NaBloPoMo

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month and for it I’m doing an alternate universe of a reunion of a trip I took back in college of friends I and others haven’t seen in years. If anyone wants to follow my progress,  ask me for the link to my page there and I’ll gladly share you my info there.

This morning, my wife shared me a link about NaBloPoMo, a similar campaign for bloggers. I’ve neglected this blog lately between finishing grad school, job searching, and precarious finances and I should take this challenge to stay fresh.

I’ll be doing this challenge though it may be a bit different than you’ve come to expect.  It won’t be 30 reviews and it may not even be wholly MBTA, but going into the archives and outside 128 might be a fun thing to try. Stay tuned!

Eliot

A year ago yesterday was Columbus Day. For much of the day, the sky around Greater Boston resembled a used sponge in that it was saturated and grey, more a certainty for the sky than the sponge. This was at the outset of my month-long detour within sight of Winchester Center and I had an appointment that afternoon for orientation for a job I’ve long left.

Said orientation was in Needham. How does one get sans car/128 from Winchester to Needham. The suggestions I got from Google and from HopStop (which I highly recommend) had three ways.

1: A four-bus journey taking the 134 to Medford Square, the 96 from there to Harvard, the 71 to Watertown Square, walk across the Charles to Watertown Square, and get the 59 there.

2: A second four-bus journey involving a ¾ mile walk to Route 3 to get the 350, taking that to Arlington Center (or anywhere between there and the Arlington/Cambridge line) to get the 77, onto Harvard then the 71 and 59.

3: Lowell Line to North Station, then the Green Line from there to Eliot (switch from the C/E to the D included), and a 1¼ mile walk through Newton Upper Falls into Needham.

As much as I wanted to have a reason to ride the 59 and 96, logistics and a FiOS installation made the third option the best. Why on holidays the Commuter Rail runs on weekday headways but buses run on Saturday headways amazes me. My journey took me through the tranquility of Winchester and west Medford to the more urban Somerville to the starkness of the final approach into North Station, then eventually the wooded nature of the D branch. About 80 minutes later, I got off at Eliot and found a semi-unlikely location for a transit station.

Eliot is surrounded by trees (some of which would fall victim to Superstorm Sandy three weeks later) and is on a hill offset to the north side of Route 9, at that point a divided four-lane highway. Access to Route 9 West is down a set of stairs leading directly from the Inbound platform, access to Route 9 East involves a pedestrian bridge crossing the highway. Actual access to the station is via a series of side streets and there is a small parking lot for those who drive into the station. Unless you’re one of the few people who can park here or live within walking distance, there isn’t much within reasonable walking distance of Eliot save for homes at first look. Even the portion of Route 9 it is along is largely residential with the requisite CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts about a ½ mile away and its position being sandwiched halfway between Route 128 and the office parks of eastern Wellesley and the burgeoning Chestnut Hill retail district. And to be honest, it does its role well the way that the Boston & Albany intended so many decades ago.

Getting off, I realized that as much as Eliot seems secluded, it plays a role of sorts in that it is the main transit connection for that part of Route 9. The 52 and 59 are within a mile but their schedules lack in contrast to the D while the primary bus for the Route 9 corridor, the 60, ends two miles to the east. As much as walking along Route 9 isn’t the best, this option is better than nothing for those in the area either to work or live. It’s the open-air equal to Forest Glen on the Washington Metro, a similarly isolated station which has a purpose, no matter how unconventional it may be. And isn’t that why the outer part of the D became a success?

As for my walk of doom: Newton Upper Falls goes from houses oddly enough to industrial. Somewhere there is an abandoned kosher Chinese restaurant. And crossing the Charles again, there’s a sign feting Aly Raisman attached under the “Entering Needham” sign. Would I do it again? Not on a time limit.

Station: Eliot
Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: Mostly locals with some people walking around Route 9. If memory serves me right, about 15 people got off with me when I did and the distribution was equal between directions.

Pros: It serves a population, especially to the west and south of the station, that otherwise would have no transit. The pedestrian bridge over Route 9 also provides a much needed crossing for those on foot looking to get from one side to another as by this point Route 9 is impossible to cross safely on foot otherwise.

Cons: Unless you live near there or work near there, there is only one reason to be here which you’ll see below. Also, that pedestrian bridge could use a little TLC as it’s showing its age. The lack of wheelchair accessibility hurts here too.

Nearby and Noteworthy: It took some work, but the one thing outside of random suburban walks I could find is Eliot is not far from the Cochituate and Sudbury Aqueducts, both of which have walking trails. There is a two-mile loop on the latter trail which connects to Newton Centre. Maybe I should come here again…

North Station

Tonight, the Bruins will take to the ice for a (full) season of hockey which hopefully unlike the last one will lead to another Stanley Cup and a banner raising. Of the over 17,000 going to a game, I would venture to guess that two-thirds will walk outside of TD Garden concourse to make their way to North Station. The majority of those will continue outside to the “Superstation” underneath for access to the Green and Orange lines as opposed to the northside commuter rail terminus they passed. This is a story of two stations….or four….or five. Cue the Zombie Nation!

Right off the Garden concourse is the mainline North Station, commuter rail hub for points north (and thanks to the listing nature of the Fitchburg Line, some which are actually WSW such as Belmont and Waltham) and terminal for Amtrak’s Downeaster to Maine. The relatively recent remodel has made the station look pretty modern while actually giving enough space for commuters and event goers to peacefully exist on certain nights. This is quite the improvement over the cramped concourse from the mid-1980s rebuild of North Station, one built without ever thinking it would be attached to an arena with 3500 more seats than its predecessor.

Under North Station and right down the street is the subway station of the same name. The current incarnation of North Station [Under] is one of the crown jewels of the MBTA system with its modern decor and its ingenious cross platform transfer setup between the inbound Green (C and E branches) and Orange Lines and not much effort to get between the two lines going outbound. Given the double duty that it has to do its namesake rail terminal right above and the Garden right behind that – often with both colliding – it does its job well and is probably the most well thought out transfer station on The T, granted it has decades over its competition. In terms of transit/arena access, it isn’t to the level of Madison Square Garden/Penn Station or Forum Centre Bell/Lucien L’Allier ingeniousness, but compared to others it might be seen as enviable. However, it always hasn’t been the case.

Growing up in eastern New York, I was blessed enough to see and use both “original” North Stations, the Causeway Street El station and the old surface station (I also was lucky enough to tour the Original Garden). Seeing the skyline and both Gardens – and for a couple years, seeing both was possible – was a sight that sadly future generations won’t be able to see from that vantage point. However, the cost of the charm and the views and that area being defined by the El had its prices: there was a single staircase for entry and exit, a single token machine, and if you wanted to transfer between lines you had a frustrating barricaded maze which made Haymarket look good. As much as it was functionally obsolete and had to be replaced due to neglect, the last time I rode through on the El several months before it was closed I felt that with it’s demise a bit of Boston would die with it. This isn’t all from the past. The surface station, after a while became a frustrating relic when you just knew that having four terminals was a bit too redundant and my one experience with it was visiting the aforementioned Garden hearing my Mom and Aunt act confused about why there’d be two distinctly different North Stations.

Flash forward to the present. I’ve used the current North Station several times but am impressed about how there was a lot of foresight in expanding it to the size that it is. In contrast to the “Kenmore Krush” after Red Sox games, using North Station after a Bruins or Celtics game is a pleasure as there’s more than enough room to for people to wait for their trains comfortably and safely. The joint platform has semi-intended benefits for the Green Line as it can have two 2-car trains on the platform with plenty of room to spare. Even those headed outbound have a good amount of platform space to sprawl out on. Having dealt with the transfer choke point in DC with the Gallery Place/Verizon Center combo and having done the walk of shame from Core States First Union Wachovia Wells Fargo Center to Pattison AT&T in Philly in a monsoon, North Station looks pretty great in contrast and deserves all the appreciation it can get. Let’s go Bruins!

Station: North Station
Rating (1-10): 8 – a solid 8 for both commuter rail and under.

Pros: The building of the Superstation and the enlarging/semi-segregation of the commuter rail terminal has made what once was a debacle a manageable experience. The Blackhawks won the Cup, but their transit situations (long walks to stations and special buses) are primitive in contrast to Boston and fans I know are envy in what Bostonians have. Also, during the week the station is the terminus of the 4 to downtown and the Waterfront and the Charles River TMA bus to CambridgeSide and Kendall Square.

Cons: Outside of some minor wear and tear (chipped tiles), putting 145′ of Green Line train on a 400′ platform during middays and nights makes sometimes getting on or off a challenge. On the outbound platform, the first car stop is far from the staircases/escalators while inbound there sometimes is a mad dash for a car. And yet it isn’t as bad as the Shady Grove-bound platform at Gallery Place in DC…

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are many, many places to either watch a game if you can’t get tickets or to go before/after a game if you do have tickets. My recommendation is The Fours, sponsor of trivia on Bruins games on NESN among others.

Harvard

Harvard. The name of one of the world’s formost institutions of higher education. Old rivarlies, a law school which is practically a politician factory, and a yard you cannot even fit a car into no matter what the cliché saying says. In terms of transit, it encompasses over one century, five stations that can lay claim to the name in some form, and slices of transit history.

As a tourist, most of the trips I made to Boston ended up at Harvard at some form and in a way it’s a right of passage for any college student visiting town to end up here either to see Harvard’s campus or to explore Harvard Square. The former is quite tranquil with a lot of chairs strewn around and tons, tons of shade, the latter has tons of food and retail though that has eaten away at the historical charm of the area.

Getting off at Harvard, you notice two things: The very early 80s tile job around the current incarnation of Harvard and the ingenious use of ramps between the two platforms which are stacked on top of each other. Making your way to the faregates, you see the job they did including a Dunkin’ Donuts and see the signs for the current version of the Harvard Bus Tunnel with its own set of ramps to the upper level. The lower level has the trackless trolley routes and with them the novelty of left-hand boarding, the upper sees routes heading north and west. Heading out of Harvard, you pass by the now-closed sales windows and the small hut which mostly sells lottery tickets before reaching the “pit” of Harvard Square with buskers, performers, tons of other people, and Out of Town News which takes up the headhouse of Original Harvard.

Overall there are entrances scattered around including the (now-elevator-accessible) entry near Mount Auburn Street which opens directly into the upper level of the bus tunnel and the stair-only entrance to the north off of Mass Ave which is adjacent to Harvard Yard and is the closer entrance for those coming to or from buses from the south. Though the “pit” is the key entrance, the idea of multiple entry points is one which was ingenious and shows how much foresight there was in planning the Northwest Extension vis a vis projects of a similar vintage. However, this blessing is also a curse with these stories from my tourist days.

  • One day walking aimlessly around Harvard Square for 20 minutes trying in vain to find the 1 as from the main exit there is no labeling for it at all.
  • A bunch of friends and I walking around not knowing that the entrance at Mount Auburn was viable because everyone wanted to return to The Pit from Whence They Came. This trip also cost me an MP3 player (pre-iPod!) lost on a lawn somewhere in Dorchester but that’s for another review.

As of this writing, Current Harvard turned 30 this year and is in very good shape from the platforms (now enhanced with digital advertising) to even the bathrooms which are kept very clean, if it wasn’t for the tile scheme I could say it looks much younger and in contrast to its brethren to the north it very much does. Here’s to at least 30 more great years and then some!

Station: Harvard
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: This has it all. Harvard students, tourists, locals transferring to buses, some locals lucky enough to live in the area, commuters, even students from other colleges (the shuttle buses for Bentley and Brandeis, among others, terminate here). Outside of the downtown core, Harvard is one of the most-used stations because of this wide range of ridership and it is equipped to handle it well.

Pros: Easy access, tons of feeder service into the station, a visionary station setup, the volume of things nearby, the in-station Dunks that gets stuff right more often than not, even the relatively clean restroom. Some of you are asking why I didn’t give this a 10 and gave it a more pedestrian 7. Here’s why.

Cons: Oddly enough, the location. Anyone that has ever used Harvard knows of the huge curve south of the station where it aligns from original Cambridge-Dorchester Tunnel alignment to the Northwest Extension alignment knows of the fact that trains crawl there. Had it been located a little to the east, the transition between lines would’ve been more natural, Old Harvard could’ve been realigned and expanded (no “pit” construction) and trains could’ve entered Harvard at speed. If only Harvard decided to allow some boring to happen under a slice of the Radcliffe “campus” to have allowed this to happen then a good 30-60 seconds per trip would’ve been saved.

Aside from this, labeling for the 1, 66, 68, and 69 (plus the Cleveland Circle/Reservior-bound 86) can be handled a bit better minus the small signage within the station.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Too many to list in terms of establishments on top of its namesake. Narrowing it down to three:

  1. Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, right down Mass Ave and as seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, is a survivor of the chainification of Harvard Square with a ton of specialty burgers and generous portions. There is also an MBTA curio of note you’ll find out later.
  2. The Curious George Store, located right to the west of the “pit”, is the only store in the world dedicated to the famous children’s book character and on top of this is a diverse toy store your (inner) child will love. It also came back from the dead last year.
  3. In terms of chains, the Starbucks right outside the “pit” may seem chaotic but head upstairs and you’ll find things not common at your typical Green Mermaid ranging from a coffee bar of it’s own to a performance space to a deer antler ceiling lamp. Then there are…

The Ghosts of Harvards Past:

  • Walk down JFK Street and see the Harvard School of Business, then imagine a rail yard being there as well as two different stations (the very-limited-usage Stadium, then the temporary Harvard-Brattle, the latter’s sign being inside the aforementioned Mr. Bartley’s) on that site.
  • Walk south on Mass Ave past the Au Bon Pain and see the huge grate in the sidewalk. That was the site of the stairs which went into Harvard-Holyoke which brings me to…
  • When heading southbound on the Red Line, look out the left side of the train and see the remnants of Original Harvard/Harvard-Holyoke. Lately they’ve been lit up so you can actually make out the very-intact remains of the station. Or if you want a good view, the photoset here gives a good picture.

Oak Grove

Two weeks ago, assorted circumstances brought me out to Oak Grove. It wasn’t my first time – I had used it right after I moved – but this time gives a chance to do a review which goes a bit off-topic.

As part-time work barely pays the bills, I’ve been looking for work and took a chance on a temp-to-perm assignment just north of Oak Grove and the Malden/Melrose line. Coming off the train, I saw the current state of chaos of the platform which has reduced the station to a one-track operation as the other side is being refurbished. While this was long overdue, the original mid 1970s platform was starting to break off and rot away, it does create some aggravation in the station. In terms of overall design, it’s the end of the Haymarket North extension and can be described best as “Malden Center in a depression” – the two have an identical setup but Oak Grove’s sunken while Malden has more of an “end of the line” feeling than Oak Grove ever will which might double its depression.

Heading upstairs, there are two ways to go: Turn left and you’ll be at Oak Grove’s parking lot, a busway for the 131, 136, and 137 buses, and its very rarely used Commuter Rail platform which only is in use when the Orange Line is down or in emergencies and Winter Street. Turn right from there and walk across the town line you end up with the growing community of apartments near outer stations wooing people with rents which are high for the area but low versus the core of Boston. For people headed north, there is a very long tangent which ends up becoming Banks Place in Melrose, meeting Main Street next to Hunt’s Photo & Video and continuing into the picture-perfect experience which is Melrose. However, this job wasn’t at Hunts.

Turn right and you end up on Washington Street where there is a street stop for the 132 bound for Melrose’s west side and Stoneham. It’s a mix of residential and industrial and on the right side of the street you can see the operations of Oak Grove Yard and see the wearing-apart roofs of the 01200’s while in the station. We’ll walk, we’ll go in for an interview, we’ll ace the interview then walk back and smell the obvious smell of hot dogs from the vendor just past fare control.

Flash forward a few days. Do the actual job. Realize that there’s nothing near there to get lunch but that’s more than okay. Finish the work only to find that this was a test, you failed because you didn’t think of doing it their way (which they knew you were rusty on), walk down Washington Street. Once you get within sight of the platforms, get a call.

“The client just didn’t see you as a fit and is ending the assignment.”

Before I finish this review: I know I’m an outsider. I know I’m male and applying for fields that are female-heavy (administrative, HR, and nonprofit). But how is it that someone with a Masters can’t even get a viable chance in this town is aggravating. I need full-time work and the money but I think the fact that my resume shows I’m not from here is hurting me. If anyone wants to help, please drop me a line because I can really use a job or support or whatever since though we’re in a recession, my circle of friends (almost all not here) sure as heck aren’t feeling it.

Get back to Oak Grove and get my old job back. Then wait 45 minutes for a 136/137 to come with a huge crowd waiting for it. Though they had one of the loaner RTS’s they got from Charlestown, I don’t get why these problems happen out of Fellsway more than others, it was awkward and shows that a) commuter rail fares may be too high or b) Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading could use better bus service rather than the current setup of one bus every 30 minutes combined in rush. Great towns but they can use a bit more in the means of transit. You then realize that unless you’re headed into town and Wellington won’t do, who knows when you’ll next be back to Oak Grove.

Station: Oak Grove
Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: A good mix of demographics and by modes coming in. The lot is always largely full though not congested by Alewife or Quincy Adams standards and like the former there is enough bicycle ridership that it recently gained a bike cage. The four bus routes serving the station get healthy ridership and there is a decent amount of pedestrian ridership as well especially since new apartments (and soon condominiums) have been built across the town line to take advantage of both Oak Grove and of Melrose’s schools.

Pros: For an end of the line station, it’s tranquil. Not overblown like Alewife, not an out-of-town magnet like Riverside or Braintree, no traffic nightmares like how Wonderland and Forest Hills can get (though the beach gives Wonderland the edge there. In contrast to Ashmont, it’s more suburban and of course there are no PCC’s.

Cons: Outside of the current renovation, here’s a big deal: Neither Malden or Melrose has road signs on Main Street at Winter or Banks pointing to people that in fact a train station exists here. The first time I actually used Oak Grove, my wife and I got lost and ended up at Malden Center because of the lack of signage and were only saved by my then-phone’s GPS. Maybe they seriously want it to be tranquil.

An Idea: Make Oak Grove commuter rail an actual station. Put it in Zone 1, make it pickup-only outbound/dropoff-only inbound. Maybe set up a flat fare for ridership heading between Wyoming Hill and Reading. This would provide a good alternative for often spotty 136/137 service and if priced at even $2.50 one-way would be with transfer a bit cheaper than the status quo.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Yes, there are much more accessible Hunt’s at Kenmore Square and Harvard Square. But this one is bigger than both of those combined so for the serious photographer, this is here. Seriously, this is all I’ve got since otherwise people go here to go home.