June 2014

Cambridge, MIT, June 2014


mirror wall at mit  (sonya kovacic)

mirror wall at mit (sonya kovacic)

When the John Hancock Tower was completed in 1976, it was praised as an achievement in modern architecture. The building's reflective window panes – 10,344 in all – were designed to mirror the city's changing colors and weather patterns. It's been described as Boston's "architectural mood ring". 

The tower not only reflects the sky, but also its neighbors: the Trinity Church, the Copley Plaza, and Boston's two original John Hancock Buildings. Built in 1922 and 1947, the two "Old Hancocks" stand just across the street from the newer skyscraper. As architect Donlyn Lyndon explains:

"If you stand on the corner of Clarendon Street and St. James Avenue and look directly into the mirrored surface of the third Hancock, you will see reflected there the first two, aligned hierarchically in an ethereal family portrait."

Cambridge-based filmmaker Errol Morris has won dozens of awards for his documentaries, including an Oscar in 2004. His signature interview style – most recently seen in The Unknown Known – is due in part to a clever device involving two-way mirrors. He calls it the Interrotron.

June 2014, Boston Harbor


boston skyline at sunset, in june  (sonya kovacic)

boston skyline at sunset, in june (sonya kovacic)

It happens every June: Boston gets a lot roomier. The end of the school year brings a mass departure of students — and with over 250,000 in Boston and Cambridge alone, their absence makes a difference.

The student exodus does more than just free up the T. Many local businesses report a noticeable change during the summer months, especially those who serve the student population. According to The Boston Globe, examples include:


  • GrubHub's late-night orders (between midnight and 3.a.m) drop significantly — down nearly 15% on weekends.
  • Blanchard's Liquors in Allston sells less Budweiser, Miller Light, and Natural Ice (but sells more microbrews).
  • Allston's Stingray BodyArt does fewer tattoos — especially of song lyrics and scientific formulas.

Boston has a slate of festivals and events lined up for July and August: Jerkfest, Harborfest, Kitefest, Porchfest, Gospelfest, and more. One event to watch out for is Banditos Misteriosos' annual water-gun fight: location TBA.

Somerville, June 2014


 five union square donut holes (one eaten)  (sonya kovacic)

 five union square donut holes (one eaten) (sonya kovacic)

Dunkin' Donuts was founded in Quincy, and has since grown into one of the largest restaurant chains in the world. There are currently over 15,000 Dunkin's across the globe — and in Boston alone, you can find 40 within a 1-mile radius of Boston Common. It also has plenty of critics.

In 1997 (before the age of Yelp), one customer decided to air his grievances publicly. After getting fed up with DD's refusal to carry 1% milk, the 25-year-old teacher registered a domain and created his own website –  dunkindonuts.org.

The website was a forum for Dunkin' customers to share their gripes about the chain. It immediately took off. National media coverage helped increase traffic, and the site became so popular that it actually showed up above Dunkin' Donuts' official website on several search engines.

The chain took notice, and in 1998, purchased the domain for an undisclosed amount.

A Top Chef contestant serves her "Stacked Donuts" at one new location in Boston almost every weekend. This weekend, there are four.

Jamaica Plain, June 2014


window-thrift-shopping in jamaica plain  (sonya kovacic)

window-thrift-shopping in jamaica plain (sonya kovacic)

Here's a happy fact for penny-pinchers: Greater Boston is home to over 100 thrift stores and consignment shops, and at least one secondhand vintage truck.

Thrift shopping saves money, but also helps local nonprofits – for example, Goodwill provides vocational services for disabled people, 
Sister Thrift supports a nonprofit animal shelter, and Boomerangs raises over $1 million annually to support the work of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.

One store (The Garment District) gets an 850-pound delivery of clothing every day. If anything, it's a unique way to find a bargain.

Brookline, June 2014


voting line, brookline  (sonya kovacic)

voting line, brookline (sonya kovacic)

This year, gerrymandering turns 202: 

In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill to redraw the state senate voting districts. The new, oddly shaped districts were clearly rigged — all to benefit Gerry's political party (the Democratic-Republicans).

According to a political cartoon in the Boston Gazette, one of the districts resembled the shape of a curved salamander – it wrapped in an "L"-shape from Chelsea to Methuen around to the coastal town of Salisbury. It was captioned "The Gerry-mander."

The Gazette's cartoon was widely reprinted, and the term – used to describe the practice of manipulating political districts – was officially coined. 

Despite being a pivotal city in the United States' women's suffrage movement, Boston also produced the country's first anti-suffrage organization. The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (also known by its catchy acronym MAOFESW) was founded in 1895, and published a regular "anti" newsletter: The Remonstrance.

June 2014, South Boston Waterfront, ICA


reflection in jim hodges'  movements  at the ica   (sonya kovacic)

reflection in jim hodges' movements at the ica  (sonya kovacic)

One of the city's most famous self-portraits is a 380-year-old Dutch etching – the size of a postage stamp – that's been missing for almost 25 years:

On March 18, 1990, two men disguised as Boston police officers pulled off one of the largest art heists in world history. They took thirteen pieces of art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, valued at approximately $500 million. The stolen works included paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet; drawings by Degas; a Chinese vase; a French finial (the ornament that tops a flagpole); and a tiny, etched self-portrait by Rembrandt – sized at 2" x 1.75".

Curiously, the Rembrandt etching had been taken from the museum once before. It was stolen in 1970 — in the Gardner's only other major theft in its history. The portrait was returned and reinstalled a few months later, after being discovered on a New York City subway.

Currently, all thirteen works of art are still at large. The FBI is still working on the case, however, and announced just last year that they've identified the criminals involved.

The pop/soul band Lake Street Dive met ten years ago at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, and went viral in 2012 with a live performance on a Brighton sidewalk.

Their 2014 tour has already sold out, thanks to recent appearances on Letterman, Ellen, and the Colbert Report. Hear their new album's title track: Bad Self Portraits.

Cambridge, June 2014


cheese plate from formaggio kitchen  (sonya kovacic)

cheese plate from formaggio kitchen (sonya kovacic)

Leave it to Massachusetts.

In 1801, the town of Cheshire in Berkshire County created the most memorable (and peculiar) cheese block in American history. The story goes:

When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, the town of Cheshire (and Baptist minister John Leland in particular) wanted to honor him and his victory for the Republican Party. Leland decided to offer the president a unique gift: a 1,230-pound cheese made with milk from every cow in town. When it was complete, the cheese was then inscribed with Jefferson's motto: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

The cheese had to be transported over 500 miles to Washington, D.C., but it was too delicate to be carted on wheels. Consequently, it made the journey by sleigh, passing from town to town and gathering buzz as it moved along. Leland and the cheese successfully arrived in Washington later that year.

The cheese was officially presented to President Jefferson on January 1, 1802, and he graciously accepted. However, in accordance with his policy against gift-giving, the president paid Leland $200 (well over market price). Jefferson put it on prominent display at the White House and christened it the Mammoth Cheese (which, according to historians, is the first recorded instance of "mammoth" as an adjective).

The story of the cheese's disposal is unclear. It stayed in the White House until at least 1804, when it was described as "very far from being good". Some accounts mention the last of the cheese being served at a Presidential reception in 1805 – although other accounts claim that the last of the cheese was disposed of in the Potomac River.

For the cheese aficionado, Formaggio Kitchen offers classes on cheese, wine, beer, and general cooking. One class includes a tour of their cheese cave — or you can just start off with Cheese 101.

Chinatown, June 2014

mary soo hoo park

mary soo hoo park on the greenway  (sonya kovacic)

mary soo hoo park on the greenway (sonya kovacic)

From the 1960s to the early '90s, a major section of Downtown and Chinatown was known as the "Combat Zone". It was Boston's red light district — an area set aside for strip clubs, X-rated theaters, and adult bookstores. The neighborhood – centered on Washington Street – was notorious for drugs, prostitution, and violent crime.

One of the main causes for the Combat Zone's demise was grassroots activism by Chinatown residents, including a woman named Mary Soo Hoo. In 1961, Soo Hoo moved from Cambridge to Chinatown to open its first beauty salon. Over the next few decades, she started a family, helped found the bilingual Chinese-English newspaper Sampan, and opened the Chinatown Cafe on Harrison Ave. She also became a community leader and advocate — for neighborhood safety and affordable housing – and against the crime-ridden Combat Zone. Her work, along with many others, helped transform the neighborhood.

In 2011, Chinatown's park on the Greenway was dedicated in Soo Hoo's memory.

The small park's most notable feature is its xiangqi players. Also known as Chinese Chess, xiangqi is a strategic board game with pieces including the "general", "chariot", and "elephant". It's one of the world's most popular board games — but Mary Soo Hoo Park is one of the only places in Boston for a layperson to see it played.

In 2011, an amateur photographer captured the cigarette-fueled action on video. We don't know how to play (yet) — but the 2:20 mark might be a good place to start.

Charles River, June 2014

thin ice

a colder time, charles river  (sonya kovacic)

a colder time, charles river (sonya kovacic)

Joel: I think I heard a crack.
Clementine: It's not gonna crack, or break, or ... it's so thick. Show me which constellations you know.
Joel: Um... I don't ... know any.
Clementine: Show me which ones you know.
Joel: OK.

— Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The famous stargazing scene – pictured on the movie's poster – takes place on the frozen Charles River.

Although several people run or bike across the frozen Charles River every winter, ice skating is not allowed. Thanks to the Boston Public Library's photo archive, it's easy to understand why.

Beacon Hill, June 2014


payphones, boston common  (sonya kovacic)

payphones, boston common (sonya kovacic)

"Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you."

— Alexander Graham Bell, completing the world's first audible telephone call in 1876. The historic call was made in Bell's laboratory, on what is now Cambridge Street in downtown Boston.

Once Bell finalized the patent for his invention, he held a series of public demonstrations to show it off. In one example from May 1877, Bell held a lecture at the Boston Music Hall (now Orpheum Theater). He had two telephones on stage: one connected to Thomas Watson in Somerville, and one connected to the opera singer Pasquale Brignoli in Providence. Watson and Brignoli both performed for the Boston audience, including an aria (by Brignoli) and a cornet solo (by Watson).

By 1886, more than 150,000 American households owned a telephone. 

Today, over 150 million Americans own a smartphone, and there are more than 1 million apps in the iPhone App Store alone.

One noteworthy app was recently developed by Boston's Public Works Department. It takes citizen complaints (e.g., potholes, broken street lamps, anything that needs a quick fix) and sends it directly to a repair crew on the road.

Cambridge, June 2014

kendall square

galaxy: earth sphere  by joe davis, in kendall square  (sonya kovacic)

galaxy: earth sphere by joe davis, in kendall square (sonya kovacic)

In the 1960s, Cambridge's Kendall Square played a major role in the country's space program. Even though the city lost its bid for NASA's Mission Control Center in 1961, Cambridge became the headquarters for the agency's Electronics Research Center (ERC) two years later. In its six years, the ERC was involved in microwave and laser communications,  holography, and building computers for outer space.

The ERC was a controversial project from the start. By 1969, the center had constructed six buildings in Kendall Square and employed 850 people. This was after the demolition of dozens of businesses in the old industrial neighborhood, as well as millions of dollars worth of construction and land acquisition costs for the federal government. Despite protests from NASA officials, President Nixon ordered the center closed in 1970 during a round of budget cuts.

That same year, the Department of Transportation took over NASA's main building. Nearly 75% of the ERC's staff transferred to the new Transportation Systems Center (since renamed the Volpe Center), which is still active today.

Since the 1970s, Kendall Square has become Boston's technology hub. In addition to businesses like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, the neighborhood is also home to more startups per square mile than anywhere else in the world. It's also where you can visit the (now dormant) Entrepreneur Walk Of Fame, where sidewalk stars honor Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and more.

Brookline, June 2014, trees


tree silhouette, brookline  (sonya kovacic)

tree silhouette, brookline (sonya kovacic)

A city's tree canopy cover is the amount of its land covered by leaves, trees, and stems when viewed from above. It can be calculated to a percentage, and Boston's canopy (around 29%) is higher than the national average — as well as that of New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Boston has also started an campaign – Grow Boston Greener – which aims to grow the canopy cover to 35%. The initiative, launched in 2007, will help plant 100,000 new trees in the city by 2020.

The You Are Here project publishes one unique digital map every day. You can view their first six Cambridge maps online, including an interactive look at the city's street greenery.

Chinatown, June 2014


graffiti, chinatown  (sonya kovacic)

graffiti, chinatown (sonya kovacic)

The official beverage of Massachusetts is cranberry juice, and for good reason — the bogs in the state's southeastern region produce over 25% of the country's cranberries.

We may have also invented the most famous cranberry juice-based cocktail. Although there are competing claims, there is reason to believe that the Cosmopolitan was invented and popularized in Provincetown in the 1970s.

DigBoston just published a rundown of new bars and restaurants to watch out for this summer, including a brick-and-mortar version of the "juice truck" (and Kickstarter success story) Mother Juice.

Cambridge, June 2014


111 huntington avenue and the pru, from cambridge  (sonya kovacic)

111 huntington avenue and the pru, from cambridge (sonya kovacic)

"Guys, flat roofs don't make it."

— Mayor Thomas Menino, when a proposed design for 111 Huntington Avenue (the building next to the Prudential Tower) included a flat roof. The developers then presented the mayor with several other options, until he handpicked the signature rounded roof seen on the skyscraper today. Its unique look has earned it a nickname: Boston's "R2-D2 Building."

111 Huntington Avenue may soon be getting a new, taller neighbor. A proposed skyscraper in the Christian Science Plaza would be the city's tallest residential building.

June 2014, Cambridge


post office, cambridge  (sonya kovacic)

post office, cambridge (sonya kovacic)

At America's first post office, you could order a beer. In 1639, the Court of Massachusetts designated a tavern owned by Richard Fairbanks – located between what is now Washington Street and Devonshire Street near the Old State House – as the official mail drop for anything traveling across the Atlantic.

A few blocks away in the Financial District is Boston's famous Post Office Square. The square is home to the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse, as well as Norman P. Leventhal Park. The park runs a range of programming during the summer, including free music (including a Boston Crusaders show this Thursday), free fitness classes, and more.

Cambridge, June 2014


outside the brattle theatre, cambridge  (sonya kovacic)

outside the brattle theatre, cambridge (sonya kovacic)

The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square has been the place to see inventive and alternative entertainment for nearly 125 years. In its long history, it has become home to several peculiar Cambridge cultural traditions, including the Bugs Bunny Film Festival, and the Bogie Cult  — a decades-old celebration of the films of Humphrey Bogart.

It's also one of the only remaining movie theaters in the country with a rear-projection system. Almost all modern theaters project the film from the audience's side, but the Brattle's films are projected backwards from behind the screen.

This year, the Brattle welcomes Trash Night, which features "one F-grade, sub-cult cinematic wonder and unleashes it on an unsuspecting audience." Next up: CyberMutt.

Chinatown, June 2014

scratch tickets

discarded scratch tickets, downtown  (sonya kovacic)

discarded scratch tickets, downtown (sonya kovacic)

Scratch-off lottery tickets originated in Boston in 1972. As a way to increase lottery proceeds, John Koza and Dan Bower adapted the scratchable game cards used in grocery stores for the Massachusetts State Lottery. The scratch-offs were an instant hit in the city, and retailers quickly sold out.

The lottery is still huge in Massachusetts today. We spend almost $700 per capita on lottery tickets per year — the most in the country by nearly double.

About 20% of lottery revenue goes back to provide aid to Massachusetts cities and towns. This week, The Boston Globe introduced an interactive tool to measure how much each town spends and receives.

Downtown, June 2014


boston opera house, theater district  (sonya kovacic)

boston opera house, theater district (sonya kovacic)

Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F. Albee kickstarted the vaudeville craze in the United States with a chain of theaters across the country. Their first vaudeville theater opened in 1883 in Boston, which was followed by theaters throughout the U.S. The variety show remained one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country for decades, until it was replaced by the feature film.

Boston was also home to one of the last vaudeville venues constructed. After Benjamin Franklin Keith died, the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre was built in 1928 in his honor. The building was home to two vaudeville performances a day during its first two years. The building still stands today on Washington Street, having been renamed and repurposed as the Boston Opera House.

Vaudeville could be making a comeback – later this year, Boston will be getting a brand new vaudeville nightclub.

Charles River, June 2014

b.u. bridge

b.u. bridge, july 4  (sonya kovacic)

b.u. bridge, july 4 (sonya kovacic)

The BU Bridge is a Boston landmark – it's one of the only places on earth where a boat can sail under a train, driving under a car, driving under an airplane.

In the past few years, trains have actually been a rare sight over the river. The railroad bridge has been closed several times due to disrepair. It most recently reopened in June 2013, and is currently in use. It's a good thing, too – without the bridge open, trains have to be rerouted 108 miles outside of the city.

In 2012, photographer Madeline Drexler set out to document the BU Bridge throughout the year – and ended up with 36 different shots.

Cambridge, June 2014


alewife station, cambridge  (sonya kovacic)

alewife station, cambridge (sonya kovacic)

Where does the name "Alewife" come from? Well, it's a fish. The alewife is native to the Mystic River, which branches off in Arlington into the Alewife Brook (giving the MBTA station its name).

Legend has it that the fish was named for its large belly. Apparently, it evokes the physical form of an alehouse owner.

Wesley Ray Thomas has been entertaining commuters for the past 25 years — he's the man singing an aria by Alewife's escalator.