Friday, July 30, 2010

Casino compromise reached, but governor not on board is reporting that House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement that would bring three casinos and two slot parlors to Massachusetts, but moments later Gov. Deval Patrick released a statement that said, "I cannot support this bill in its current form."

The governor has said all along that he's not in favor of bringing slots to the state; however, he agreed last week to accept the machines in one location, provided there is a competitive bidding process for them. He has implied that he will veto a bill that isn't in line with those provisions.

The two-year legislative session ends tomorrow, and both House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray say they have no plans to bring legislators back after that. Even if they did, it remains to be seen if both houses could override a gubernatorial veto.

Chronicling Eastie

Check out segments of the Channel 5 show Chronicle that featured East Boston, which originally aired last week:

Segment #1: hidden gem, diversity, views
Segment #2: real estate, culture
Segment #3: sailing, outdoor art, food
Segment #4: greenway, teen view

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Central Square redesign

The second meeting on the redesign of Central Square is tonight at the East Boston Social Center starting at 6 p.m. This is a chance for residents and business owners to offer input on the project, which is slated to begin next year. There's a story in today's Globe on the project.

Monday, July 26, 2010


More negotiations, but no agreement on a casino bill. The three principals -- Gov. Patrick, House Speaker DeLeo, Senate Pres. Murray -- have made statements regarding their desire to reach a compromise, but each has also said that the legislative session may end Saturday without one.

Just throwing this out there: Could any (all?) of the three have their own reservations about bringing expanded gambling to the state and so will ensure that no law gets signed while appearing to certain constituent groups -- union voters, developer donors -- to be on their side?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Moving ahead on new library branch

Though site selection is ongoing, the City of Boston is moving forward on plans to build a new branch library in East Boston. There is $2.5 million in this year's city budget to acquire a site and design the building, and a "Request for Qualifications" was just issued by the Public Facilities Department -- a first step in choosing an architectural firm for the project. The RFQ deadline is August 11, and the estimated cost of the final project is currently $9.4 million.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clock ticks on gambling bill

It's been two weeks since members of a House/Senate conference committee first sat down to create a compromise bill that would expand gambling in Massachusetts, but -- with just 10 days remaining in the legislative session -- there is no indication that the two sides have been able to reach a consensus. As I understand it, failure to get a bill approved by both bodies on the governor's desk by July 31 means that the process would have to start from scratch when the legislature convenes again in the fall.

To give the process a bump forward, a dozen small-city mayors backed House Speaker Bob DeLeo's plan for for slots at tracks in a letter yesterday. Their motivation is some quick cash to close municipal budget shortfalls. However, mayors of the state's larger cities, including Boston's Tom Menino, are not on board with the request. The Globe story says that one sticking point for Menino is that he wants Boston cops in charge of law enforcement at any casino within city limits, while DeLeo's bill calls for the state police to have jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that New Jersey's governor is proposing that a state authority "take over the troubled Atlantic City gambling district." Yeah, that sounds like something we want to invite into our own backyard.

Image from Internet blog

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Darkness visible

Burning with fever and on the run from enemies real and perceived, Michelangelo Merisi collapsed near the Italian coastal town of Porto Ercole and died soon after on this day in 1610. He was just 38 years old, but his artistic brilliance had already produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.

Known by the name of the town outside of Milan that he hailed from -- Caravaggio -- the artist was, by the start of the 17th century, known as the most famous painter in Rome, as much for his reputation of drunken outbursts, street brawls and habit of chasing women of various social strata as for his dark and wonderful canvases.

I've seen some of Caravaggio's work in Rome and at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and I may get to see more in Naples this year. I haven't seen in person his masterpiece The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (image above from Wikipedia), but it is has some of the features that one expects in his work -- darkness, imminent violence and some of the grit of real life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gambling round-up

***As expanded gambling comes closer to a reality in Massachusetts, those who stand to walk away with massive amounts of our money have turned up the lobbying heat on Beacon Hill. The Associated Press reports that $1.8 million was spent on lobbyists in the first half of this year, mostly by out-of-state companies. Suffolk Downs spent more than a half-million dollars. In 2009, $2 million was spent on gambling lobbyists. Some of that money went directly to elected officials' campaign funds: last year lobbyists contributed $8,000 to House Speaker Bob DeLeo, $7,800 to Senate President Therese Murray and $4,900 to Gov. Deval Patrick.

***Mayor Menino has decided that the developer who failed to go forward with a project at Downtown Crossing should not profit from any casino that might be built at Suffolk Downs. Vornado Realty Trust, a New York City company worth some $20 billion, owns 20% of the racetrack, but the developer has angered the mayor and that is a no-no in this city. (See Yoon, Sam) Menino is right on this issue, but he is inviting gambling interests into Boston and in the future he can expect to be partners with much more unsavory characters than this.

***Brian McGrory's column from earlier this week discusses the positions state leaders have staked out on casino legislation and his suggestion to solve the impasse.

***Dan Rea's radio program Nightside was scheduled to have guests for and against casino gambling last night. I wasn't able to listen, but I'd be interested in what people thought of it. Thanks to Neighbors of Suffolk Downs for keeping us updated on such things.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

American companies starve people for profit

For most of the 20th century, DeBeers -- a company founded in South Africa by Europeans milking the benefits of colonialism -- controlled almost all of the world's diamond market and used it to great advantage. Diamonds aren't actually that rare, but by hording and locking up vast quantities, DeBeers realized that it was easy to keep the price artificially high. Once they were able to create the idea that diamonds are a symbol of love and that a man must present one to his future bride, billions of dollars began to pour in. "A diamond is forever," was a phrase cooked up by a marketing firm hired by DeBeers, and it was voted the best advertising slogan of the last century.

Wheat, on first glance, doesn't seem to have much in common with diamonds. The staple grain is grown by farmers around the world, and bread, in various forms, is basic of sustenance for people everywhere. One Wall Street firm apparently saw some similarities between the two. In a stunning article in this month's Harper's magazine titled "The Food Bubble," Frederick Kaufman writes about investment bank Goldman Sachs entrance into the grain futures market and how that led, in 2008, to huge price increases, food riots in more than 30 countries and tens of millions of starving people.

The irony is that, according to the story, "The wheat harvest of 2008 turned out to be the most bountiful the world has ever seen..." The bubble eventually burst, but not before Goldman made millions of dollars on the misery of desperate people around the world, and the price of wheat has never come back down to pre-bubble levels.

Diamonds are a luxury item, but people cannot survive without food, yet Goldman and other banks and investment companies are now buying and selling commodities futures to make themselves richer with no regard for the consequences to real people. I've often thought it outrageous that some people own vast swaths of land and multiple houses while others are homeless or live in shacks, but the manipulation of food prices for profit is even more clearly evil and should be unacceptable to everyone. However, it's happening right now -- in the name of free-market capitalism.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Snake oil

A cap has apparently been lowered on the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and BP says that there are tests that need to be done to determine its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, one of the aspects of this story that is most infuriating is the collaboration between the oil giant and the US government to restrict the media's access to areas on the land and sea affected by the spill. CNN's Anderson Cooper was justifiably angry about the policy announced on July 1 that could result in fines or prison time for anyone who comes within 65 feet of a boom or vessel working on the spill.

Despite the "safety and security" rationale, this is clearly an attempt to limit images and stories that would shed more bad light on BP. Putting a corporation's interest above the right of the American people to get information is unconscionable and clearly violates the First Amendment.

The image above is an Associated Press photo of a dead turtle in a pool of oil. I found it at a blog that has collected some images of the devastation caused by the leak -- images that are generally being kept from Americans.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An American classic

Fifty years ago today, Americans were introduced to Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch, as well as Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, in the pages of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Today it is one of the most widely read, widely taught and widely loved books ever written. The 1962 film, with Gregory Peck (in photo, with Mary Badham as Scout) as Atticus -- the upstanding small-town Southern lawyer who defends an innocent but sure-to-be-convicted black man -- has also gone a long way toward ensuring the story's enduring popularity.

I was assigned Mockingbird as a freshman in high school, and it was the first time I'd read something where I wanted desperately to meet the characters. It also was the first time that I'd read faster and faster in the middle of the novel -- because I was so interested in the story -- but then slowed down toward the final pages, as I didn't want the magic to end. Mockingbird made me want to write.

Harper Lee, now 84, never wrote another novel, and published only a few small items in the last five decades. Someone -- I can't find the quote now -- once commented on the Pulitzer Prize winner's dearth of writing after her wildly successful debut, saying that Lee put the truth so clearly and absolutely on the page that she never needed to write another word. Here is one piece of that truth, as Atticus speaks to his children: "...before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reality in Afghanistan

Five Afghan soldiers were killed Wednesday when a NATO air strike mistook them for the enemy, and so America's war in Afghanistan under a newly appointed general continues as it had under the previous few -- not a complete disaster, but certainly a distressing failure. GOP chairman Michael Steele's latest firestorm-inducing comments that the Afghan War is "not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in" was ludicrous, but the other part of his statement on the subject -- that it is "a war of Obama's choosing"-- is only partly off base. The president may not have chosen to invade Afghanistan, a decision made by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but after a methodical review last year Obama ordered an increase in troops, shaking off the advice of Vice President Joe Biden -- a man he'd in theory added to the ticket for his extensive foreign policy experience.

Obama should have known better. While it's true that politically he would have been excoriated if he'd rejected General McChrystal's request last year for more troops and instead initiated a withdrawal, it was the right thing to do and that should always take precedence over the politics. US forces have been in Afghanistan for nine years and now there is no easy way out. The Taliban are going to come back -- they are there now and they will be everywhere in Afghanistan as soon as the American troops leave. I certainly don't want them in power; I don't want them shutting all the girls' schools and enforcing their theocracy. However, the US cannot stay there forever.

What we needed to do back in 2001 was to set a clear goal, accomplish it and pull out. Our military, along with the Afghan enemies of the Taliban known as the Northern Alliance, took the capital of Kabul in just five weeks. We pushed the Taliban out of power and we retaliated for 9/11. At that point the US should have left victorious, but instead our government leaders decided that we could build a democratic nation from scratch. The vision of the world guiding our political leadership of the time was "American exceptionalism," which holds that we are somehow better than everyone else. Such thinking led us into two wars at the same time, one of which we initiated completely. As a result we have thousands of dead American soldiers, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans, and a government even more in debt at the worst possible moment.

I recently saw a documentary of the Afghan War called "Restrepo," which follows a platoon of US soldiers who spend a year at a small forward base in the Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The guys spent most days getting shot at and then taking their anger out on the nearby villagers. In the end our soldiers pulled back from the valley without building the road they'd promised the locals. Sebastian Junger, who co-directed and shot the movie and wrote a book, "War," based on his time with the troops, writes in Vanity Fair magazine, "By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart." Historian and writer William Dalrymple, just back from Afghanistan, says, "The war has lost all semblance of shape or form." One Afghan elder told Dalrymple, "The Americans know that this war is lost. It is only their politicians who pretend they can win it."

It's time to stop pretending.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Coming soon to a racetrack near you

Suffolk Downs today released a preview of its plans for a resort-style casino on the East Boston/Revere line. Note that elderly folks with oxygen tanks and children left in cars are missing from the attractive drawing.

Image from David M. Schwarz Architects via

Monday, July 5, 2010

'A false jackpot'

A few excerpts from an editorial in yesterday's New York Times on the "delusions" that some have about casino gambling:
Gamblers aren’t the only ones prone to jackpot delusions. Politicians all over see casinos as magic revenue chests that will help them avoid painful spending cuts, escape the trap of no-tax pledges and make budget gaps vanish.
Casinos are a magnet for tainted money and promote addiction, crime and other ills.
The state’s politicians should also stop chasing gamblers. At a time when casino revenue is slumping across the country, it doesn’t even make economic sense. They need to make hard decisions on taxes and spending, and focus on developing stable industries, improving education and working their way to growth. If they keep holding out for a false jackpot, everyone will lose.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

'The consent of the governed'

On this Fourth of July, a key excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
--In Congress, July 4, 1776

Friday, July 2, 2010

Leaping without looking

As the state legislature comes together to hash out a final bill that would bring casinos to Massachusetts --the Senate passed its version last night -- here are a few myths that need to be discussed:

Myth #1: It's a jobs bill.

Just because a proposal creates jobs, it isn't primarily "a jobs bill." The Iraq War created jobs in the military, but the authorization for the use of force passed by Congress was not "a jobs bill." A bill to increase border security in the Southwest would create more Border Patrol agents, but it isn't "a jobs bill." Let's call things what they are instead of cloaking them in catchy and misleading slogans.

Of course, some jobs will be created -- some short-term construction jobs and some long-term jobs in the casino and its other businesses. Most of those will be low-paying jobs -- for example, black-jack dealers, which a magazine recently called one of the 20 worst jobs in America, with an average salary of $16,000. A family of two living on that salary would qualify for food stamps and other benefits. While the casino reaps profits, you and I will be paying the social costs.

Myth #2: Suffolk Downs is a sympathetic local business.

Suffolk Downs principal owner is Richard Fields, chairman of Coastal Development, which "finances and develops resort properties, entertainment venues, and casino gaming facilities," according to the company web site. He's not a local guy here to help the community; he is a multi-millionaire who sees a chance to make more millions, money that will go from the pockets of working people and into his bank account -- instead of local restaurants and stores.

How are Suffolk employees treated? Some of the people who currently make their living at the track are jockeys, groomers, trainers and stable hands. Unfortunately, it appears that Fields doesn't think they deserve medical care that's as good as the horses get, so the group Boston Health Care for the Homeless comes by the track two mornings a week to check out broken bones, bites, bruises and other hazards of the trade.

Myth #3: A casino will benefit city and state government.

In testimony last year before the Florida legislature, Earl Grinols, a professor at Baylor and a gaming expert, said that "costs to the government resulting from casino gambling is three dollars for every dollar generated by the activity."

Don't take his word for it. Look at comments from two people who've served as mayor of Ledyard, Conn., the town that hosts Foxwoods:

Mayor Wesley Johnson: "I've become very cynical about this operation ...There has been no economic development spin-off from the casino."

Mayor Susan Mendenhall: "You have no idea how much [the casino] has cost our town ... millions, and it is on the backs of taxpayers."

I'm not saying I have all the answers -- or any of them. I'm just saying that building a casino right here in East Boston could have sweeping consequences, and before the legislature passes a final bill and the governor signs it into law there should be a comprehensive, independent study of the issue.

For our elected officials to lurch forward without doing so is nothing less than dereliction of duty.