Thursday, December 31, 2009

Size doesn't matter.

"My neighborhood is bigger than yours!"  So what?  Your mother wears army boots.

Dorchester is big, but bigger isn't necessarily better.  After all, it's not the size of the tool but how effectively you use it.  Does Dorchester live up to its potential merely by being the biggest and most diverse jurisdiction in Boston?  In some ways.  The situation works very well for very many individuals.  That isn't to say there isn't room for improvement.  Parts of Dorchester are impoverished.  There is an abundance of dearth and a squandering of unrecognized potential.

Despite its bulk and area, Dorchester more often seems an appendix to the metropolitan body politic than a vital organ. All of the neighborhoods that don't suck at the tourist industry's teat seem that way.  Boston has an identity, but Dorchester's part in that isn't what sells airline tickets or hotel rooms.  It's a shame because a narrated bus tour around Dorchester would highlight any number of fascinating, historical facts.  The same can be said of Roxbury, East Boston and Charlestown.  I'm not so sure about Allston/Brighton, Hyde Park or West Roxbury, but people more familiar with those parts of town will probably make the argument that they equally deserve attention and promotion.   They do.  If  a visitor wants to know Boston in the round, he or she will venture outside downtown.

Beacon Hill, Chinatown, the North End: they are smaller than Dorchester.  Newbury Street is a snippet of Dot Ave's length.  It's not how much you have, it's how you use it.  This isn't only about attracting tourists because, after all, who needs them?  It is about having a voice in the government and getting a fair share as well as more than a glad handshake and a fair weather how-do-you-do.  Dorchester's citizens should be better represented and better better understood as the vital part of the larger city that it is.

Because I live in Dorchester, I can say without worrying about contradiction, "My neighborhood is bigger than yours."  You can say in reply, "Yeah, but your mayor wears army boots."  Well of course.  He's got to cover his Achilles heels  and clay feet somehow, doesn't he?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Schrodinger's Dorchester

Bright boys live in Dorchester.  You can read by the light of their dreams.

Your street address won't predict your destiny, but your zip code will.  If you reside in Dorchester, good things wait while you catch up to what your future holds.

Sharp sisters live in Dorchester.  There is the teenager just becoming giddily aware of the power that resides in her body and brain.  There is the middle-aged matron whose experience has made her patient and smart as well as strong and sturdily, solidly, stolidly, unmistakably beautiful.  There is the wrinkled seer who has seen everything that has come before and still welcomes tomorrow, knowing that tomorrow, while similar, will be better than every day that came before.  Life pulses in Dorchester, Mass.

It takes a keen intellect familiar with the surroundings to cut through bull feathers and poppycock.  The people of Dorchester know how to do that.  They aren't fooled by politicians' promises.  They aren't fooled by bait or switch.  The people of Dorchester know their neighborhood like Einstein knew physics.  It's instinctive.  Like Schrodinger's cat, Dorchesterites purr in front of their hearths, contented to say the least.

Smart Boys Live in Dorchester shirt
Smart Boys Live in Dorchester by whaleheadking
Many tee shirt designs available at Zazzle

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saying it twice

If you say it twice, it's doubly nice: Dorchester...Dorchester.

There are no triplicate benefits from saying it thrice even though there's no such thing as too much goodness.  Once you get the idea, the repetitive routines positively reinforce each other so that 2 + 2 equals so on and so on no matter how many times you say it to yourself, or how many friends you tell it to to each other in an infinite game of telephone tag.  If media can be social, the sociable Dot forms its own neighborhood wide web.

I hate winter, but I like Dorchester.  Good neighbors make the bone-chilling months tolerable.  Good cheer on the streets warms a pedestrian's heart.   Good company in the grocery line, in the coffee shop, at the T station, at the bus stop, in line for scratch tickets, at the doctor's and the dentist's offices, at the library and at the packy, makes trudging through the bitter wind whipping of Dorchester Bay worth braving.  There is haven in community.

I live in Dorchester and I like.  I've said it more than once and I'm sure I'll say it again.  I'm happy to say it every day.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Codman then and now

I read a memoir by a man who had grown up around Codman Square during the Depression.  I can't remember the name of the author.  He is (was?) a professor of Romance Literature at BU, I believe.  I checked it out from the Mission Hill Library (of all places) and the cover featured a snapshot of him as a teenager blowing a bugle at Boys Club Camp.  I'd like to remember the name of the book to add it to my collection.

The point of the matter is that the Codman Square he describes isn't too much different from the Codman Square of today.  Some of the stores have changed, drugstores don't have soda fountains for instance, and the high school isn't located nearby, but the fabric of the neighborhood is similar.  The populace is made up mostly of working class folks, a few well off but many more working harder to get by.  He describes income insecurity and a need to move because landlords got tired of being stiffed for the rent.  Grocer's don't extend credit anymore (I think) now that there's WIC.  Alcoholism was the social scourge rather than other drugs.  Nowadays there are just more choices.  Urban street culture was still thought of as thug life rather than cosmopolitanism.

Codman Square seventy or eighty years ago was similar to Codman Square today.  One major difference is the complexion of the people who live there, not their aspirations or abilities.  Minorities make up the swell of the citizenry, though from the inside looking out, people of color are the majority in this part of Boston.

Though a person can combine both attributes, a bigot needn't be a racist, though the two often go hand-in-hand.  A bigot is someone who is intolerant of those unlike his or herself, no matter their color (see the commentary on our December 24th post.) The recent film "Gran Torino" from Clint Eastwood featured a racist who discovered he wasn't a bigot after all.  He came upon this realization from staying in one place while his surroundings changed, and not, for all intents and purposes, for the better. He didn't have to stop being a racist.  He didn't need to.  He did stop being a bigot.

Everyone harbors some race-related notions.  These are more cultural and socio-economic, upon examination, and they can serve as useful shorthand to navigate situations.  When they become the only criteria to guide one's judgement, one's circle of potential allies shrinks because no one is an ambassador for a gene pool.  We are all individuals with the same needs and desires.  No one wakes up in the morning wanting to do the wrong thing, no matter how they may define what's right.

As a Euro American, I am classified as white.  After asking if I am non-hispanic, government forms have no more use for my ethnicity.  My skin gives other people certain cues as to how I might act, what I might think, how I might expect to be treated.  It is a curse, but one borne more lightly than other people's burdens.  I know that black people are different from me.  Their skins are darker.  Though African Americans come in as many shades as personalities (much like Euro Americans within different gradients) 'black' like 'white' is shorthand, meaning little and certainly not meaning black.  I suppose 'brown' never came into fashion because 'white' people brown in the summer.

As much as I love the word octoroon, I've never been very interested in genealogy.  It's too much irrelevant information to consider when labeling someone.  I prefer to think of most people as potential friends.  That seems to be the way around most of Dorchester.  There are differences, but we all tend to get along.  The older you get, the less fight...the more you work together.  Longevity breeds patience.

Dorchester's population is stable, growing a bit even.  It will never be 1940 again or 1970.  We will never be young again.  The complexion of the neighborhood will change again and again with fresh faces.  That doesn't matter.  What matters is that there is a Dorchester, a place where people come to take their chances, make their mark, and try to get ahead without holding anyone else back.  That's the Dorchester I live in.  It's a place remarkably free of bigots.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Times change

If we take an informal survey of the half-mile radius around JFK/UMASS station, we find the following communities intermixing:  Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Vietnamese Americans, English Americans (hello), Cape Verdean Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans.  All of these ethnic groups have lived side by side for varying amounts of time.  Alongside the native born and naturalized citizens are recent immigrants for the above places, as well as from many more places, on their way to attaining voting rights.

This polyglot mishmash is partly due to the proximity of the university.  Part of it is due to the vicinity of the T station.  Part of it is due to longstanding population trends, local, national, and international.  This part of Dorchester attracts foreigners, whether from outside America or from outside the Dot.

North Dorchester is uniquely situated.  The Red Line splits at JFK/UMASS, so it is served by double the trains as other stops further down the line.  There is ready access to I-93.  The beach is short walk away. Downtown Boston is a fifteen minute bicycle ride.  Brigham Circle is twenty minutes.  Housing, though not as affordable as further south, is very reasonable compared to just a bit further north or a bit further west along Mass. Ave.

If you figure three apartments for every thirty-five feet of street frontage and conservatively estimate three people per apartment, it is is clear that the population housed in Dorchester's warren of streets is dense.  It is as varied as it is both compact and sprawling.  People of different backgrounds, cultures and income brackets are stacked atop each other and side by side.  There are few fences but there are plenty of good neighbors.  Proximity breed bonhomie.

It is a vibrant place's nature to evolve; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  From what I can gather the  most recent sea change hereabouts occurred thirty or so years ago.  That seemed to be the tipping point, but it is completely notional.  Changes happened before and they certainly haven't stopped.  It is neither good nor bad, though regular readers know that my stance is that Dorchester, overall, is good.  These changes were not unique to Dorchester, nor to Boston.  The American fabric was rewoven in one direction: suburban.  Those threads show signs of fraying, but that is a subject for another digression.

Saint William Church at 1048 Dot Avenue has changed denominations.  Previously a longstanding Roman Catholic Church, so longstanding that the adjacent St. William Street is named for it, the Diocese of Boston put the property up for sale.  This was done for a number of reasons, but no doubt declining attendance was a factor in making the decision.

The sign out front now reads, Waymark Seventh Day Adventist Church.  The congregation is mostly black, with many parishioners hailing from the West Indies.  Many of them live in Roxbury, where their church was located before.  Now that their spiritual home base is on Dot Ave and they become more familiar with the surroundings, will it only be a matter of time before Columbia/Savin Hill becomes a Trinidadian Adventist enclave?

Both better and worse things have happened, depending on your point of view.  Embracing the inevitable arrival of newcomers makes a neighborhood strong.  No gated community, the Dot.  It both a part of a larger city and also a small town writ large.  Some parts of Boston resemble a time capsule, preserved and ossified as tourist attractions; a petrified city.

Dorchester's motto matches that of the state of Connecticut: Qui Transtulit Sustinet.  Who transplants sustains.  Who transplants in Dorchester thrives.  It is a land of opportunity where people mainly get along.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A lack of bigots

"White America is in decline.  Never having considered the unearned privilege of being white and American, all they can see are things being taken away from them.  Never having considered solidarity with blacks and Latinos, they see them not as potential allies but as perpetual enemies."

This is a quote from the Dec. 19-Jan. 1 issue of the Economist (a double issue I recommend).  It appears in an article titled "A Ponzi Scheme that Works."  The quote itself is on page 44, first column, attributed to "left wing British journalist" Gary Younge.

It's this quote that got me to thinking about Dorchester's racial divide.  I am the target demographic Mr. Younge is describing, but I don't recognize myself in his description.  I don't see it in my daily travels around Dorchester either, despite the cultural and economic boundaries that separate the sub-neighborhoods.  Everyone recognizes that the different sections of Dorchester are different, but I don't see these as being particularly racially based as much as income-based.  I don't see a lot of enmity either. Dorchester is not a hotbed of revolution and it isn't red in tooth and claw.  Most people are just exchanging pleasantries and gossip from where I sit.

This may be for one of two reasons.  Firstly, I am a white man in a suit, and I am well aware I am accorded courtesies that other people are not.  They are unnecessary and usually embarrassing.  Secondly, I spend most of my time around Columbia/Savin Hill. The races are used to mixing there and not just a simple black/white mix; most available genetic and cultural shades are stirred around in an amicable slurry.  I am also located in a neighborhood full of students who may be lending their open ideas of meritocracy to the woof and weave of social life.

Be all these things as they may, I do get out and about farther beyond and I don't witness a lot of animosity between any parties.  I certainly can't say that I have never seen my fellow Americans as anything but perpetual enemies.  I don't even see them as potential allies.  As Americans, we are all natural allies.  What's better than being an American?  Being an American in Dorchester, Mass.  I think we can both agree to shake on that.

I think this British rabble rouser is talking through his hat, and The Economist article supports my viewpoint with statistics rather than my personal impressions.  When I read the paragraph that introduces this essay, it doesn't match my lived experience.

This isn't to say it doesn't happen.  I just just can't attest to to it.

Mr. Younge's opinion must have come from somewhere.  As a journalist, he cannot conjure stories out of thin air.   If Dorchester is a community of relatively peaceful race relations, I am sure there are pockets of racial discord in other parts of America.  The question is: why not here?

The answer, I think, is that all the bigots have moved out of Dorchester.  It's no secret that Dorchester's population today, like most other Boston neighborhoods, is less than it was 50 years ago.  The people who didn't like city living, with its close quarters shared with different types of fellow citizens, moved away.  The people who live in Dorchester now are either those tolerant Dorchesterites who valued pride in place over homogeneity, their children, or those who moved her by choice knowing what they were getting into.

Where did the malcontents go?

If Dorchester lacks bigots, and they can be of any color, I pity the communities in which they went to roost. They must not be pleasant places.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Two Dorchesters

I've been thinking about a statistic I read in the Globe recently.  I'm not going to look it up or link to it because it's a stat that's already been stuck in my mind.  How accurate it may be, I haven't researched, but some variation is part of common, ingrained perception and, quite likely, part of common reality in this part of Boston.

The average household income in Dorchester is $28,000 a year.

Whether that sounds like a lot or a little depends on where you begin to measure.  For our regular readers who live in Hinton, West Virginia, it's a little for the Boston area.  Very little.

Living where I do, by the JFK/UMASS MBTA station (that's the subway to you Hintonites), I don't see any abject poverty.  Believe me: $28,000 will not support a nuclear family in Boston.  The rent on a two bedroom apartment will consume half that and more, not including utilities.  This may explain the lack of nuclear families in Dorchester, but again...I don't see a lot of single parent households where I live, not that I'm taking a detailed census or spying on my neighbors.

Some parts of Dorchester are like the part I live in.  Adams Village, Neponset, Pope's Hill, Ashmont Hill, Jones Hills, Mount Bowdoin, the Polish Triangle, Point Norfolk, Lower Mills; they are all fairly stable, middle class, whatever middle class means.  Let's say the people I pass on the street don't seem to be going without.  They are also primarily located near train stations and they are also predominantly white.

I do not like to dwell on racial differences on the Matrix.  I usually make it a point to avoid discussing them, but they exist.  Different parts of Dorchester have different ethnicities, to be sure,  The same differences in skin color and income that demark other places also occur in the Dot.  It isn't pretty, but it is true.  Sometimes it's good, sometimes not.  Again, it depends on where you start to measure.

If I looked at the tax records for my neighborhood, I suspect the average income isn't dragging the neighborhood average downwards.  This part of Dot is full of college students working part time jobs, but they are paying market rate rents and living, as some scholars do, at the local bars soaking up cheap food and suds.  Just eyeballing the lay of the land, I suspect what lowers Dorchester's median income figures are the neighborhoods roughly west or northeasterly of Washington Street: Four Corners, Codman Square, Talbot Avenue, Norfolk Avenue, Columbia Road, Blue Hill Avenue, East Cottage Street, Bowdoin/Geneva, and other terrain that doesn't have names for its neighborhoods, just a collection of pins on a police station map.

There are two Dorchesters.  Both of them are equally welcoming and equally convivial. I've never witnessed a crime being committed in Dorchester and I have been down most streets and I am out most hours of the day and night.  I have never been uncomfortable.

There is a different culture to the west than there is to the east of Dot Ave, which is an approximate, handy boundary line.  The east is whiter and more asian (whether Vietnamese or Chinese it's hard to say).  The west is darker and more hispanic (or Haitian or Cape Verdean).  You can't really say one side is old Dot stock and the other side is new.  African Americans have been a majority in some parts of Dorchester for more than half a century.  They aren't immigrants.  They are Dorchesterites.

East plus West equals the middle ground, which is somewhere near Field's Corner.

I've been thinking about this over the past few months and, unlike my usual folderol, I thought I would work through more serious musings in public.  I'm trying to develop a Dot-view that is more panoramic than the one I have now.  As I say, I have been almost everywhere, but as a transplant, I have been almost everywhere as someone passing through, or as someone from Savin Hill,  rather than as a native.  A fellow citizen, perhaps.  Some people live in a Dot microcosm.  I am  one of them.  I want to take in more of the macro view.

I don't usually solicit comments but I invite you to add your observations and thoughts.  Let's discuss.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Your A-B-Ds

A is for Allston.
B is for Brighton.
C is for Charlestown.
D is for Dorchester.
You can stop now.

You've reached the best part of Boston.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seaweed peddlar

I was practicing my dart game and enjoying a pint of lager at JJ's Irish Pub and Grille when I should have been working at my day job.  It was a little after noon, so I knew I still had time to get my desk before my boss would show up.  Tossing darts at a target is an important skill for a gentleman to have, so even if I was a few hours late I knew my supervisor wouldn't begrudge me a little time spent practicing in front of the bull's eye rather than the computer screen.  He was probably doing the same thing in a Somerville barroom if he wasn't clicking heels with his mistress.

A man came in with a trash bag of seaweed.  Now this is December and a foot of snow had fallen the day before.  Who collects seaweed in this weather?  The wind at the beach must have frozen his fingers.  To put wind-whipped hands into piles of wet weed took a ligamentary fortitude I can't imagine.  The trash bag stunk like low tide.

The bartender, a lady in her late 40s called out, "What's that rot you've brought in here?  Don't you know people are eating and drinking?  You're going to put them off their plates and cups!  I'm trying to run a sanitary establishment here, not a dumping ground."

The man tipped his hat and placed his belongings in a corner.  "Beg pardon," he said, "I just want to get warm before I take my haul home to Pearl Street.  The wind is biting cold on my poor limbs."

"Biting cold, I bet," Chauncy snarled at the man.  Chauncy and I had been shooting darts and, while he had been amicable enough while we were competing, his face took on an unpleasant look.  Chauncy looked at the seaweed peddlar and said, "I'll bite ya, I will.  I'll bite ya with my wee dart.  Look out!"  and he motioned as if he were going to toss a missile right at the man's backside.

Things didn't get uglier than that.  The seaweed peddlar beat a hasty retreat, maybe headed to the Burger King down Dot Ave where the entrance requirements aren't so strict and the staff and clientele aren't so judgmental.  The man opened the door and hauled his trash bag through it.  The wind blew at the same instant and the bar room stunk like rotten fish and unpleasant things for a long time afterward.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Taking the Green Line to Somerville

I've lived in Boston for two and a half years and I've never been to Somerville.  I've been to Davis Square once, but never into the guts and heart of Somerville.  I did get a postcard once and that tempted me to visit, but not enough to actually get off my duff.  The only reason I've been to Cambridge and Malden is because I hopped a train to get there.

To someone in Dorchester, Somerville seems a lot like the Dot.  A city of three decked homes, one after another, lacking a sterling reputation.  The way people call Dorchester 'Poor-chester;' people call Somerville, 'Slum-erville.'  Despite what the rhyming slanderers have to say, Dorchester is a magnificent place, why not Somerville?

Why not, indeed?  I'm sure it is magnificent.  I daydream about Somerville now, waiting for spring.  In spring, a man's fancy turns toward Somerville.  I've heard palaver about it at the Harp and Bard on April evenings when the moon is full.  A carpenter will be talking to a bricklayer and they'll reach a spontaneous conclusion to head over to Somerville, "to see what fish might be biting."

It's very snowy today so I don't think I'll be heading over to Somerville this evening.  I will probably wait until the crocuses start poking up their heads.  By then, God willing, the Green Line Extension will be completed and I will get to Ball Square entirely by train.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That Dorchester aroma

When someone says something smells like Dorchester, they don't mean it smells like urine in a back alley.  They don't mean it smells like surreptitious marijuana being smoked behind a cupped hand at the Mattapan T stop either.  They don't mean it smells like overripe garbage dumped in an abandoned lot on a street few people travel.  They don't mean it smells like gunpowder.  They don't mean it smells like a paper mill and neither do they mean to say it smells like a chocolate factory.  Fish guts, rat droppings, deep fat fryer drippings, mold, industrial exhaust, dirty diapers, rotten fruit, can smell these things in Dorchester, but other aromas linger in the air as well.

I was in a bakery in Concord this morning.  An older couple walked in as I was buying a buttered roll.  The lady said to the gentleman, "It smells just like Dorchester here."  They were from Adams Village.

I was in Flushing, Queens a month ago, in a Vietnamese neighborhood, reading the menu of a local pho restaurant.  An elderly Asian couple passed me and pushed open the door.  When the air from inside hit their faces they exchanged comments I didn't understand except for the word "Dorchester."  I impulsively said to them, "It smells like Dorchester?"  The man gave me a big grin and a thumbs-up followed by a Victory sign followed by a vigorously pumping thumbs-up again.  "Dorchester, Mass. A-Okay! Best pho number one!" he said in reply as he walked into the dining room.

We were in Topsfield, Mass., just passing through, but we needed a restroom so we stopped at a pizzeria for a soda and the chance to rest and relieve ourselves.  While sitting in a booth, we overheard some fellow, teenaged travellers.  The girls were all giggling, saying it smelled funny in Topsfield.  The boys played along, "It smells like s**t," they guffawed.  The girls agreed but they also said parts of Topsfield smelled like nothing at all.  "It's either nothing or s**t," one girl said.  One of the boys chimed in, "This doesn't smell like Dorchester."

In Wewoka, OK, of all places, I was in front of the public library a few years ago, before I even knew Dorchester was part of Boston.  I was still living in Connecticut at the time.  I was taking photographs when a passer-by stopped me.  He asked me to take his picture while posed like he was sleeping on a park bench.   I agreed but I asked why.  "Because," he said, "This pure air in front of this fine library reminds me of Dorchester, Mass.  I don't know why because no Dot library looks like this, but the whole communal knowledge of Wewoka is stored in this building the way the best knowledge in Boston is tucked away in Dot.  Plus, the wind off the plains smells so pretty it reminds me of home."  I took his picture and a few years later I moved to Dorchester.

It smells good here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The hippoDOTamus!

Do you remember when Clarabelle the Hippo escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo in the early 70s?  I wasn't living in Boston then and, obviously, I was much younger, but I vaguely remember Walter Cronkite reporting it on the nightly news.  Some people remember it much better than I do.  They are keeping the memory alive.

I was reminded of this event while taking an after dinner stroll this evening through Pope John Paul II Park,  on the banks of the placid Neponset estuary.  At one of the turns in the river, a small group had gathered shining flashlights and laser pointers over the gently lapping waves.  "She's over there!" someone whispered loudly.

It was hard to tell with just flashlight beams, with all the reflected lights of the Quincy Inn and the bridge catching the gentle ripples in the river, but the crowd had gathered to gawk at what appeared to be a bobbing oil drum in mid river.  "Sure," someone else said, "That's her."

One of the onlookers brought me up to speed.  "She usually comes out on frigid nights when there's no moon," she told me.  "We're not sure why but we are sure this is why no one has seen her directly for thirty years.  It's a survival strategy: don't go out when people are around.   She has to come out sometime though so she comes out when it's hardest to see her."  Pope John Paul II Park is officially closed to after dinner strollers at sundown.

Someone coughed.  "Shhhh!" a girl scolded, "You'll scare Clarabelle!"  That's when I realized what we were supposed to be looking at.  It really did look like a floating, abandoned oil drum to me.

That was before a snort echoed over the river's breast and there was a splash where the flashlights were pointed.  After repeated tracking back and forth, the object afloat in the river couldn't be found.  The girl turned and chided the person who coughed,  "You did it, Mister!  You scared Clarabelle!  Now I'll never see her again!"  She started whimpering and her mother tried to comfort her.

A hippopotamus can live 40-50 years, so Clarabelle's survival is within the realm of the possible.  As an animal native to Africa, her chances in New England winters seem somewhat slim, but sometimes life is stranger than art.  Another example of Dorchester cryptozoology.  It's the people like I encountered tonight who keep these legends alive and make Dorchester history so interesting. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009


In 1918, Guiseppe Malatesta opened a trattoria in Peabody Square.  He called it Cavolo, the Italian word for cabbage.  It seemed like a good idea at the time with all the Irish immigrants moving into the neighborhood.  There was also a sizable German population, but Mr. Malatesta could never say the German word for cabbage convincingly: kohl.

Selling meals of slaw and sauerkraut out of his storefront paid the rent but just barely.  Creditors from the Shawmut Bank that had advanced capital to Mr. Malatesta weren't happy with the cash flow and they feared they would have to foreclose on his chopping blocks and crockery.  What would they do with them?

Mr. Malatesta sprung a plan to spice up the menu a bit.  Dorchester's main trolley stable was located a little up Dot Ave, where the Field's Corner Shopping Center is now.  He contracted with the City of Boston, which had recently annexed Dorchester, to take care of streetcar steeds that had gone lame.  Thus, the menu of his restaurant added a bit of protein to its mix.  Cavolo was married to cavallo,  Cabbage plus horse is very chic if you say it French and, at the time, it was unintelligible in Italian in Dorchester.  The same can be said of the listed ingredients in Vietnamese sandwiches in 2009.   It sounds good, it tastes good, I'll come back tomorrow for another.  Both the flavor and the price are right.

Sometimes it takes a little extra to make a go of a restaurant.  Simple isn't always best.  People don't mind paying a little more if they feel they are getting their money's worth.  As old, Mr. Malatesta would have said, "Una tavola con una tovaglia fare il piatto bellisimo."  A table with a cloth does make the most beautiful dish.  Sometimes you just have to give it a little window dressing and not a-speeka-da-eengleesh.  It's true, if unpretty: Never give a sucker an even break.  We all have to eat, and no matter how it's gussied up, Dorchester delivers the vittles most people demand.

A tip of the fedora to the Dorchester Reporter for pointing out an example of history repeating itself.  A tip of the fork to the eatery at 1918 Dorchester Avenue in old Peabody Square that is working to serve its clientele well.  Rather than giving the people who pass through Ashmont Station what they supposedly need, Tavolo is giving them what they want.  Something nice to eat homeward bound at fair value for the dollars they earn at the other end of the Red Line.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Just what Mission Hill needs

No one will ever accuse Mission Hill of suffering a shortage of pizzerias but there's apparently an unfulfilled craving up by the big church and the hospitals because a new pizzeria is moving in.  There are seven pizzerias in Mission Hill.  I know.  I've eaten a slice from them all.

There is AK's by Roxbury Crossing.  There's Chacho's Pizza on the opposite side of Tremont Street on the way toward Brigham Circle.  There's Tremont Pizza, the self proclaimed Best in Boston.  There is Huntington Street Pizza just round the bend on the way to the VA.  There is Kwik-E Pizza that has been around since the 1950s and has an original, framed menu to prove it.  There is Penguin Pizza in Brigham Circle itself and there is Il Mondo Pizza on the corner of Huntington, Smith Street, and Wigglesworth.

A new batch of pizza chefs will be spinning the dough and ladling the sauce soon.  Though the storefront and interior are being renovated under cover of plywood blinds, a new sign is up announcing a new pizzeria across the street from Mission Park, halfway between Chacho's Pizza and Tremont Pizza.  Some people will now have a shorter walk to get their fix.

A temporary sign is over the obscured front door.  "Opening Soon: Cripsy Dough Pizzeria."  Their web site is still under construction but their logo doesn't promise authentic Neapolitan pie.  One of the counter guys from Tremont Pizza was getting some fresh air after the lunch rush today.  I asked him if he was worried about Crispy Dough siphoning off business.  He said, "Who?"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ninja and MacBook take a licking

I was going to take the T this morning but a step outside changed my plan.  I had heard the rain earlier this morning but I was expecting winter weather.  It is December 14.  It was warmer than I expected and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.  It appeared to be a sterling day and I vaguely remembered reading in the Sunday Herald that highs today would be in the upper 40s.  That may have been a wishful confabulation on my part when faced with a seemlessly azure sky and invisible breath.

I turned right around and picked up my helmet. I predicted Ninja weather.  I got a dishtowel and mopped the leftover raindrops off the seat and fairing.  The Little Ninja fired up as ready to take to the streets as I was.

Motorcyclists, beware this time of year!  On Bakersfield Street, without a care in the world and looking forward to some high speed revolutions along Malcolm X Blvd, I hit a slippery patch.  I can't say it was black ice though I slid like I was on ice.  One instant I am balanced on two wheels; the next instant, I feel my helmet hit the road and I realize, from experience, that I have tipped over.

After sliding maybe twenty feet, I got up and walked around.  I checked my burning knee and confirmed that I have lost some skin in two places.  No more kneeling in church for the next three weeks at least.  A pair of Irish workmen came over to help me set the bike back vertical to the road.  Their accents gave their nationality away.  An off-duty mailman walked over.  He scuffed his shoe on the pavement, "It happens to me all the time," he said, "You've got to be careful this time of year."

What's the most heartbreaking part of this accident besides my torn pants?  I bought an Apple MacBook eight days ago and that very same investment was in in a satchel pinned under my hip as I slid down the road with my little Ninja motorcycle on top of my midsection.

The keyboard doesn't sit flat on the desk anymore.  The screen has a crack that radiates a yellow-tinged, rainbow aurora that matches up with the factory issue wallpaper.  I don't think something like this is covered by the warrantee.   The damage is more cosmetic than functional.  The software works, as you can tell.  Like a Timex, an Apple, apparently, can take a licking and keep on ticking.  My new MacBook is now as scarred as my old knee.  Both are still working fine, thanks, if a little worse from wear.

I popped my turn signal back into place, rubbed the fiberglass shavings off the fairing where the Ninja hit the road directly, adjusted the mirror, and hesitantly made my way across Boston via Dudley Street, scared like a man who would be in a coma if he hadn't been wearing a helmet.  Kawasaki lets the good times roll, but sometimes Boston's weather reminds a driver to be cautious above all else.  Boston: always a picturesque killjoy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paradise by Milton

Day breaks but after that everything is ship shape in Dorchester, MA. All the leaks are caulked. There are no drafts to dodge. Snug as bugs in a down quilt, Dorchesterites hunker down and sleep the slumber of the unencumbered.

Where's Dorchester? Look Mac, if you don't know I can't even call you pal... Look Stranger, if you don't know where Dorchester is you'd better take a Duck Tour to find out. This is the time of year to do it. Bundle up as you trundle out. Keep your eyes peeled on that goose chase and stay downwind.

Any bum can rush to Dorchester, but it takes a certain kind of dreamer to linger long enough to catch a Talbot Avenue bus. A Dorchester adventure is an invitation from Fate to a footloose freebooter to bind his or her ties to a geography that includes more three-story buildings than the whole State of Kansas contains and as many active citizens as Vermont's voting population. Dorchester is wild and wooly while being conveniently served by mass transit and civilized amenities. Dorchesterites sip their Dunkin Donuts coffee with pinkies raised.  They are generous tippers too.

When the Red Line splits at JFK/UMASS, conductors announce, "Change trains here for Braintree. This train's final stop is Paradise." Paradise for many, perhaps, but others abandon hope when they enter Dorchester. Dorchester isn't for the hopeless.  Hope springs eternal from under a rock in Dorchester Park directly behind Caritas Christi Hospital's maternity ward.  Hope is the gasoline that lights Dorchester's fire.  The hapless souls who lack hope are welcome to stay to nurture their tinder but most head back post-haste, pre-trauma, on a one way ticket back to Porter. There are no downers in Dorchester, only up-and-comers.  Smile!  The Dot's got your back.

Even if Ashmont isn't the paradise you are looking for in Dorchester, take a transfer to the Mattapan High Speed. You'll find your paradise at the Milton stop.  At the southernmost tip of Boston, there's nowhere to go but uptown and inbound.  Even if it takes a few connections to reach your eventual destination, those connections are easy to make in Dorchester.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad weather for prostitution

It's not quite the solstice yet but winter has snapped into place in Dorchester, Mass.  Some people welcome the biting nip in the air while others, who enjoy being outside, dread the upcoming few months.  Some people don't have a choice; their office is out of doors.  The bitter cold has put a temporary halt to one of Dorchester's oldest professions after making chocolate.   That profession would be: making whoopee as a livelihood.

I am not going to try to glamorize the life of a streetwalker.  To be frank, it is no doubt a joyless job and I doubt many people would enter the field were it not the low entry skills required and the rather constant, inelastic demand.   Practitioners do not need an engineering degree to master the mechanics involved.   This really is a job in which showing up is the only critical qualification.  That said, winter is a bad time of year to advertise available services on the streets in person.

I am not going to name the streets I am referencing.  If you don't know them, the neighbors are just as happy not to have you driving slowly along them.  The police are well aware of where they can find a hooker in the dead of night.  In warm weather after the bars close until just after daybreak, you can find ladies of the evening strolling up and down the sidewalks, usually scantily dressed.  I wouldn't say they are a Dorchester fixture, but they are around, as they are in every city with insomniacs driving around looking for something to do.  Any port in a storm, I suppose. 

To cut off any snide assumptions, in warmer weather I am on a motorcycle which doesn't exactly have the room or the privacy of a van, and I don't carry a helmet for passengers.  In colder weather, I use a bicycle to generate my own heat.  I am crisscrossing Dorchester usually to pick up a coffee in Andrew Square at one of the few places open at 4:00 AM.  Being curious and in no particular hurry in the wee hours of the morning, I tend to take a circuitous route.  That's what good reporters do.

At 4:00 this morning no one was walking the streets, male or female, business person or common pedestrian.  It's just too damned cold.  If the last two years are any guide, vice will not be visible to insomniacs for the next few months.  At least it won't be obviously available to innocents such as myself.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Nieghborhood goodwill

The annual poinsettia exchange took place today under inclement conditions. As usual, the event took place on the second Wednesday in December.  The day was chosen because Wednesday is the middle day of the week and the exchange takes place equidistant between two of Dorchester's more prominent neighborhoods:  Upham's Corner and Field's Corner. 

Since 1989 Elmer Washe rand Eunice Tubbs have been exchanging Christmas plants after they got in a nasty spat in the summer of that year.  Mr. Washer lives in Upham's Corner and he is proud of his surroundings, having been born and raised an apple core's throw from Edward Everett Square.  Ms. Tubbs had written a letter to the Dorchester Reporter that June belittling the hygienic standards of sidewalk maintenance in Upham's Corner and, while the letter never saw print, it did reach Mr. Washer's attention.  A poison penpal relationship was soon established with doleful mailmen trudging between Mr. Washer's address and Ms. Tubbs' three decker in Field's Corner. 

The whole exchange came to a head during the dog days of August when Mr. Tubbs, in a fit of pique, arranged for the FTD florist to deliver a bouquet of dead roses to Ms. Tubbs address.  A stony, stampless silence followed from Field's Corner until December when Ms. Tubbs employed the FTD florist to deliver a poinsettia to Mr. Washer.

In the spirit of brotherly love, Ms. Tubbs had broken the ice.  Now the two meet every year to exchange poinsettias, neighbor to neighbor, one part of Dorchester to another.  They meet face to face at an eatery near Meeting House hill, for the past few years at Mythos Pizza on Bowdoin Street.  It is always a cordial meeting and it is the only time these two one-time adversaries see each other.  They exchange pleasantries and wish each other happy holidays and good cheer for the upcoming new year.  Mr. Washer is a Christian Scientist.  Ms. Tubbs recently converted to Buddhism at the Park Street temple in Field's Corner after spending many years attending Saint Ambrose Catholic Church.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The secret to clear skin

I was wandering around the Polish Triangle today, that area bounded by Columbia Road at its base and Dot Ave and Boston Streets at its sides.  These two last two converge at Andrew Square, hence the "triangle" in Polish Triangle. 

Walking the sidewalks, I noticed all the women I passed, no matter thier ages, had skin close to perfection.  The older ladies had some crow's feet, a few worry lines and frown lines and laugh lines, but overall their complexions glowed like freshly churned milk.  As for the younger ladies, I wish I knew the Polish equivalent to the phrase, "Ooo-la-la."  All the passing people were speaking a language heavy on the consanants in unfamiliar combinations.  I overheard a lot of sz, cz, tz, scz, sctz, ctsz, tczsk, etc.  Accent marks were flying through the air left and right.  That's were the 'Polish' comes from in Polish Triangle.

I stepped into the Baltic Deli at 632 Dot Ave, a block from the T station.  It's more than a deli, its a grocery store too, the way all the Polish delis are in the Triangle and Andrew Market is really a liquor store.  I bought some pickled beets and noticed that the cashier had a complexion like a waxing moon.  The cash register is right next to the sausage counter and the juxtaposition of this vision of clean pores and polished marble beauty posed next to kielbasa links, mysliwska, jalowcowa, and kaszanka didn't compute.  I looked around and I learned an ancient Polish beauty secret.

You can eat all the fatty, smoked pork packed into natural casings that you want and still look like you bathed in milk this morning.  All you have to do is balance your diet with ample helpings of 'winter vegetables.'  Cabbage, beets, parsnips and potatoes counteract the corroding effects of city air close by the interstate and along a major thoroughfare.  Pickled carrots and squash reverse the capillary-clogging effects of a diet rich in fatty meats and perogi.  If the refrigerator section of Baltic Deli is any indication, beer shouldn't be thought of as an accompaniment to a meal; it is really one fifth the menu.  I like that thinking and I think I can adopt that regimen.

Walk around the Polish Triangle...  It is like walking through a training ground for both the Mr. and Miss Universe pageants.  It's only because Dorchesterites are so naturally shy that Massachusetts hasn't won the Miss America crown every year.  Maybe it's time.  I met a young lady at Baltic Deli this afternoon who could be a contender.

The real gourmet Polish sausage, pickled and fresh, is found between Andrew Square and Columbia Road, between the southen border of South Boston and the northern boundary of Dorchester in the Polish Triangle.  Take the Red Line to Andrew Square and head south, either along Dorchester Avenue or Boston Street.  Both are lovely boulevards chockablock with visual diversions and little shops.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A perfect Boston cocktail?

You can buy beer by the pint at a good price in Dochester, Boston's biggest and best neighborhood, but what about cocktails?  Can a sophisticated palate purchase a fine sipping drink in the Dot?

Early actuarial calculations based on first hand experience point toward the negative.  Dorchester is good at some things.  It rests on a bedrock of natural strengths that can be dependably quarried to everyone's satisfaction.  Subtlety is not one of Dorchester's stengths, however.  This is a part of Boston more attuned to the rhythms of the pile driver and the staple gun rather than a paring knife or muddler.

I had a Dottini at Ashmont Grill last week.  It is a sweet  concoction along classic martini lines.  Instead of gin and vermouth and an olive, it tarts up the recipe with some kind of sweet liqour, some other liquid and a garnish to replace the salty, green olive.  My Dottini had three candies resting at the bottom of the glass.  The candies?  Ha-ha!  Dots.  The gummi confections didn't absorb a bit of alcholic flavor and really didn't dissolve enough to add any nuance to the sipping experience.  It was a good enough drink, and Heaven knows Dorchester is all sweetness and light, so the symbolic, "I'm drinking a Dottini in Dorchester" joke wasn't lost on me.  I don't really have a sweet tooth, so this one-note  beverage didn't hook me.  I do think, however, that a giant Dot candy statue should be cast in bronze in the parking lot opposite the giant Clapp pear that resides on the southern edge of Edward Everett Square. 

I did land around dead center of Downtown Crossing this week at the Marliave.  My first impression is leaving me wondering why it took so long to stop in.  It is old fashioned inside and I am often downtown switching from Green or Orange Line to Red, so the pop-in convenience is an added plus.  What  really won me over at the Marliave though, was its cocktail menu.  They may have beer on tap but I didn't notice.  They are selling hard liquor attractively packaged, and the menu is a joy to peruse.  I ordered the Molasses Flood.

Rum, molasses, lime, bitters, a hint of seltzer.  It isn't a strong drink but its a good one.  It's really good.  Anything that marries molasses with bitters has to be good to sip.  It's named after the tragic North End Molasses Flood of 1919.  There are better ways to commemorate tragedy than to name drinks after them, but at least this cocktail ignites some historical lesson-themed conversations around the bar rather than the usual sports-obsessed debates you find in Dot dives.

There is no reason Dorchester cannot inspire a bit of sweet and bitter mixology.  These two sensations brew in Dorchester every day of the year around the clock with the cream usually rising to the top.  Dorchester is a place of champagne tastes on a draft budget, though.  As gentrification looms, we may find more Marliaves than Saint's Diners in the Dot.  Heaven forbid the day the Saints go marching out.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Creamed corn's origin

I asked the girl at Gene and Paul's Fresh Meats if she knew where creamed corn came from.  She told me, "Aisle 3 on the left."  Since I was buying a can I had picked off the shelf, I already knew that much. 

Some people say creamed corn is a mid-western dish, born in the heartlands of Iowa where they have plenty of time to spare and plenty of corn to invent new recipes.  There is a certain train of scholarship that points to the origin of creamed corn being nowhere else but on the corner of Stoughton Street and Columbia Road, where Yaz's International Dublin House now stands, #7 Stoughton Street to be precise.

"Maize and butter" is reported in minutemen's diaries as being a local staple while they were encamped on Dorchester Heights.  Alexander Hamilton noted that he and General George Washington dined on "Indian samp, sweet cream, a bit of smoked pork and garden roots" when they passed through the vicinity of Lower Mills.  Before it was Boston's biggest and best neighborhood, Dorchester was a prosperous farm town.  As preposterous as it sounds, the blue ribbons for the largest, juiciest, yellow corn ears were won by Dorchester farmers in the 1885, 1886, 1887, 1889, 1893-1898, 1903, 1912-1914, 1916, 1921-1926, and the 1954 Massachusetts State Fairs.

Nowadays you'll see more cauliflower ears than corn in Dorchester, but this is a place that still savors its maize and knows how to cook it.  DelMonte Foods, America's largest cream-style corn producer reported in its 2009 report to shareholders that southern Boston, as opposed to South Boston, was a growth area for its family of canned, creamed corn, products.  Despite the demand for ready-made preparations, Dorchester's Star Market chain outlet go through more fresh and frozen corn inventory than any other outlets within the corporation. 

Dorchester loves corn and the home cooks who live in Dorchester know how to cream it.  Dorchester also consumes a disproportionate share of heavy cream and butter.  Supermarket managers know what recipes and local dishes are popular in their neighborhoods.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cocaine and Chips Ahoy

Dorchester made yesterday's New England in Brief column (third item down) in the Globe. In 2005 a Julian Street resident attempted to secret his stash of Class B substances in a Chips Ahoy package. Another example of crack detective work by Boston's finest resulted in a conviction and five to seven years in state prison.

While investigating a second floor residence, officers looking out the window noticed a package of Chips Ahoy in the snow outside. It was noteworthy because, as everyone knows, Dorchester is known far and wide for being litter-free. This raised suspicions and a thorough survey of the kitchen counter revealed an unopened cellophane internal wrapper full of what were clearly Chips Ahoy brand chocolate chip cookies.

The suspect seemed too weak willed to leave such a delicious treat lying around unopened. After a quick huddle, one officer was dispatched through the snow outside to recover the presumed litter. The expiration date and serial number of the Chips Ahoy package outside matched the numbers on the cookies inside. The cookies had been replaced by a different kind of treat: two sizable rocks of quality crack cocaine.

Through a combination of sharp eyes, character judgment, deductive ability, and familiarity with the seduction Chips Ahoy cookies offer the criminal class, BPD detectives collared another menace to Dorchester's streets. In light of the more severe drug charges, officers didn't issue a citation for littering. It's little wonder Dorchester remains one of the most crime-free zones in Boston.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cheap beer in Dorchester

This is an unscientific survey with a limited sample, anecdotal evidence supplied by informal expeditions. For all the so-called gentrification underway in Dorchester, this part of Boston is still home to cheap suds. If we measure gentrification by the price of a pint, the Dot has a ways to go before it hits South End levels of snootiness.

I just spent a lovely hour and a half at Tom English's and spent five dollars on two pints of Pabst not including the tips. Tom English's has recently undergone a makeover, it is as fashionable as anyplace in Boston city limits, but the same roughnecks were there who have been coming since they had fake IDs. Before you tag me as a hipster for ordering a Pabst, I could have ordered a Budweiser, but Bud is an extra 50 cents. I could have ordered a Guinness, of course, but I wanted something light. The point is cheap beer is on tap in the Dot.

The Harp and Bard also recently underwent renovations. It's a bit roomier and a tad swankier than Tom English's Cottage. No Pabst here. I had a pint of Blue Moon and it set me back a fiver. A six pack of Blue Moon probably costs eight bucks but then I'm drinking in my living room in my underwear with the cats. I don't mind parting with a Lincoln to watch the games on six televisions, trade gossip around the bar and enjoy the eye candy.

How much is a beer in other parts of Boston? I parted with nine bucks last week in Charlestown (!). I had a seven dollar draft in the South End at one joint and I shed $7.50 at the Beehive. You can purchase a can, a can, of Pabst at Jacob Wirth for, I believe three greenbacks, maybe $3.50. I don't begrudge J. Wirth the markup, its worth it. The price is worth it for the other places too because I am buying more than a beer. For my money though, the best beer/atmosphere dollar is spent in the Dot.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

H+B: Heart plus Beauty

The new Harp and Bard logo is simple in its charms. Geometry turned to expression. Typeface manipulated to express more than the sum of its parts. Granted, we are not talking calligraphy here and anyone at the design shops downtown would look down their espresso-smudged noses at this, but this is the kind of logo that displays thoughtfulness rather than the current fashion. A little native ingenuity.

Someone had to sit down and obsess about the letters H&B. He or she had to smoosh the letters together and then, in a flash of insight, see the plus sign that joins them. Some simple ruler and compass moves later, followed by an application of India ink and voila: the modern Harp and Bard.

We'll see you on Thursday for Karoake.

Dot by design

Anyone driving down Dot Ave the past few months knows that the Harp and Bard (1099 Dot Ave, at the corner of Savin Hill) has undergone a new look. The place looks downright sophisticated but that is a story for another day. The new logo is what interests me this morning.

The old Harp and Bard had a carved wooden sign looming over its roof. Carved into the wood were images of a harp and of a bard, arranged somewhat haphazardly. It was rustic and, while it had it's charm, its best days, perhaps, had come and gone. It would have been out of place atop the building's new facade.

Someone got to work and designed a new logo for the venerable H&B. The new logo is a classic example of ruler-and-compass graphic design, simple yet clever. It is refreshing in a world that is awash with computer generated graphics and special effects. By manipulating the letters, the designer found a plus sign (+) lodged naturally in the combination of H and B pressed tightly together. The plus replaces the ampersand. H&B becomes H+B. It isn't as elegant as the arrow in the Federal Express logo but it is just as serendipitous.

I'll try to remember to take a picture this morning to post later this evening. If you don't go down Dot Ave, this bit of flash is a nice example of simplicity and graphic clarity. Two things for with Dorchester, Mass. is well known.


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