Glad tales from the Hub

"There are a lot of old-fashioned, conventional American success stories around the neighborhoods," says Charlotte Kahn of Boston Urban Gardeners. We'll get to her group's story in a minute. First, a couple of others.

If you've tromped around the Museum of Transportation recently, you'll notice that the 40-foot-high milk bottle on the wharf (an authentic 1930s roadside diary bar) has a new neighbor: a yellow tugboat.

It's the SS John Wanamaker, the last active steam tug on United States coastal waters. Built in 1924 for the City of Philadelphia, where the politicians (who really wanted a yacht) spared no expense in brass and polished paneling, it blew the last workaday blast of its three-toned whistle in 1977. It then went to Camden, Maine, where it became a wharf-side restaurant serving, I recall, a mildly authentic English high tea on its canopied upper deck, and full fancy meals below.

It has now come to the Hub -- and therein lies a story.

It began with Boston business broker Susan Arno, who saw an ad for the tug and contacted the museum people. They were interested. Their new facility on Fort Point Channel, tucked in among the pilings and dockage facilities of a by- gone age, had plenty of space for the 112-foot Wanamaker, especially if it were to be both restaurant and museum piece.

Next came the buyers -- museum board member Hugh Kelly and his partner, Russell Brooks, both experienced restaurateurs and Wendy's franchisees. They took an option on the boat and had it towed south.

And then the bureaucracy that surrounds the harbor settled in like Boston fog. The partners went to the city's building department. There they learned that boats, having no foundations, fall under the purview of the Coast Guard. But the Coast Guard, Mr. Brooks recalled, told him that "if you need a tool to disengage it from the dock, it's not in our jurisdiction." They sent him to the harbormaster, who sent him to the Army Corps of Engineers, who sent him to the state's Department of Environmental Quality Engineering.

"We had obviously fallen down a crack," Mr. Brooks noted with some understatement. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to take responsibility -- until, finally, the city came forward and decided that, if the partners could demonstrate that water was in fact the boat's foundation, the tug could get its occupancy permit.

Meanwhile, time was ticking away. Finally, on the last day of the partners' option to buy, the Army Corps of Engineers came through with a waiver -- which, while it didn't say water wasm a foundation, refused to say that it wasn't. Within 48 hours they had 11 waivers and permits, and 8 more followed. "The only one who hasn't issued a permit on this," quipped Mr. Kelly, "is my mother."

Then the rebuilding began. Boston, Mr. Baker says, "is probably the toughest city in the country for codes" -- whereas in Maine, he notes (not altogether accurately), "all they did was pull it up to the dock, throw the ropes over, and open for business." The roster of unforeseen alterations reads like a litany of delay and expense: a special 50-foot entrance ramp, an isolation transformer, new carpet and upholstery, a dockside fire hydrant, fancy flexible connections for utilities, larger rest rooms, a widened aft stairway, and more. Nobody talks about price, except to say that it is about three times the original estimate.

But through it all, as carpenters scramble toward a scheduled early July opening, the partners remain optimistic. The menu, says Mr. Kelly, will be "modified California style," centered on fresh seafood, steamed or cooked in convection ovens. Dinners in the 200-person restaurant will run, he estimates, in the $7 to $10 range, with lunches less.

Will it succeed? Mr. Brooks is well aware of some previous failures -- like that of the SS Peter Stuyvesant, which was part of Anthony's Pier 4 restaurant until it sank in the blizzard of 1978. He is also aware that what packs them in August may not seem so appealing next February.

But the use of the tug as a museum during off hours -- with its mighty pistons still on display and its walls hung with lamps, wrenches, and oil cans -- will be a nice addition to the wharf. One hopes this link between private enterprise and nonprofit operation can continue to overcome its challenges.

One of the people who may find her way to the tug is poet Barbara Hyett. If she does, she'll have a troop of schoolchildren in tow, pads in hand. At some point, they'll sit down and start writing. And, if their poems are as good as those in a book published last winter by the Harriet A. Baldwin School, she will continue to show that she has an approach to teaching poetry that is more innovative, appealing, and effective than anything I saw during the ten years that I taught English. What caught my eye, when the booklet landed on my desk last month, was the title. On a cover showing some child's drawings of plants were the words of Leslie Gonzales, the seven-year-old winner of the title contest: "The flowers are in the crayon waiting."

Inside are some gems, not so much great as entirely honest. It is a kid's-eye view from one of the city's grimmest neighborhoods -- the Fidelis Way housing project in the Allston-Brighton section. And through it all comes a sense of children not only seeing, but seeing through, their surroundings. Ten-year-old Vandhna Batra, in a poem titled "I am floor," writes: O get sick of it O get walked on all the time. Without me, who knows where they are?

Or Leslie Gonzales again, writing under the heading of "beds": No bed. I sleep on the floor in my room, on a green rug. It's soft. In the closet

%the dresses cry. The window is closed. I'm wearing a black dress and no shoes.

Mrs. Hyett, a former professor of literature who now spends her time as poet-in-residence at various schools -- and now is in demand at the Museum of Fine Arts to teach docents how to make paintings live for the kids -- began work in South Boston during the busing crisis a few years ago. "They sent in the National Guard and the poet," she quips. She has also worked in the Hingham schools. Both these projects produced booklets. But her heart is with the inner- city kids, which is why she knocked on the door of Baldwin principal Charles L. James, winning his support and, eventually, a TryArts grant funded under the US Department of Education.

Over breakfast out in Coolidge Corner the other day she explained her method. "The beauty of this book," she says with evident enthusiasm, "is that these particular children have been written off." They have not, evidently, been given very much. But "you don't need much for a poem -- words, feelings, and ideas," she says. She gets them thinking, talking, and reading some of the best of modern poetry. She sets subjects for them. She challenges them to think beyond commonplaces into unique expressions. And then, when the talk has reached full pitch, she gets them to write.

Nor is she a soft touch: "I'm terribly critical and hard on their work," she admits.But the kids keep coming back -- and even after she has left the school, they get in touch with her. She loves it, and the love is infectious. "Kids," she says, "have the most gorgeous voices."

Gorgeous, too, is the Spanish-speaking voice of Maria. Under a brilliant noonday sun, she knelt among the rows of corn and collard -- a matronly, smiling woman in a dark print dress, plucking weeds with one hand and holding her radio to her ear with the other. And it was not Puerto Rico. It was Washington Street, with the elevated Orange Line rumbling past.

It is one of the 120 sites around the city that make Charlotte Kahn most proud. She is the director of a nonprofit community-based coalition called Boston Urban Gardeners -- acronymed, oddly enough, BUG. Her goal: to get more of the city's 12,290 vacant house lots into the hands of community farmers, on the model of the Victory Gardens of World War II or the British system of allotments.

It doesn't take much to turn a lot into small plots, she says.All you need, in addition to permission and initiative, is water, a fence, and topsoil. A 20 -by-20-foot plot, as Bostonians with freezers have demonstrated, can meet a whole family's vegetable needs for the entire year.

Permission usually comes from the city, which owns most of the plots on which between 4,000 and 5,000 Bostonians raise everything from marigolds to bok choy. "The areas the people think of as the most devastated," says Miss Kahn, "are often the most fertile areas for gardens."

Nor is the initiative hard to find. Most of the gardens, which range from little 9-family lots to the 500-plot granddaddy in the Fenway, have waiting lists. The reason: They cut costs (the 50 acres of community gardens, says Miss Kahn, will produce $500,000 worth of food this year) and they provide a focus for leisurely evening activity. That's important in Boston. Urban open space, the federal government says, ought to be in a ratio of about 10 acres per 1,000 residents. Boston has only half that much.

Water is more challenging, with elderly residents in Chinatown sometimes carrying it in bottles. But many gardens take it through a meter from willing abutters. Fences, too, are important -- although, it would seem, as much for dogs as to protect gardens from vandalism.

But the real need is topsoil -- the most expensive item in creating a community garden. To this end, BUG has plans afoot for a $230,000 commercial composting facility. As it tries to raise money, it is also angling for a site -- hoping to use two acres of the old Boston State Hospital grounds in Mattapan. The facility could take trimmings from the Chelsea market, vegetable refuse from Stop and Shop, and manure from the Boston Police Stable, and turn it into so much topsoil that some could be sold at a profit -- as pleasant a fringe benefit for garbage as one can imagine.

And speaking of fringe benefits, the gardens themselves have that, too. Many are located in racially mixed neighborhoods -- like the 97-family South Cove garden, between tony Bay Village and the less affluent Chinese community in Mass Pike Towers. There, intensive gardening techniques from the Orient cross-fertilize with Western methods, and fuzzy melon grows next to tomatoes. There, too, the members of the two communities meet on such happy terms that gardeners leave their tools out in plain sight at night -- and find them there the next day. Says Miss Kahn: "I think of it as a seam between the neighborhoods."

An occasional featurem

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