Whitcomb: Cities Should Seek ‘Organic’ Development; Lethally Drug-Peddling; Pit Bulls

Monday, October 30, 2017


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Robert Whitcomb

"All in November's soaking mist
We stand and prune the naked tree,
While all our love and interest
Seem quenched in the blue-nosed misery."

-- From “The Diehards,’’ by  Ruth Pitter


The Worcester Telegram ran a boosterish editorial on Oct. 22 about its downtown renaissance.


Among its points, which Providence folks should remember:


“{E}xisting buildings are also being transformed. As opposed to large, government-driven urban renewal projects that once cut off entire neighborhoods and laid waste to broad swaths of midcentury Worcester, what we’re seeing now is different. It’s different in the number of independent private developers, all seeing opportunity here and now, who in their own ways are driving a renewal of the city.’’


“This isn’t some giant urban renewal project. It’s an organic renewal.


“Organic in that so many developers have discovered opportunity here. But a renewal that is far from accidental. It’s not happening on its own. It’s a product of what came before, and of city leadership in both the public and private sectors.


“The fact that all this development is not reliant on a single, large developer or a giant government project, as has happened before and elsewhere, may be its greatest strength. That so many individual developers, all with a vision and a belief in the city’s future prospects, and with the resources and willingness to put those resources at risk, is the sort of development that drove the emergence of Worcester into an industrial giant. Failure by any single developer doesn’t doom the entire enterprise. ‘’


In other words, don’t depend on a few big developers, or one big company  moving in (e.g.,  Amazon), to turn your city around. Diversify your economy,  fix the city’s physical infrastructure and improve the schools. Companies come and go, with a moment’s notice.




On the attempts by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency to suppress staff scientific opinion on global warming, including its deleterious effects on the ecology of Narragansett Bay (lethal algae blooms, disappearing salt marshes etc): What else could you expect from a regime beholden to the fossil-fuel industry?


Whatever administration follows Trump’s will have a hell of time filling  all the EPA offices once inhabited by scientists who have felt compelled to quit an administration that has shown so little respect for science. Long-term damage indeed.




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The Sackler drug-fortune family, whose total wealth is estimated at around $15 billion, recalls the over-the-top Balzac line that “behind every great fortune is a great crime.’’  Theirs was to help create the opioid epidemic.


The Sacklers are the status-obsessed clan that puts its name in large letters on bronze and other fancy signs announcing members’ gifts to already rich museums and colleges and universities to affirm their membership in the social/mercantile aristocracy. Most of their money comes from their closely held company Purdue Pharma, which hugely hyped their painkiller OyxContin to physicians and patients. Purdue lied that the opiate was remarkably safe.  No. It's a menace.


The  company’s outrageous marketing of OxyContin has led to massive addiction and the overdose deaths of many thousands of people.


Even before OxyContin, Arthur Sackler, one of the three brothers who bought then tiny Purdue Pharma in 1952 and then built it up in a vastly profitable behemoth, heavily and misleadingly promoted the glories of the benzodiazepine Valium when he was an ad man. Valium is also very addictive and potentially lethally dangerous. What an innovative family!


From the start, the family-held firm’s secrets to success have included (as with some members of Big Pharma) its relentless pushing of its products to physicians, with junkets to fancy places, paying doctors big fees to give very short speeches and other perks that some might simply call bribes in the world’s most avaricious health “system.’’


Instead of showing off its money with well-advertised contributions to institutions catering to the elite, the Sacklers would do far better to set up a nonprofit chain of drug-rehabilitation clinics to address the vast damage that they have done.


In a weird way, New Englanders have seen this sort of money-laundering before, when the “China Trade’’ of the late 18th and early 19th centuries earned fortunes from opium sales. Some of it ended up in (what are now called) Ivy League colleges and other prestigious institutions. Opiates forever!




Hospitals are giant Petri dishes of microbes. Let’s hope that Memorial Hospital, in Pawtucket, is fully decontaminated after it’s closed as an inpatient facility sometime soon.




President Trump was quite right when, in a presumably  sincere call to extend his condolences, he told the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed on a mission in Niger, that “he knew what he was signing up for.’’ That reminded me of the question of whether an all-volunteer military is fairer,  more militarily effective  and healthier for a democracy than one that includes the draft. I think we need some kind of national service to help knit together our fragmenting country.




Kudos to all those involved in getting T.F. Green Airport on Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s list of the best  10 airports in America; it was graded at Number 9 and called a “great little airport.’’


Things should get even better as a newly extended runway enables the airport to attract much-overdue direct flights to the West Coast as well as more flights to Europe. In a few years, it might be called just “a great airport,’’ without the adjective. Now if we could just increase MBTA train service to the airport to keep car congestion around the airport under control as Green increasingly prospers.




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Two pit bulls killed a seven-year-old boy Oct. 21 in Lowell. Attacks on people by pit bulls are common. They’re aggressive and muscular dogs with very strong jaws. In some urban neighborhoods, they’re often kept by young men eager to display how tough they (the young men) are; the same as brandishing guns. And sometimes these dubious “pets’’ are kept to help guard drugs and drug dealers.


It is not the dogs’ fault that their physical strength,  their breeding and (often) their training to be aggressive make them so dangerous. But it’s past time to ban them from urban neighborhoods.


Pit bulls are generally seen as including the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and American bully. They have been bred to bite and hold their victims.


After some pit-bull attacks, Lowell tried to stem the menace in 2011 by requiring the dogs to be spayed or neutered and muzzled and leashed when off owners’ property.  But the Massachusetts legislature, prompted by owners of these breeds denouncing this  quasi-racial “discrimination,’’ barred cities and towns from enacting breed-specific ordinances.


With the latest horrific attack, Lowell officials are again demanding that pit bulls be brought under control. Meanwhile, owners who fail to properly control these sometimes murderous beasts must face severe criminal-law punishments.





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Paper Nautilus

All hail Paper Nautilus (a descendent of Myopia Books) for finding a new location near its old one at Providence’s Wayland Square. Landlord Ken Dulgarian kicked it out of its old venue; presumably, he thought that he could charge a higher rent to another sort of business. This used-book store is a treasure trove of serendipitous discoveries.


With Books on the Square, which mostly sells new books, in addition to Paper Nautilus, Wayland Square is the epicenter of book culture in metro Providence. It used to be on Thayer Street, before Mr. Dulgarian closed the College Hill Bookstore.





I love print magazines.  The way you turn the pages like a book. That the quality national magazines have fine contextual writing,  superb photography and other illustration and spiffy design.  (Indeed, the position of art director is very important in major magazines.) The way that they’re much more portable and neater than a broadsheet newspaper. And that you look at them with reflected light makes it easier to read long articles in them than reading such text on a screen. Like a book.


The four-color photography, strong design  and expensive slick paper have been particularly important in maintaining the popularity of upscale specialty magazines such as  for fashion and travel – the major reason that some of those magazines continue to thrive. Ads look their best in such formats.


As a kid I used to look forward to the arrival late each week of a slew of magazines --- Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, Business Week, the National Geographic and even for a few years the Illustrated London News (which still ran black and white photos showing the damage done by Nazi bombers in London). These magazines were a joy to peruse.


Later on, when working in New York  as an editor at The Wall Street Journal, I wrote for various magazines, usually travel stories but also how-to pieces and spot news, for extra money. While the monthly magazines understandably have relatively leisurely, if far from stress-free production schedules, the weeklies, particularly such news magazines as Life, Look, Time, Newsweek and Business Week, had high-pressure and even bizarre schedules. The first two days of the week were rather relaxed in their high-rise, high-tension headquarters, but the pressure built as the late-Friday deadlines approached. Editors and writers would put in 12-hour-days or more on Thursdays and Fridays.


Once the magazine was “put to bed,’’ after many cigarettes and much coffee had been consumed, there was a very unhealthy, if joyous habit of descending on midtown Manhattan bars to get hammered.


My late friend Harry Anderson, a high-level editor at Newsweek, used to tell me that the staff there did about 75 percent of the  week’s work in the last 12 hours before the magazine (or “book’’ as the magazine staffs call it). He died in his forties of a heart attack.


Of course, magazines are fading. Google, Facebook, et al., gobble much of the advertising revenue; news can be published instantly on the Internet, and media publishers decide that they don’t want to spend money on paper and physical distribution of their products. So the number of  national magazines is falling and virtually all of the surviving ones are much thinner than they used to be.


Some are becoming just Web sites and famous editors, such as  the famed Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter  as well as the editors of Time, Elle, and Glamour, have recently been leaving their jobs, not wanting to preside over their publications’ accelerated decline. And Jann Wenner will sell his controlling stake in the often interesting if often irresponsible Rolling Stone.


Still, it’s hard to think of  a more pleasant reading experience than that offered by a good magazine. Let us hope that some of the best will survive, like recreational sailboats after steam ships and the internal-combustion machine came in. But magazines will  increasingly be boutique operations and they’ll be harder to find, as I discovered the other week at Books on the Square, in Providence, which has taken away its magazine rack. Very sad.


To read a  recent New York Times article on the fading away of magazines, please hit this link:






The Sunday New York Times Style section (why the Style section?!) ran a story headlined “Exit the Expressway” (the headline has since been updated) about cities looking at tearing down some of those huge highways that were plowed through cities and parks in the construction heyday of the Interstate Highway System and states’ new-road projects.


In many towns and cities these highways rent the urban fabric, cutting off neighborhoods from each other even as they encouraged suburban sprawl. The Times’s story focuses on the Scajaquada (!) Expressway, aka New York State Route 198, in Buffalo. Its construction in the early ‘60s tore the lovely Delaware Park in half. Similar stuff happened in other cities during the orgasmic phase of the Automobile Age.


Now there’s a plan to convert at least part of the expressway into a lower-speed boulevard.  It recalls proposals to turn the infamous 6/10 Connector in Providence into a boulevard.


Removing expressways has worked elsewhere, perhaps most successfully with downtown San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, whose removal helped reenergize the city’s waterfront and led to a real-estate boom in the area.


Of course, another way to help repair the damage done to cities, and especially downtowns, by expressways is to put them underground, as was done with Boston’s infamous Central Artery in the Big Dig.  The Central Artery’s roof is now a park. Unfortunately, there’s far from enough money to a do a similar project with Route 95 in Providence, which creates a fearsome barrier through the middle of the city. But we can dream….


But what does seem likely is that changes in lifestyles, economics, and environmental considerations will prevent a recurrence of the expressway- building boom of the ‘50s through the ‘70s. For one thing, we have a much stronger appreciation now of the need to preserve neighborhoods and to reduce our dependence on cars. Further, young people especially (say 35 and under) drive less than their parents and many of them much prefer cityscapes to suburbia; indeed they're turning parts of suburbia into places that look like walkable cities.


To read The Times’s article, please hit this link:





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Senator Ted Kennedy, 1962

I’m looking forward to reading Donald Frederick Nelson’s book CHAPPAQUIDDICK TRAGEDY: Kennedy’s Second Passenger Revealed (Pelican, 191 pages, sold in bookstores and online), in which he argues that there was a third person in the car that then Sen. Edward Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge on July 18, 1969, drowning  young Kennedy aide Mary Jo Kopechne and, as it turns out, probably dooming Kennedy’s presidential ambitions.


Mr. Nelson, a retired physicist who lives in Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard, and Worcester, argues that Ms. Kopechne had climbed into the back seat of Kennedy’s car after some heavy drinking at a Kennedy party in a house on Chappaquiddick Island, the easternmost part of the Vineyard, and passed out, unbeknownst to Kennedy and another Kennedy “boiler room girl,’’ Rosemary (Cricket) Keough,  who was sitting in the front passenger seat.  When Kennedy drunkenly drove the car off the bridge and then, with Ms. Keough, escaped from the submerged car,  they had no idea that there was somebody in the back seat, Mr. Nelson argues. In any case, Kennedy and his many enablers then went on to do a fairly effective coverup.


I still remember vividly the guys in the un-air-conditioned (but with salt tablets!), smoky newsroom of the old tabloid Boston Record American, where I spent the summer of 1969 as a news clerk, showing far more interest in the Chappaquiddick scandal than in the moon landing, the Vietnam War and Woodstock that summer.  It was like something out of the movie The Front Page. Vividly sordid.





I’ve noticed that since Trump started running for president he seems to have maintained enthusiastic support around here among many people with Italian names who write letters to the editor -- no matter what he says or does.


Why? One theory is that Italian Americans tend to own small businesses. Perhaps Trump’s promises of regulatory and tax relief to these businesses is alluring. Or perhaps there’s the cultural element of liking someone who presents himself as hyper-macho, or at least really tough. Whatever the reason, it’s interesting.




In some neighborhoods these days, Halloween decorations outdo Christmas ones, in size and creative kitsch. It’s as if Halloween monsters serve as distractions from the world’s real ones. It has also long since become a bacchanal of candy consumption, a holy day (well, night) for future beneficiaries of the American Diabetes Association.


Thus a Christian event (the eve of All Hallows Day) has become more of the kind of pagan festival (originally to mark the harvest?) that is believed to have been the origin of Halloween. What goes around, comes around. But then, it’s increasingly difficult to see Christmas as it’s now practiced as mostly a “Christian holiday’’ either.


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%

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When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%

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Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%

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Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%

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Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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