Oh, Littleton, Your Magic Charms Are All Around

I’ve spent plenty of time wandering the coastal towns of New Hampshire, so it was with no little fanfare that I recently journeyed up to the White Mountains to cast my gaze on these fine precincts.

Of course, New England has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quaint small towns and I’ve been to many in the course of my travels. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Littleton to find a flourishing and robust Main Street, a lovely river nearby (hat tip to the Ammonoosuc), a covered bridge, a new brewery, and a temple to all things saccharine.

What follows is my highly subjective and rather opinionated guide for the curious traveler to Littleton. Enjoy and feel free to use it in any season and for any reason.

A Saccharine Superlative


In your hometown, you might have a candy shop or two. Every town has one and some of them boast of a gargantuan gobstopper or a super sour tangy blue raspberry chew or two. But what about the World’s Longest Candy Counter? Only at Chutters, my friends.

Located front and center on Main Street, Chutters has something for everyone (yes, yes, sugar free candy as well) and the counter is a thing of wonder. You’ll want to take a few minutes to get your bearings by looking over the glass jars full with lemon-flavored sour candies, a cornucopia of sour brite crawlers, and other treats. Fudge is also represented here and samples are dispensed on request.

As an experience, it’s quite unique and it’s almost as much fun to talk to fellow travelers about what they are looking to find. During my visit, I heard one woman make a request for a certain type of circus peanut. I was under the impression there was only the one type of brightly neon orange legume, but yea, the folks at Chutters knew what she was talking about. Come on by, pick up a few treats, and keep on perambulating on Main Street.

Then for Opera, Now For Memories of the Past

This fine fortress of building is the focal point of Main Street and its four-story octagonal tower is a lovely architectural detail. Finished in 1895, the Town Building has always been multi-purpose, as it has housed town offices, courtrooms, and a splendid opera company. Peek your head in to see the grand hall here and then wind your way downstairs to the Littleton Historical Society.

It’s a modest display space, but oh what wonders you’ll learn about from first-hand accounts, historic items, and other such ephemera! Tales of the 1927 flood, a dramatic train-wreck, the construction of grand new hotels, and the flotsam and jetsam of the town’s history abound in the museum. They also have a number of fine items for sale in their gift shop and the volunteers are excellent sources of information on local dining and more.

New Beers in a Fine Old Building

Just a short stroll off Main Street, an 18th century gristmill building is the old and fine innovation nerve center for the Schilling Beer Company. This venture is the brainchild of John Lenzini and Jeff Cozzens who found themselves with a passion for fermentation that led them to this corner of the White Mountains.

The entire complex is an engaging and welcoming mix of brewery, performance space, and taproom. Looking over the Ammonoosuc River is a fine way to enjoy a beer and children are most welcome, which is a plus for folks traveling with young ones. First up is the beer, of course, and you’ll want to ask for a few samples to get started. On the food side of things the Neapolitan-style flatbreads are stand-outs, and you can also get a number of sandwiches and burgers on pretzel rolls. Overall, it’s a warm and welcoming place and you can find more details about their beermaking philosophy and their hours right here.

Sweet Treats On the Side of the Road

During your wanderings around Littleton, you’d do well to stop on by Bishop’s Homemade Ice Cream Shoppe. It’s been an institution in town for over 35 years and they continue to rack up the accolades from Yankee Magazine and other venerated publications for their creative and fun ice cream flavors. You can get stalwarts like vanilla here, but why not branch out into banana cream pie, apple & spice, or their divine orange pineapple frozen yogurt? Whatever you pick up, have a seat inside and enjoy that treat, or in warmer months, sit a spell on their expansive porch.

An Encounter With the World’s Most Optimistic Individual

When someone is described as having a Pollyanna-like attitude, we know them to be universally optimistic and cheery. We should all be so lucky and Littleton happens to be the birthplace of Eleanor Hodgman Porter, who conjured up this fictional character who simply would not let any of life’s challenges dampen her spirit.

The original book came out in 1913 and it spawned a raft of sequels, Broadway productions, and most notably, the Walt Disney film starring Hayley Mills. In 2002, Littleton decided to pay homage to the spirit of Porter and her most celebrated character with this most joyous and wonderful statue. Try out the pose, bring some friends into the mix and don’t forget to duck into the library, which has some lovely artwork and gorgeous interior spaces.

There’s much more to do in Littleton and you’d do well to consider their most complete and well-illustrated walking tour, which highlights other local gems, such as the Masonic Temple and the recently renovated Thayers Inn. Before your visit, feel free to reach out to the Littleton Chamber of Commerce for additional travel tips, information about upcoming festivals, and more.

Happy travels and enjoy Littleton!

Jim Vrabel talks about “A People’s History of the New Boston”


Conversations about the future of Boston should always involve a bit of meditation about the Hub’s past.  Author and community activist Jim Vrabel has been a key part of this conversation for decades and he recently penned "A People’s History of the New Boston". In this work, he documents some of the grassroots struggles across the city in the 1960s and 1970s, including the efforts to hold back the expansion of Logan Airport, the ongoing debate about the Southwest Expressway, and the ways in which court-ordered busing transformed Boston.

What is that distinguishes your work from other previous histories of Boston?

Most histories of Boston concentrate on the founding of the “City on a Hill” and the Revolutionary War era.  They include a little bit about the China Trade, the industrial revolution, and abolition, then talk about Boston’s decline in the first half of the 20th century and its rebirth in the second half.  They usually rely on the “first families” or “great man” approach to tell the story and highlight the bricks and mortar improvements to the city.  A People’s History of the New Boston focuses on the last sixty years of the city’s history, with flashbacks to previous eras.  It tells its story from the grass roots level and shows how “ordinary people” helped turn the city around in the 1960s and 1970s and make Boston a morally better and more humane place.

As we look around Boston, the middle class has largely abandoned the city sometimes by choice, sometimes because they had no choice due to housing costs and so on. Is there anything the city or state government can do to retain its middle class?

I don’t think the Boston has been abandoned by the “middle class” so much as it has allowed the “working class” to be driven out.  For some reason, we seem to want to ignore the various gradations of class in society and pretend that there are only the rich, the poor, and everyone else in the middle.  In the 1960s, as John Vitagliano says in the book, “Boston was more homogenous back then, the blue-collar aspect was the common denominator.  The racial thing didn’t matter as much. It was kind of on the side.”  And as I say in the book, cities – at least American cities – are supposed to be ladders of opportunity.  If government – federal, state and local – wants our cities to work, it’s got find ways to preserve the working class rungs on that ladder so those below that can climb it to better lives.

You speak quite eloquently about the late Alan Lupo. For those who might not know his work, who was he and what’s his greatest legacy to Hub residents?

Alan Lupo was a local journalist who, first at the Boston Globe and then at other media outlets, became the champion for working people in Boston’s neighborhoods who were fighting for social and economic justice. “Because I grew up in a family and in a neighborhood that had no voice,” he once wrote, “I have tried in some small way to be a voice for those whose feelings are too rarely heard, or even expressed.”  In the 1970s, Lupo anchored “The Reporters,” a nightly news and public affairs program on Boston’s public television station that set the gold standard for local reporting.  He continually and eloquently paid attention to people who had long been ignored by the powers-that-be, and, in doing so, helped them to empower themselves.

I think when most people think about community development, the missing word in the middle is “economic”. How can community development do more than just be focused around monetary matters? Or should it be?

I agree.  “Economic” is usually missing in that discussion, and it’s probably the most crucial word of all.  If we don’t concentrate on supporting the kinds of industries and creating the kinds of jobs that poor and working class residents can gain access to, then cities are doomed to become places for only highly-educated and high-paid employees and the poorly-educated and low-paid workers who serve and clean up after them.  Promoting blue collar jobs is also the kind of issue that unites, instead of divides, people.  As Mel King recalled, when he and Chuck Turner decided to expand their campaign for minority construction jobs to all Boston residents, “it was foolish to let them play us off against one another.”

The story of Mattapan’s dramatic transformation is one that might not be familiar to many new Boston residents. Could you say a bit about the community and the broader significance of its transformation from the 1960s to the present?

In the late 1960s, Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood was singled out for the well-intentioned but poorly-designed Boston Banks Urban Group program.  B-BURG flooded Mattapan with federally-backed mortgage money to promote minority home ownership.  But in doing so, it allowed unscrupulous real estate agents and banks to victimize both the largely Jewish population it drove out and the minority families, who moved in, but after being forced to pay inflated prices for homes lost them to foreclosure.  As lawyer Larry Shubow, who had defended clients before Joe McCarthy during the “Red Scare” era, said at the time, “To take two populations and pitch them against each other … two populations at their most sensitive and naked edges being rubbed together… . They made it impossible to have an integrated community.”

Today much of the conversation in Boston is focused around school reform and reinvention, affordable housing, and access to jobs and transit. What are the other pieces involved here? Are there certain aspects that are being overlooked?

Those are the big issues facing Boston and other cities, but what’s missing is an emphasis on community building.  Identifying the right Issues and creating effective programs will only take you so far.  Unless we understand and support people the ways that people live their lives, raise families, and bind themselves together in neighborhoods, we’re ignoring the glue that holds cities together.

I think your chapter on “The Mothers of Maverick Street” is a masterstroke. Would it be possible for Logan Airport to expand at all today? This is a real question for most major metros, including the ongoing debate about the O’Hare expansion around Chicago.

Those East Boston women weren’t just fighting airport expansion but the Massachusetts Port Authority sending its traffic through neighborhood streets.  As their leader, Anna DeFronzo, said back then, “We were tired of begging the Port Authority to keep the trucks off Maverick Street, so one evening we had a meeting in here, and we decided this was it, and that someday I would give them a call and we would go out in the streets.”  By doing so, they forced the Port Authority to be a better neighbor, even though it has expanded Logan Airport since then.  But with the ocean on two sides and residential neighborhoods on the other two, it’s pretty much run out of room.  The best solution would be development of regional airports to handle the air traffic that doesn’t need to fly directly into Boston, but suburban and special interests are fighting that idea.

I’d like your thoughts on the greatest legacy to Boston’s neighborhoods from past mayors Tom Menino and Ray Flynn. Also, do you have any thoughts on Mayor Walsh as of yet?

Ray Flynn’s greatest legacy was to turn attention away from downtown Boston, where it had resided for three decades, return it to the neighborhoods and to heal the city’s racial and social divisions by bringing people together around the economic issues that unite them.  That’s why he was called the “Mayor of the Neighborhoods” and “The People’s Mayor.”  Tom Menino’s greatest legacy was to follow Flynn’s example and spend so much time in the neighborhoods and to keep the city running smoothly.  That’s why he was called the “Urban Mechanic.”  Marty Walsh, with his background and his relationships with organized labor, has the chance to make sure Boston keeps working – and that its residents, especially its young people, get the education, training, and jobs to see that it does.

What are the top three priorities for Boston in the coming decades in terms of on-the-ground physical planning?

Boston needs to add more housing, more housing density, and more affordable housing at various income levels throughout the city.  It’s got to add that housing along existing mass transit corridors, while improving and increasing the capacity of that mass transit.  Finally, the city has got to preserve or carve out areas for the kind of economic and industrial development that creates jobs for residents, who, at least initially, do not have college degrees.

Is gentrification as we see it today around the city less or more pernicious that “old school” federally sponsored urban renewal?

They’re equally pernicious, but gentrification is far more insidious and so harder to confront.  “Old school” urban renewal presented a big, obvious target against which people could organize and, because it was government-operated, a source from which they could extract concessions.  Modern gentrification is a much more subtle and diffuse threat, and one carried out by private agents.  But gentrification is buttressed by public policy, so people need to put pressure on government to change some of those policies so that they serve the entire public.

Why Do Architects Still Draw?

                       Energy-Roof-Perugia, sketch (Wolf D. Prix, 2009)

Paolo Belardi recently wrote the compelling work "Why Architects Still Draw?" (MIT Press) and it’s a thoughtful read on why dedication to this basic skill is a font for creativity, meditation, and serendipity. He responded to my queries below and you’ll find that his responses are also creative and meditative.

In your introduction, you talk about training architects who know both technical skills and have a certain sense of culture. Have these worlds grown so far apart in the training of architects?

For anyone who works in architecture, the culture dimension is is so fundamental that you can’t do without it—though today it tends to be overwhelmed by digital techniques. This above all when you draw, because the eye sees what the mind knows. It’s not a coincidence that the more thing we know, the more things we see. The beauty of a landscape, for example, doesn’t exist in and of itself but rather is a mental construction that we perceive only after someone has revealed it to us, and only after we’ve made it our own after study. In other words, the beauty of a landscape is not a cause but rather an effect of the culture of the observer.

In his Italian Journey, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, arriving at the gates of Rome, confesses to not feel free in his judgment of what he will see, as he feels conditioned by the knowledge of the ancient classics. Just the same today—keeping in mind the fundamental role played by cinematographic production in the field of defining the identity of places—when we have to ask ourselves what the idea of the Eternal City is for foreigners. Is it the one of the cursed heroes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the intrusive paparazzi of Federico Fellini, the solemn balance of Peter Greenaway, or the banal lies of Paolo Sorrentino?

You speak of the importance of serendipity in architecture, and  more broadly, in the time we have on this Earth. What are the moments  in which we can feel the closest connection to the built environment?  Might you share with me a couple recent “Eureka” moments

I’m used to drawing a lot and without immediate goals (especially during boring business meetings) so that later I can page through my notebooks and feed my figurative repertoire with a healthy, creative misunderstanding. It’s perhaps the most effective technique for planning serendipity through an “emotional push” that only imperfect comprehension can give to the act of imagining. In that sense, my creativity (if I have any) is cultivated in a continuous way, not sudden Eurekas.

That said, there was one moment where I was present at a Eureka moment. It was when I involved Wolf Prix, the leader of a Viennese studio called Himmelb(l)au, in the project to cover a street made in the sixteenth century by the great architect Galeazzo Alessi in the heart of Perugia, the city where I live and work. Prix didn’t know Perugia at all, only by the graphic and photographic documentation I had sent him via email. Despite that, when he got to the place and sat down at a café table for a caffè americano, he grabbed a napkin and—in just a few seconds—sketched out the idea for the project. It was a helix à la Leonardo that wouldn’t just protect the street from the weather, but would also produce the energy necessary to sustain itself with the wind and the sun (see here).

Has there ever been a moment where you were without pencil and paper and thought “Drat, I wish I had captured that.” Can you give us an example or two?

Yes, when my daughter Angela (now eleven years old) was born. Knowing that I would be there for the birth, I did what all fatehrs do: I got a videocamera. But when my daughter’s head emerged from my wife’s body, I felt the powerful desire to capture a moment that in a certain way is miraculous. It’s a moment when happiness and pain are one and which, for a second, I felt linked in an ideal way to humanity. A few years ago the artist Marni Kotak gave birth to her first son in a New York art gallery to a crowd of onlookers. She justified her performance by affirming that “giving birth to a baby is the most direct testimony of the creative force of life and, therefore, the highest form of art” though she was roundly criticized as being an exhibitionist. Personally I think that the reality show dreamed up by Kotak was right on.

During your travels in the United States, have you ever found any buildings or sections of the built environment that speak to your own personal preferences as an architect?

I’ve traveled widely in the States, along with my students. Inevitably, I was impressed by New York precisely because there is no space, and by Los Angeles because it’s so difficult to orient oneself there. But I was even more impressed by the lighthouses on the coast of New England, by the covered brdiges in Quebec, and by the colonial-style houses in Flordia. To be even more specific, I was moved by two environmental conditions that were complete opposites, but which open the doors of architecture in the third millenium: one hung towards the heaven and the other sinking into the earth. I’m talking about the ancient Acoma Pueblo, better known as Sky City because of its dominant position on the peak of a mesa in New Mexico, and the underground addition to the law school designed by Gunnar Birkerts on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Is there a city that you have yet to visit which you would like to  map and explore with your mind, pencil, and a sketchbook?

Precisely because they have not yet been founded and not yet discovered, I would like to have the privilage of walking throgh the “invisible cities” that are the protagonists of the work of the same name by Italo Calvino. I’m thinking here of Laudomia, the “double city”, and of Melania, “the city of dailogue”, or Zoe “the city of indivisible existence”. Of course it would be a trip bumped by the difficulties of perspective, but it would be worth it. At the end of it I could draw a magical atlas like Marco Polo gave to Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Tartars, in which the invisible had been rendered visible by drawing.

There is much fetishizing of signature architecture landmarks (the Colosseum, Burj Khalifa and others) What can close explorations of those everyday, hum-drum, quotidian buildings tell us? The common post office? A low-slung suburban mall? Or others?

Architecture is the art of the real world. Consequently the quality of a city, much more than signature architecture landmarks, depends on the diffused character of anonymous normality. This is even more apparent in the era of sustainability, above all in Italy. It’s hard to deny that, paging through architectural magazines, it’s almost as if lightness, immateriality, and transparency capture by themselves the concept of sustainability. Just like it seems that a building covered with double-paned windows and equipped with photovoltaic panels is necessarily more sustainable that a building covered in cut stone. Nothing is more false.

It’s true that designing in a sustainable way means avoiding wasting natural resources and putting leftovers to good use, so it’s not hard to realize that the most sustainable complexes in the history of architecture are Italian city centers. They grew by implosion, minimizing the use of space, where each stone, each brick, each capital was not thrown out in some suburban junkyard but rather was reused to build on the already built: over, under, in the middle, and inside of the pre-existing structures. I’m thinking here of the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence, made of marble slabs from the ruin of some even more ancient building. It’s the same with the Cancello neighborhood in Formia: a Roman amphitheater that in the middle ages was converted into a huge apartment building. Because sustainability—for those of us who are children of Leon Battista Alberti and Donato Bramante—is not a chimera, but rather is part of our everyday life and work. And, as always, it’s a guarantor of personality and identity.

Interview translated from Italian by Zachary Nowak

Building a Bridge With Flowers

In every town there is a bridge

It might be a railroad trestle, an unloved worn out road, or perhaps a pedestrian overpass that makes a foot journey a bit more pleasant.

Shelburne, Massachusetts has a bridge with flowers. Yes, this former trolley bridge is alive with day lilies, resplendent with evening primrose, and decked out in hydrangeas.

A point of pride for the community, it is tended by a veritable army of volunteers and others who see this as a valued member of the family, just as important as the humans who live and breathe around town.

This fine avenue of flora is lauded in guidebooks, celebrated online, and it even has a place of pride on the city’s police cruisers. It is a bulwark of the built environment and an icon along the Mohawk Trail.

And why should we have just one bridge of flowers? Every town, every community might have one, no matter the climate, no matter the season. After all, flowers don’t know race, gender, age, sexual orientation. They need someone to care for them and they might be seen as a type of community empowerment project, a place that folks can point to and say “Oh, I was there at the beginning” or “My children helped plant the wisteria”.

As a small moment, a type of floral benediction, a point of community enthusiasm, a bridge of flowers isn’t a bad place for communities to start with their own rejuvenation and reimagination.

Go out there.

Build your own bridge of flowers, modest or monumental.

On Mount Greylock, a monument

On the highest point of Mount Greylock, a monument to those who served the Commonwealth stands and looks out.

Locals wanted stone from the Berkshires, no, no, not that Quincy granite they said. The stone from south of Boston prevailed. Curious indeed, as the mighty tower was meant to grace the Charles River basin.

Can you see it now? Head of the Charles, sweat on the brow, they look up and are are reminded that some gave all, someplace far away.

Up to the top, 3491 feet up from below it went and dignitaries came out and talked a bit about the past. Old men sat down, most did not move much.

Still it remains, eighty plus years on.

Walk around the summit, look out yourself.

More veterans are coming.