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