Best of the New

Boston’s best people and ideas of 2011

Safer neighborhoods, quieter commutes, and one really brainy historian.

Gonzalez by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file

Adrian Gonzalez

In a season punctuated by the failures of the Red Sox’s off-season additions, Gonzalez prevailed. There were slight stumbles, sure – Gonzalez started off the second half two for 24 and hit only one homer between July 8 and August 22. But he said the right things along the way and finished the season with 117 runs batted in (third-highest in the American League) and a .338 average (the team’s best since Manny Ramirez hit .349 nearly a decade ago). All of this earned him enough good will to land him the highest of Sox honors: a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.

Artificial Leaf

This year, MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera and his team made Mother Nature look lazy. Their “artificial leaf” – a credit card-size device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight – is 10 times more efficient than the real thing. Researchers are developing the technology as a potential solution for energy-starved areas in the developing world, predicting that just a gallon of water a day could provide enough hydrogen and oxygen to feed a fuel cell capable of powering an entire home.

Boston Marathon Rolling Registration

Everyone knows you need to be fast to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But then the rush to get a bib number turned into an unfair online race: spots for 2011 were snatched up in a record eight hours, leaving thousands of fleet-footed runners on the sidelines. So in September, the Boston Athletic Association instituted a two-week rolling registration, letting the fastest men and women by age group enter online first with times from their qualifying races. The system returns the marathon to its roots as an event for fast amateurs – and ensures the toughest racing will take place far from the information superhighway.

Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force


The house at 102 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury didn’t look so bad from the outside. Its rap sheet told a different story. That’s right, its rap sheet. The house, raided by the cops in July, was the much ballyhooed first target of a policing initiative that pinpoints the places crimes are occurring (not just the people perpetrating them). The city’s Problem Properties Task Force is at work cross-referencing databases to build dossiers on trouble spots – combing city records to see whether buildings have shady histories involving everything from loud parties to criminal acts to back taxes. Data in hand, the city is targeting landlords with fines, hoping more of them make like the landlord of that place on Blue Hill: He’s reportedly cleaned up the building as well as his other properties.

Mixed media artist Grace Durnford artwork called "Castle in the Clouds."

Community-Supported Art

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Looking for a way to contribute to your local economy without having to deal with all that kale? Taking a cue from the Community Supported Agriculture model, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s new CSArt program brought together emerging and mid-career artists with local arts patrons. This year, 50 people paid $300 for a CSArt share, which entitled them each to nine unique works of art – and, like a traditional CSA, you get what you get. This year’s pilot program was based on one in Minnesota, with cities like Chicago, Nashville, and Peterborough, New Hampshire, now following suit. (By the way, you should still eat all your kale).


Commuter Rail Quiet Cars

The idea of a cellphone-and-chatter-free “quiet car,” modeled after a long-running Amtrak program, got overwhelming support in a fall 2010 poll of MBTA commuter rail customers. After a three-month trial on the Fitchburg and Franklin lines early this year earned nearly 90 percent customer approval, the initiative was rolled out to all lines in June, offering customers a ride that is peaceful, if not always punctual.

Convertible High Heels

Why lug an extra pair of shoes in your handbag when you could use just one set for day and evening? That was the brainstorm of Babson College MBA grad Candice Cabe, who spent years perfecting the convertible-height shoe. The website for her transformative product, Day2Night Convertible Heels, offers an elegant evening style (and more to come) with five interchangeable snap-on heels ranging from a sensible 1.5-inch to a sexy 3.5-inch stiletto.


Craft Beer Gets Support

New Englanders’ love for beer goes back to the beginning (after all, the Pilgrims only came ashore where they did because their stores of the stuff were running out). And, yet, it’s taken a long time for good old-fashioned craft brewing to get the respect it deserves. A bump in craft beer bars around Boston several years back was followed by a handful of small-batch local brews coming to market and stores like Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont opening. Some of the best news, though, came in July, when Massachusetts received a small but notable grant from the US Department of Agriculture meant to encourage brewers to use locally grown ingredients. Pair that with a compromise state bill set to allow an increase in liquor licenses at grocery store chains, and beer drinkers are sure to find plenty of backyard brews worth toasting with – and to.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Historian David McCullough.

David McCullough

You could be forgiven for assuming that McCullough, the country’s preeminent historical writer, was already living here, the country’s preeminent historical city. But it was only this year that the longtime Martha’s Vineyard resident moved to the Back Bay. McCullough – who twice won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has written about American icons from John Adams to the Brooklyn Bridge – is, of course, an expert on the Boston of yore. But the 78-year-old admits it’s the future more than the past that drew him and his wife to the city: Fourteen of their grandkids live in this area.

Fashion Trucks

If 2010 was the year of the Boston food truck, 2011 was the year our fashion went mobile. Former Henri Bendel merchandiser Emily Benson created The Fashion Truck, a glam boutique on wheels loaded with trendy fashions and accessories such as headbands and clutches. Everything in the truck is priced under $100. She parks outside colleges, businesses, outdoor markets, and private parties, and this month is in front of the old Borders in Downtown Crossing. In the meantime, Emerson senior Derrick Cheung and pal Howard Travis sell cool sneakers and locally designed streetwear apparel in Boston and Harvard Square from their lime Green Street Vault truck. The two guys, whose business plan scored top honors at Emerson’s Entrepreneurial Studies Program expo, post their truck’s location on Twitter and Facebook.;

Fast 14 BridgeConstruction


Over the summer, the land of the Big Dig witnessed nothing less than a municipal miracle: The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Interstate 93 Fast 14 project replaced 14 Medford bridges in less than three months. A typical time frame for this kind of job? Four years. Key to the quick turnaround was the use of pre-fabricated elements and rapid-setting concrete – practices pushed by the Federal Highway Administration’s two-year-old “Every Day Counts” initiative. The best part was that officials even managed to keep workweek-commuting conditions humane: Construction started Friday nights at 8 and ended Monday mornings at 5.

Erin Morgenstern

The tale itself – a magical love story set in a traveling circus open only after dark – was not entirely out-of-realm for a former Salem resident obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales. But talented thirtysomething Morgenstern also had a knack for timing. She released her debut novel, The Night Circus, just when readers and publishing execs, mourning the end of the Harry Potter series and growing a bit bored with vampires, needed it most. Since the novel’s September release, it spent some two months on TheNew York Times bestseller list and had its rights snatched up by more than 30 foreign publishers and the producers behind the Twilight movies. “The sound you are hearing,” Morgenstern writes on her website, “is my head spinning, still.”

Parking Meter Smart Cards

Parking is always going to be a hassle on Boston’s crowded streets, but thanks to a convenient payment program the city introduced last month, at least one aspect of it will get a little easier. As most drivers know, the only thing more annoying than leaving a spot with money still on the meter is being ticketed because you didn’t put in enough. Both these taxing scenarios became a thing of the past when Boston introduced a reloadable swipe card that allows drivers to pay exactly what they owe (and not a penny more!) at 7,000 city meters. The cards can be purchased for amounts ranging from $5 to $100 at City Hall and online, and they’re discounted through the end of this month. Just swipe it when you park, then again when you leave.

John Summers, is one of the behind the relaunch of the long-defunct Chicago left-wing journal The Baffler.

Rebooting The Baffler

When local historian John Summers, who has taught at Boston College and Harvard, announced last spring that he had bought the rights to The Baffler and was preparing to revive it, there was much rejoicing among fans of the take-no-prisoners criticism that the left-wing journal was known for during its 1990s heyday. Before it went semi-dormant – there have only been two issues since 2003 – The Baffler’s critiques of business and culture served as an antidote to the excess and optimism typical of boom times (see memorable takedowns of Wired, The New York Times Styles section, and the music industry). As Summers and his new staff prepare the first of 15 issues that will be published over the next five years through MIT Press, expect ferocious takes on Wall Street, Congress, and the Obama administration, all delivered with the bite of freshly sharpened teeth.

Lobsang Sangay

When the Dalai Lama announced this year that he’d be stepping down from his role as the political leader of the Tibetan people, Medford would have seemed an odd place to find his replacement. And, yet, that was exactly where voters found Sangay, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, and elected him in April to head the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. (The Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader.) Sangay, the first Tibetan to earn a Harvard Law degree, took office in August and now faces the difficult task of holding together a diaspora while keeping the cause of Tibetan autonomy from withering in public consciousness as the Dalai Lama retreats from public view.

Somerville Happiness Survey

Somerville residents found a surprising question on their census forms this year: “How happy are you right now?” The city, inspired by similar efforts to measure citizens’ well-being in England and Bhutan, became the first in the United States to survey its residents on their general sense of well-being and contentment. (The result? A solid 7.5 on a 10-point scale.) Even though it’s still early in its data analysis, Somerville’s city government is already setting a number of goals, including making moves to shorten the lines at the traffic and parking department and enacting a citywide zero-sort recycling program. Those should give residents plenty of reason to smile.

Thomas Wilkins

There’s this moment Wilkins has been trying to re-create for years: He’s in third grade in Norfolk, Virginia, and a symphony – the first he’s ever seen – is just starting to play. “At that moment, I knew I was in this different world,” he has said. Providing kids with that same experience became his life’s work and an ambition he’s bringing to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he’s now leading youth and family concerts (and where he’s also making a bit of history as the BSO’s first black conductor). At once gregarious and inspiring, Wilkins is a burst of fresh energy at graying Symphony Hall. He’s got the same music on his iPod that your kids have on theirs and chomps Snickers during concert intermissions. In other words, your grandfather’s conductor he is not. And thank goodness for that.

This year, thanks to federal funding granted to Governor Deval Patrick’s Readiness Agenda, the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority made its college-planning website – previously accessible only to students in select high schools – available to all would-be collegians across the state. The free site analyzes a student’s grades, extracurriculars, and test scores to suggest US colleges and universities to target with applications, as well as offers interactive quizzes and practice SATs. Parents and counselors can use the site to monitor a student’s application progress. Not that they should have to: Regular e-mail reminders encourage kids to spend their Sundays on college essays instead of watching Teen Mom reruns.

--Best of the New by Ami Albernaz, Michelle Bermas, Karen Campbell, Jaci Conry, Geoff Edgers, Devra First, Geoffrey Gagnon, Alyssa Giacobbe, Sheryl Julian, Marni Elyse Katz, Christopher Klein, Dan Morrell, Erin Byers Murray, Leon Neyfakh, Shira Springer, Tina Sutton, Visi Tilak, Kathy Tully, and Liza Weisstuch, Ellen Albanese. Send comments to