Tagged: somerville

Assembling the price of a happy city

How long does it take to go from one of Boston’s newest hip neighborhoods, the Innovation District, to one of Somerville’s even newer, actually not quite finished, ones, Assembly Row by public transit? During evening rush hour on a weekday, this trip of about 4.5 road miles took me almost an hour as I traversed the Silver, Red and Orange lines and the #90 bus. Somebody determined enough and in decent enough shape could have run this in about half an hour or walked it it not much more than an hour. Cutting Assembly Row a bit of slack, there will be an Orange line station there later this year.

Still Assembling the Orange line

But why, you ask, would I undertake such an errand? Well, oddly enough, I was headed to a lecture on urbanism set up by the virtual and estimable Design Museum Boston. Christine McLaren, lead researcher of the book, Happy City, was giving a talk at Assembly Row’s outdoor amphitheater (!) overlooking the Mystic River. Well, that’s my second favorite local river and I do love a good amphitheater, so naturally I had to attend. Plus, I wanted to check out Assembly Row.

McLaren served up what I have to describe as the usual New Urbanist kool-aid – of which I heartily partook – but she brought a key insight I hadn’t been paying attention to. Cities, she says, are machines for happiness. The objective function of a city is not efficiency, environmental impact, or GDP, it’s happiness. The key determinant of happiness, according to McLaren’s research, is social connectedness, so urban designs that increase such connectedness are the ones that make people happier and the ones we should build.

View of the Mystic river over the amphitheater

Here’s where I partially part company with the happy city people. They say the research shows that the far-flung suburbs are isolating and so are the densest apartment towers. The happy medium – attached townhouses, for example – is where you get peak happy. That may be so (I have my doubts but my sample size is small) but how can we get all the people who want to live in a city housed if we can’t go higher than townhouses? Like Matt Yglesias, I’m partial to density and don’t think it has to reduce happiness. A well-designed apartment building of any height is just a stack of floors, each one being a group of homes sharing some common space, not unlike a townhouse or courtyard.

Back to Assembly Row. It seems to meet many (though not all, watch those unprotected bike lanes!) the criteria of Happy City, at least it will once the Orange line station opens and the rest of the development is finished. So far as I can tell, there are 195 housing units from studio to 3 bedrooms in the 5-story Avalon development. I’m already thinking this isn’t enough.  As of Bastille Day, they’ve pre-leased 2/3 of the units, including all the 3BR. Mostly studios remain, starting 451 square feet or so for $1.,985/mo. Cheaper and no doubt more modern and well-appointed than downtown Boston but not so different from many existing mixed-use neighborhoods also a few T stops from downtown.

I don’t know how much taller the apartment building could have been by law, but I have to believe that the marginal cost of the 6th floor would be less than the average cost of the first five, and would have provided a 20% increase in housing units for less than 20% more cost. Repeat this logic as high as you care to go, and eventually the supply starts to reduce the price, and equilibrium tells you where to stop.

The median household income in the Boston metro area was a bit less than $72k in 2012. If you spent 1/3 of your gross income on housing, that would be about $2,000/mo, the price of the smallest studios at Assembly Row. If the average household is more than one person (looks like it’s about 2 and a quarter) the studio won’t work so well. One bedroom units start at $2,380, and 2BR at $2,835. It looks like the rent is too damn high and happy new urbanism at Assembly Row is out of reach to the average Boston family. To be fair, the developers have no particular obligation to serve the average family but I do think the new urbanists should strive to do so. It wouldn’t hurt if lawmakers lined up better incentives for developers to do so, too.

How did I get home from Assembly Row after 8pm? The Orange line would be of no use for going to Cambridge and the buses had largely gone to bed for the night. I took Uber, 3.5 miles in 16 minutes for $10.

Wine unboxing

At one of the frequent tastings a Ball Square Fine Wine, I noticed that they now stock Chat en Ouef and I also tasted a nice Bordeaux for a wooden box. Well, most likely from a plastic bag inside that box. But anyway, at $39 for 3 liters (that’s four regulation 750ml bottles) it seemed like a good buy. Here’s the unboxing – and reboxing as it were.

It’s got a convenient carrying handle and sure looks nice with my Vanshnookenraggen MTA subway map posters. I’m sure you know by now that I think wood is the new white.

Chateau Lhorens 2011 Bordeaux

Unless you’re already drunk you can probably manage these directions.


I was a bit unnerved by the prolapsed wine sack, but everything got neatly tucked back into place.


Here’s the spout, ready to serve.


I think putting box wine in a nicer box – with a nice spout – was a great marketing move by the Lhorens team. I’m not really sure you should age wine in a plastic bag, but if you’re not up to drinking three liters at a sit-down, I bet it’ll keep better in there than in a glass bottle with lots of extra air.

The bottle is half full, but can you take it home in Somerville?

In 2006, I was one of many celebrating a change in the law of the Commonwealth allowing restaurants to send diners home with unconsumed portion of the bottle of wine they ordered. This opened up the full wine list to any casual tippler, assuming they would have occasion to drink the remainder in the future. While full bottles might be a better deal per ounce for the diner, don’t weep for the restauranteur, markups on whole bottles are still pretty rich, and now smart waiters can upsell you to a bottle with a sly, “well, you can always take the rest home…”

Since then, I’ve taken many a partial bottle home and become quite comfortable with the procedure. Until this weekend, when I was suddenly and without warning refused. A certain Somerville establishment told me that they were not licensed by the city to let me take the half full bottle away.  I even snuck off and got a second opinion from the bartender after the waitress turned me down – same story.

As I read the state law on wine to go, Massachusetts restaurants are allowed but not compelled to do this, so I believe they could have simply said, no sir, we don’t do that, and been in the clear. But they told me they were not allowed to, and I’m having a terrible time verifying that claim. Can anybody tell me if there is an additional license needed in Somerville for leftover wine carryout?  I’ve carried enough Somerville wine out to know that there is no city ban on the practice.

I won’t name the restaurant until I can figure out what the real deal is – I may well owe them an apology – but here’s what I think happened: I think they failed to get the equipment (not the license) necessary for letting patrons take leftover wine home. The equipment turns out to be a special kind of plastic bag and a stapler, and quick search found these wine to go bags available for $72 per 500 pack from a restaurant supply house.

In Massachusetts, the restaurant is required to recork or rescrew the bottle, put it in a clear plastic self-sealing bag made specifically for this purpose, and staple a copy of the meal receipt to the whole shebang. The sealing is to prevent exposing anybody to the dreaded open container laws, and the meal receipt is to substantiate that you ordered and ate food with your partial bottle of wine, another requirement of the wine to go law.  So I’m thinking that this restaurant didn’t stock or possibly ran out of these special baggies, and just took the lazy way out by saying that they were not licensed – which, unfortunately, is a pretty believable excuse for almost anything in Massachusetts.

If anybody knows the real rules of the Somerville wine take-home game, please clue me in so I can either try and help this place get the proper license or equipment, or self-righteously demand a compensatory half bottle of wine.  Because if I could take wine home in a bottle, that’s the first thing that I’d ever do.

Help Aguacate Verde serve more than agua

Passing through one of Camberville’s lesser squares, Wilson Square, I ducked in to Aguacate Verde for a quick lunch with Professor M. A casual Mexican place with an emphasis on healthy choices and a specialization in Salvadorean Pupusas, Aguacate Verde has the feel of comfortable neighborhood place. M had a veggie burrito (bonus points for whole wheat tortilla) and had two tacos, one veggie and one al pastor.

Veggie and al pastor tacos at Aguate Verde in Wilson Square

Everything was fresh and flavorful, especially the pork in the al pastor and the beans in every dish. I guess I might have wanted more avocado in my veggie taco given the place’s name, but it’s hard to argue with these tacos’ value at $3 each.

As we were leaving, the woman behind the counter asked us to sign a petition in support of their application for a liquor license, which we did, and I encourage you to do the same when you visit Aguacate Verde, which I hope you do soon. The lack of a liquor license can really hurt the dinner business of a place like this. I’d hate to lose a source of such nice tacos, pupusas and tamales for want of a cerveza.

At Nave Gallery Annex, the door to summer is a jar

I am sitting in a room probably very different from the one you are in now. I am sitting on a metal glider swing in the front parlor of a Somerville home facing two intensely bright lamps and listening to recorded sounds of nature. It’s artist Lyn Nofziger‘s installation, Home, at the Nave Gallery‘s new Annex on Chester Street, part of the group show, Picnic.

I’m too stuffed up to know if there’s an olfactory component, but except for the temperature, Home does in fact deliver on the promise of Picnic, to glorify “the lush serenity, the ripe thriving growth, the vibrant color of what’s living in these sultry days of summer.” In January and February, of course.  It’s a bit like a sunset but maybe even brighter and yet it makes you want to linger.

There’s almost too much going on the four or so rooms of an otherwise typical apartment that the Nave Gallery has taken over. The card lists 16 artists and there are almost certainly more if you count the dozen or so conributors to the open call to “preserve summer” where local artists were asked to “capture the endless and invincible season of summer in a mason jar.” This is at least as cool as when you could seal anything you wanted into a can at the now-gone Museum of Useful Things.

In an awesome three-part sink next to the jars of summer you might notice Sophia Sobers’ installation Abandoned Nature, a series of organic forms whose shape recalls coral or some kind of fungus, but whose location and color also remind you of flora that flourish in the dark corners of some ill-attended kitchen or bathroom.

The lith prints of photographer Adam Gooder are sprinkled around the galleries (and some prints in a bin are for sale at criminally low prices, by the way) and depict flowers in closeup with a delicate sunshiney tonality and delicious grain.  I don’t know if Gooder has a stash of old Kodalith paper or has an alternate chemical or digital method, but it works for me.

There’s a tremendous amount more work in this show, it could take you till summer to digest it all, but since the show closes on February 8 with a reception and mason jar auction, I suggest you get over there soon and join me in welcoming this art space to Davis Square.

Chicken hearts and parts, even pupik, in parts of Somerville

Earlier this Autumn, my local source for artisanal home-made house-made tofu near Powerhouse Circle, East Asia, was replaced by a strange newcomer called Doowee (Doo Wee?) and Rice.  I mourned the loss of East Asia’s homey no frills atmo and amazing layered tofu but I popped in to Doo Wee to see what was up.  I found out that what is up is vaguely blade-runneresque decor chicken hearts.  Crispy fried chicken hearts, that is.  With fries and sauce. And scallions, but really, I’m mainly talking about the chicken hearts.

Did I mention they were crispy and fried?  Sure, they have other stuff, spicy chicken wings, fluffy bao baos, rice bowls, noodle dishes, soups, but really, once you’ve had the “Heart-y Fries,” a sort of deranged fusion poutine, the rest all seems trite.  And I say “deranged” with a great deal of love.  For $8 you get probably more chicken hearts that you really should have, plus a serious helping of french fries and “great white sauce” (I didn’t ask, and you probably shouldn’t either)  Maybe if I had not been distracted and ordered a bao bao I could have finished it, but the leftover helping was nearly as good for lunch the next day. [Dear colleagues, I will not apologize for microwaving chicken hearts at the office and neither will I share them with you!]

These are the best chicken hearts I’ve had since that night in Sao Paulo when I was almost killed by soccer fans, and that’s saying something.  (And now that we have Fogo de Chao in Boston, maybe you can get those a little more conveniently, but be warned they are not mentioned on the website)

Back to our story, such as it is.  I also had some tasty chicken hearts at Moksa in Cambridge, but I’m going to have to put Doowee’s hearts on another level, and that’s not only on a price-per-heart basis.  The trail of chicken offal continued last week at Casa B in Union Square, arguably the Brooklyn of Somerville.

Casa B offered “corazones de pollo en licor 43” (that’s the number of the licor, the price was $9)  but I was drawn deeper into the chicken guts by the next item, “mollejas de pollo” because as it turns out, “mollejas” is spanish for “pupik” and who can resists a chicken pupik? Not I.  For those late to the limeduck, we’re talking gizzards.

Yes, that secondary stomach full of rocks, when skillfully prepared with sautéed onions can be a transcendant treat.  There’s no photo because Casa B is a dark sort of place and I refuse to pop a flash inside a restaurant, but let me tell you, the presentation was superb, and the gizzards light and tender, not at all organ-like, even though I guess they really are organs.  For about the same price as Doowee’s hearty fries, Casa B delivers a much smaller portion with just a big a taste.

I strongly recommend you think outside your usual chicken parts, in Somerville and beyond.

Three points determine a pickle

I recently discovered the site of George Emerson’s Pickle Factory in Somerville’s Powerhouse Park. Other than the engraved rock and cast metal pickle jars (bottles?) I have no information about it, but I have a feeling it could be the next Cronin Park.

In other more contemporary pickle news:

Last month at the Somerville River Festival (Did you know Somerville had a river? It’s the Mystic river.), a food truck was vending deep fried pickles. I have to say I was imagining something more like crinkle-cut dill discs, but the whole spears in fluffy beer batter were piping hot and still pickly inside. I think there’s finally an improvement on the classic Japanese summer treat, pickle on a stick.  That is, if you could deep fry the pickles AND put them on sticks.

At the newish M3 (apparently means, “Meat and 3 sides”) near Davis Square, house made is all the rage, including the pictured duck proscioutto and rainbow array of pickles.  Note the pickle fork provided.

Here’s to celebrating Somerville’s 100+ years of pickles.

The new Scrabble math, down 21 at Diesel, up 33 at Bloc 11

Has it really been three years since I repaired a Scrabble set? Such slacking, I’m appalled at myself. The other day I met up with trademarkable JeffCuter(TM) at Diesel Cafe and later had a nice game of Scrabble with the estimable J, who beat me by three points with the utterly cromulent fake bingo, SOLTERN.

So anyway, I decided to check the Diesel game locker, and found the Scrabble set down by a whopping 21 tiles.  On the plus side, at least one kind person had made up some cardboard substitutes, some of them really quite nice.  With a quick A A A B C C E E F G I K M N S S T U V _ _ I topped things up from my strategic Scrabble tile reserve.

Across the ‘ville at Bloc 11, I found an even more perplexing situation, a set with 133 tiles, 33 more than regulation. But it wasn’t pure surplus, there were still tiles missing, such as both of the Bs normally in the set.  So I contributed the missing tiles and set the excess aside, returning another scrabble set to 100-tile perfection, at least for now. Also, I discovered an interesting message inside the box cover. You don’t get those with Words With Friends, do you?

But what kind of maniac would crate a 133-tile set? It’s can’t have been an accident. Did somebody combine two incomplete sets? Are there merry pranksters at work? Is some speech-impeded supervillan playing a twisted form of megascrabble with twice the D and none of the B?  I’m not sure which option is less frightening, but I’m going to have to step up the Scrabble vigilance.

If you know of a cafe Scrabble set in need, don’t be a SOLTERN, speak up!


Savory Scone Update: Goat at 3 Little Figs

Did you know that buttery pastries can help reduce the risk of macular degeneration?  You probably didn’t know that because it’s probably not true, but that didn’t stop me from picking up a savory scone at 3 Little Figs on Somerville’s Highland Avenue on the way to see my eye doctor.  Hey, it’s not as bad as having a tall soy mocha on your way to the dentist.

3 Little Figs is a wonderful little coffee shop bakery serving a range of sandwiches, too.  I first found them at the Somerville Winter Market where I got addicted to their vegan chocolate spice cookies.  I’ve since been to the shop and had the goat cheese and herb scone twice.  It’s impressive.

I tried to get a clear shot but every time I moved the sone, flakes and crumbs came off it.  It’s that delicate and that flaky.  (Hey, some of my best friends are delicate and flaky) The goat cheese is more pronounced than at Dwell Time but not overpowering at all.  What stands out in this scone is the buttery flaky sconiness of it.  It’s like the stocky jolly cousin of the skinny neurotic croissant. A superb example of the savory scone.

New photos on the 40th parallel

During Somerville Open Studios a while back, I visited the studio of Bruce Myren in the Vernon Street Studios. Bruce is an artist and educator I’ve been following for a while and I was excited to see some new work, and there was plenty of it.  Be sure to see the stunning print of Cushman Brook [view #10] from the Fort Juniper series since the online version does it no justice.

Bruce was just back from a trip to California where he added several images to his iconic Fortieth Parallel project in which he photographs along the 40th parallel at each whole degree of longitude.  I particularly dig the annotated map on the wall of the studio with the planned, shot, and printed meridians on it.

At each location, Bruce shoots three 8×10 transparencies with a view camera and later prints them together digitally as a panoramic triptych. There’s a nice print of 97º near Hollenberg, KS on the wall right behind me as I type.

You can see a lot more, including the latest picture from 124º near Whitehorn CA on Bruce’s site.