The Vespa

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The Vespa

Other Voices

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It was a typical autumn morning in London. The sky was pewter grey and the air heavy with the expectation of rain. The only sounds I could hear on the narrow residential street were in keeping with its demure Victorian brick terraces: front doors thudding shut; purposeful footsteps of men and women on their way to work; the “slick slick slick” of bicycle wheels moving along the damp tarmac. All was in its rightful place until, from behind me, the buzz of a Vespa scooter toppled my aural order. A Vespa scooter! For one glorious second, I was in Rome with its ochre-colored palazzos, dark cobblestoned streets, and fierce sunshine. Then, as the buzz trailed off into the distance, I remembered that scooter sales had recently exploded in London, a consequence of the exemption of two-wheeled vehicles from the city’s hefty congestion charge. “Mental note to self,” I thought, “erase Italian connotations of scooter noises. The Vespa is now just as much part of London’s soundscape as it is of Rome’s.”

You could call me, I suppose, a “sound hound,” a “collector of audio.” It’s a professional hazard when you work in radio. When I arrive at an interview location, I walk my ears around the place to identify what sounds I might record to give my listeners a sense of being there with me, to transport them out of their cars and kitchens to, for instance, Rome. Vespas, I realized that autumn morning, no longer work in the shorthand way they used to, at least for London listeners.

Hearing is the first sense we acquire as human beings — before even coming out of the womb. Hearing is also, we’re told, the last sense we lose before dying. Sound envelopes us every minute of our lives. There are individual sounds — the ring of a bell, for instance — so iconic that only a few seconds suffice for our brains to flash an image of the place that ring was from, whether a school, church, or door.

Cities are a cacophony of sounds — cars, horns, voices, footsteps. Recording the aural cityscape is a challenge. How can one convey without using words the intimidation caused by the Stalinist buildings of Minsk, the pandemonium of a Manila shantytown or (and this is perhaps most challenging) the modern humdrum of a bureaucratic city like Brussels? My own moment of revelation came at the National Gallery in London. Not because of any painting, but thanks to the variety of its floor surfaces. The soles of my feet still remember the sensation of moving from parquet to marble to carpet. But my ears remember, too. Voices, footsteps, the London buses outside the window — each reverberated differently depending on the floor material. Does a given soundscape, I wonder, affect our artistic appreciation?

Hearing a place is a visceral experience: it is something we can all relate to without thinking why. Recording a person interacting with a space by talking in it and walking through it creates sounds that paint a vivid picture in the mind of a listener. Consider the following radio sequence of just one minute from a documentary about land reform gone wrong in South Africa. The reporter walks into a ruined farmhouse. She describes what she sees and as she does, her voice bounces off the bare walls and her feet scrape against the rubble inside the house. She walks out of the house, and the echo is replaced by the deadened sound of an abandoned garden where she wades through brittle breaking leaves where there were once flowers and vegetable beds.

We share our streets and squares; we share their sound, too. Or perhaps more accurately, most of us still share their sound. Technology, the iPod being just one example, is already changing our relationship with the soundscape. It is a bittersweet irony that the very medium that proselytizes a community of listeners is experiencing a renaissance thanks to devices that shut people off from the sounds of their own cities.

Photo by Morten Rustad.

Boston Harbor

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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Other Voices

Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

In 2004, I swam the entire length of the Charles River. After snaking through 81 miles of discarded appliances, algae blooms, and bedroom towns, I rode the ebb tide into one of the most storied pieces of water on the East Coast: Boston Harbor.

I stroked under the Charlestown Bridge and toward Puopolo Playground in the North End. A light rain peppered the surface of the water. As I sloshed along, a cocktail of urban runoff slid from the streets into the waves around me. I tasted plastic, mud, gasoline, dog poop, and detergent. As a bonus, thousands of gallons of stormwater laced with untreated sewage belched out of Wet Weather Sewerage Discharge Outfall #203 and into the harbor, compliments of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

I thrashed through a stew of pathogens to the finish. Millions of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, as well as assorted viruses and protozoans, vied to get into my mouth, eyes, and nose, take up residence, reproduce, and make me sick.

I climbed out of the water, gargled with hydrogen peroxide, and thought, I’ll never swim in Boston Harbor again.

Of course, I was wrong.

Five short years later, I carved a big, wet turn around Deer Island and headed for the Boston skyline in one of the early segments of a 1,500-mile swim down the East Coast to Washington, DC. As I turned to breathe, I caught glimpses of the sludge digesters at the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant — a vine of fat white melons fed by the collective toilet flushes of 43 Greater Boston communities.

My mind said Boston Harbor was cleaner than it had been during my last visit. But as I threaded my way between bouquets of seaweed and trash, I knew in my heart there was still plenty of work to be done. Since my Charles River swim, I had upped the ante. In addition to photographing trash and combined sewer outfalls, I had spent my weekends arranging beach cleanups and hosting ethical electronics recycling events designed to keep toxic chemicals and heavy metals out of coastal waterways.

While I swam — on any given day I spend three to five hours in the water — my escort-boat crew tested the surface water temperature and pH of the ocean every 15 minutes to measure and map climate-change effects. At night, I stayed up too late embedding that water sampling data into publicly searchable online maps, in order to give the 50,000 students following my swim a glimpse of what was happening to their ocean planet.

Our findings, while not surprising, were not reassuring. For instance, sea surface temperatures were at or near historic highs. Good news for timid swimmers, but bad news if a hurricane arrived and gained energy from the warmer water.

When we tested the pH of Boston Harbor, we recorded values that were consistently below 8 — evidence of the ocean’s absorption of man-made carbon dioxide. Before the Industrial Revolution, when man-made CO2 was first released into our atmosphere in great quantities, the pH of the ocean was 8.179. Since then, the pH of the ocean has fallen to 8. (If it falls much further, the marine web of life as we know it will collapse.)

While this scientific news may be fascinating, it is not exactly inspiring. So the question remains: why am I out there, slogging through the darkening seas, dodging plastic trash and fuel slicks?

Part of the reason, of course, is that I hope to strike a spark in the minds of the 50,000 schoolchildren I will meet during my journey. And another part is that I hope our 5,000 water samples will help contribute to the body of knowledge needed to find a solution to the climate crisis.

But the real reason is a selfish one: I have two young daughters. Someday, they are going to look into my eyes and say, “Dad, you knew the ocean was a mess. What did you do about it?”


Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Photo by Ryan McClain

Photo by Ryan McClain

It was what has become a typical Monday since I was laid off. After spending a day trying to keep myself busy, I was more than happy to accompany my girlfriend on a trip to Boston Latin Academy. A kindergarten teacher, she had been given a pass to the ExCL recycling center located in the basement of Latin Academy and wanted my help carrying whatever treasures she found. Sure, it doesn’t sound like the most entertaining way to spend an afternoon. But it was a welcome break from my weekday routine.

Neither of us had ever been to ExCL — formally, Extras for Creative Learning, a nonprofit offering free supplies and materials to members including teachers, families, students, and artists. As the son of two teachers in the Boston Public School system, I’m familiar with educators’ hunger for classroom supplies and the lengths they’re willing to go to for coveted objects like pencils, notebooks, and copy paper. I had heard tales of ExCL, but as an intern-architect, I was never particularly interested in the place. It seemed to have little to do with me or my chosen profession.

After we were buzzed into the building, we made our way down a short flight of stairs to a large open room in the basement that was full of “stuff.” And I mean full. Shelves and bins lined the space, overflowing with items from yellowing lined paper, to rolls of felt, to unused pipettes. Like a combination office-supply warehouse and flea market, a collection of chairs, desks, and filing cabinets sat beside 55-gallon drums filled with rubber bands, scraps of fabric, yarn, and lemon-juice bottles — with boxes of audio cassettes, old educational VHS tapes, and CDs by unknown artists stacked in the far corner.

My initial thought was, “Where did all this stuff come from — and who’s going to use it?”

We had barely finished checking in before my girlfriend disappeared, a teacher-turned-treasure hunter abandoning me for her quest. Left to wander on my own, I was busy looking through a pile of 12″ records, hoping for a rare Sun Ra or Thelonious Monk, when a nearby shelf caught my attention. It held a pile of what I realized were manufacturers’ glazing samples — something you see all the time in an architecture office, but that I never expected to find in the basement of a Boston public school. I walked over to get a better look.

This is when things got a little weird.

Picking up the top sample, I noticed the label, which bore the name of my previous employer — the same employer who had created this window of free time for me on Monday afternoons.

Looking over the rest of the glass, I discovered that nearly all the samples had come from that same firm. I searched for more. Nearby, I found stone and tile squares, strips of wood flooring, and upholstery samples. All together, this collection would have made a respectable library for a small office.

I went looking for my girlfriend — only to find her making a pile of three-ring binders, nearly all of which came from some part of the construction industry. The spines were still labeled with the names of elevator manufacturers, construction firms, and all types of materials suppliers.

I looked back at the samples and felt an odd affinity with these inanimate objects — we were all in that basement for the same reason, all casualties of the recession. I was there because my current state of underemployment allowed me to go on scavenger hunts for recycled goods at four in the afternoon. These samples were there because firms found themselves with a rare opportunity: enough free time to clean out and organize their libraries.

As we left, we passed a sign saying, “Staff only beyond this point.” I couldn’t help but wonder if they were making room for more offerings from the design industry. Maybe I’ll suggest that they build a holding-pen for discarded junior designers and recent grads: “Young design professionals, for your creative repurposing! (Limit 2 per customer).”

Surface Road

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

Other Voices

Surface Road. Photo by Mary Ross

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A block of Surface Road runs through downtown Boston unmarked by any plaque. No one visits. It’s a silent memorial. This is where, in the spring of 2006, the last piece of the Central Artery was finally pulled down.

We all know why the Artery had to go: it was hideous, congested, misconceived. An icon of everything wrong with mid-century urban planning.

And I miss it.

Twenty years ago, I would drive into Boston, and it was the strangest and most spectacular thing I had experienced in a car: you would rocket through downtown three stories in the air, weaving among office buildings like a 1940s vision of the future. If you walked on the street below, the Artery was a looming presence, almost geological, cupping a whole realm of the city in shadow. If you got trapped in traffic, which happened a lot, you were captive to a panoramic view.

The Artery was a rusting eyesore, but it was something else as well: the grandest and most unapologetic piece of infrastructure in the city. With the Artery above and the subways thrumming below, downtown Boston evoked the busy optimism of another time — crowds of men with hats; tubes and ribbons of people at every level flowing through the city.

To look back at newspapers from the 1950s and see the color drawings of the young Artery is a revelation: it was a clean highway in the sky, magically stitching the city’s streets into the young American interstate system. When the magnificent thing finally appeared, it wasn’t alone overhead. The Green Line straddling Causeway Street on its muscular viaduct, the elevated trolley down Washington — the city wore its transit like a brace.

Today, the sign that we value a city, or a neighborhood, is that its infrastructure is invisible: if you want to see where the rich people live, look where the power lines aren’t. If you are like me, and you like to see the joints and sinews as well as the surface, you have to visit Boston’s lingering industrial zones, or hunt underground — the inexplicably grand Courthouse Silver Line station; the strange, derelict telephone network inside the Red Line tunnels. Cities are being re-imagined as charming and walkable, as though the massive roads and tracks that feed them were secondary, not essential.

People did not always feel this way about their infrastructure. In ancient Rome, fresh water traveled from the mountains in magnificent arched aqueducts that still inspire awe; once in the city, it sprang from grandiose fountains and baths as if to announce: This is how we became Rome.

Today, we have a system that beggars even Rome’s, yet the water slips quietly through a conduit beneath Boston College, a marvel of engineering that’s not only unmarked, but also unfindable. It would be impossible to imagine an electrical transformer proudly displayed in a public park. And the greatest supply of all, the human beings who are the oxygen of the city itself, now flow invisibly beneath South Station and flash back into the sun once they’re safely out of downtown. When they’re trapped in traffic, they see not the fabric of Boston, but the walls of the buried vein that shunts them beneath it.

I’ll admit that over time, after I moved here, I came to hate the Artery, too: its gnarled spine, its seemingly permanent rust, the way it shook beneath your wheels when trucks went by. Whatever the flaws of the Greenway, it’s hard to imagine capping off its open sky with a new steel overpass.

We can dismiss the old Artery, but we can’t dismiss what it meant. A moment when to be modern meant to look proudly on the achievements that got us here, to be proud of all the pipes and not just the pretty brick streetscapes they nourish — to stand in wonder at the truly wondrous thing.

Stephen Heuser is the deputy editor for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

Photo by Mary Ross.

Channel Center, Fort Point

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009


Other Voices

My six-year old neighbor most accurately describes what’s different about living in an artists building. He says, “All the grownups will play with you.”

Our particular building, Midway Studios, is discipline-diverse. The live/work lofts house artists of all kinds: painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, poets, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians; several collaborations (and my current employment) have started with conversations in the elevator. To rent here, you must be certified as a Boston artist through an anonymous review process administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. This helps ensure the caliber of work produced — we are home to two Guggenheim award-winners and several published authors. Apart from peer pressure, this is an incentive to make serious work, since certifications are periodically renewed and required for housing. Cease to meet the standards and you must move out.

Loft living is not ideal for all artists. It is expensive, and the changing development landscape makes our future uncertain. Some people leave because they can’t get their kids into local schools; some simply yearn for green space. We have few conventional features here and have forged a kind of artificial environment to create a more balanced reality.

When there is a snowstorm, Fort Point is quiet and unplowed — perfect conditions for cross-country skiing. Phones ring and text messages go out with invitations to venture outside. Making our way across parking lots and along the Harbor, we discuss city politics, our families, national news. We talk about the changing neighborhood, bet on which developments will actually get finished, reminisce about the old days over hot chocolate.

Mostly we extend invitations for shorter trips — to the hardware store, to do laundry, to have a glass of wine. Summer brings other invitations, for activities that might seem more at home in a traditional New England town. We have a neighborhood softball league and hold potluck barbecues on rooftops. We sometimes paddle through the locks and up the Charles River in kayaks kept in parking garages. A movie series is screened outdoors onto sheets in our tiny park; the previews are often our own short films, and some of the most popular features are Hollywood films we have written or acted in or movies that have been shot in Fort Point (Adaptation, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed).

We compensate for living and working in one room by treating the neighborhood geography like a large house. Landmarks are referred to as if they were rooms. A group of us meet for coffee most mornings in “the kitchen,” a spot on the banks of the Channel. We talk about recent openings, share recipes and advice. We play nicely, although envy or long-standing grudges about being passed over for a show are occasionally revealed over scones. Our “great room” is a local bar with ’70s paneling, a piano and TV, and — always — familiar faces. We sometimes buy milk there, or even the occasional tomato or piece of fruit, from sympathetic staff who understand the cold cruelty of a long late-night walk to the 7-Eleven on the Harbor. Barter is official currency in Fort Point, and we extensively trade services and artwork in exchange for food or equipment.

Some of us are here because we don’t fit anywhere else. The eccentricities of our work life — “days” that begin at 7 pm, the tendency to go out in public in torn, paint-stained clothes — aren’t well tolerated by most people. Some of us are here because we’ve been kicked out of studio space, marriages, or countries. If you are broken, Fort Point is a good place to get put back together.

It’s like living in a village full of extended family. We’re related by art. Generations are marked by the date you settle here, lineage determined by your standing in the art world. Like most families, our clan is strange (but reliable), and occasionally susceptible to squabbles and cliques. But you always have a place at the table if you want to come down for dinner.

Photo by Eric Levin; concept by Rob Smith.