corn pollen in her/ small handbag. No matter/ how far she is from her/ homeland the old stories/ of her father and the warm/ wisdom of her mother keep her spirit calm and strong/ and make her confident she/ can do whatever her heart wills.” The artist, we read in “On the Rim” is “[p]oised between heavens/ and earth, between past,/ present and future,” and the work she produces is rendered, as is illustrated in an eponymous poem, in a “New Old Tongue.” Krapf, the Midwestern poet, recognizes in poems about Jody the potter’s parents and relatives the significance of the traditions that have shaped her life and work. He longs to be able to partake of the spirituality he sees embodied in her work, but knows that he must open his eyes and heart wide in order to be able to make this connection. Even when, in the poem “Eastern Light,” he awakes (with his wife) in the room of the potter’s parents and is struck by the morning light that inspires the potter’s work, he acknowledges and laments with “shame” the cultural gap that separates him from the culture he admires. He is “choked with salty grief/ over the realization/ that we who came/ later from elsewhere/ to this beautiful/ land and landscape/ have not had/ the eyes to see,/ the ears to listen,/ the hearts to feel,/ the wisdom to understand/ what was here/ and still remains.” If he and other non-Natives could absorb the benefit of Native culture instead of imposing upon it, they might “become the people/ we must be/ to walk in dignity/ and beauty and balance.” 

It is the potter and her work that have the power to absorb the outsider with their beauty and spirituality, Krapf suggests in “Some Hands”: “Some hands touch us/ by what they make/ and leave for us/ like a red-earth pot/ from New Mexico that / holds the spirits of animals/ and ancestors who speak/ in a low-tone language/ that all understand.” But as Krapf contemplates the geographical and cultural separation between the Southwest and Midwest, he finds, in “The Police and the Potter’s Healing Hands,” that the cultures connect through the ideas of family and art. When Jody the potter visits the poet in Indiana, she lends an empathetic ear to a story of an episode of family difficulty, and “your/ hand that shapes/ clay into a pot/ reaches out to/ mine that writes/ the poem/ and you, a guest artist/ . . . / say you feel/ what we felt,/ . . . / We are joined,” Krapf concludes, “as one family/ in one story/ that crosses over/ state boundaries/ ancient battle lines/ as compassion flows/ from the potter’s/ to the poet’s hand.” Ultimately, even a poet from the Midwest can be transformed, as “The Potter’s Touch” illustrates: “When she touched my hand/ I took the shape of a pot.” It is at the level of art that the potter and poet truly merge, providing motivation and inspiration: “When I opened my mouth,/ Out came feathery poems shaped/ round and full and sensuous/ floating like haiku in the moonlight./ . . . / Never was my song so lyrical before the potter’s touch came.” 

As Krapf’s collection progresses, the poet and potter seem to merge, as indicated in “Poems and Pots,” which asserts “Poems and pots/ are containers” which “people want to lift. . . to their lips/ and sip from the spirit within.” The poem continues with examples of the way the potter and poet are similar in their creative endeavors: “She takes snakes of clay/ and winds them together/ the way a poet coils lines.” Krapf concludes, “Inside the pot she leaves/ her spirit breath as the poet/ does within his poem.” Having established this connection, Krapf, in the third section of his collection, “New Mexico Light,” offers examples of the poet creating life out of the elements of Native culture. It is the Midwestern poet who captures the essence of Crazy Horse as a significant spiritual symbol in his poem “Crazy Horse Rides”: “He is one with his horse/ at one with himself/ and all generations./ He is inside, outside time/ that is pure illusion/ on a road that runs/ in all directions.” In “Desert Beauty” the transformed poet’s eye is open to the peace and spirituality of the Southwestern desert: “We walk slowly but gladly along the arroyo stopping/ to observe and appreciate / and praise the tiny desert/ flowers whose names we/ do not always know/ . . ./ Separately, and then together we sang.” Whereas in the volumes earliest poems, the Midwestern poet describes the symbolically and spiritually saturated work of the Native potter from the outside, in “Morning Mountain Prayer he shows himself able to capture the essence of the Southwest in his own language and art form: “Morning mountain air/ calls me to sit outside/ . . ./ and warm light slants/ onto this yellow paper/ across which the black/ ink of a German pen/ walks leaving word tracks/ that knew all along/ that in the end/ near the bottom/ of this page/ they would become / my thanksgiving prayer/ in morning mountain air.” Similarly, in “Horses Munching Grass, Blue Field, Evening,” Krapf’s art of poetry merges with the art of painting as he captures other scenes of the Southwest: “The sound of brown and black horses/ munching green grass in a blue field/ below mountains with a thin strip/ of white clouds skimming the top/ of the mountains and white-blossoming/ weeds in the foreground/ is a painting/ framed in my mind which I will carry away/ with me/ when I drive down from the mountains/ where a part of me remains as eye and ear.” 

It is the idea of art and its transcending power that seems to be the centralizing the theme of Southwest by Midwest. Krapf, in simple, clear, and striking imagery captures the breadth and depth of the Native potter’s work, juxtaposing his words with images Jody Naranjo’s pottery. In poems that take the form of prayers, hymns, lullabies, invocations, and consecrations, Krapf praises, illustrates, and connects artistic endeavors such as poetry, pottery, and painting. But just as important as the personal experiences he hopes to convey through his poetry is the act of transcendence he hopes his readers will partake of as a consequence of reading his work, a thought he expresses in the concluding stanza of “Light Follows Me”: “May I one day transform/  into light that shines on others/ from above and also within/ when they read my poems.” This ambition to enlighten his readers is central in the volume’s concluding poem, “EPILOG: At the Center of the Circle”: Waking, I see a perfectly shaped pot,/ spinning and revolving on its axis. This is the sacred pot/ of the universe/ . . ./ As this pot spins, it plays/ the music of the spheres./ Listen. Look. The man and woman/ are two halves of the One. It has/ taken eons for them to come/ together and merge as one whole.” Krapf’s final assertion, addressed to the reader, connects art, creator, and audience in a timeless, boundless transcendence: “You too are inside the circle/ of the universe. You, reader,/ can join them at the center./ You too make love and music/ that can save us all. You too/ live and breathe at the center.” 


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

REFLECTIONS on a Riverbank by Betsy Lenora

REFLECTIONS on a Riverbank by Betsy Lenora 
** Betsy Lenora is a writer and photographer living in Somerville, MA.

It took a third move from spot to spot to find the most comfortable place for my picnic. Noise was the biggest obstacle. A leaf blower chased me from riverbank to park bench & finally, to my quiet perch on a concrete ledge. Sitting over an outlet to the Mystic River, my legs dangled freely. Below my feet were a pile of rocks. Straight ahead, the river flowed towards the ocean. The banks on both sides were lined with trees & provided welcoming shade. Nearby, Alewife Brook emptied itself into the river, merging with the faster water on its way to the sea. While I ate my lunch, I watched as canoes, kayaks, & rubber rafts passed by in a colorful flotilla. The river is not terribly wide, at least not in this area. It was easy to see the riverboat people along with an occasional dog. Motorboats quietly put-putted down towards the ocean to maybe fish. A few people were casting their rods from the banks nearby. The day, though it started out cloudy, had turned clear & sunny, warm with a cool breeze. Perfect for an early summer-like day in May. Though with fewer cars on the road due to the pandemic, the traffic behind me was audible. So too were the gentle lapping sounds as the ripples from the breeze & the river-craft provided a different soundtrack.

My consciousness is heightened when I'm outside, surrounded by the natural world. When the troubles, stress & worries of mankind threaten to upset my equilibrium; when I've listened to too much news on the radio, watched too much sadness on TV, interacted too long with my computer due to the COVID19 virus & not having the social contact that would normally help relieve these issues - there is one respite that always calms me, brings me back to what's important. It is a feeling of unification, of oneness with Life which instantly connects me to the Present Moment whenever I step outside & follow a path that leads to trees, water, wild animals, bugs, flowers, weeds & all the things that aren't made by a human being but by some force of Universal Energy. I find myself when I lose myself in the natural wildness of the world.

We humans often forget that we come from the same source. We destroy the very things that created us. By breathing in the air of the planet - the air that trees create without which we could not live; the very water of Life itself that falls from the sky to create rivers & lakes – & the oceans where we came from; & by eating plants that grow from the soil to nourish us so that we won't starve; our survival depends on all of earth's elements. In these harsh & dark times, we can turn to Nature to restore our sanity, our feelings of hope & peace even as we struggle to resolve the dilemmas that we face, that we have always faced. For me, being outside in Nature, I let go of my ego as I focus only on what I can see, & I marvel at the wonder of it all. It frees up some space in my head & heart so that I can better be open to the Truth, Peace & Justice that we desperately need in our world. Nature equals living honestly, truthfully, courageously. Nature means we can all breathe.

Monday, August 03, 2020

On my Walk to Harvard Yard: A Reflection

By Doug Holder

On my walk to Harvard Yard-- I took a well-appointed seat under a bright red umbrella to rest, and talk to a friend on the phone. I saw this elderly woman, in a state of disrepair--probably homeless- looking in the distance at me. I remember her from a bagel shop I used to frequent in Harvard Square. She came up to me once and said, "You're Dave, right? Can I buy you a pastry?" I said no thanks and my name was "Doug." "Dave," she said--you work at Harvard." "No I don't", as she looked at me with the most downcast expression.

 So here I am in Harvard Yard, watching a couple wheeling an inquisitive infant, and she approaches me again. " You're Dave right?" " "No", I said. " You work at Harvard, right?" " No," I said.' Again she looked at me with downcast eyes.

I wonder about that woman, and who Dave was. Some friend from her distant past she pined for? A long lost a friend, a child, a lover? Will she ever find this Dave? Was she was someone I once knew--and I couldn't recognize now? I wondered if I should have told her " Yes," I am Dave--it might of made the woman's day. Instead after she left I walked away.

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Random House.

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Random House, 238 pages. $15.00.

Review by Ed Meek

Following the tragic death of George Floyd, Americans have been searching for an explanation for how we got to the point where a police officer feels he has to right to kneel on someone’s neck until his life ends—a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man in handcuffs—while he is being videotaped with three other police officers looking on. The image of Officer Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck is so powerful because it makes the case that Floyd’s Black life simply did not matter to Chauvin. Hence, it embodies the need for a Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, it functions as a racist symbol of the relationship of white America to Black Americans. In addition to grabbling with how we got here, Americans are asking themselves what they can do. Ibram X. Kendi attempts to provide us with a way to move forward in his engaging and compelling new book, How to be an Antiracist.

A more accurate title of Kendi’s book might be:” How I learned to think like an antiracist and how you can too.” The book traces Kendi’s development from high school to college, and graduate school and up to the present (he’ll be joining the faulty at Boston University this fall).
In telling his own story he draws from years of research.

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that Kendi clearly defines his terms. A racist Is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” An antiracist on the other hand is “One who is supporting an antiracist policy though their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” The key word is policy. A racist policy would be any policy that helps one race and hurts another. Practices like “stop and frisk” and racial profiling unfairly target African-Americans. Our justice system unjustly incarcerates too many Black males. Kendi is against any policy that maintains “racial inequities.” Legacy admissions and merit scholarships, for instance, favor whites who go to the best schools, and graduate to the best jobs.

Overt acts of racism like a white person using the “N’ word to insult a Black person, or joining a white supremacist group, or violently attacking someone based on race are the kinds of things we usually think of when we talk about racism and because of that, it makes it easy for many people to deny that they are racists. Kendi is saying that it is the unseen policies in housing, education, justice, and the distribution of wealth that hurt Blacks and help whites that are the real problems that we must address. In addition, he thinks that once we change the policies, people will adapt to the changes.

Kendi begins his book by talking about a speech he gave in high school in which he blames Black youth for their predicament: “They think it’s ok not to think! They focus too much on sports. Too many get pregnant.” Sound familiar? This is a stance taken by Paul Ryan, Bill Cosby and Barak Obama. Kendi realizes later that he is blaming Black people for problems that are not their own fault. The pandemic has exposed many of the issues Black Americans are faced with from low-paying jobs to inadequate healthcare to underfunded education to low rates of home ownership.

Kendi reviews the history of “whiteness” which seems to be contradicted in our Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” A more accurate statement at that time might have been “all white men are created equal.” Two hundred and fifty years later, we still have what Isabel Wilkerson calls “America’s Enduring Caste System” in a recent article in The New York Times. Kendi does not let himself or other African-Americans completely of the hook. He claims that any of us can be racist. Clarence Thomas, Kendi points out, in his treatment of Anita Hill, was both sexist and racist. Moreover, Kendi does not think it is useful to accuse one another of being racist (as the left is fond of doing). Rather he thinks we need to change those policies that result in racial inequities.

There are two criticisms I have of Kendi’s book. First, although the makes the case for inequities between Blacks and whites, he doesn’t propose how we go about closing those gaps or acknowledge that the bigger problem, as Adolph Reed would say, is the disparity of income and wealth between all Americans. Also, because this is a book about how we think about race, it is easy enough as a reader to agree with Kendi and identify as an antiracist without actually doing anything to change the problems facing black Americans.

The idea driving Kendi is, as Elizabeth Warren would say, to “level the playing field” and “provide opportunities” for everyone. But in order to level the playing field don’t we have to overcompensate through some type of reparations? Affirmative Action was an attempt to level the playing field and it was successful, but the primary beneficiaries were white women and when jobs and admissions slots were given to African-American candidates, other groups objected. Lawsuits were filed. Although Ta Nahesi Coates in The Atlantic and Nikole Hannah-Jones in the The New York Times argue effectively for reparations, and Senator Markey is part of a group of Democrats studying the issue, most Americans are not there yet. We’ll see what happens in the next few years. Meanwhile, How to be an Antiracist can help get us on track to overcoming America’s racial divide.