Robert Whitcomb

5G vs. hurricane forecasts

— Source (   WP:NFCC#4   )

— Source (WP:NFCC#4)

Weather map on the morning of Sept. 21, 1938. The hurricane, then just off Cape Hatteras, roared into Long island and southern New England that afternoon.

Weather map on the morning of Sept. 21, 1938. The hurricane, then just off Cape Hatteras, roared into Long island and southern New England that afternoon.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Some experts, including Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are warning that the introduction of the much anticipated 5G wireless cellular network could slash weather forecasting accuracy by interfering with data transmission from weather satellites. This could have perilous effects, particularly with hurricane forecasting and especially for New England because hurricanes striking our region tend to move north very fast after they go by Cape Hatteras, N.C. (The infamous New England Hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938 moved more than 50 miles an hour into our region.)

Mr. Jacobs testified to the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment on May 16 that 5G wireless signals could cut forecast accuracy by 30 percent!

The telecommunications industry, which sees 5G as a vast bonanza, has so far done little to address this challenge.

To read more, please hit this link.

Longing for 'The Comet'

If only…    The old New Haven Railroad put a unique three-car articulated high-speed passenger train called “The Comet’’ into service between Boston and Providence during 1935. The radically streamlined train was designed and built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company using the latest aerodynamic methods and technologies. Unfortunately, the speedy Comet was a bit too successful on the Boston-Providence run. When the New Haven's passenger business picked up at the start of World War II, the small train couldn't handle the crowds of people who wanted to ride it. The Comet was taken off the Boston-Providence run and spent the remainder of its service life on short-haul commuter runs in the Boston area. It was scrapped in 1951.

If only…

The old New Haven Railroad put a unique three-car articulated high-speed passenger train called “The Comet’’ into service between Boston and Providence during 1935. The radically streamlined train was designed and built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company using the latest aerodynamic methods and technologies. Unfortunately, the speedy Comet was a bit too successful on the Boston-Providence run. When the New Haven's passenger business picked up at the start of World War II, the small train couldn't handle the crowds of people who wanted to ride it. The Comet was taken off the Boston-Providence run and spent the remainder of its service life on short-haul commuter runs in the Boston area. It was scrapped in 1951.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal

It’s too bad that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation decided not to have a second set of tracks laid for the new Pawtucket commuter rail station and instead is building the station directly along Amtrak’s very busy Northeast Corridor tracks. As The Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson reported in an Aug. 26 story (“Pawtucket station cost climbs to $51 million’’), “With the station directly on the Northeast Corridor, intercity or express trains couldn’t overtake trains stopping in Pawtucket.’’ That may well slow down traffic on that very heavily traveled Amtrak/MBTA line. And, Mr. Anderson noted, “ot building a second set of tracks could make it more difficult to create a Rhode Island-run rail shuttle.’’

The Transportation Department’s decision to forgo the tracks was done to save money but the project has included a hefty cost overrun -- $11 million so far -- at least in part because, Mr. Anderson reports, Amtrak rules (it’s their track!) “have forced the station work to be done at night and at other times of light traffic,’’ driving up costs. But the biggest false economy in this is for the long-term.

Of course, Amtrak itself needs more tracks to allow more and faster trains and help get as many vehicles as possible off the roads.


Kudos to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for making a push for MBTA express trains between Boston and Providence. But this will require working it out with Amtrak, which runs on the same line. Again we need more tracks!! And an express train program may also require leasing electric-powered trains from Amtrak; the diesel trains now on the MBTA’s Providence-Boston route are less reliable than electric ones.

What could happen faster is having express highway lanes on highways in and around Boston that drivers would have to pay a toll to use. That would bring in money for transportation projects and encourage use of mass transit. Mr. Baker seems to like the idea, though many will yelp. But the region’s highway-congestion crisis has reached the point that strong, perhaps politically unpopular measures must be taken – and soon. (Some wags are calling the proposed express lanes “Lexus Lanes,’’ implying they’ll unduly favor richer folks who can more easily afford them.)

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, former Amtrak chairman and now a Northeastern University political science professor, said at a Grow Smart RI meeting in April:

“The only way to solve this congestion problem is to have a first-class regional rail system not only for Massachusetts but for all of New England, with the six governors deeply and actively involved. It would take 60,000 to 70,000 cars off the road every day.”

Life on a wharf

Long Wharf    in    Boston   , United States, 19th Century, jutting into    Boston Harbor

Long Wharf in Boston, United States, 19th Century, jutting into Boston Harbor

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

I’ve spent a lot of time on wharves, and I especially think of them in August, when their smells of salt water, fish, creosote, diesel and gasoline reach their greatest intensity. Standing there at the edge of water, maybe looking at the eelgrass wave in the water a few feet away, I think of how summer is waning as a back-door cold front replaces the sultry southwest wind with a salty breeze from the east that’s cool enough to remind me of fishing for smelt as a kid in October off the “floats’’ (wooden floating wharves) in the harbor near our house, using a bamboo pole and multiple hooks. (Smelts, by the way, are best fried in butter.) Or I remember the east wind coming off Boston Harbor and cooling off my summer work mates and me as we smoked on the loading platforms along the promiscuously polluted South Boston waterfront and I mulled the threats and opportunities involved in returning to college in a couple of weeks.

On the Cape’s West Falmouth Harbor, there’s a very old and small granite-block wharf in front of what used to be my paternal grandparents’ house, since torn down and replaced by a tall McMansion but, as the builder emphasized to angry neighbors, on the “same footprint.’’ The little wharf provided me with a couple of lessons in the passage of time:

Low tide now exposes sand and mud flats going right up to the front of the wharf (or “dock’’ as we called it, even though docks are more precisely the area between wharves).

So why was it built? It turns out that a little stream emptying into the harbor had silted up the water abutting the wharf. In the 19th Century the water in that part of the harbor (once famous for its shellfish, before a disastrous oil spill, in 1969) was much deeper. And the rather mysterious structure was apparently built to provide access for people coming in small boats to a fresh water spring a few feet up the slope from the wharf.

Not much in a name?


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

New England has too many small private colleges; some of them are not financially viable. So some have decided to change their name to “university’’ to make themselves sound more important and alluring. Accrediting organizations require a certain minimum number of graduate courses for such nomenclature

Lasell College, in Newton, Mass., is the latest New England college to decide to call itself a university; Assumption College, in Worcester, has done the same thing

Some of this is just the endless pursuit of status, though with so many little, and little known, institutions calling themselves “university’’ the alleged advantage must be getting a little thin.=

Two internationally known New England institutions – Boston College and Dartmouth College – are universities but for historical reasons – they started out and have remained devoted most strongly to undergraduate liberal arts education -- have refused to change their names. Admirable.

Vegas on the Mystic


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

I doubt that the gigantic Encore casino complex on the Mystic River in Everett, that gritty old waterfront industrial city next to Boston, will steal much business from Twin River’s two Rhode Island casinos. Getting in and out of Boston, parts of which are often gridlocked, is too daunting, although I’m sure that many curious people from Greater Providence will check out Encore at least once. And it may lure a lot of tourists in Boston and Cambridge, e.g., people attending big medical and other professional meetings there who want some glitz and the adrenaline from gambling’s greed and fear, as well as very local gambling addicts who will henceforth spend much of their time in Everett, of all places, destroying their finances.

Meanwhile, maybe we’ll learn more about how to boost waterborne traffic in coastal cities by seeing how well Encore’s ferry service to the casino works.

Jim Folk, the casino’s transportation director, told WBZ: “It’s going to be great for the public. We’re going to actually be making connections from the South Shore where the MBTA runs service from Hingham and Hull into Boston and we can go and take those folks over from Boston to the North Shore.” Expand the epidemic!

The ferry will run seven days a week from about 7 a.m. to midnight on a triangular route connecting people to the casino, the World Trade Center, in the Seaport District, and Long Wharf downtown.

Fares will be $5-$7 depending on the route and will be open to the public, whether or not they’re going to the casino.

Anything to get people off the roads and the MBTA.

Civics-education deficit

Page one of the original copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Page one of the original copy of the U.S. Constitution.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The Atlantic reports that a class-action lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, has been filed in U.S. District Court in Providence alleging that the state has failed to provide an adequate education for many students, especially in civics education. Part of the headline of the article reads “A new federal complaint with a unique argument accuses the state of Rhode Island of failing to provide students with the skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy’’.

Rhode Island happened to be a handy locale for the suit, but very similar ones could be filed in just about any state.

Implied in all this is that our constitutional system can’t function as intended without some sort of minimum civic knowledge by the citizenry. And certainly the teaching of civics and its sibling history has grossly deteriorated in recent decades. The results can be seen in a decline in the quality of our political life, with an increase in successful demagoguery and tribalism.

The suit also reminds us of the differences in the quality of education between rich and poor districts – inequality worsened by too-heavy reliance on local property taxes, as well as by the family dysfunction more likely in low-income than higher-income places. Thus students in affluent districts are more likely to receive the tools needed to defend their interests, and the public interest, in our federal system; having affluent parents is the most important factor in students’ success in school and later. But, as I have discovered in my teaching gigs over the years, even kids in affluent public-school districts and private education in the last few years display more ignorance about how their government works, and of history and current events, than similar cohorts a half century ago.

Public education is legally a state, not a federal function, and I would guess that higher federal courts won’t want to open the can of worms that is education inequality and its relationship to widening socio-economic and political-power inequality. Still, the plaintiffs have served the public interest by making us think more about the dangerous inadequacy of civics education in our frayed quasi-democracy.

To read The Atlantic’s article, please hit this link.

Beware self-driving-car gridlock

A CTrail train line, which links Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., and which has had a flood of passengers.

A CTrail train line, which links Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., and which has had a flood of passengers.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has added three electric buses to its fleet. Bravo! One small step against global warming. For some people of a certain age, the buses are a reminder of how much of our urban public transportation used to be electric, in the form of trolleys.

Meanwhile, we’d better deal with the fact that the advent of millions of self-driving vehicles, hopefully electric, will probably worsen traffic congestion by encouraging more single-passenger driving and even no-passenger driving, with many vehicles being used to deliver stuff. We need much more MASS TRANSIT, not more vehicles, roads and parking lots.

As a sign of the hunger for expanded mass transit, consider that crowding has gotten so bad on Connecticut’s new CTrail line, between Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, that the state and Amtrak are scrambling to make more trains available. Some of the crowding is caused by a surprisingly large number of college students using special passes that gives students at participating institutions unlimited access to public transportation in the Nutmeg State.

To read more of this bad news/good news story, please hit this link.

Wind pays off

Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm.

Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The Danish energy company Orsted’s purchase of Providence-based Deepwater Wind from D.E. Shaw & Co., an investment company, for $510 million certainly testifies to the growing value of wind power, especially in the reliably wind-rich area off southern New England. Congratulations to the Deepwater Wind folks for their visionary and complicated risk-taking -- economically, technologically, politically and regulatorily.

I noted that the companies said that, Deepwater, now a subsidiary, would be based in Providence and in Boston; the latter city is where Orsted’s North American operations are based. But I predict that soon the Providence office will be closed and everything will be run from Boston (and Denmark). As a PR move in acquisitions, companies often assert that much important stuff will remain in the home town of the acquired entity. But the savings and efficiencies from consolidation almost always trump such sweet ideas sooner rather than later.

If anything, Newport, not Providence, might be the best town for a second headquarters: It’s closer to planned big wind farms south of New England. And Aquidneck Island, like Greater Providence, has lots of engineers.

By the way, wind turbines, though far, far better than burning fossil fuel, can raise air temperatures in wind-farm areas by half a degree or more by interrupting wind flows, say recent studies. All energy production has downsides. Consider, for example, that solar arrays require a lot of space, which leads to clearing woodlands in some places. Abandoned big-box store parking lots and landfills are among the best sites, besides rooftops, of course.

Too rich for Providence?

Providence Place

Providence Place

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal

‘Nordstrom’s announcement that it will close its store in Providence Place, in the Rhode Island capital’s downtown, didn’t surprise me. I was always skeptical that a large high-end department store could succeed in Providence; I’m surprised that it has lasted this long. There aren’t all that many very affluent people around here, and some of them do their expensive shopping in relatively near – and very big – Boston and New York. Boscov’s, which will take Nordstrom’s place, is mid-to-down-market.

Further, the rise of the Internet has posed a huge threat to large department stores in general, except for very down-market chains such as Dollar General.

As I’ve written before, what will survive and, in some places prosper, are some smaller specialty stores with close connections with affluent neighborhoods – e.g., Wayland Square, in Providence, and Main and Water streets in East Greenwich – or in destination/resort towns such as Newport.

Nordstrom’s exit is a blow to Providence Place, and more are likely to come. But the huge building does have something big going for it: It is a very attractive and solid complex made of good materials and all or part of it could be retrofitted for other purposes, such as education, health clubs (with swimming pools!), state and/or city offices and even a hotel or two. It’s not your typical big-box-based suburban mall.

Maybe a company called Scape, which runs student housing in the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland, should look at Providence Place. The Boston Globe reports that the company says, in The Globe’s words, “that it will spend $1 billion over the next few years to develop privately run student housing in Boston, and it will also locate its North American headquarters in the city.’’

The Globe continues: “It’s a move that could help meet the huge demand for college housing in Boston, where an estimated 36,000 undergraduate and graduate students live in off-campus apartments, and establish a new model for student housing here — independent of any particular school and less taxing on universities’ already-tight budgets.’’ Lots of college kids in Providence, too.

To read The Globe’s story, please hit this link.

America's social recession

In Camden, N.J.

In Camden, N.J.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, had a disturbing column in The Boston Globe the other day headlined “America Traded One Recession for a Far More Serious One,’’ instigated by the 10th anniversary of the Crash of 2008. He cited something called the Social Progress Index. Among his observations:

“Despite being among the wealthiest nations, the United States ranks 25th overall on social progress, behind all our peers in the Group of Seven. In important areas, the United States ranks even lower: We are 61st on secondary school enrollment and 88th on homicide rates. Despite spending more per capita than any other nation on earth on health care, we achieve just 62th on maternal mortality, 40th on child mortality, 47th on premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases, and 35th on life expectancy at age 60.’’

“In equality of political influence among lower socioeconomic groups, we rank 65th.’’

“Americans’ overall health and wellness is way below other advanced countries, and quality of life and economic opportunity for many is diminished.’’

To read Professor Porter’s essay, please hit this link.

Pop-ups for Wayland Square?

A pop-up store in London.

A pop-up store in London.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The Internet, and especially the increasingly monopolistic Amazon, are eroding much of the traditional bricks and mortar stores. But, as I learned from my silver jewelry-making daughter in New York City, “pop-up stores’’ – short-term retail outlets in rental storefronts -- provide new ways of showing and selling stuff.

They speak to the desire of many, perhaps most customers to touch, see and even smell goods in a real place. For that matter, even Amazon is opening brick-and-mortar stores.

Local zoning regulations may have to be changed in some places to encourage the creation of pop-up stores, which sure are better than vacant storefronts. I think that these outlets would do best in already busy upscale shopping streets, such as Bellevue Avenue, in Newport, Newbury Street, in Boston, and Thayer Street and Wayland Square, on the East Side of Providence. Such temporary outlets would seem particularly handy for test-showing new products.

Magical thinking in coastal flood zones

Damage in Westerly, R.I., from Hurricane Carol, which struck on Aug. 31, 1954.

Damage in Westerly, R.I., from Hurricane Carol, which struck on Aug. 31, 1954.

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Consider the Federal Flood Insurance Program, which before Hurricane Florence arrived was $20 billion in debt. The program – the primary source of flood insurance in America -- is in need of deep reform.

The basic problem, besides the fact that Congress and the White House try to put as much stuff as possible on our collective credit card, rather than paying honestly with tax revenue: The federal government, to please affluent homeowners, especially along the seacoast, and campaign-contributor developers and real-estate agents, blithely subsidizes rebuilding in flood-prone areas – areas becoming ever more vulnerable because of the effects of global warming caused by fossil-fuel burning.

“They have not dealt with the gorilla in the room which is proactively addressing these types of disasters for the future,” Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg News. “Too much of the U.S.’s response to natural disaster is completely reactionary: We throw a bunch of money after it happens.”

Indeed, after a hurricane slams a coastline, private and public rebuilding money pours into devastated areas, leading to the construction of more building in some places than were there before the hurricane!

Moore said that Congress should direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the insurance program, to focus on strongly discouraging building in the areas most vulnerable to flooding as well as mandating that less exposed but still somewhat vulnerable structures be raised. The taxpayers have helped to rebuild some coastal-flood destroyed structures five or more times.

Last week it was the Carolinas, some late summer or early fall it will be southern New England when the eye of a northward-accelerating hurricane roars up the Connecticut Valley, exposing the coast of eastern Connecticut, all of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts to a disastrous tidal surge. Most of us prefer not to help pay to rebuild a lot of McMansions on the dunes.

Regarding Florence, note that Orrin Pilkey, a retired Duke University coastal geologist, complained in a recent op-ed in the (Raleigh) News & Observer that the Tar Heel state hasn’t acted with the same rigor as, for example, the communities in Virginia and New Jersey, to prepare for rising sea levels.

Pre-AC cooling


Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

We had various strategies for beating the heat at night when I lived  as a boy in a Boston suburb on  the ocean. There were fans, but their effect was unsatisfying. One option was to move into the cellar, which in our house was deep and with granite walls. Another was to sleep on a porch. You see a lot of sleeping porches, mostly facing the summer prevailing wind from the southwest, in houses built from about 1890 to 1930. Or we’d sleep on the lawn. For kids these options provided minor adventures (seeing fireflies over the lawns, etc.) but  they weren’t particularly attractive to adults, most of whom had to get up early and get to work after sleepless nights

We’d sometimes hear dance music coming up  through the rustling oak trees from a club on the harbor. This was Big Band stuff; rock n’ roll had not yet become entrenched.

Then came those air conditioners awkwardly installed in windows, which in old houses like the one we live in now seem the only cooling option because you’d have to rip up the house to put in central air.

Of course, the central irony of air conditioning is that while it may make you cooler, it makes the world hotter as we burn fossil fuel to generate the electricity to make it work and the damn things release lots of heat –into the great outdoors.  And living in air-conditioned spaces makes you less able to tolerate the outside air when you're in it. But it has certainly been good for productivity.

We lived on Massachusetts Bay and so we could go swimming but the water was usually frigid, what with  the hot-weather wind – from the southwest – pushing the warm surface water away from the shore and the Labrador Current lurking nearby. We loved visiting our paternal grandparents in West Falmouth, on Buzzards Bay, where the water was almost tropically warm from mid-July to Labor Day. It seemed that the Gulf Stream would send up little eddies to run against the south and west sides of the Cape. It smelled like Florida.


Galleries try to make Newport more of art market

"Newport Rocks'' (oil), by John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872).

"Newport Rocks'' (oil), by John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872).

This article, by Robert Whitcomb, originated in

'Whither the Newport art world?  Most of a range of experts told GoLocal that it’s getting livelier, and they suggested ways to boost the city as a place to make, sell and buy art.

Karen Conway, who now runs exhibitions at the nearby Jamestown Art Center but who is still deeply involved in the Newport art world, where she used to be a curator at the Newport Art Museum, told us that, yes, the city’s art sector is growing, fueled by an expanding regional, national and international community that buys art.  But, the experts complained, too few buy art in Newport.

Ms. Conway noted the City by the Sea’s very old and close links with New York, where the U.S. art market is based, and also with Paris and other major cities where a lot of work is bought and sold.

Kara Popowich, a vice president at Sotheby’s (which is among other things one of the world’s largest art brokers), cited “the high quality of work’’ and “the incredible mix of people’’ in Newport,  while noting that prices for art sold there are “more competitive’’ than in the Big Apple. “And not just New York hedge funders are buying.’’

“The Newport art scene is growing,’’ said New York-based painter Amanda Fenlon, who has shown in the Atelier Newport gallery. But, of course, it’s “always very tough to predict what the market will do.’’

She, as did some others, lauded Atelier Newport, started in 2016, to, among other things, promote high-quality contemporary artists and in so doing raise the stature of the city in the international art world. There are several other very interesting galleries -- Blink Gallery might be the best known -- highlighting regional contemporary artists. And a new gallery called Coastal Contemporary bears watching.

Norah Diedrich, the executive director of Newport Art Museum, said that while there’s “more cultural engagement’’ these days, and more shows, the city is not yet a major “destination point’’ for the arts besides its famous musical events. Still, she says, there are “more lectures and shows, more experiences’’ these days as art has become more of a “total experience.’’

The dynamic and frequently referred-to Bobbie Lemmons, who runs Atelier Newport and had a gallery in Manhattan before moving to Newport full time, cited the many connections between Newport and Gotham and lauded the “overwhelming community of artists” in Newport. “There’s an express lane between New York and Newport,’’ a city that she said that she has fallen in love with.

She sees her role as “trying to stretch the buyers’ eyes’’ in promoting the work of innovative, idiosyncratic contemporary artists, as opposed to more typical Newport work such as paintings of sailboats and old houses. She’s helped by the role of the Internet in “changing the buzz.’’

Ms. Lemmons, like the others we talked with, noted the crucial role of very rich people in supporting the art market in Newport. Some of them are buying art for their yachts.

A young New York-based painter, Hannah Stahl, who has shown at Atelier Newport, was pleased that the publicity she got by exhibiting in Newport  “radiated back to New York,’’ where it can be tough to be one artist of so many. “Newport is a big hug compared to New York. It’s very welcoming’’ to young artists, she said.

Newport’s art world is obviously most dynamic in the summer,  but, she said, the art world “seems to be expanding’’ there in general, with a “hugely diverse and international community,’’  “growing energy’’ and more contemporary work being shown, in addition to the traditional “sailboat pictures’’ that many people associate with the city. “Now people can see interesting art in Newport; they don’t have to go to New York to see it.’’

New York-based painter Richard Nocera was somewhat more restrained. “The best thing about showing in Newport is that it gets me into New York. I often find the same collectors in Newport as in New York.’’

While he’s had “consistent sales’’ in Newport the past three years, “Newport is a stop along the way – not where I’d like to end.’’

And long-established and well-known painter Bunny Harvey, who has done business in Newport as well as in New York for years, told us:

“I don’t see Newport as a major place to buy and sell art in,’’ although the local art community is “trying to be more than just a regional place to buy art and trying to connect more with the New York art world.’’

To this end,  she said, she hopes that the city “will attract better galleries.’’

Newport Art Museum, Discover Newport Photo

A challenge is that “Many collectors, including in Newport, want work to be vetted by New York galleries. Many buyers are insecure. And they feel purchase implies knowledge.’’

Art dealer William Vareika, with his wife, Alison, owns the nationally known William Vareika Fine Arts, on Bellevue Avenue. The gallery specializes in paintings of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries but the Vereikas also have an extensive collection of contemporary art in their house. He says that so far as a place to buy and sell art, Newport remains only a modest market.  Not many people come to Newport to buy art, he told us, although “world-class art’’ has been created in the city for many generations.  Only about 1 percent of his sales come from people coming to his gallery and buying there and the vast majority of his buyers are from out of town.

How to boost Newport’s ranking in the art world?

One is to address the shortage of studio space for artists so that more could move there, full or part-time, from, well, especially New York. Some artists we talked with said that they’ve so enjoyed being in Newport that they’d like to reside there. “I’d live there maybe half the year if space were available,’’ said artist Hannah Stahl.

Unlike many old New England cities and towns, Newport has never had a lot of former industrial space, such as closed textile mills, that could be transformed into artists’ lofts.

Ms. Diedrich cited closed public schools – enrollments in the Newport school system are falling -- as one possibility for conversion into space for artists.  She said that workspace is “too hard to find and too expensive’’ now. Bunny Harvey and others suggest that former Navy buildings might be options.

Ms. Stahl, for her part, put forward the idea of artists getting space in some of Newport’s boatyards.

Ms. Popowich suggested a summer-residency program for emerging artists, such as the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine, while Ms. Harvey liked the idea of summer residencies for established high-quality artists, some of whom would be from New York and happy to escape it for the cooling breezes of the City by the Sea. Maybe something like the MacDowell Colony, in Peterboro, N.H. She said that perhaps Rhode Island School of Design architecture students could be brought in to design studio space.

William Vareika Fine Art

Mr. Vareika said artist-residency programs might boost the art market in Newport simply by drawing more attention to the city as a very active arts center.

Ms. Popowich thinks that linking the community more tightly with studio-art programs such New England schools as the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, Yale and Dartmouth would Newport boost the power of its art synergies. (Salve Regina University has a studio art program, too.)

And to boost sales, most of those we talked with agreed that an annual or -- more practical -- high-end biennial art fair, along the lines of the Art Basel shows in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, should be considered. Maybe, said Kara Popowich, there could be some synergy between Newport’s famous music festivals and an art festival.  While Newport is much, much smaller than the aforementioned cities, it has an international reputation for wealth, glamour, seaside beauty and dramatic architecture that would help promote a major art fair.

Fenlon cited the success of the New Orleans art biennial, created after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, in boosting that city.

Perhaps a Newport biennial could be best held soon after Labor Day, when the weather is still fine but after the summer tourist crowds have thinned out.

“An art fair attracting art-buying agents’’ is a great idea, said Hannah Stahl. “It would tell the public that Newport is clearly an important place to buy and sell art’’ much more effectively than individual galleries could. Some see one or more of Newport’s famed mansions and/or Salve Regina University as possible venues.

But, Ms. Harvey cautioned, “Who has the energy and clout to organize such events? Galleries are stretched thin. And beware of alternative art fairs with discounted art. You’ve got to go high.’’ The Newport Art Museum’s Diedrich, for her part, noted that while the city’s art institutions “do some things together, it’s not a tight unified group.’’

And Mr. Vareika emphasized that a well-heeled sponsor or sponsors would be needed to get an art fair going and to connect it with the New York art scene. Well, Newport does have a few billionaires….

Of course, the art world goes up and down with the broad economy, but the extreme wealth of some summer residents of Newport could provide a high floor. Perhaps one or two could be persuaded to step forward as the city’s uber art patrons and get an art fair going.Tuhu

Pay them to occupy storefronts

Typical New England Main Street, this one in Webster, Mass., an old factory town.

Typical New England Main Street, this one in Webster, Mass., an old factory town.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Far too many downtowns have been hollowed out first by big-box chain stores and their windswept parking lots on the edge of town and then by the Internet -- especially by the near-monopoly Amazon.

So some state legislators in Massachusetts, which has many once-thriving and now moribund, if still-pretty, downtowns,  seek to revitalize them with an economic-development bill that, reports The Boston Globe, “would provide up to $500,000 a year in tax credits to merchants who {decide to} occupy vacant storefronts in downtown areas. The promise of new jobs would help a retailer’s case, but it’s not required. Other factors could come into play: anticipated pedestrian traffic, synergy with nearby businesses, a commitment to improve the storefront, matching funds from a landlord or community.’’

This would have to be a long-term experiment but, depending on the total price tag, worth a try in a few places. The big question is whether you can lure consumers who  have grown addicted to the Internet back into  the habit of patronizing small stores, for their visual, tactile and social pleasures. This little initiative is as much about rebuilding a sense of community as it is about economic development.

Maybe Rhode Island should try this sort of experiment in, well,  Pawtucket – especially if the PawSox decide to become the WorSox.


Those vague 'common-law marriages'

No need to buy these.

No need to buy these.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The story of Kevin Gaugler, of East Providence, and his former-live in girlfriend, Angela Luis, reported in a July 1 Providence Journal story by Katie Mulvaney headlined “A Cautionary Tale: Long relationship is not a marriage,’’ is a cautionary tale about legal obligations and the lack thereof and the rootlessness of American life.

The five-year-long Gaugler-Luis case (the lawyers must have prospered!) involves Ms. Luis’s assertion that she and Mr. Gaugler were in a common-law marriage.  But the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in May that his 23-year relationship with Ms. Luis was not a common-law marriage. As  Ms. Mulvaney  noted: “Rhode Island is one of several states that leave it to the courts to determine whether a long-term relationship constitutes a common-law marriage.’’

Ms. Luis had big economic reasons for wanting the relationship to be declared a (kind of) marriage. It would have given her half the marital assets after they split up, including half the proceeds from selling a house that he had bought as well as his retirement accounts and insurance policy.

Complicating things were that he had helped raise Ms. Luis’s son as his own.

There’s enough disorder in American life. “Common law marriages’’ should be abolished and what we used to call “illegitimacy’’ (which is closely correlated with poverty) discouraged.  The states ought to encourage individuals to understand and take on the legal obligations of regular marriage, especially regarding children and property.


The great Newport dorm dispute

Ochre Court, at Salve Regina University.

Ochre Court, at Salve Regina University.

By Robert Whitcomb

This was written for

Town-gown battles are common. However, the current one in Newport, between Salve Regina University and some neighbors over the school’s plans to build two large undergraduate dormitories, is exotic because its campus is in a spectacular seaside area of mansions, beautiful landscaping and powerful, articulate and opinionated people. The proposed project would be on university-owned property bounded by Victoria, Shepard, Lawrence and Ruggles avenues – in the city’s famous Gilded Age mansion section.

The two dorms, one with 214 beds and the other with 196, would go in the National Historic Landmark District, Salve’s portion of which features 21 historic buildings, including Gilded Age mansions. The school lost 45 dorm beds last year when it sold Conley Hall, one of the reasons it cites for wanting to build the two new dorms. Junior and senior class students must now live off campus. The new dorms would house the juniors.

To move ahead to construction, the university needs, among other things, two special-use permits to build in such a district.

Salve is pushing to get the City Council to approve amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance very soon to allow this big project. Then the project could go on to the Planning Board this summer, and the Zoning Board and the city’s Historic  District Commission in the fall. The project’s foes would probably have their best chance of killing it in the last body.

Bill Hall, the school’s CFO/vice president for administration, told me that Salve wants to build the dorms because, he says, “the on-campus presence of all three classes will create a more cohesive, vibrant campus community where {more} students interact with each other as they study, work, play and serve together…..Having all three classes (freshpersons, sophomores and juniors) will also include more out-of-class interaction between students, faculty and staff as well as greater mentoring of younger students by older students.’’

Where should Salve's students be housed?

Salve also asserts, in its sales pitch to the city, that the dorms would, in Mr. Hall’s words, “help minimize the costs of providing public services for this population {of students}’’ – particularly regarding police and fire -- because on-campus Salve security and other personnel would take care of much of that. And he said that reducing the number of commuting students would ease parking problems on local streets; the juniors would park their cars in the new lots to serve the two dorms.

He denied that the dorm rooms would be used as summer rentals, including Airbnb’s, in that high-rent season – and said that they’d only be provided for conference attendees in the summer.  Still, Salve must be looking forward to gaining substantial new revenue from the new buildings in a time when many small colleges and universities have been struggling, forcing an increasing number to close every year.

But some (perhaps most) neighbors see red in this project, which they complain would irreparably damage the famous National Historic Landmark District. The fiercest foes are probably Judy and Laurence Cutler, who own the National Museum of American Illustration, which would abut one of the proposed dorms.  Judy Cutler is one of the leading scholars and collectors of classic American illustrations and Laurence is an internationally known architect.

The Cutlers say the project would create a “hot-house environment’’ in the famous neighborhood because of the size of the dorms and the many additional on-campus cars -- and thus parking spaces – associated with the new-dorm residents.  Indeed, foes say that the dorms would overwhelm the historic district.

As for Salve’s proposal to build them in something like the Shingle Style associated with Newport, she told me: “Simply adding wooden shingles and eaves doesn’t make a modern building fit into the existing historic neighborhood….The proposed designs appear incredibly artificial and look no different than standard low-cost housing projects and tenements’’. The neighborhood, “with open space, gardens and Gilded Age architecture, should not be sacrificed for profit-driven low-cost housing development.’’

Founders of the National American Illustration Museum oppose the Salve plan

Preserve Rhode Island also opposes the dorms. “The proposed buildings are much larger than adjacent historic buildings and so are out of scale with the surrounding historic area,” says a document signed by Valerie Talmadge, the organization’s executive director.

“The design and detailing of the new buildings is uniform and institutional, and therefore not characteristic of the district,” she wrote.

But Janet Robinson supports the “project as a resident within the historic district and as a taxpayer.” But then, she’s chairwoman of the Salve board of trustees! She’s also a former president and chief executive of The New York Times Co.

“The architectural design of the two residential buildings is outstanding and is very much in keeping with the current architecture represented in the area,” Robinson has asserted.

 “The size, scale and mass of the buildings are all very appropriate’’ and “The landscaping that is proposed to complement these buildings will make an important contribution to the arboretum nature of the entire neighborhood.’’ The Cutlers, whose Newport property includes an arboretum designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, take strenuous exception to that last assertion.

It seems obvious to me that many neighbors would be happy if Salve didn’t add any new buildings to its generally beautiful and highly eccentric campus anchored by nicely retrofitted old mansions. But as Mary Emerson, of Wetmore Avenue, told the Newport Historic District Commission: “If the dorms must be built, and Salve is determined to use that style {what she calls “mock-shingle’’}, then they must make the dorms smaller…Several smaller dorms, in lieu of the proposed prison-like structures….would be much fairer neighbors to nearby buildings.’’

However, Mr. Hall, while saying that the university is open to compromise, such as on building design and materials and laying down “porous’’ parking surfaces for the students’ cars in order to reduce water-runoff problems, the cost of putting up, say, four smaller dorms instead of two big ones would be prohibitive – four elevators instead of two and so on.

I’d guess that the Historic District Commission will turn down the dorms’ current size and that in the end something a bit smaller will go up. Meanwhile, look for a long, hot summer on the issue, despite the cooing ocean breezes.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of New England Diary.


The freedom to be trapped in traffic


From Robert Whitcomb's  "Digital Diary,'' in

"Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.''

-- Ambrose Bierce

That America is increasingly a plutocracy and not a democracy might be suggested by a story in The New York Times headlined “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country.’’ The story details how the Koch lobbying group Americans for Prosperity has been working to block efforts around to address gridlock and air pollution. The Koches, who inherited their company, Koch Industries, from daddy use highly sophisticated data-analysis tools to sow fear, misunderstanding and confusion about projects they don’t like.

The Times story focuses on Nashville, whose voters, after an intense propaganda campaign by the Kochs, turned down a $5.4 billion public-transit program that polling before the Kochs arrived had been expected to easily win because the Music City is choking on car traffic and air pollution.


Good mass transit reduces traffic, boosts economic  development and reduces air pollution. (I’d add warily it also helps to address man-made global warming but most Republicans don’t seem to believe in that. After all, what do 97 percent of scientists know?) It’s no accident that the richest U.S. cities – New York, Boston, etc., have dense (if far from perfect!) mass-transit systems.


Koch servant Tori Venable, who runs Americans for Prosperity, came up with an intriguing remark on why the car culture should continue dominant in crowded cities: “If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, they’re not going to choose to public transit.’’ Eh? Millions of people take mass transit every day because they want the freedom to nap, to read, to brood, and to avoid being hit by the idiot weaving in and out of lanes while texting.

Among the assorted inane things that Koch-connected people say about public   transit  came from Randal O’Toole,  of the Cato Institute, who said “Why would anybody ride transit when they can get a ride at their door within a minute that will drop them off at the door where they want to go?’’

Well, how about those folks who don’t want to be trapped in traffic, which ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber are making much worse in many downtowns.  Buses, trolleys and light rail take cars off the roads. And what about poor people who can’t afford to pay ride-hailing services (which jack up their prices substantially at job-commuting times)?

Rarely do the Koch Brothers act for any other reasons than economic self-interest, e.g.,- promoting wide-open immigration to keep wages low and tax cuts focused on the very rich. So consider that Koch Industries is a big producer of gasoline and asphalt and makes a variety of automotive parts. The more  that people drive, the richer these billionaires become. To read The Times piece, please hit this link.

Of course, the Kochs can fly over the traffic in their helicopters.


Robert Whitcomb: Boston transit trials and triumphs

MBTA trolley bus.

MBTA trolley bus.


From, Robert Whitcomb's Boston Diary, in The Boston Guardian, where a version of this piece first ran.

A  little historical perspective is needed as we whine about MBTA  delays and cancellations (especially during and after winter storms) and gridlocked street traffic.

The fact is that Boston  has much better mass transit now than it had, say, three decades ago. Most importantly, there’s a lot more of it available. And for all their occasional breakdowns, the MBTA subway cars, trolleys, buses and commuter trains are generally in better condition than they were when I lived in Boston fulltime, almost 50 years ago.  (These days I ride MBTA subways and commuter rail once or twice a month.)

And consider the South Station bus-train complex at the center of the MBTA empire: for decades a depressing, dirty domain for derelicts. Now it’s a spectacular intermodal center, served by more subway, commuter rail and bus lines than a generation  ago,  as well as by  Amtrak’s semi-high-speed Acela. I love that the MBTA’s still newish Silver Line will take you  directly to Logan Airport from the complex.


I can well remember when young having to wait for a bus  across the street from South Station --   a creepy area dominated by the dubious Essex Hotel and frequented by panhandling bums, sexual predators and sexual businesspeople, among my other pals.  (“Hey, cutie, have a light?’’) I had to take a bus because for a long time there were no trains to the South Shore, where I had relatives, the old New Haven Railroad having long since collapsed. Finally, the MBTA extended  rail commuter lines down there.

And the burying of the Central Artery and related Big Dig work has  often smoothed traffic and made downtown Boston more attractive and  thus more prosperous.

The rebuilding/expansion of the Back Bay MBTA-Amtrak station will further improve life for transiteers. The station now is dank, dark and cave-like – an unsettling entry for travelers entering the gorgeous Copley Square neighborhood.

Now,  if they could finally directly connect  South and North Stations so  that you could take an Amtrak or commuter train to north of Boston from south of it without having to  get off at South Station and go to North Station by MBTA, cab or Lyft or Ube -- the current ridiculous situation. And more ferries, please, including on the Charles River.

Of  course, Boston street traffic is  often horrendous.  That’s in part because  the city has a dense public-transit system, which makes it more prosperous, which brings in more businesses and individuals, which clogs the streets and spawns the need for more mass transit, etc.  At the same time, far, far too many people persist in driving their cars everywhere in this compact city.  

Uber and Lyft have also worsened traffic, by putting many more vehicles on the road to serve cell-phone dependents who might otherwise have taken the subway, trolleys or buses. Boston needs to get many more people into transport  that takes up much less room on the streets than all these cars with one passenger. That means we need more and better buses, not that I will ride in one.

Robert Whitcomb is president of The Boston Guardian, editor of New England Diary and a columnist.




Pot in the air


From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary, in

As Rhode Island, Massachusetts and some other states (if not the Feds) loosen laws against marijuana cultivation  and use, pot smokers are becoming increasingly noxious neighbors in apartment and condo buildings. I have noticed the rich aroma of the stuff in some buildings and certainly on many sidewalks.

Reminder: Marijuana cultivation, sale and use are still prohibited under federal law, which presents considerable confusion in states that allow  sale and use of the stuff anyway. The Feds have long looked the other way on this, fearing that the federal law is just too difficult to enforce, considering some states’ policies and that millions of people regularly smoke pot.

Non-pot smokers are being forced to inhale this psychotropic smoke, which, to say the least, is unhealthy. Of  course, breathing second-hand tobacco smoke is bad for you, too, but it doesn’t affect your clarity of mind as marijuana smoke does. In some places, you can become involuntarily intoxicated.

Pot has become such a big business and tax-revenue supplier that, barring rigorous enforcement of federal laws still on the books, the problem of second-hand smoke can only get worse. And I laugh at the argument that states’ effective legalization of the weed primarily serves as a way to alleviate physical pain. Most people smoking pot just want to get mildly or very stoned for the pleasure of it, and there’s much profit and tax money to be made from the stuff.

To read an entertaining Boston Globe story on second-hand pot smoke, please hit this link.