Some Thoughts on the Bombing in My Neighborhood

My thanks to everyone for their kind words and offers of help over the last couple of days. This post might appear haphazard and scatter-brained (or more so than usual), but my building was evacuated–much of Back Bay is a crime scene–and I’m writing on very little sleep.

The two explosions, in a straight line, were about forty and sixty yards from my apartment. When I heard the bang, I ran downstairs and headed out to Boylston Street along with other people in my building and a lot of other Bostonians.

After giving some people directions to Commonwealth Mall and the Esplanade (note to emergency planners–don’t assume people from out of town or who don’t speak English well will understand where things are, even if they’re really close by), I returned to the lobby of my building, at which point we were told to go upstairs as it is a glass-enclosed lobby and the police were worried about shrapnel from other explosions. About ten minutes later, police were banging on all of our doors, and we were evacuated to Commonwealth Mall. Once there, several of us stayed with an elderly neighbor until late in the evening to ensure she found her way to shelter.

As bad as it was, the residents of Boston rose to the occasion. People were giving runners food, water, and trash bags to cut down on the chill wind. Several people I know opened their houses to anyone who needed water or a bathroom. Boston PD and EMS should also be commended: they kept their cool and were extremely patient with very frustrated and upset people. By contrast, the press gaggle at Exeter and Commonwealth was hackneyed and vile–disaster journalism is really insulting to those actually suffering from the disaster (for those watching lots of television, here’s what Exeter and Commonwealth looks like sans assholes). In fairness, the cameramen (I talked to one from WUSA in DC) seemed to be pretty decent, but the ‘talent’ was nauseating. This, however, was to be expected.

But the overall failure goes to Boston’s political class, especially Mayor Menino and Ward 8 Councilman Mike Ross. Simply put, they abandoned us. Their constituents were standing around Commonwealth Mall with no idea what would happen on a very cold spring night, and no one from their offices was there. Not a single goddamn person. How hard would it have been to walk up and down Commonwealth Mall asking if people had places to stay? People literally had only the clothes on their backs. Many needed help figuring out what their options were. This is ‘retail politics’ at its most elemental: you get a bunch of ‘fixers’ walking up and down Commonwealth making sure that everyone had some place to go, and making it clear what would happen next–perhaps the most frustrating thing was that, in hindsight, it was obvious that hundreds if not thousands of people wouldn’t be returning home that night. Someone should have figured that out, made the call and then in person told people what was happening. This is all the more critical when hotel rooms are scarce due to the marathon (and several hotels being evacuated on top of that). And a lot of people, some of whom saw some really awful things, needed the push: people really wanted to return to their homes which is a perfectly normal thing in that situation. Leadership was required. Menino and Ross–or at least their staffers–needed to be where the problem was, not where the cameras were.

The Rascal King is spinning in his grave right now.

Several people, when hearing someone ask where Councilman Ross was, snarked something along the lines of “He must be too busy running for mayor.” I thought Ross was smarter than that. Not only should he have been down there, along with his staff, he should have sent some staffers to bring some coffee. Like I said, city politics follows the Mad Biologist’s Fundamental Political Theorem: people have to like this crap. Despite Menino’s view of Back Bay as a giant magic money machine (by the way, regular readers will know I’m fine with that–I was actually going to vote for Menino before he decided not to run), I always thought that if many of us were made temporarily homeless (the bureaucratese is “displaced”, as if we’re some sort of quantum mechanics phenomenon), if we were hit hard, he would be there. That’s the kind of thing I expected from the Urban Engineer. I was wrong.

Equally frustrating is that there is no clear point of access for citizens. No one has any idea who to talk to if they have problems. There were no upper level police officials, and, as I noted, the political aides were absent. The city hotline was not helpful, and the political offices had no response. This made many people feel completely adrift since they didn’t even know to whom to bring problems. By the way, when people are being evacuated rapidly, you can’t have everything on a website: at some point, people’s cell phone batteries drain. The human touch not only helps but is required (and remember that these evacuations were mad scrambles–two bombs had just gone off; this must be considered by planners).

Worse, no one appears to be standing up for the residents. Absolutely, we need to be concerned about all of the security and investigative issues (before you gripe about my attitude, remember where I was that day). But someone needs to push back and remind the powers that be that the neighborhood needs to start living again, and that means you have to think of the people in the neighborhood, including getting them back as soon as possible. Back Bay isn’t just a crime scene, it’s a city, it’s a home. Someone needs to advocate for getting people’s lives back on track, and I’m not getting any sense that anyone is. No one is saying anything that’s useful to us, so who the hell knows what their priorities are?

So thanks to my fellow Bostonians, marathon runners and guests, and to the first responders. Many people were decent and humane and display what makes Boston great. But Boston’s political class failed Monday, bold speeches for a television audience notwithstanding. Our political leaders have been unworthy of such a fine people.

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13 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Bombing in My Neighborhood

  1. Kristin says:

    I’m glad to hear you’re ok. I don’t ever comment but I enjoy reading your posts.

  2. AndrewD says:

    Hi Mike,
    It is good to hear that you are unhurt -I was getting worried at what the absence of posts meant.
    I will say that here in the UK we do seem to respond to disasters in a better way then your authorities did. Whilst the Blue Light forces (Police, Fire and Rescue and Ambulance) handle the immediate problem, there are backups to handle the people based problems. Our Local authorities will open schools and the Churches open Church halls to provide accommodation, didn’t your Churches help? Other support is provided by the Red Cross and the WRVS (Woman’s Royal Voluntary Society) who provide medical and social support-including as this is the UK, lots of Hot Strong Tea. I suspect that experiences in the recent past of Terror attacks has resulted in local authorities having contingency plans for almost anything-Fire, Flood or Terror.

  3. jw says:

    also glad you’re ok, sorry this has happened, and appreciate that you have described the situation for us who only know what the news shows us.

  4. bluefoot says:

    I’m glad you’re okay, even if short on sleep.
    I was thinking on Monday night about all the points you raise when I heard about the Google doc for people to sign up if they have a place to offer people to stay. If you’re a runner whose cell phone was in a bag that you couldn’t pick up for a day, or a resident who was evacuated, how the hell do you access Google docs without power and technology?
    After a trip to Hawaii a couple of years ago when there were some flood warnings, I came back to Boston thinking we need some sort of civil defense department to deal with unexpected disasters. Or *some kind* of infrastructure that has “boots on the ground” and some systems in place, or at least designated points of contact, for people in need. It reminds me of Hurricane Sandy – someone I know in Queens said that for days the only people who were really helping out were people from Occupy.

  5. MJW says:

    Is it possible that their absence was intentional?
    Perhaps it was decided at some point post-9/11 that the best thing for the civilian infrastructure / politicos to do in this kind of a situation would be to keep the f**k out of the way until the first responders gave the all-clear, which in this case would have taken many hours due to the initial uncertainty regarding undetonated explosives.
    I want to be clear that I’m not defending their actions, but it may be that only in retrospect (two explosives only, “relatively” small number of casualties concentrated in a small area) that their absence seems like ineptitude.

  6. Surfpop says:

    Longtime reader, first time commenter. Where was the Boston Red Cross? They are technically and legally responsible for food and sheltering after a disaster. By nightfall they should have had three or four shelters at local schools up and running with everything from warm food to cots to grief counselors. That’s their job. It’s not the politicians’ jobs: the Red Cross is charged with this activity under Congressional mandate and FEMA’s national emergency activation plans. It’s why the Red Cross is given a seat at local, regional, and national emergency operations headquarters. Maybe they wanted to be there, but sometimes the security forces keep them at bay. Unlike an earthquake or hurricane, a bombing is first and foremost a crime scene.

  7. Bottanybuff says:

    Glad you’re ok! I was starting to get concerned, since I know you’re a local.

    I completely agree that the mayor’s office should have been there for all of you. Frankly, I’m pretty unhappy about yet another example of how woefully unprepared we seem to be to deal with any kind of a disaster. I didn’t have phone contact (call or email) all day Tuesday, and found myself checking up on my friends in the city via Facebook (see, it is more than just a giant waste of time!). A couple of them were volunteering at the race, and I was damn glad to see them post.

    I have to say, though, that as a former resident of the Fort Point neighborhood, the Mayor’s absence when we needed him was always a feature of the place. Same when I went to a minor state college. Same in most of the neighborhoods of Boston I’ve lived in, really.

    We need much better communication and coordination in times of crisis. Facebook is only useful if you have access to a computer.There should be officials on the ground, maybe with walkie talkies or short-wave radios. Hell, I’d accept sky writing if they could make it work.

    That said, I’ve got a couch, and air mattress and a French Press if you need a place to stay, and I live in Waltham.

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  9. Sue says:

    Glad you’re OK. (I also never comment, but enjoy your blog.) Very interesting to hear the view from someone who lives in the area.

  10. Michael Campisano says:

    Mike,

    I am glad to hear that you are Ok. Your blog is one of the best things on the web.

    All the best,

    Mike

  11. Alex Palazzo says:

    I too read your blog (long after I abandoned mine) and enjoy the posts on science, economics and photos of the Back Bay where I lived when I was a postdoc at HMS.

    I’m glad to hear that you are fine and really puzzled why Menino dropped the ball (shame on you Menino!) It’s tough to hear about all the chaos that went on in our old neighborhood, including all this stuff about folks being left outside in the dark with no one from the city to help. I hope that this will all be soon over.

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