Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bike Community Considers "Guerilla" Approach

Gathering for their second informal meeting, a group of concerned cyclists met on Sunday at MIT’s Riverside Boathouse to discuss safety and awareness in the community for bicycle riders.

Spearheaded last month by Jaffney Roode, a Boston bike courier, and organized this month by Brookline cyclist Veronique d’Entremont, the group discussed different ways to make Boston a better place to ride and "create some empathy between bicyclists and non-bicyclists."

Citing disappointment with the city on the bike issue - the city-sponsored "bike week" was referred to by the group as "depressing" - activists discussed a number of ways to approach the mounting problems Boston cyclists face including radio public service announcements, bike safety pamphlets, erecting "ghost bike" monuments for every bike-related death in the past ten years, and putting up street signs and erecting bike ramps for curbs where necessary. The latter approach, referred to by Jeff Ferris of Jamaica Plain’s Ferris Wheels Bicycle Shop as "guerrilla actions" favoring bike safety, garnered the most immediate support from the group. While Ferris and others have already constructed and placed a number of ramps on and off curbs throughout the city, a small committee from the meeting has been set aside to brainstorm for this angle specifically. According to the group emails since the meeting, the intention of the group is to put up high-quality signs around the most dangerous streets, such as Massachusetts Avenue, depicting a cyclist and encouraging drivers to share the road and inform them more clearly about cycling law. While attempting to inform others of the rules of the road, some of the group voiced concern regarding the legality of their own activities. Ferris quickly defended the ultimately accepted idea. "We are cyclists putting up signs because nobody else is," he said. "If the city is going to come down on you for putting up a ‘be nice to bikers’ sign, well... who looks like the bad guy?"

According to Massachusetts law, bicycles are considered vehicles, and are thus permitted an entire lane on roads that do not have bicycle-specific lanes. The proposed extralegal strategy of the group seems to stem from city government disinterest in helping cyclists. Roode had unsuccessfully attempted to contact Allston-Brighton City Councilor Jerry McDermott to discuss the recent death of cyclist Kelly Wallace, while other group members expressed concern that city planning ignores cyclists. Expressing aggravation with cyclist rights, Boston bike commuter Jacqueline Genetti said "there aren’t enough bike lanes, there’s not enough awareness, and whenever something happens, it’s always the biker’s fault." Echoing a similar sentiment, Ferris declared, "In my mind, Boston is actively making itself worse for biking."

The group, although not yet finalizing a date or time, has committed to continue meeting on a monthly basis, with smaller action groups meeting on off-weeks to implement the ideas that the core group comes up with and refine them. Although avoiding any type of formality as an organization, and at one point referring to themselves as something of a "dinner club" the advocates have allied themselves rather closely with the non-profit bike advocacy organization, MassBike, who can be reached at

This article originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on July 19, 2007.

An Allston Icon Mourned

ALLSTON — For more than three decades, Harold Madison Jr., better known as Mr. Butch, walked the streets of Boston. A staple in the Kenmore Square area from the 1970s until gentrification forced him towards Allston in the 1990s, he had since become a part of the community’s experience, a homeless beat philosopher with a smile that people can’t stop talking about, known in equal measure for his panhandling, drinking and guitar-playing.

Mr. Butch was a familiar sight and one that, since last Thursday, has been sorely missed, following a motor scooter accident early that morning.

Toni Fanning, owner of Ritual Arts in Allston, and a long-time friend of Mr. Butch, has been helping assemble a memorial service for the fallen Allstonian. Somberly talking about her homeless friend, she tried to articulate Allston’s "tremendous loss."

"People expect to see his smile," she said. "They expect Mr. Butch here. He’s part of this neighborhood."

An outpouring of sympathy for Mr. Butch has cropped up all over the Internet, where thousands of funny and friendly tales of Allston’s de-facto mascot have been posted. One site went so far as to campaign for the placement of a memorial statue in Mr. Butch’s likeness.

"You couldn’t imagine what it was like here the day it happened," recalled Fanning of the depression overwhelming Harvard Avenue.

Butch panhandled regularly in the neighborhood, and numerous people donated to him upon every encounter. Remembered by friends as "good with money," he had local merchants hold his savings in various "banks" at their stores. When he was low, he’d go to friends and pick up his money. Ultimately, he had saved enough to purchase a Vespa motor scooter. It was that purchase that ultimately led to his death.

Fanning, like many in Allston, didn’t immediately strike a bond with the mercurial Mr. Butch.

"When I met Butch, I was intimidated," she recalled. "Here was this big, black man — he was much bigger then — and I wondered ‘why would people idolize this homeless guy who seems to be mooching off of everybody?’"

Her lack of understanding didn’t last long. By the time Butch made his way to Allston, Toni accepted him as a friend and neighbor.

"He wasn’t anyone to be afraid of," she said. "He was here for happy days. He looked out for people. I wish I had the guts to live [like him]."

Audrey Valmas of Allston, another employee at Ritual Arts, also has fond memories of Mr. Butch.

"I saw him here all the time, probably at least three times a day," she said. "He was always pleasant, always smiling. He just had a charm to him."

"There was nothing traditional about Mr. Butch," Fanning added. "Oh, he loved living in the streets, and he just didn’t want to go into housing. He considered the whole city his home — maybe even the whole world... His cousin said he could live ten lifetimes and never know as many people and achieve the notoriety Mr. Butch did. We’ve gotten calls all over the country asking about him."

Fanning, as well as other merchants and Butch’s family, have assembled a memorial service for him on Sunday, July 22. The "parade" to celebrate Butch will start at the intersection of Harvard Ave. and Commonwealth Ave. at 7 p.m., and will feature a "New Orleans-style" brass band, as well as friends and family. A church service will be held at 8 p.m. at the International Community Church on 557 Cambridge St. in Allston.

A memorial featuring Mr. Butch’s possessions is currently in the window of Re:Generation Tattoo at 155 Harvard Ave. Donations for his service are being accepted at that location.

(Bulletin reporter Lydia Mulvany contributed to this story).

This article originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on July 19, 2007.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Community Challenges High-Rise Land "Swap Scheme"

NORTH END — A large contingent of North End residents came out Monday night to the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council’s monthly meeting to hear a new proposal about the future of 585 Commercial Street, a waterfront property currently flanked by community tennis courts and the Steriti Memorial Skating Rink.

A proposal by Byron Gilchrest, president of the development firm Gilchrest Associates, would move the tennis courts, which are on state- owned land, next to the skating rink, allowing for an 800-plus unit condominium high-rise to be built on the corner of Commercial and North Washington Streets.

Although the "swap scheme," as Gilchrest called it, would cost more to build and would require him to give up more valuable land than he would receive in return, he argued that the new proposal, his third on the project, would be most beneficial to the North End, allowing for clearer views of the Old North Church from the Charlestown Bridge as well as a more direct view from Hull Street to the water.

In addition, Gilchrest added that he would create a third walkway to the waterfront from Commercial Street and build a handicapped-accessible ramp from North Washington Street to the Waterfront and build a new marina to replace the rather ailing fishing pier currently off the coast of the park.

Community activists overwhelmingly opposed Gilchrest’s proposal, primarily due to his interest in building a structure that would be as high as 95 feet at its tallest point. The lot is zoned for only 55 feet, and Gilchrest is asking the city for rezoning.

"The rule is 55 feet," declared Robert Skole of the North End. "Why can’t you follow the rules and let us live in peace?"

Accused of exploiting the North End for profit by angry residents, many of which were shouting out of turn, Mr. Gilchrest responded, "Yes, profit. It is more profitable for me to build a 95-foot building than it is to add a floor to the existing building." The existing building on 585 Commercial Street is 46 feet. When further challenged about the rarity of buildings in the North End and waterfront exceeding 55 feet, Gilchrest quickly shot back. "The building we’re in [The Pilot House] is 90 feet."

Against the public outcry of setting a precedent for tall buildings in the North End, "building a wall around the neighborhood," said one concerned neighbor, Gilchrest addressed how much red tape he needed to go through in order to succeed in his proposal. For the land swap alone, he would need a two-thirds vote from the state legislature and a signature from the Governor - not an easy task. Regardless, it still seemed too easy for members of the community concerned with effects on their fast-growing neighborhood. Sheila Ross, another member of the community, declared that "if this one goes through, there will be more."

The units themselves also drew criticism from the community. The new structure, which would house one- and two-bedroom condos exclusively, would also not include any affordable housing on-site. Although, according to Gilchrest and his lawyer, William G. Ferullo, 15 percent of the development will be affordable housing; it will be "off-site," and built simultaneously somewhere else in the North End. This particular effort to accommodate the community's demand for such housing, Gilchrest admitted, had no precedent that he was aware of in the city.

Although there was no resolution regarding the proposal at the meeting - no vote was scheduled - opposition vowed to organize against the swap scheme as well as the entire project to build a 95-footer. The North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council, which was brought under fire by residents at the meeting for not asking tough enough questions in regards to the project, has also appointed a subcommittee including council members Matthew Black, Bill Musto and Jay Kuhlow. Their next meeting will be held on September 10 at The Pilot House on Lewis Wharf.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on July 12, 2007.