Letter to the Somerville Board of Aldermen re: 11 Fiske Ave

To the Board of Aldermen:
The Somerville Board of Aldermen must balance the big picture needs of our city, our region, and our planet on the one hand, and the minutiae of individual neighborhoods on the other. At the biggest macro level, we have a climate crisis that we should respond to by encouraging transit-oriented, rather than car-oriented, living patterns. We have a regional housing crisis demanding more housing, especially near transit nodes. And we have a city that needs taxpaying residents and workers to continue to fund its ongoing operations.
Last night, at a community meeting about a small project, I saw a small group of neighbors standing up to oppose all of those things. “You people,” said one of them, pointing at the only person of color in the room, a man representing a business based in Somerville, “come into our city, and build things that look like projects, and ruin what we have.” The “we” in this statement was about twelve white property owners over the age of sixty. “This neighborhood has never changed,” she continued. “It has always been like this. And I don’t like the changes that are happening in my city.”
“Not in my yard,” said another, demanding that detailed professional snow removal plans be written into the building’s condominium documents, and asking for a third-party specialist to determine whether shadows would cause structural damage to his walls.
The participants imagined that workers would vandalize their homes in retaliation for parking tickets; they imagined that pickup trucks would be too large to fit down their narrow street; they imagined that the residents of their street who were minorities agreed with them even though they were not present and hadn’t been asked; they imagined that a slight change in lighting would cause mold which would destroy their siding. They could not imagine a neighbor who did not own a car.
When I spoke up to note that transit oriented development is better for the world and for our community, I was told “go back to Prospect Hill.” Living as I do just a five minute bike ride away, I was deemed an outsider with no stake in the matter, trying to apply out-of-touch abstract principles to support greedy developers.
I go to a lot of these community meetings. At most of them, I see older, whiter, wealthier residents opposing all kinds of changes for all kinds of reasons. But this meeting was the most explicitly racist one I’ve been to. I am ashamed that I did not push back harder against the racism and xenophobia I witnessed last night.
I hope that the board will acknowledge that the concerns of the dozen or so opponents of the project are based entirely on irrational fear of change, and that they will allow a totally normal, entirely reasonable project to move forward.
Aaron Weber

Boston Property Brothers

HGTV is more popular than CNN these days, which got me thinking that we don’t have a really good Boston-focused shelter show. And that’s weird, because Boston’s huge in the entertainment biz these days. You can’t have a reality TV show without a Boston contestant, and you can’t go to the movies without tripping over some gritty Boston whatever.

We’ve got Wahlburgers and we’ve got The Town and (ugh) Patriot’s Day. We should have a show like Property Brothers or Fixer Upper, but, you know, Boston-ified.

Like, a couple goes apartment shopping. Their goal is a 2 bed, 2 bath place near transit with room for their dog. They get a room in an illegal boarding house, no pets allowed except bedbugs. It’s “near transit” in that the commuter rail goes right by the back door, but it’s a 2-mile walk to the station.

A couple starts a renovation. The Casey Affleck character from that Dunkin Donuts sketch is the contractor. He doesn’t pull permits, starts demolition, and then disappears.

The inspector’s mother once had an affair with the contractor’s father. The inspector retaliates by nickel and diming every permit until the project is six months behind schedule and $70,000 dollars over budget.

In a Very Special Episode, the tile guy overdoses in a newly finished bathroom.

Someone wants to spend $500,000 on a light-filled condo with Beacon Hill charm. They get a basement studio in Brighton for just under $750,000. It looks good at inspection but turns out to require structural reinforcement and asbestos mitigation. Ultimately the only cosmetic improvement they can afford is buying an unframed movie poster. For The Town. At a yard sale.

Them Days Is Gone, Mickey

Last weekend we went down to Hartford to visit Megan’s family for a day, and Uncle Pete, now in his 80s and recovering from gall-bladder surgery, sat and talked with us a while about the old days. He met my father-in-law’s oldest sister when he was just back from the war in Korea. He was 21 or 22, working at a gas station, and she was 7 years younger, skipping high school to smoke cigarettes. When he met her parents, they were thrilled, because he had a job and wasn’t a drunk. They were married after her high school graduation, and he supported the family on wages from Gerber Scientific and so on.

Several times during the conversation, Pete shook his head and told my father-in-law “them days is gone, Mickey.” (Nobody else calls him Mickey.) Days when a fifteen-year-old girl could bring home a twenty-two-year-old boyfriend to meet the approval of her parents. Days when a man with a high school education and a bronze star could support a family on a single working-class wage. Days when Hartford was a manufacturing center and not just America’s filing cabinet.

Pete’s nostalgic, but he’s not trying to bring it back. Them days, he knows, is gone, and although we lost some good things it was mostly an upgrade.

And that’s why it annoys me to see much younger people like Mike Pecci so convinced that the good old days can be saved. Them days is gone, Mickey. Boston’s not a gritty scene anymore, Allston’s not a good place for underground punk shows, and you can’t make beer money printing zines.

Complaining about how things aren’t what they used to be is a grand tradition of course. In Boston it goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin complaining that pubs weren’t as cool as when he and the boys were plotting the revolution at the Green Dragon or the Bell-In-Hand. 0

But you can’t stop time. Places change and grow or fossilize and die.

Them days is gone, Mickey. Live in these days.

Construction Setbacks

Electrical was roughed in and some drywall was about to go up when we realized we needed better insulation on the exterior portions of the roof, and better sound insulation between our unit and the other half of the building. So, we’re holding off on putting walls up to put up better insulation. It’ll be a little extra, but not cripplingly expensive. And it’ll be worth it to have pipes not freeze and have some soundproofing between us and the neighbors.

Meanwhile, the structural engineer reported that one of the beams was sagging on the flat portion of the roof, so that needs to be reinforced. Fortunately that’s not going to be too expensive either.

The old water heater was suspect, and we got confirmation from the plumber this week that it’s as bad as it looked and needed to be replaced. This also isn’t going to be too expensive.

Of course, all the “not too much here, not too much there” is going to add up.

But I did find ceiling fans that look just as nice as the ones we had initially planned on, are still highly rated, and cost about $75 less each. So, that’s a nice savings.

Plus on our last site visit the contractor was joined by a friend of his who is a Buddhist monk, and he gave us his blessing. Apparently they know each other from back when our contractor was a monk for a few years. The stories from this house should be a novel.

The good kind of shingles

We found some exciting new leaks in the last rain storm, but the crew has fixed them very promptly. A guy came by in the rain on Sunday to put extra tarps down and stop the leaking, and they patched them more permanently once the weather cleared. We’ll have to replace that section of roof later anyway, but the patches should hold for now.

Shingles are starting to go in on the roof, and the two missing windows in the basement have been replaced with actual windows.

Today when I came by the house to meet with our plumber/HVAC guy, a neighbor out walking her dog stopped us to say they were very impressed with the work the crew had done so far, and also with how they’d been careful not to get construction debris on anyone else’s driveway/yard/street/etc. Tibet Construction: Your Neighbors Won’t Hate You.

The roof, the roof, the roof is actually in pretty good shape

So, we got some good news: The crew from Tibet Construction started on the roof, and the plywood under-layer is in great shape and doesn’t need to be replaced. Some of the joists are damaged and to have support sistered in, but not all of them, so that’s non-awful news.


We also began planning the basement repairs. It looks like we’ll need to dig up some concrete in the basement to get better drainage, but at that point we can apply waterproofing on everything and have a dry basement. We hope.

Kitchen planning is almost done. There are an innumerable number of fiddly little decisions, and also some big decisions. One of them is that there’s a closet/wall type thing we don’t much like. However, since we’re opening up so much of the space, we have to be careful to preserve some amount of lateral walls or the building will go all floppy. Basically, we have a loadbearing closet we want to shrink, and need to get a structural engineer to sign off on shortening it by about 18 inches. If we can do that, though, we can have a gloriously huge kitchen island.

Status Update: Permits and Planning

Priority one on the Summit House is fixing the exterior before winter comes. After a few hassles and delays, we now have a permit and construction should begin any day now. We’re going with a light gray CertainTeed Carriage House shingle on the mansard roof, and white trim. We’ll worry about painting the exterior in the spring.

Meanwhile, the planning on the interior is moving along. We’re still flip-flopping on a few things but the designs are approaching completion and we have a list of Completed Decisions. One of those decisions was to use a 30″ range rather than a 36″ cooktop and wall ovens. Even as much as we love cooking, the giant cooktop isn’t that helpful. And if we find we’re short a burner once or twice a year we can always go for a portable one that plugs in.