May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.

July 21, 2016: Community Path Lessons from the Minuteman Trail

Belmont Citizen-Herald: July 21, 2016

My wife and I really aren’t bicyclists.  We had let our bikes gather dust in the garage for several years, victims of the “tomorrow-I’ll-have-more-time” syndrome.  Unfortunately, as Annie says, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

But, having passed the milestone of “turning 60” awhile back, and now moving ever so surely toward “comfortably in our 60s,” this summer, in a nod toward keeping fit, we pulled our bikes down off their hooks, had them tuned-up at Wheelworks, and declared ourselves ready to explore the western ‘burbs and beyond.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we headed down the Goden Street hill –not worrying, yet, about how we would get back up it—glided around the High School parking lot, and were surprised at how quickly we reached Alewife using the path along the train tracks.  We then hung a left and headed out toward Lexington on the Minuteman Trail.

That’s when the day’s education began.  Our ride on this warm summer day was an experiential lesson, a class on the difference between a “bike path” and a “community path.”

For our voyage, we intentionally waited until late afternoon, thinking that we might perhaps miss the bulk of the day’s traffic.  But the users of the Minuteman Trail surpassed all expectations. There were walkers galore, ranging from young adults to the aged.  Single walkers, couples, families with young children aplenty.

Some groups of people ambled, clearly enjoying each other’s company; other folks were plugged into their headphones, removed from the world around them.

People traveled on wheels as well.  Some were pushed in strollers, while others glided on blades.  One little boy pulled a classic little red wagon, though I couldn’t tell whether his passenger was a Teddy Bear or a puppy. A young girl with training wheels pedaled furiously to keep up with her parents.

Not everyone was exceedingly careful. Just as I was getting comfortable in looking up and around, in addition to straight ahead, as I plodded along, two 10-year olds raced by, their attention focused exclusively on some finish line existing only in their imaginations.

There were the serious bikers, who view their cycles as a mode of transportation, while there were others, like us, who view their cycles as a mode of exercise.

I’ve followed the community path debate in Belmont in recent years. I’ve attended the meetings, studied the maps, read the reports.  But, as my wife and I rode along that day, it struck me that I was experiencing exactly what Belmont’s community path advocates have been seeking to communicate for years.  We weren’t simply on a bike path.  We were on a path that promoted community cohesion and shared community experiences.

In my mind, I tried to lift that trail out of the woods through Arlington and Lexington, and place it along Concord Ave. in Belmont.  I couldn’t make it happen. I just couldn’t place someone pushing their stroller down that busy thoroughfare. I couldn’t see a dad worrying about his young daughter’s biking skills on a quality-time jaunt while the cars whizz by.  I could see two tweens obliviously darting their bikes into traffic as they pass the “old guy” poking along as he rode.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t envision that path, with the community members we were passing, located along Concord Avenue.

If you don’t understand why siting part of Belmont’s community path along Concord Ave. is unsatisfactory, I invite you to spend a few hours some summer afternoon traversing the Minuteman Trail starting at Alewife.  You, too, will experience the meaning of a true community path and what it would mean to Belmont.

October 8, 2015: Requiem for a good friend of local parks

Belmont Citizen-Herald: October 8, 2015

It is with great sadness that I report last week’s passing away of a good friend to local parks. When Congress approved last-minute funding to keep the federal government open for another few months, it failed to include dollars for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  At midnight on September 30th, the LWCF expired.

The LWCF was created by a large bipartisan Congressional majority in 1964.  In the past 50 years, the Fund has invested nearly $17 billion in federal, state and local parks.  The LWCF repaired a broken sewer system to keep a local beach open; funded local walking trails; and purchased land for national parks and monuments.  The LWCF funded nearly 90% of the National Memorial in Storystown, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11.  It funded nearly two-thirds of the Appalachian Trail.  Overall, in its 50 year history, the LWCF supported more than 42,000 projects in 98% of the counties throughout the nation.

All of this was accomplished while costing taxpayers not one thin dime.  The LWCF is. . .or rather was. . .funded entirely by royalties from the offshore oil and gas industry.

Until the very end, the LWCF remained a popular program.  Recently, 67 U.S. Senators signed a letter to their colleagues supporting the LWCF’s renewal.  In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution, sponsored by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (amongst others), supporting the program.  The Mayors properly noted that “parks support public health, workforce development, local economies, the environment, education, and community cohesion, which are critical to creating resilient, livable and vibrant cities.”

Much has been said in recent months about “green space” in Belmont.  The most obvious discussion has related to the relative merits of competing green space proposals for Belmont Center.  Other local issues, however, should not get lost in the shadow of that Belmont Center debate.  The Grove Street Park comprehensive planning process, which must balance the preservation of green space with the provision of space for active recreation, has been in play for some time.  A letter writer to the Citizen-Herald expressed concern this summer about the seeming lack of attention devoted to maintaining Clay Pit Pond.  Just a few years back, Town Meeting was asked to weigh two legitimate but competing interests, the preservation of the historic Clark House versus the preservation of the open space along the train tracks by the Lion’s Club.

Though perhaps smaller in magnitude than Belmont’s big ticket open space issues such as the preservation of the McLean open space and the effort to preserve the Belmont Uplands, the intensity of feeling generated by each of these issues only goes to show, right here in Belmont, that the Conference of Mayors was correct when it referenced the role of parks and open space in “creating resilient, livable and vibrant” communities.

The demise of the LWCF presents clear local lessons for Belmont.  What we may assume is permanent, indeed universally acclaimed, can be lost almost before you realize it.  Moreover, what is lost is generally lost for good.  With these thoughts in mind, perhaps it is time for Belmont to update its “five-year” open space and recreation plan (last updated seven years ago).  Perhaps it is time, also, to think more about where “open space” planning fits into the operation of Town government. It would seem to be outside the purview of the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and Recreation Commission, each of which has its related, but more narrowly focused, job to do.

In the meantime, rest in peace, LWCF.  Let us learn what we can from your life and untimely passing.