Were we ever more in need of the patina of optimism that clings to the start of every new year? After a bruising 2019, we are like over-stuffed, over-indulged revelers, enduring pounding heads and churning stomachs with every talking head and tweet. Still, some brighter news nuggets can be found amid the coal. And by good news, I don’t mean stories about miracle cures or even the one about the fellow who dressed up his 17 dachshunds in identical sweaters to pose for a holiday photograph. I just mean a few small victories over the scabrous, the cynical, and the self-dealing. Is it any surprise that most of my picks are miles away from Washington?
- All benefit is local. Twenty years after the Community Preservation Act became law, more than half the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts participate in this self-determined investment plan for open space, historic preservation, and affordable housing. The act has funded 10,700 units of affordable housing and preserved more than 30,000 acres of open space. It has prevented a working farm from being sold off for development in Wayland, saved historic Works Progress Administration-era murals at Gloucester City Hall, converted an abandoned parsonage into senior housing in tiny Goshen. And every initiative is voted upon by local residents and buoyed by matching funds from the state. You have to wonder what’s taking the other 175 cities and towns so long.
- Mutual funds. The Massachusetts minimum wage increased to $12.75 an hour on January 1. Although it is still not enough for someone working a full 40-hour week (a monthly salary of $2,040) to afford the median rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Boston ($2,450), the increase will benefit 420,600 low-wage workers in the state, 60 percent of whom are women.
- Hang up and drive. Also taking effect in 2020, the long overdue prohibition against driving while holding a cellphone. Massachusetts had been behind 20 other states in enacting this common-sense safety measure, which now includes protections against racial profiling. The law is only as good as its enforcement, however; to change ingrained habits, consequences for violators need to be swift and sure.
- Tribalism teeters. In November, Boston voters defied decades of tradition and elected a City Council that actually looks like the city. Eight of the 13 members beginning their terms this week are women, and seven are people of color. And in another departure from the dispiriting norm, two Latina candidates who nearly tied for a district Council seat — Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen — amicably and graciously settled on a winner — Mejia — after a three-day recount. Vanquished by one vote, St. Guillen congratulated her opponent, saying “I know you will be an excellent councilor and I am proud to have you represent me.” Wow.
- Feel the Gins-burn. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned 86 on March 15. To celebrate the redoubtable heroine of the law, women all across the country performed “plank pose” on the steps of local courthouses, including the US Supreme Court. Inspired by the Notorious RBG’s daily work-out routine — not to mention her pioneering advocacy for gender equality — women everywhere have adopted the exercise as a badge of power. (In fact, you can’t see me, but I’m planking right now!)
- Ferry me home. With the MBTA in a tailspin and the roadways a river of tail lights, support is building for getting around the city by boat. Two limited new ferry services launched last year: the Encore casino water shuttle, and the Lovejoy Wharf service from North Station to the Fan Pier. Privately funded but open to the public, the ferries should help introduce a new set of commuters and visitors to the possibilities of water transportation. And the advocates at Boston Harbor Now are researching more routes for public investment, from Quincy to Boston and for the inner Harbor, including the Navy Yard and East Boston. Come on in, the water’s fine!
- Healing green. The one-acre Martin’s Park by the Children’s Museum, opened in June, is a living memorial to Richard Martin, the youngest victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. It’s a joyful new public space along the waterfront, but also an example of creative re-purposing: Some of the building material came from the forbidding granite slabs that were removed from the Boylston Street entrance to the Johnson wing of the Boston Public library — itself an exemplar of civic renovation.
- Facts live! They may be on life support, but America’s newspapers continue to bring their audiences verifiable, independent, accountable information crucial to their lives. This is particularly true in local communities not served by major media outlets, where at least 200 counties in the US have no newspaper at all. But experiments in philanthropic partnerships are breathing new life into local news. One is Report for America, which is sending 250 experienced reporters into 164 newsrooms in 46 states across the country. With more such initiatives, America’s news deserts may yet bloom.
- Color my world. In their annual marketing gimmick proclaiming a “color of the year,” paint companies try to make their choices meaningful in the larger culture. So what could it mean that for 2020, both Sherwin-Williams and Pantone have chosen shades of blue? “Naval,” according to Sherwin-Williams, creates “a calm and grounding environment infused with quiet confidence.” Pantene describes its “Classic blue” as “non-aggressive and easily relatable.’’ The companies are quick to say their choices are not intended to be political, but when a color-trend forecaster says its choice is ideal for “ushering in an empowering year of change,” I prefer to believe the universe is sending a message. You don’t even have to read between the lines.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.