Friday, December 12, 2008

All About Allston

by Erika Templeton

Questions and comments are welcome at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Phosphorous Next Challenge for the Charles

By Erika Templeton

ALLSTON—The Charles River is running clearer these days as it snakes along Soldier’s Field Road in Lower Allston. A dark blue sheen has replaced the translucent rainbows of oily run-off that once hung at the water’s surface, making ducks’ feet visible once again as they paddle through the waves.

The river is cleaner now than it has been since 1995, when the United States Environmental Agency declared its goal to reduce pollution and make the river swimmable by 2005.

The Charles water met boating standards 100 percent of the time, and was deemed safe for swimmers 63 percent of the time this year, according to the EPA’s evaluations. In In1995, those numbers were 39 and 19 percent, respectively. The improved conditions earned the river a “B++” score this year, up from a “D” in 1995.

The river’s score may be hire, but the clean-up job is far from done.

“It’s still pretty disgusting,” said Beth Stone, 21. “It’s the same story with any river right near a city.” While kayaking down the Charles, Stone said she still noticed bottles and garbage floating on the surface. Below the surface, however, lies a bigger problem that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

On Monday, the EPA announced efforts to control pollution caused by storm water runoff. The runoff carries phosphorous, which has caused high levels of cyanobacteria and other types of blue-green algae in the water. Phosphorous is a nutrient for the toxic algae, whose blooms turn the river a bright shade of blue-green in the summer and can be harmful to swimmers.
"Polluted storm water runoff causes serious water quality problems, and is the next great challenge for cleaning the Charles River," said Robert Varney, the EPA’s New England administrator.

Last October, the EPA established a total maximum daily load for phosphorous in the Charles. Right now, the phosphorous levels are more than double that healthy limit.

The high levels of phosphorous run-off come from commercial and industrial properties with large areas of such as parking lots, rooftops, and roadways. The impermeable surfaces stop rainwater from absorbing safely back into the ground.

Working under the Clean Water Act, the EPA will be extending its regulations to include private land owners with more than two acres of impermeable surfaces, who will now have to operate under permit and reduce their storm water runoff by 65 percent. The permit will only apply to property upstream of the city, in Milford, Franklin, and Bellingham.

By enforcing storm water and sewer improvements, environmental planners hope to redirect water running off of rooftops and parking lots directly into the river, and increase the amount absorbed back into the ground.

Some ways to reduce runoff include building man-made bodies of water, such as ponds and creeks, and using new pavement material that allows water to absorb back into the ground.

“Until now, managing storm water has largely been the responsibility of the cities and towns,” said Laurie Burt, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, in an EPA press release. “It is critical now for other property owners to step up to the plate and do their part.”

Questions and comments are welcome at

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Language Waitlists A Growing Barrier for Citizenship

By Erika Templeton

BRIGHTON--In the basement of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston on Cambridge Street, The Literacy Connection's citizenship class is in session. Today's topic is the branches of government, and voices call out to questions in numerous accents.

Most of the students' responses are correct: Supreme Court judges are appointed for life; the cabinet is part of the executive branch; Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House.

By the end of the course, students will be prepped for 100 possible questions, but for most taking the test, the facts are easy to learn. Learning the language is more challenging.

"I have a man here tonight who didn?t pass," said Sister Pat Andrews, who teaches the class. "It's because of the English."

Without a grasp of the language, naturalization is nearly impossible for immigrants. As the waitlist for English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in Boston grows, many are left with less chance of citizenship.

In 2007, more than 4,000 people were on the list and faced up to a three year wait before enrolling in classes, according to a report from the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians. From 1990 to 2000, the report found, Boston's foreign-born population grew by 32 percent. About 22,000, or 15 percent, of immigrants live in Allston and Brighton.

Non-profit and volunteer groups have sprung up around the city to meet the immigrants' growing demand for English classes, but they are pressed for time and resources.

"I would say that the need probably exceeds what the community is able to provide," said Sarah Markell, head librarian at Boston Public Library's Honan-Allston branch, which offers free assistance to immigrants.

The Literacy Connection's waitlist is up to 200 names long at any given time. "I could probably be here 12 to 16 hours a day," said Andrews, "and the people would come." She gives out brochures and encourages people to call other programs in the area, or go to the library for help.

"The organizations that exist to offer classes are, as always, struggling for funding," Markell said. "That will continue to be the case as the financial situation continues to force state and local budgets to be cut."

At the library's Waitlist ESL Event on October 29, residents received Oxford Picture Dictionaries and information on English classes in the neighborhood. The library also hosts "conversation groups" three times a week.

"We offer a place for folks to come in and practice speaking English more informally," said Jennifer Koerber, an employee of the branch. For some immigrants who are not ready for group sessions, the library offers information and helps them navigate the often-confusing network of ESOL programs.

"If there's one thing that's true about Boston, it's that there?s 10 different programs for any given thing," Koerber said. "The city is working to eliminate duplication, but there really isn't that one standard thing across all institutions."

When Vilma Martines immigrated to Boston from her home in Ecuador 10 years ago, she knew little English and registered at the library for help. She was on the ESL Waitlist for two years before enrolling at The Literacy Connection.

The program specializes in one-on-one training for people who need individual attention "to help bring them up to a level where they can really function," Andrews said. "We provide a service in the sense that some people come with very little skills and it's hard for them to go into a class of 25."

Martines' English lessons have helped her begin to build a life in Allston. She has passed her citizenship test, and smiles when she describes working as a teacher's assistant at a pre-school in Watertown.

Forgetting the word "toddler," she uses hand gestures to describe "the little ones, the little children" she works with. Sometimes, when her students can't understand her, Martines writes things down, draws pictures, or asks her coworker to help translate.

"You have to really listen," Martines said. "I do. Sister Pat told me, 'You have to speak slowly.'" These days, Martines comes to The Literacy Connection to work on her vocabulary and accent.

Meanwhile, the class of immigrants down the hall are still working on the basics. Once they've proven their understanding of US history, they must answer questions about their own history. The personal answers come easily, if they can understand what is being asked.

"Have you ever been incarcerated?" Andrews asks, pretending to be a US Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. "You think they'll know what incarcerated means? If they don?t know, I tell them to have the question repeated, or say, 'I'm unfamiliar with that word.' Never answer to something if you don?t understand it."

Andrews teaches her students up to three versions of a question, so they don't get caught up on wording.

"Listen for the verb," she tells the class when they are stumped by a question on the law-making process. "Try to get these verbs and attach them to the government branches."

Three phrases, "makes the law," "interprets the law" and "carries out the law" are scrawled on a chalk board at the front of the room, verbs underlined for emphasis.

"I think Great Britain is hard to write," says a young woman in the front row as the topic switches to American independence. "I will write England." A sympathetic chuckle fills the room as heads nod in agreement.

Could you pass the citizenship test? Test your skills here, with a sample set of questions from the Boston Globe.

Questions and comments are welcome at

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Art and Politics Collide at Geekhouse Bikes

By Erika Templeton

ALLSTON— In Barcelona, Jorge Rodriquez-Gerada’s sculpted sand portrait of presidential candidate Barack Obama is visible from satellites in space. In Michigan, John Hart’s “nanobama” portraits can barely be seen without the help of a magnifying lens. In Allston, Marty Walsh’s “ObamaBike” may be average in scale, but it has an equal impact on the rising trend of unique campaign art.

“Artists always have this sense of what’s going to happen, a sense of the greater stuff that’s going on,” said Walsh, founder of Geekhouse Bikes in Allston. “I think this is a really different time.”

In an election year filled with campaigns focused on change, campaign art has undergone a transformation of its own. Independent art is replacing traditional candidate posters, and with it has come a whole new range of creative possibilities.

The ObamaBike’s combination of art, recreation and political activism is the brainchild of blogger and political activist Bucky Turco. He contacted Walsh and Dan Funderburgh, a New York-based wallpaper design artist, to collaborate on the project. Neither Walsh nor Funderburgh had been politically active before, but they said this year’s election was different.

“I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Bucky,” Walsh said. “But I also wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Obama.”

Funderburgh, who never contributed to a political campaign before, began selling his designs this year, and raised more than $1,000 for campaign contributions. Many of them were inspired by Obama’s speeches. “He’s a remarkable dude,” Funderburgh said.

The ObamaBike focuses on the concept of unity, from its multitude of patterns to its blended color scheme. A torn pattern represents the struggle of farmers, while a pixilated patch stands for industry and innovation. “It’s like one America, trying to make one design made of many different designs,” Funderburgh said. “There’s also a gradient between red and blue. We’re not red states blue and blue states, like Obama said.”

On October 22, the bicycle was sold on eBay for $1,425. All proceeds will go to the Barack Obama victory fund,

Larry Brooks, the 58-year-old auction winner from California, is a life-time Democrat. “I wanted to max out my donations to Obama,” he said. “I've been a bike racer for more than 20 years, so this bike will be used for it's intended use—track racing. It'll also function as wall jewelry.”

Walsh, Turco and Funderburgh are just a small sample of the growing field of political art. “There’s some amazing things out there,” Walsh said.

Funderburgh cited the work of Shepard Fairey, whose “Obey” posters gained national attention. “It’s amazingly ubiquitous,” he said of the propaganda-style Obama portraits. “You see bad McCain and Palin T-shirts trying to get in on it and falling short.”

Campaign managers have often shied away from independent art, said Wired Magazine’s creative director, Scott Dadich, in an interview with the Obama’s campaign was different, he said, because it was willing and able to incorporate independent artists’ work.

“It really is something that speaks more to tapping in of the movement,” Dadich said. “And I think that’s evidence of something much wider and much more deeply felt.”

Questions and comments are welcome at

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Housing Demand Left Unmet

By Erika Templeton

ALLSTON—With budget cuts that have left city departments over-stretched, and an economic recession that has left families scrambling to pay their bills,

the demand for affordable housing projects has been left unmet.

Department of Neighborhood Development spokesman Kerry O’Brien listed several new challenges to the city’s housing initiatives, including the rise of foreclosures, a softening housing market, and “the long-term risk of losing thousands of affordable rental units as owners are presented with the option of converting their properties to market rate.”

Added to the problem are housing costs in Allston and Brighton that have increased dramatically in the past decade. The median sales price in 2000 was $158,767. By 2005 it nearly doubled to $314,500, according to a data profile created by the Policy Development and Research Division of the Department of Neighborhood Development.

As prices rise, wages change far less. Since 1999, median income in the neighborhood has risen just 21 percent, to $46,000. Now, for nearly a third of all families in Allston, housing costs account for more than 35 percent of their income, the data profile said.

The growing gap between market and income rates has led to an increased need for affordable housing. At the same time, the city has implemented deep budget cuts, and new development projects are strapped for cash.

Non-profit organizations like the Allston Brighton Community Redevelopment Corporation are struggling to fill the demand for cheap housing. Recently, the corporation finished a 33-unit project on Glenville Avenue. The apartments will be available to those earning less than 60 percent of the median income, and tenants will be selected through a lottery. Already more than 700 residents have applied.

“There’s definitely a demand for affordable housing in the neighborhood that is not being met,” said Carrie Knudson, housing project manager at the corporation.

Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development has been working on a mixed-income housing project at 1501 Commonwealth Ave to address the needs of hundreds of families who won’t be chosen in other housing lotteries.

In July, the department approved the Brighton Partnership for Community Reinvestment’s proposal for the 32,000 square foot lot.

The decision has stirred debate among residents, many of whom believe the selection was based more on financial constraints than community needs.
Out of four plans proposed to the department, the Brighton Partnership’s uses the least amount of subsidy money and creates the fewest affordable units—19 out of 57.

“The developer that put in that development plan is trying to cover the cost of building,” Knudson said. “One way to get around the fact that subsidies are limited is to increase the number of market rate units in a building.”

Limited money has led to limited support for families who cannot afford the market rate for housing in Allston.

Questions and comments are welcome at

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sexual Assault Up for Third Consecutive Year

by Erika Templeton

ALLSTON—Rapes in the neighborhood have jumped over the past year, police said. Reported cases rose 36 percent, from 11 rapes and attempts between January and July of 2007 to 15 during the same period in 2008, according to a statistical report released by the Boston Police Department.

The increase comes despite a 2007 initiative to help reduce rape attempts by educating bar managers in rape prevention. The initiative, which called for cooperation between police, bar owners, Boston University, and Boston College, came after a report showed rape cases doubled in Allston and Brighton from 2005 to 2006.

Officials say the increase stems from a rise in date rapes among the student body, many of which involve alcohol. Dan Daly, the district D-14 community service officer, said the spike in rapes can often be traced to “guys and girls meeting at the local bars.”

“There’s definitely a greater risk among student women,” said Simon Smith, 23, a manager at Wonder Bar. “They go out for a while, meet some guy at the bar, and all of a sudden, his house is closer.”

The women’s bathroom at Wonder Bar used to have signs that read “Don’t be the next victim.” Smith said they were torn down and the city won’t fund new ones.

The law says penetration must occur for an assault to be categorized as rape. More often, cases fall under the broader category of sexual assault, and go unrecognized.

Annual reports from the Boston University Police Department use a looser definition of “forcible sex offenders.” In 2006, there were seven incidents of sexual assault on campus alone.

Officer Daly said police efforts to raise awareness may have led to the recent spike in reported sexual assaults. “A lot of women probably heard about it, went to a lecture and said, ‘Hey, that happened to me too.’”

Questions or comments are welcome at etemp@bu.eduA typical Saturday night at Wonder Bar.

Harvard, Allston on Quest for Compromise

By Erika Templeton

ALLSTON—For decades the neighborhood has faced the ever-encroaching campuses of Boston University, Boston College, and Harvard University.

Today, the front line lies at Western Avenue in Lower Allston, where Harvard’s new development plans seek to alter the commercial landscape, and tensions are surging as residents say the city and the university are working against them.

“They have their own plan,” said Natalie Tarbet, assistant director of the Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center, which sits on Harvard-owned property. “They’re not going to let the community get in the way. ...Only rarely does Harvard get stopped in its tracks.”

To open a dialogue in the neighborhood, Mayor Thomas M. Menino created the Harvard-Allston Task Force in 2006. The 16-member group of civic leaders and residents meets regularly with officials from the university and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Residents at the meetings have complained about sidewalk construction that does not take bus routes into account, green spaces that do not grant community access, property buyouts that have slowed local business, and public housing relocation projects that reinforce the socioeconomic divide.

“We’re still learning,” said Gerald Autler, project director from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, acknowledging flaws in the plan. “Harvard is making extensive changes.”

Those changes have meant compromise for everyone involved, but not all residents see it that way.

“Money, power, influence, Harvard pretty much has it all,” said task force panelist Harry Mattison.

Many fear the university holds greater political sway, which puts the community at a disadvantage. “When you’re a working-class neighborhood trying to organize on a grassroots level against one of the richest institutions in the world, it’s an uneven playing field,” said Jake Carman, a 22-year-old member of the Allston-Brighton Neighborhood Assembly.

Autler cites Harvard’s previous property-buying tactics as one cause of community resentment. “Harvard purchased a lot of land through a front company, and so there’s a lot of lingering mistrust,” he said.

Some, like Harry Nesdekidis, local activist and owner of Harry’s Foreign & American Auto Body in Brighton, hope the task force start moving forward with plans. He also knows there’s no going back.

“It’s too late, they already bought it,” he said about Harvard-owned properties like 370 Western Ave., where buildings that once housed Kmart and Frugal Fannie’s have sat vacant for years. “Instead of dragging something out that you know is going to happen, just do it. Then have the city hold the school accountable.”

Harvard has given up some of its original plans in an attempt to compromise with residents. “You’d be very had pressed to find a community benefits package that is on par with [Harvard’s] anywhere in the nation,” Autler said. “In the next year or two people are going to start seeing tangible results.”

Nesdekidis supports the development of new green spaces and is pleased with the new “education portal,” a series of tutoring and enrichment programs in writing, math and science created by Harvard for community children. ““I hate seeing when something goes forward and it’s just for Harvard today,” he said. “Let’s see something for the next 100 years, for our kids.”

Mattison, too, wants the task force meetings to be more than a clash of wills. “Our goal is not to prevent Harvard expansion, per se,” he said. “Our goal is to put forth a more just and compelling vision where it’s not just all about Harvard. It’s about everyone.”

Officials from Harvard did not return phone calls.

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