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Bike Initiatives on a Roll North of Boston
Dec 10th, 2015 by

(We interrupt these recipes for a word about bike safety. This is an article I wrote and a video I created about bike accidents in communities north of Boston. It was published in the Boston Sunday Globe on Nov. 29, 2015.)

By Mark Micheli

It happened to cigarette smokers and drunk drivers.

Richard Fries believes the next major shift in what’s not socially acceptable will zero in on impatient motorists, bicyclists, and even pedestrians.

“It used to be acceptable to be drunk and drive,” said Fries, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. “It used to be acceptable to smoke — in a school. And here we are again. The times are changing.”

Fries said he is expecting — and fighting for — a world where bicyclists not only feel safe on the roads, but that they belong there and they matter. And he believes communities north of Boston — with a few exceptions — are working toward that end.

  • In Somerville, they’re planning the city’s first elevated bike lanes, to be separated from traffic by a curb and the sidewalk by a buffer zone with plants.
  • In Salem, they’re planning to connect the Salem State campus and the Marblehead Rail Trail to an off-road path reaching into downtown. That trail could eventually join the off-road East Coast Greenway stretching from Canada to Florida.
  • Beverly and Lowell this year adopted the Complete Streets program, which requires city engineers to consider all users when improving roadways, making accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians where appropriate.
  • There’s work being done to connect rail trails in Topsfield and Boxford, as well as trails in Amesbury, Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury.
  • This year, a portion of the Northern Strand Trail was built in Revere, providing the missing link to create 7½ miles of continuous off-road riding from Everett, through Malden, Revere, and Saugus, to the Lynn line.

For Fries, it’s all about the realization that many bicyclists ride not for recreation, but out of necessity to get to jobs, schools, to shop, or simply to use their cars less. And that, he said, is why off-road trails, in combination with on-road accommodations, are needed.

“We’re not talking about working out,’’ he said. “We’re talking about expanding people’s radius of unmotorized travel to about a 3-mile radius.

“Imagine if they built 5 miles of the interstate highway and then you had to drive 10 miles more to get to the next section? That’s where we’re at right now in the construction of bike facilities.”

Somerville, he said, leads the regional pack on bike-friendly accommodations, with more than 30 miles of painted bike lanes, eight bike boxes — areas painted on roadways where bicyclists can wait in front of motorists for the light to change — and a police department more concerned with why someone violated a road rule than issuing citations.

“Our police force is so good at this,’’ said Brad Rawson, the city’s director of transportation and infrastructure. “I see it all the time in my daily commute.”

“They ask them ‘Why are you running a red light? Why are you riding a bicycle the wrong way down a street? Why are you crossing mid-block?’ Those types of things,” said Bonnie Polin, chief safety analyst with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. MassDOT gave $40,000 to Somerville this year for extra police details to work at problem intersections. She said some safety improvements have come from the answers police get.

The 12 communities the state chose for the extra details program — a list that includes Salem, Haverhill, and Lynn — have the highest ratio of bicycle and pedestrian crashes compared with total accidents, Polin said.

Somerville has some of the region’s worst hot spots for bicycle accidents: Four of the state’s top 10 bicycle crash clustersare in the city. Overall, according to MassDOT statistics, Somerville has 13 such clusters where 589 accidents occurred from 2004 through 2013. One was deadly; 382 others involved injuries.

The city seems to be zeroing in on the problem spots; the plan to build elevated bike lanes along Beacon Street, from Inman Square to Cambridge’s Porter Square, is one of the solutions officials envision. Some 300 bicyclists per hour travel that route during morning and evening rush hours, said Rawson.

In Lynn, both the severity of bike problems and the city’s response are quite different. The city doesn’t make the top 10 list on accidents, but it is home to three bicycle crash clusters where 41 accidents occurred from 2004 through 2013. Twenty-four of those accidents involved injuries, and one a death.

There are no plans to fix those spots, said James Marsh, the city’s community development director, who said that narrow roadways make such work all but impossible. He said Lynn is instead focused on a much larger project to develop its waterfront, which would include three pedestrian bridges over the Lynnway, where he said two or three people have been killed in recent years. Those plans, however, are years from design and completion.

To Fries, Lynn is the least bike-friendly community north of Boston. It has no bike lanes, he said, and is the last holdout to approve the Northern Strand Trail from Everett to Nahant Beach. Similarly, Swampscott is the last town to agree to completion of the Marblehead Rail Trail, which some abutters — not town officials — are delaying. Filling in those two gaps would create an off-road path from the North Shore into Boston.

Barbara Jacobson, who works with municipal officials as program manager at the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, said there is little political will in Lynn to support bicycling. Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Still, the city has taken some safety steps. It took part in the program that provided money for more detail officers at dangerous intersections, said Lynn Police Sergeant Ned Shinnick, and it conducted two bicycle and pedestrian safety audits. In addition, it will likely add shared bicycle/motorist lane markings on Lynnfield Street as part of a new project.

Some communities require a push to become more bike-friendly. Last year, Lowell considered removing newly painted bike lanes from Father Morissette Boulevard, but bike advocates fought back, packing a City Council hearing. Now the city is working on better markings for those lanes, said Nicolas Bosonetto, Lowell transportation engineer.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,’’ said Bosonetto. “As more people come back to the urban center they’re expecting more amenities, more walkability, more bicycling accommodations, more transit.”

“I believe the next frontier in bicycle advocacy is not the hip, happening, Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., Cambridge, Somerville, Manhattan,” said Fries. “I think it’s the Brocktons, and the Lynns, and the Lowells. Those are the communities where folks can really use good basic bike infrastructure.”

Bicycle safety improvements underway north of Boston

Beverly

  • Road projects considering bicyclists and pedestrians are planned for Bridge Street; the Beverly/Salem bridge; Routes 97 and 1A; and River Street.
  • Bike lanes to be painted on Brimble Avenue, with plans to add shared bicycle/pedestrian paths.
  • Signs, shared lane markings, and possible traffic-calming measures are planned for Cabot Street.

Haverhill

  • Improvements along the Merrimack River and boardwalk will include accommodations for bicyclists, pedestrians.

Lowell

  • Plans to connect off-road paths.
  • Working with state to make VFW Highway safer for all users.
  • Working with UMass Lowell to make Pawtucket Street safer for bicyclists, pedestrians. ? Safety improvements at VFW Highway/Bridge Street intersection, including realigning road and shortening pedestrian bridge.
  • Planned redevelopment project to make Lowell Overpass safer.

Lynn

  • Planned waterfront project could include three pedestrian bridges over Lynnway and boardwalk connecting to Lynn Shore Drive.
  • Shared bicycle/motorist lane markings on Lynnfield Street.

Salem

  • Accommodations along Bridge Street to the train station.
  • More bike lanes planned for Lafayette Street (Route 114).
  • Off-road path planned along Canal Street to connect Salem State campus and the Marblehead Rail Trail to the downtown.

Somerville

  • Spring construction start planned for first elevated bike lanes, along Beacon Street from Cambridge’s Porter Square to Inman Square.
  • Safety improvements for Holland Street south of Teele Square. ? Safety improvements are being studied for Elm Street near Davis Square.

SOURCES: Cities, towns, and the Mass. Bicycle Coalition.

Mark Micheli can be reached at markfmiceli@gmail.com.

Picture Perfect Bread
Apr 3rd, 2013 by

Head baker and manager Ben Tock of Bricco Panetteria in Boston's North End.

Head baker and manager Ben Tock of Bricco Panetteria in Boston's North End. (Photo by Mark Micheli)

I wrote a story for the Boston Globe about a North End bakery that specializes in old world Italian bread.

I thought a Globe photographer was scheduled to take photos at the same time I was at the bakery. When he didn’t show up, I took back-up photos.

Later, I found out he came and took the photos at another time. Those photos were used to accompany the article. I hate to waste anything, so I’m sharing some of the photos I took here. Surprisingly the one taken by the Globe and used with the article is nearly identical to one of the photos I took (above).


Old World Italian Breads Are Baked in an Alley in the North End

By Mark Micheli
Boston Globe Correspondent

The ingredients (as noted in the sign) are what sets this bread apart from others made in the U.S.

The ingredients (as noted in the sign) are what sets this bread apart from others made in the U.S. (Photo by Mark Micheli)

From the moment you turn off busy Hanover Street in the North End and into the alley, you know you’re in for a treat. A sign reading “Fresh Artisan Breads ” hangs on an old fire escape. Open the glass door at the end of the lane and the heady smell of fermenting yeast and flour rises up the stairs. Who knew a trip to a bakery could end up being a five-minute escape to Europe?

Restaurateur and North End resident Frank DePasquale opened Bricco Panetteria about a year ago to supply handmade Italian and French breads to his eateries. The tiny bakery is located in an alley behind Bricco. “I really didn’t think people were going to find it,” says DePas-quale, owner of Trattoria Il Panino, Mare Oyster Bar, Umbria Prime, Bricco Ristorante & Enoteca, and the new Quattro Ristorante-Grill-Pizzeria. “It’s almost like the traditions in Italy or France, where you go down an alley and find a little hidden secret.”

People are finding it. Once inside, you head down a flight of stairs and see one or two bakers working in a small white-tiled room. They’re rolling dough, pulling bread from the ovens, or stacking loaves on a large rack. Head baker and manager Ben Tock, 23, is making 1,300 loaves “on a good day,” he says. The Johnson and Wales grad worked at Au Soleil, the catering arm of L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre.

All of the breads are made by hand, following old world practices and recipes developed by Tock.

All of the breads are made by hand, following old world practices and recipes developed by Tock. (Photo by Mark Micheli)

Breads include ciabatta, a French sourdough miche, which is a puffy round, a baguette stuffed with Parmigiano and prosciutto, and the best-selling olive baguette. All have a crisp crust with a little char and lots of holes in the crumb, like you’d find in an Old World bakery. That was what DePasquale had in mind: to bring back the bread he enjoys on frequent trips to Italy.

“It’s very different,” says Michele Topor, who runs Boston Food Tours and has lived in the North End for more than 40 years. “The bread stores we’ve had are great, but they’re more Italian-American. This is more authentic, very flavorful, more airy and chewy.”“We use unbleached, unbromated flour, which is hard to come by,” Tock says. The baker also uses some white, silky 00 Italian flour. “We don’t use any additives or preservatives. And there’s no added sugar.”

Tock explains that breads are made with preferments, using a piece of dough that has fermented for 12 to 18 hours before mixing it with more flour, water, and salt to make a final dough. Because of this, all the breads take between 18 to 36 hours to make. “This fermentation allows for more development of flavor,” he says. “It allows us to get the nice texture, the crumb.”

Getting to this point took time. Before the store opened, Tock worked on the recipes to get them just right. Some of the breads took only a week or two, but others, like the French sourdough miche, took two months to perfect.

“The processes are old methods, but the way I do it down there is my way.”

Bricco Panetteria 241 Hanover St. (rear), North End, Boston. 617-248-9859,www.bricco.com.

The View From Spectacle Island (Audio Slideshow)
Aug 24th, 2009 by

Island visitors scrambled for shelter as a storm approached.

Island visitors scrambled for shelter as a storm approached. (All photos by Mark Micheli)

(Click here or the photo above to see a slideshow of Spectacle Island. To watch it full screen, click on the arrows in the lower right corner of the slideshow.)

This place used to be a dump. But you wouldn’t know that now.

Spectacle Island, one of the closest islands to Boston in the harbor, is now pastural, peaceful, and offers some of the best views of the Boston skyline.  But starting in the late 1850s, this island was abused: first by locating a repulsively pungent factory that rendered dead horses for hides, horsehair and glue there and later in 1921 by turning it into a solid waste dump for the City of Boston.

The dumping of garbage there ended in 1959 but it wasn’t until the 1990s that a plan to revive the island began. Fill from Boston’s Third Harbor Tunnel project, commonly referred to as the “Big Dig”, was used to cap the former dump and create a landscaped park.

In the early 19th century, before it was abused, Spectacle Island was a resort for Bostonians and featured two hotels where illegal gambling allegedly flourished.

The island now has returned to its earliest roots, before man was allowed to tinker with it. And it’s expected to stay that way because all of the Boston Harbor Islands became part of the national park system in 1996 and are protected from development.

‘Beacon Hill’ Backyard Makeover (Slideshow included)
Aug 3rd, 2009 by

Here's the RootsLiving backyard after a "Beacon Hill" makeover.

Here's the RootsLiving backyard after a "Beacon Hill" makeover.

(Click here or the photo above to see a slideshow of the new backyard. To watch it full screen, click on the arrows in the lower right corner of the slideshow.)

Last year, I wanted to turn my small backyard in Malden, Mass. into something rivaling a Beacon Hill garden.

And this is what the yard looked like before the makeover.

And this is what the yard looked like before the makeover.

My home is right outside of Malden Square and friends and family are often surprised at the amount of privacy we have: we have more privacy in the heart of the city than most people have in more suburban neighborhoods.

Yet, the yard was run down so I sought inspiration on Beacon Hill. Every year the Beacon Hill Garden Club has a tour of the hidden gardens there and so as news editor of Boston.com I conveniently decided I would create a photo gallery of the tour.

I knew I wanted to replace the old, crumbling asphalt walkway with bricks and extend the brickwork into a small patio. I also knew I wanted to add some small trees and bushes along the back fence. And I also knew none of this would be cheap, so I did what I usually do before starting a big project: I consulted a design expert so I wouldn’t miss any unforeseen opportunities to improve the yard.

This peace of mind cost about $250. For that, landscape designer Sally Muspratt came to my house and gave me suggestions for about an hour. She liked my basic plan and told me the best way to accomplish it by making a few structural suggestions and by letting me know what plants would do well in each area of the yard.

Here's another look at my urban oasis before improvements were made.

Here's another look at my urban oasis before improvements were made.

And here's the after-shot of the same scene, after the work was done.

And here's the "after" shot of the same scene.

The most important thing she told me was not to waste money planting along the back fence, because a Norway Maple tree in the neighbor’s yard was putting its roots into my yard and would make it difficult for anything to survive. Instead, she suggested I build raised beds there where small trees and shrubs would be able to put down their roots.

I decided to buy the raised beds online at a site called, Naturalyards. And I also decided to buy two trellises; one in each raised bed at Trellis Structures. My friend, Jay Martinez (who works in engineering) supervised and helped install the trellises and build the beds. He also lent me his wheelbarrow, which came in handy when the local nursery dumped five yards of dirt in my driveway for the beds.

The two L-shapped raised beds are mirror images of each other. I planted the same plants in the same location in each one: two Japanese Stewartia trees; two climbing hydrangeas to climb up the trellises; two Japanese Maple trees; six low-bush blueberry plants; two Virginia Sweetspire; and two Redvein Enkianthus.

A look at the side yard before the makeover.

A look at the side yard before the makeover.

And a look at the side yard now.

And a look at the side yard now. Bricks replaced broken asphalt and cobblestones replaced crumbling cement borders.

All of the plants are historically accurate to go with my 1848 house. In other words, most of these plants were readily available in the Boston area during the second half of the 19th century.

For the brick walkway and patio, I got three bids and they ranged from about $5,000 to $15,000. I went with the lowest bid, not only because of the price, but also because I had used these masons before and was a big fan of their work.

After the structural elements were in place, I tended to the smaller details: replacing an old, worn out patio table with a funky, painted, farm table; adding urns, window boxes and planters filled with flowers; and even stepping up the efficiency of my barbecue area by adding a baker’s rack someone was throwing out in the trash.

I may not be able to afford to live on Beacon Hill just yet, but now when I step in my yard, I feel like I’ve arrived.

(Photos and text by Mark Micheli)

Check out other RootsLiving home projects.

Best Coffee and Spice, and at a Reasonable Price
Jul 20th, 2009 by

Revere resident Bobby Eustace bought the old shop from Ralph Polcari in 2004. Eustace started working at the shop as a teen.

Revere resident Bobby Eustace bought the old shop from Ralph Polcari in 2004. Eustace started working at the shop as a teen. Click the photo for more information on Eustace.

When you walk into Polcari’s Coffee store in Boston’s North End it’s like walking back in time: a very fragrant time.

The scent of more than 40 different types of coffee beans mingles with the scent of a 100 different freshly ground spices to create one savory and sweet aroma. I imagine if this symphony of aromas came from one dish, it would be one giant parmesan casserole or perhaps a huge pizza pie, topped with something sweet — maybe apples or caramelized onions.

The place is also a feast for the eyes. It’s old world, old school, and full of tradition, with wooden shelves holding glass bins of blackish, brown coffee beans, greenish, gray teas, and multi-colored spices.

Polcari's is one of a few shops in the North End that looks the same as it did 50 years ago.

Polcari's is one of a few shops in the North End that looks the same as it did 50 years ago.

There is a small deli area towards the back of the store and a vertical banner hangs on a wall promoting a summer feast of a patron saint where some customers have attached dollar bills. Usually, during good weather, you’ll see a half dozen old men sitting in beach chairs outside the shop on the narrow roadway catching up on the neighborhood news.

I visit the shop about every six weeks to buy the best coffee beans and loose teas, for the best prices. The mocha-java blend is about $7 a pound, about the same amount you’d pay for A&P brand coffee in the supermarket and this is so much better. The green gunpowder tea sells for $8 a pound. I think the same amount at Starbuck’s wanna-be Tealuxe, would cost you over $30.

Cooking students at a nearby restaurant stopped in to pick up some items as part of their shopping/scavenger hunt.

Cooking students at a nearby restaurant stopped in to pick up some items as part of their shopping/scavenger hunt.

But the reasonable prices are only part of the attraction. The quality is high, especially for the dried spices. Small plastic bags of oregano and basil, about the size of my hand, sell for only a buck and are pungent, not like those little plastic jars you get at the supermarket that often have the scent of sawdust.

Good eating is all about good cooking and good cooking is all about using the best ingredients. Most of my good meals start here.

My Favorite Picks

Mocha Java Coffee Beans. I buy all my coffee beans whole and then grind them up as I use them. The mocha java beans are a hearty, medium blend: not too strong or bitter. Earthy. A good everyday morning cup.
Green Gunpowder Tea. A medium strength tea. Lightly sweet. A fresh, grassy, taste with just a little bitterness. Served best with a little sugar or even peppermint. Makes a great, refreshing iced tea too. Healthy.
Italian Roast Coffee Beans. This is your dark, strong, espresso roast. Add a small piece of lemon peel, sugar, and a good quality dark rum for an after-dinner pick-me-up. Or simply add a splash of sambuca.
Russian Caravan Tea. This is often described as a tea for coffee drinkers. Very strong. Smells like smoke, some have even said, bacon. I love this tea hot, with cream and sugar.
Chamomile Tea. A very light, apple-sweet tea made from dried flowers. Many drink it to relieve stress or to help them go to sleep at night.

(Polcari’s is located at 105 Salem Street in Boston. All photos by Mark Micheli)

In Search of a Good Rose
Jul 17th, 2009 by

Michael Beier of Ruby Wines held a wine tasting at Brix Wine Shop this month.

Michael Beier of Ruby Wines held a wine tasting at Brix Wine Shop last night..

There’s a lot of talk in the wine world these days about roses. These pale pink concoctions used to be snubbed by many because of the bad rep they got from cheap, jug versions that were often bubble-gum sweet and left you with a pucker worthy of biting into a raw, tart lemon.

But no more: Gourmet Magazine recommends eight great rose wines this year. And a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in May that “there is simply nothing better on a warm afternoon, a salve for sun-drenched, heat-driven thirst.”

Free Wine Tasting

So with that in mind, I decided to get re-educated in rose by attending a wine tasting at the fashionable Brix Wine Shop on Broad Street in Boston. Four roses, all from France and all 2008 vintages, were available for tasting:

  1. Sancerre, Pinot Rose, made by Lucien Crochet for $34.99 a bottle.
  2. Cassis, made by Domaine Du Bagnol for $26.99 a bottle.
  3. Cotes du Ventuoux, made by Chateau Valcombe for $16.99 a bottle.
  4. And Syrah, made by Yves Cuilleron for $17.99 a bottle.

My favorite was one of the cheapest at $17.99 a bottle. Still, I wouldn't call it a bargain.

My favorite was one of the cheapest at $17.99 a bottle. Still, I wouldn't call it a bargain.

Surprisingly, the most expensive ones were not my favorites. They were very tart and without a clean finish. The cheapest Cotes du Ventuoux made with cinsault, grenache, and counoise grapes was mellow and not too tart. But my favorite was the next cheapest, the Syrah: medium-bodied, yet light and refreshing, with no pucker.

Does Price Equal Nice?

So does my love for cheaper wine mean my palate is off or not yet perfected? Certainly not.

“One of the enduring myths of wine appreciation is the idea that price is the greatest measure of quality. I can say with utter confidence that you don’t always get what you pay for - sometimes you get more!,” wine critic Robert Whitley wrote this month.

I’m still looking for more. Although the Syrah was decent, I know I can find better. I’ll continue to look over the summer. Meanwhile, if you have found an exceptional rose, please let me know.

(All photos by Mark Micheli)

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