Mar 9, 2014 Updated: 3:21 PM
By Kara Miller | Friday, May 11, 2012
What comes to mind with you think of Indian slums?
For many Americans, it’s the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
But for one scholar, India’s mega slums — places so big they could be cities by themselves — represent innovation. Innovation so remarkable that it may have lessons to teach the world.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, senior associate dean, Fletcher School at Tufts University
By Jordan Weinstein | Tuesday, April 10, 2012
April 10, 2012
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I arranged to meet Helen Bryant at the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, an independent business in a neighborhood that’s arguably one of the last traces of Cambridge’s less-prosperous past.
A tale of two cities ... in one neighborhood
Sandwiched between the Sublime Salon and the Hair Collage on Massachusetts Avenue, the coffee shop is just a few doorways away from Pill Hardware with its flaking and peeling red storefront. Rodney’s used bookstore, ABC Pizza and the divey Cantab Lounge are across the street. On the next block west toward upscale Harvard Square is City Hall, the Cambridge Senior Center and the central post office and Y. East about a block toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology you’ll run into Starbucks, a café that provoked outcry when it arrived in the mid-90s, and that now seems an early indicator of the changes on the way.
The 1369 Coffee House is crowded with students and neighborhood locals. Helen is an attorney in private practice, mostly children and family law. Over a cup of strong coffee, she tells me she was born in Cambridge like her three brothers and her father and, except for college, she’s lived here all her life.
“When I was growing up Central Square was just a square full of little shops that you walked through," Bryant said. She remembers Woolworth’s, and the Harvard Doughnut Shop where Starbucks is. "You knew who would be in these places. You knew who worked there. It was either your friends' parents worked there, or you knew who’d be sitting at the counter at the Harvard Doughnut Shop."
That was the story, Bryant said, until the 1990s. Then, "these little family-owned businesses started to disappear and were replaced not with another family-owned business but more likely a big chain.”
The downside of the old community
While the small shops and friendly neighbors made growing up here a pleasure, the Square of the past also had a dark side. Minka vanBeuzekom is a newly elected member of the Cambridge City Council.
“When I moved into Central Square in 1990 I was walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say ‘Get out of the way, lady,'“ she recalled. "I turned around and this guy was coming toward me with a gun drawn and there were three policemen chasing after him."
Over the 20 years she's lived in the neighborhood, she's had police in her backyard looking for weapons, and known of "shootings and stabbings and lots of not very nice things," she said. But "that activity’s really plummeted.”
For vanBeuzekom, the promise of Central Square renewal is long overdue. After all, the square is where the seat of city government lies. It’s a major transportation hub, not just for Cambridge but for the whole metro Boston area. And it’s an astonishing center of activity.
“Those are all the pluses," vanBeuzekom said. "And then, if you actually walk around and you see the condition of some of the buildings, the condition of the sidewalks, the condition of the public spaces, how some of the streetscape is being handled, how vital or not vital it is — that’s where the disconnect lies.”
A moment of change
Efforts to revitalize Central Square have gone on for decades — and failed. But for vanBeuzekom, the urban renewal stars are aligned as they’ve never been before, thanks to big pharma.
“There’s much more of an urgency because of what’s going on at the eastern end of Mass. Ave., closer to MIT where Novartis is expanding," vanBeuzekom said. "It’s going to be a breathtaking building but mind-boggling development that’s happening — especially when you couple that with Pfizer, which is just on the back side of almost that same block, which will be another large building. So I think there’s a new urgency to solve the Central Square problem.”
That urgency is being driven by massive new development projects already begun just blocks away. A quarter-mile east down Mass. Ave., Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has already broken ground on a Maya Lin–designed park and tower complex. And right across the street, the two blocks of small shops, restaurants and apartments will be replaced by a 240,000-square-foot MIT research facility.
City officials and other community interests see the resulting property tax revenues as a historic opportunity to accomplish what others have chronically failed to achieve in the past.
"The solutions that came out of the Red Ribbon Commission were middle-income housing, [a] day care center, public space that could be a year-round arts and crafts or farmers market," vanBeuzekom explained."There’s also an effort led by urban planners who helped with the East Cambridge planning team for Kendall Square. And then there’s a third effort going on simultaneously by Community Development, they’re calling that K2C2. So that’s why it seems like we’re going to solve it this time.”
But area residents and small shop owners who have already seen stores and neighbors pushed out by high-tech expansion don’t have much faith in the good will of institutional encroachers or city planners. They’ve formed coalitions and committees to make sure their interests are heard. And while most would like to see the neglect apparent in some parts of Central Square remedied, there’s deep concern that gentrification pressures will drive poor and middle-class residents out of a once affordable neighborhood.
Tim Love is associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture and a founder of a firm specializing in complex urban projects. “It’ll be interesting to see how those real estate pressures effect both the mix of people and the kinds of businesses that survive maybe as rents go up," he said. "That’s the big question.”
In an area as unique as Central Square, institutional neighbors, he told me, have a particular obligation. Universities have a different kind of responsibility when they’re building on a public street like Mass. Ave. As a positive example, he cited the MIT Broad Center, which has a gallery on the ground floor that mimics the typical Central Square scale.
"I think there are ways to mitigate between the needs of life science companies that need big buildings, and the need for those institutions, of companies, to make and contribute to a kind of healthy sidewalk life, which is what Central Square is about," Love said. "It’s one of the most vital, healthy, interesting, active, sidewalk kind of urban environments in the Boston area.”
Forces that keep organizations in the square
Beyond institutional goodwill and efforts to hold MIT and big pharma in check, vanBeuzekom believed the organizations that own property in Central Square, like the YMCA and YWCA, will likely moderate the worst of the gentrification pressures.
“The YWCA is just embarking on a big expansion project to increase the number of single residency occupant units. And the YMCA is also going to be improving the housing that they have right there," she said.
In addition, the Salvation Army has a shelter that provides services to a low-income population, and many social service organizations own their buildings and thus can't be pushed out by rent pressures. "So I think it’s going to be a very interesting juxtaposition of the eastern end of the Avenue that will have the highest high-tech that you can possibly imagine right next to these service industries that are helping the poor and the disenfranchised,” vanBeuzekom said.
A tale of two cities ... in harmony
Time will tell. But the promise of a uniquely Central Square solution that serves the needs of industry and the people is an enticing aspiration.
"We’re going to have the 99-cent McDonald’s and we’ll have the $5.99 carrot-beet juice with boosters from Life Alive. Both of those things will co-exist in Central Square," vanBeuzekom said, laughing.
By Sarah Birnbaum | Thursday, March 29, 2012
March 29, 2012
BOSTON — A Massachusetts commission is recommending new restrictions on the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT cards — the debit cards that have replaced food stamps. Some lawmakers say the proposals don’t go far enough.
The eight-member bipartisan panel includes state legislators, the Inspector General and representatives of the retail industry. The group recommended it be made illegal for low-income families to use their EBT cards at strip clubs, tattoo parlors, nail salons, gun shops and casinos.
By Danielle Dreilinger | Thursday, February 9, 2012
Feb. 10, 2012
BOSTON — Are Massachusetts taxpayers' dollars paying for liquor, lottery tickets and cigarettes? Republican lawmakers are putting pressure on Gov. Deval Patrick to overhaul what items publicly funded EBT cards can be used to purchase.
The problem came to the fore in an October 2010 Boston Herald exposé that found that some electronic benefits transfer card holders were using the cards to buy alcohol, lottery tickets and even wholly non-food items such as underwear from Victoria's Secret.
Part of the confusion is there are two programs on the card, Tarr explained: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is federal, and cash assistance from the state. Card holders can cash out the state funds and then use them however they want — "anything goes," said state Rep. Shaunna O'Connell of Taunton.
A commission investigating abuses has a reporting deadline of April 1, said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, who accused the governor of slowing the process by delaying naming a beneficiaries' representative to the commission. "A meeting has been tentatively scheduled so fortunately we seem to be moving forward."
Tarr and O'Connell have sponsored legislation to close the loopholes.
The economy-related increase in the number of EBT recipients makes fixing the system even more crucial, Tarr said. "About 800,000-plus people are using the card. … That's a very large demand on our resources. If they need it, they need it [but] we have to have integrity in the system so we can help people that really need it and not help the people that are abusing it."
"We need this money for the people who need it the most," O'Connell agreed.
Monday, February 6, 2012
By Will Roseliep | Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Dec. 20, 2011
BOSTON — The holiday season is a busy one for charities. Shoppers give spare change to the red-suited bell ringers outside stores, while businesses cut year-end checks to finish out the tax season.
It’s certainly the time of good feelings for those helping the less fortunate. But people want to know their donations will be put to good use. An exchange on The Callie Crossley Show underscores how difficult it can be to objectively rate and analyze whether contributions are well spent.
Enter services like Charity Navigator, which use criteria like the financial health and transparency of charities to rate how they well use donor dollars. Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger said it’s the best way to avoid misunderstandings.
“You wanted to see basic health research done,” Berger said, as an example, “and this organization, what it ends up is doing advocacy for policy legislation change. And that’s great, but not really what you had in mind.”
However, Paul Schervish, the director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, raised questions about evaluating charities. He said that in a class he teaches, a student was misled by an organization's low rating: “[She] had one group she was very impressed with. When she looked it up [it was rated only] two stars.”
Schervish said it was because “the director was paid $119,000 relative to the costs and expenses of the organization. This is a place that serves lunches to women with tablecloths.” However, he thought executive compensation shouldn’t be the only determining factor. In this case, the organization serves 50,000 lunches a year, he said, and the director “is doing a lot of work, because the outcome is so valuable and they get their materials so cheaply.”
Berger said Charity Navigator — a free web service — uses many different criteria to determine ratings.
“Charity Navigator doesn’t rate any organization based on CEO pay. We look at the ratio of expenses in the program area and infrastructure and so forth,” he said.
Berger noted that the best way to know whether dollars are being used most effectively is to visit the charity and “eyeball it yourself. Certainly in the case of smaller organizations, the only way to get it is by going there yourself.”
But, Berger acknowledged, “The vast majority of people are not going to do that.”
With the holiday season in full swing, time is running out for would-be donors to check up on charities and decide for themselves what is or isn’t a cause worthy of their support.