Monday, June 12, 2006

I recently caught part two of PBS’s excellent four-part series, “Edens: Lost & Found,” which highlights four major American cities’ “practical solutions to improve the environment and quality of life.” Boston is not among the cities in the series, and while this doesn’t mean our city doesn’t have its little Edens, there does seem to be a slight reluctance these days to think outside of the box when it comes to bringing more of them about. Mayor Menino, himself a lover of community gardens, nonetheless seems more intent on building luxury-living towers to bring sketchy neighborhoods up to code, than pursuing human-scale, grassroots projects that inspire a sense of ownership and pride of place among residents of our more vulnerable communities.

Don’t get me wrong, Menino has done his share. But Boston can always be better. The community gardens are a start. But our neighborhood parks are in disrepair. Many, like my own Atheneum Park and Meaney Playground, where Ben Affleck recently filmed a scene from his new movie, are in an appalling state. What a shame that Atheneum Park, home to Dorchester’s first meeting house, is now a dilapidated playground where drug deals go down. This is not the city’s fault. The plot is under the jurisdiction of the perennially underfunded, understaffed Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is trying to get a “friends groups” program off the ground, to encourage public private partnerships to renew and maintain these parks.

While parts of Boston spiral further into violence, and the leadership of the police force is in disarray, a couple of meager stop-gap measures have been proposed: a gun buy-back and something called the Boston Police Alert Network, which will send scary updates on crimes in your neighborhood right to your cell phone. If you live in a neighborhood like mine and want to be constantly freaked out, subscribe today! The fact is, programs like these won’t do much to cure the epidemic of violence we face.

Which is where “Edens: Lost & Found” comes in. The series proposes something truly revolutionary: that working and playing together, that music and public art rescue individuals and communities from despair, and literally save lives. We seem to routinely forget what all of human history and culture, from the Paleolithic cave paintings of Chauvet to the magnificent public murals in Philly’s inner city reveal: that for human beings, art is not optional. It’s not merely what we do in our free time, it is what we are. It is our essence.

We owe the current rise in violence partly to that periodic resurgence of meanness that has always plagued society. And when I say meanness, I mean that smallness of spirit that esteems greed over all, even when what we hoard, rich and poor alike, gives us no real satisfaction. Our destructive energies are the cancer at the heart of our creative potential. In the absence of hope, violence is a substitute for art.

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