Earth to Tom Mountain

Mission Control Houston: Earth to Major Tom ... Earth to Major Tom .... Come in, Major!

Major Tom: (Garbled Shouting)

Cape Canaveral: We just had him ... he was coming in so clear!

Mission Control: This happens almost every week ... clear as a bell one minute, then launches into deep space the next.

Cape Canaveral: (Sigh) Another trip to the lunatic fringe ...

Readers of the Newton Tab can probably figure out what I'm getting at: Tom Mountain's July 27 column, "Norman Swerling Deserves Better."

Swerling, as practically everyone in Newton now knows, was the Newton drivers education teacher who was accused of sexually assaulting one of his students. A week or so ago, he was found innocent of all charges. Now he is in a struggle with the city to get back his teaching job, and back pay while he on unpaid administrative leave from his job pending the outcome of the case.

Mountain's column points out that Swerling has been seriously wronged not only by the false charges of the case, but also by school administrators who are dragging their feet rehiring him, compensating him, and apologizing. Mountain argues these points quite well. But then, he delves into the issue of how Swerling's teenaged accuser should be treated, and goes completely off the deep end:

In early colonial times, such a lying accuser would have been dragged to the Newton town common, put on public display in the stocks, pelted with refuse by an angry public and then banished forever from the community.

If only that option were open to us now.

Say what!? When I saw this last line, at first I laughed, but then I paused -- this isn't tongue in cheek -- or at least it doesn't seem that way. Could Mountain be serious?

Maybe not, but the damage has already been done. It's a pity, because his column was lucid up to that point, and had a chance to win over some readers to his point of view.

And he has only himself to blame. As I pointed out in an earlier post, only a minority of Tom Mountain columns are good. The rest are flawed. Many bad Tom Mountain columns are based on bogus or poorly researched premises. Others some start out on solid footing but descend into ill-informed bombast, hyperbole, bigotry, or, like this example, tasteless comments.


Old School: The Barn Shoes

Long-time residents of Newton know that when you want quality shoes or sneakers sold for reasonable prices, you don't head to the mall or shopping center.

You head to The Barn.

The Barn is an invisible institution. It's in a nondescript, old red brick warehouse in a back lot off Washington Street in West Newton that you can't even see from the street. Yet anyone who lives in Newton for a few years years seems to find out about the store, through word of mouth or local advertising. I've been going to the Barn since the 1970s, and my mother, father, and now my wife swear by it. I know I will take my kids there for sneakers or skates when they get old enough to start sports.

You get to the Barn by driving down Washington Street, and looking for the sign about 100 feet west of the National Guard Armory. Once you walk past the front doors into the air-conditioned interior, it's a clean shoe store that smells of leather and new clothes. Women's shoes are off to the right, men's to the left, and children's goods and athletic gear in a separate one-story building. The shoes are all established manufacturers, not no-brand Chinese knockoffs (although they do have a good clearance section, which my wife loves to peruse).

Besides price and quality, there is also the service issue. Ask a question about foot width a mall shoe shop and you'll most likely get a shrug. Not at the Barn: staff there really know their stuff. They can answer questions about the best pair of leather work shoes for winter, or what type of jogging sneakers you should get if you are flat-footed. I asked just such a question last night when shopping for running shoes, and the two people that helped me correctly pointed me to stability shoes and motion-control shoes. When I was at the Discount Show Warehouse in Shopper's World three days earlier, I couldn't even find a salesperson.

If you haven't been to the Barn before, make a point of going there the next time you want to buy shoes. It's located at 25 Kempton Place, West Newton (near the Armory on Washington Street), and is open from 9 to 9 on weekdays. Telephone: 617 332-6300.


Waltham and the Mass DOE "school choice" program

Interesting stats from the Mass Department of Education Page. The "School Choice" program, which lets students go to school in a different school district, has been taking a handful of Waltham students each year to other school districts, at a cost to the city of about $5,000 per student. Last year just four students took advantage of the program, at a total cost of $20,000, compared to 66 students in 1996, which cost the city almost $400,000.

Where do they go? Unfortunately, the DOE website stats do not break out which districts are receiving Waltham students. However, if it's a neighboring school district, it's probably Belmont, which currently receives about 50 students from other districts.

Newton, Weston, Lincoln, and other neighboring districts have never received students under the program. School districts have to opt in, which these three districts declined to do ... maybe because so many Waltham parents would try to transfer their kids in?

Belmont, on the other hand, may have had different demographic pressures to contend with -- with housing prices squeezing out young families and school populations falling, they may have decided to let in a few dozen kids from neighboring towns. Under the program, districts cannot discriminate against kids from a certain town by denying entrance, but they can close the doors on the program entirely if they don't have space, which Belmont has done.

Learn more about the program on the DOE website.


Kudos to the Waltham Shopper; Questions for Sally Collura

(Borderline has apologized for most of the points raised in this post. Please see the follow-up post.)

I like the Waltham Shopper. I really do. It's not a real newspaper with breaking or current news, but it is a good source of community happenings, local business advertisements, and classifieds. Everyone in Waltham as well as a few thousand households in Newtonville and Weston get it every week. I attended the Waltham Police Citizens Academy four years ago, thanks to an ad in the Waltham Shopper, and it was a great experience.

But I am not so sure I trust the publisher of the Waltham Shopper, Sally Collura.

There are two reasons for this:

1) She is a Waltham City Councillor, yet she accepts many thousands of dollars every year from real estate companies and local businesses who advertise in the Waltham Shopper. I have not examined her voting record, but I see this as a conflict of interest in issues that pit business interests against those of local citizens.

2) I have found evidence that some of the "filler articles" that she places in the Waltham Shopper is copied verbatim from the Internet, but is bylined as being written by herself. Here are a few examples from the article "The Tea Leaf," from the July 20, 2005 issue:

"The essence of the Japanese tea ceremony is harmony. Every move or every component about the ceremony brings out the serenity of the whole."

This sentence, and many others were copied from EasternTea.com's "Tea Ceremony" page.

And the following paragraph:

"Japan was introduced to tea by Yensei, a returning Buddhist priest residing in China at the time of the discovery. Tea was immediately embraced by Japanese society and resulted in the creation of the intricate Japanese Tea Ceremony, elevating tea to an art form."

... was copied word for word from a Canadian website called Pacific Friend.

While this type of filler article in the Waltham Shopper is interesting, it is wrong to claim that it's "By Sally Collura" when in fact someone else wrote it. In my book, politicians and publishers should give credit where credit is due, and shouldn't take a bow for someone else's work.

(Borderline has apologized for most of the points raised in this post. Please see the follow-up post.)


Good times and bad for the Newton Tab

The Newton Tab (which also has an online version) has had good years and bad. In the early part of this decade, it was going through a particularly bad spell in terms of content and focus. Reporters concentrated on stories emanating from City Hall and the Police Department, and the only people quoted seemed to be officials, their spokespersons, and representatives of various community groups. I remember one issue that managed to quote the same person from the Newton Taxpayers' Association for three unrelated articles. Ordinary, unaffiliated residents were seldom profiled or interviewed, and staff didn't seem to dig very hard for interesting stories or angles.

Things have changed in the past year or two, however. I can honestly say that currently each section of the Tab is an interesting read. Reporters and editors seem to go out of their way to find interesting stories about the community. The issue from two weeks ago had a great story about Mayor Cohen's chances in the next election, the end of Ladder 6, and a profile of a West Newton resident who owns a DeLorean, and a crime story involving a drunken teen driver. There's more: articles on bicycle use, the Fourth of July celebrations, and an interesting arts section with a great story about Japanese horror films. Then there are the old standby sections: community happenings, the police log, obituaries, etc. And of course, a letters and op-ed section which is always full of a range of opinions about issues affecting Newton.

But the Tab is not perfect. There is an article in this issue which I thought was mean-spirited and unfair to the Republican candidate for mayor, Markham Lyons. The article, which I believe was written by Bernie Smith, contains maybe a paragraph or two on the man's political platform, and two full columns detailing the ugly details of a dispute Lyons has with his ex-landlord. Lyons comes off looking crazy, and readers learn nothing new about his goals if he is elected, or what he thinks of the policies of Mayor Cohen and other candidates for mayor. I am interested in seeing how other readers react to this article.

Waltham police maps!

This is awesome. Someone sent me a link to a tool that takes crime data from the Waltham Police Department, and overlays it on Google Maps. The result is a map of Waltham that contains flags at the addresses where crimes were logged. You can see it here.

The person who sent it to me added this comment:

The Waltham feed is refreshed monthly. Users can also search by street and setup alerts to be notified when events happen on streets they wish to monitor.

This tool also lets you choose other municipalities to map crime locations, including a few in Massachusetts, but Newton is not one of them. On the other hand, the Newton Tab already offers a similar map every week in print (but not online).


Farewell Miss Waltham 1937

I've mentioned in previous posts how our borderline neighborhood is changing, and this month it will lose one of its oldest residents. Her husband built the house she now lives in, in 1940. That's right -- 65 years ago, before television, four-lane highways, the condo craze, and even before World War II, her husband, an electrical engineer, bought the lot, built the house, and moved in. With some foresight, he made it a two-family house, so they could get some extra income from renters.

I never knew the husband, but I have known her and several of her renters since we moved here. She was born in Waltham to parents who were immigrants from Italy, and once showed me with pride a black and white picture of her in a gown, with art-deco arches in the background -- "That's me, from 1937. I was Miss Waltham!"

She remembers fairs from her youth with dancing and other activities -- this would have been in the 1920s -- and also remembers details about our neighborhood that very few people still recall, such as which houses were built when she moved here in 1940, and the neighborhood ladies' get-togethers over tea or a movie or a shopping expedition to Moody Street or downtown. She knew the previous owner of our house, a Mrs. Alcott, an older woman who looked after her and talked with her about gardening. Mrs. Alcott kept a beautiful house; it had a white picket fence and a flagstone path and a maple tree and a driveway made of white crushed stone, all of which no longer exist because after she left a fireman moved in and removed the plants and tree and paved over the path and white driveway.

I wouldn't know this or many other details, but Miss Waltham 1937 still remembers them. She also remembers all of the neighbors who have moved away or died, and notes that there was a different sense of community. "I knew everyone back then. Up and down this street."

Not any longer. People moved on, she became too old to do gardening or have barbecues or go next door for a cup of sugar. I hate to say it, but people have changed too. Maybe it's because people move in and move out more frequently, or fewer people have kids or spend time outside, but I hardly know half the people on my street.

In any case, Miss Waltham 1937 is remarkably active for her age -- she has friends who take her out to dinner or music or shopping -- but she is lonely, too. Her husband has passed away, her sister is in a nursing home, and her friends from the neighborhood are gone or fading. So her daughter will come this month and move her into an apartment next to her's in Manhattan.

It will be a sad day for our neighborhood, even if few people will notice. On that day we will not only lose a friend, we will lose a link to the past of this community that no one can bring back. I am thankful I had a few years to know her, but will be sad when she leaves, and will regret not having a chance to ask her about the other places and people and details she remembers from Waltham and our neighborhood.

Farewell, Miss Waltham 1937.


Boston Globe writes a pro-newcomer story!

A few weeks back, I wrote about a trend in the Boston Globe that vilifies "newcomers" to old neighborhoods, often relying on sloppy research and stereotypes.

Well, I am pleased to see that the Globe actually printed an article that is sympathetic to one newcomer couple who moved in South Boston, and ran head-first into two of that neighborhood's most well-known problems -- parking and nepotism. When the condo-buying couple, Amanda and Marc Pezzuto, wouldn't grant their old-timer neighbors a parking easement, and guess who the neighbors ran to? Their nephew, City Council President Michael F. Flaherty!

Lo and behold, when the Pezzutos went to the Zoning Board of Appeal for a routine permission, the request was denied. Of course, Flaherty denies having anything to do with this, and istead got his pal Councilor James M. Kelly to claim he was the one who held up the permission.

Now, in most other communities, something like this would result in an investigation -- after all, you can't use "connected" relatives to make government work in your favor. But not in Boston. How much do you want to bet the Zoning Board of Appeals will have an unexplained change of heart, now that their dirty laundry is being aired in public? The Pezzutos will stop complaining to the media and officials, and the city councillors will be off the hook.

Waltham 4th of July fireworks

Almost everyone in our borderline neighborhood -- people from both Waltham and Newton -- go to the fireworks in Newton's Albermarle park, which is about 1/2 mile away, down Waltham Street to Crafts Street. The exodus of families carrying folding chairs and picnic kits starts moving out around 7:30.

As far as I know, we're the only ones in our immediate vicinity to go to the Waltham fireworks. It's not surprising why so few people from our area go to Waltham ... it's about two miles away (Leary Field, off Bacon Street), and parking within a half-mile of the field is impossible.

We settle for a space near Waltham Commons. It's comfortable, but the view of the actual fireworks is not great. Some of the higher rockets are easily seen, but the fountains and other smaller fireworks cannot be seen owing to trees and buildings.

We'll probably go to Albermarle, next year ...

Click here to get information on the 2006 Independence Day activities (including fireworks) in Newton and Waltham


Newton and the Metco program

Eighty percent of the time, Tom Mountain of the Newton Tab is way off base with his characterizations of Newton residents, Newton teachers, and history in general. He also never admits he's wrong, even when people (that is, letter writers to the Tab) bring up valid points or facts that he missed or failed to address in his original column. Judging by the focus of many of his columns, he is a resident of Auburndale, but I don't believe he grew up in Newton.

In any case, the other 20 percent of the time, he'll write columns that make observations that are valid, thought-provoking, and interesting. His recent Memorial Day piece on Newton residents who died in Vietnam was reflective and also indicated a fair amount of research, even if most of the research seemed to be in Auburndale.

This week, he talks about the Metco program. As usual, he doesn't dig too deeply into the history of the program, but he does ask a very important question: Why is skin color the main criteria of which Boston kids are allowed to attend Newton Public Schools through the Metco program? He says middle-class black kids and recent sub-Saharan African immigrants get a chance to escape Boston Public Schools for better opportunities in Newton, but poor kids from other backgrounds -- immigrants from Europe, or the children of working-class residents of Brighton -- are denied the same opportunity?

When I was attending Newton Public Schools in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metco program was alive and well. But I don't recall any debate about why black kids from Roxbury could come to school with us while white kids from Southie or Brighton couldn't. Then again, I was too young (at least in the 1970s) to be aware of the media debate, and I didn't live in Boston and see the effects of the Boston bussing crisis on friends, families, and neighborhoods. I am not even sure what the connection is between Metco, which I believe started in the 60s, and the bussing crisis, which unfolded in the mid 1970s. I did read "A Common Ground", by Anthony Lukas (a must-read account of the bussing crisis) but it only mentioned Metco in passing.

I think Mountain asks some pertinent questions about a program that was founded in a different era, and needs to be changed. I think if Newton schools are to take kids from Boston, the criteria should be income and individual family situations, not skin color.

Mountain's column is far from perfect, however. A few criticisms: He doesn't explore the history of Metco, doesn't identify what the admissions criteria are, doesn't talk with Metco organizers or cite Metco literature, and doesn't note that the demographic makeup of both Boston and Newton are far different now than they were in the 60s and 70s. He flames the "liberal" local supporters of Metco, without even asking who in Newton supports Metco, why they support it, and what their political affiliation is. He also seems to suggest that families with roots in Newton be given some preference, but I don't agree with that.

Mountain's column can be read at the following link: