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The Ice Cream Truck People

Whence cometh the ice cream trucks of summer,
And whither goest they,
When the cold rains of winter fall?

No  really.  Do they migrate south?  Seattle’s ten-month-long winter can’t be so good for business.

Such an odd, yet remarkably persistent commercial enterprise.  Many of the trucks and jeeps look like the same ones I chased down growing up in a suburban Boston subdivision. The ice cream truck people are like Cubans in how resourceful they must be to keep those clunkers running.  And that scratchy, warbly music blaring from cold war-era loudspeakers, so instantly recognizable by young and old alike.

But then, who are these ice cream truck people who dole out all that industrial ice cream product to our precious children?  I suspect most parents find themselves feeling at least a minor, temporary flash of paranoia about pedophiles as they eye the mysterious countenance taking their money.

In Seattle, the ice cream truck people are largely self-employed.  Anyone with a driver’s license can have a go at it, though not surprisingly, during this past recession-baked summer, the supply of drivers outstripped demand for product.  And if you ever wondered where all that product comes from—Safeway?  Costco?—the power of the free market has seen to it that there are dedicated distributors, such as Georgetown’s Mel-O-Dee Ice Cream that supplies over 200 drivers.

Which raises another curiosity:  Why haven’t the usual “free-market” forces resulted in domination of the ice cream truck business by corporate chains?  You’d think that by now there would be a fleet of shiny green and white Starbucks ice cream trucks hitting the park and playground circuit every summer.

And hey, this is Seattle, so what the hell is taking so long for someone to propose a green ice cream truck business?  Local, organic ice cream from Molly Moon’s.  Biodiesel trucks with rooftop photovoltaic panels that power the on-board refrigerators.  You heard it here first:  this is a service for which Seattle’s Keen-wearing, Maclaren stroller-pushing parent demographic is eager to pay a premium.  Even though any normal kid would much rather have a artificial-coloring-drenched Bomb Pop.

Not Done With Medfield Yet

[ The coolest house in Medfield -- and children are still allowed to live in it. ]

Medfield made the Boston Globe in a story headlined with “Welcome to Medfield, especially if you don’t have children.” Medfield, like many other similar small towns in Massachusetts, has been encouraging “over 55″ developments because it costs so much for the town to operate the public schools.

I’m not sure which is a stronger indication of a moribund culture: the quarantining of children for economic reasons, or this.


It’s almost as if I just returned from the nuthouse: what a sight it was to see the street life around Pike/Pine.

So what if a man was shot and killed on the street three blocks from where I live in the Central District while I was away. Last February there was a murder in Medfield not a half a mile from where I stayed. And suburban murders are always way creepier.

The Nuthouse

This is Medfield State Hospital, located adjacent to the 1960s subdivision in which I grew up. If you stood where I took the photo in this post, turned around and took a short path through a narrow boundary of trees, you would come upon the scene above.

When I was a tween my friends and I used to sneak up there to gawk at the “tahds” in the “nuthouse.” The patients would be out in that fenced-in porch and maybe they would be muttering to themselves and pacing, or if we were lucky one of them might sing a weird song or yell swears at us. Better than video games!

Medfield State Hospital opened in 1896 in the heyday or creepy Victorian insane asylums. The number of patients peaked at 1500 in 1952, dropping to 147 patients in 2001, and finally closing in 2003.

The State is currently negotiating with the Town to set the parameters for a redevelopment of the site — a truly hugeass project for Medfield. The latest agreement calls for 440 units of housing, of which 259 will be affordable. The housing will be a mix of apartments, condos, and single-family homes, and some of the historic buildings will be saved.

Predictably, many residents are uneasy about all those affordable housing units, even though the project will push Medfield above the 10% threshold for the State’s Chapter 40B code. Chapter 40B allows affordable housing developers to circumvent local zoning if less than 10% of the jurisdiction’s housing is affordable, and it has been notorious for creating controversy in small towns.

Goodbye Nuthouse…










Goodbye Medfield…

Old vs. New: Extreme Edition

Originally built in 1651 and last enlarged around 1850, Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House is one of the oldest intact houses in the U.S.

Built in 2005 for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, this home features a miniature replica of Fenway Park’s “green monster” in the back yard.

I guess we’ve gotten better at garages over the past three and a half centuries.

Got Public Realm?

For a town that is so wealthy (median income = $98k, median home price = $525k) the downtown public realm of Medfield is remarkably shabby:

Here we are at the primary downtown crossroads. (Pretty much every small town in this region has at least one pizza house, and amazingly, they have withstood the competition of malls and chains for decades.) In case you were wondering, the flowers in the window boxes are fake.

The reason that the public realm is neglected is simple: nobody spends much time there. There is little reason to linger in this downtown. You park as close as possible, run in, pick up your pizza and take it home. There is no grocery store. Shopping for most other necessities is done at the mall.

In Medfield, life revolves around the private realm. The single-family home is an enclave; the focus on the private reinforces the neglect of the public, and vice-versa.

Inside the enclave, the backyard looks like this:

And the electronic entertainment center likewise sucks up any motivation the adults may have to leave the property and seek culture.

This trend toward isolation taxes community bonds as it taxes human sanity. But our instincts for socializing are strong, and surface in unexpected ways. The current social nucleus of Medfield may well be here:

Ben Franklin’s National Bird

Wild turkeys run rampant in Medfield.

Getting Radical in Medfield

Radical = Traditional Neighborhood Development.

This new project is the first of its kind in Medfield. The condo homes are on a scale similar to the housing in Seattle’s High Point neighborhood. Single family homes range from 2000 to 3000 sf, and there will also be duplexes (not yet built). The front yards are 12 feet deep; rear alleys provide access to garages; there is a large, central, shared green space.

It’s located about half a mile from Medfield’s downtown center, which puts it in the walkable category. However, the walk would be on a narrow sidewalk with no planting strip along a busy highway. The reality is that, at least in the near future, the people who live here will probably use their cars to do almost everything, just as the vast majority of Medfield residents do.

It’s encouraging to see the concept of higher density housing penetrating a town like Medfield that is so entrenched in the low-density, single-family tradition. And the people appear to be ready get “radical” — its a slow market but several have already sold. The dark blue unit in the photo below went for ~$820k.

Main Street

This is the sort of human-scale, pedestrian-oriented streetscape you’d expect to find in an older town like Medfield that was built prior to the age of the car. Unfortunately very little of the downtown has this urban form. Most of it feels more like this:

This is one of the two major crossroads in the downtown. Apparently there is so much pavement available it wasn’t even worth figuring out how to stripe parking spaces on the large expanse shown above.

Compared to the auto-age suburbs of Seattle (and most urban areas in the U.S. for that matter), older small towns like Medfield have much better potential to be remade into pedestrian-oriented centers. But given the low-density, car-oriented built form of the vast majority of the town, a transition to reduced car-dependence is hard to imagine. The New England suburbs may be prettier than most in the U.S., but the future scenario in a world of peak oil and drastic limits on greenhouse gas emissions is every bit as ugly.

Hazy Purple

These are the Charles River wetlands along the western border of Medfield. This is the same Charles River that flows through Boston. If not for these wetlands that can soak up massive amount of excess water from the river, Boston would be subject to serious flooding.

All that purple looks amazing, but its an invasive species: purple loosestrife.

Shutter Madness

As you tour around Medfield it would not be unreasonable to conclude that there must some kind of ordinance requiring shutters. I’d estimate that nine out of ten houses have them — no exaggeration — regardless of age.

The house in the photo above is probably something like 200 years old, and when it was built the shutters had a function: they could be closed to help keep out the weather. Not so anymore. Today’s shutters are tack-on decoration. But the people take full creative advantage of them — check out a sample of the color palette on exhibit in my 1960s subdivision:

This last one is in a newer development and is probably only about ten years old. Double height shutters rule! (And yes, that’s an antique saw mounted on the wall.)

As to why these useless pieces of architectural decoration are so prevalent in small New England towns, it’s simply modern tribalism. People are comfortable with the familiar. Builders believe, rightly, that their buyers expect shutters, and so shutters they deliver.

Where The Streets Are Wide And The Minds Are…*

This photo was shot from a cul-de-sac in a 1960s subdivision in Medfield. Think that street is wide enough?

For all you streetscape wonks, it measures 38 feet from curb-to-curb, with five foot sidewalks. In comparison, the standard low-density residential street in Seattle is 25 feet curb-to-curb (these are the streets on which it is impossible for two cars to pass each other when cars are parked on both sides of the street).

On this street in Medfield, only in some highly unusual circumstance would there be more cars parked on the street that what you see in the photo above, and in any case, most of the houses have driveways and garages that could hold four or five cars easily. And there is so little traffic that the meeting of two cars traveling in opposite directions is a very rare occurrence.

All that unneeded pavement is a perfect match for all the giant lawns. This is the built environment of a dying era.

*struggling to control my urban biases…

Seattle Staples

Thai food arrived in Medfield about a decade ago. But I’ve yet to find a good espresso cafe — not even a Starbucks in town.

Packy Run

The anchor business of nearly every small Massachusetts town: the package store, a.k.a. the “packy.” In Massachusetts this is the only place you can buy any kind of alcohol. About 5 years ago the State’s blue laws were relaxed and for the first time packies were allowed to open on Sundays, but only after 12 p.m. Apparently the region is still not ready to completely cast off its Puritan heritage.

Medfield has two packies. In High School I played in a rock band with a guy whose uncle owned the one in the photo above, and whose father owned the town’s most prominent real estate agency and was a Medfield Selectman. Small town.

Two Famous People From Medfield

[ By Stephen Mathewson, from "out of the 'black_box_series" (2001, work_in_progress) ]

1. Stephen Mathewson (a.k.a. John Robinson): Founding member of Watch The Teeth Kate, and 21st century renaissance man.

2. “Hurricane” Peter McNeeley: First fighter to face Michael Tyson after he was released from prison in 1995; bout lasted 89 seconds.

Medfield Multifamily

Though the built environment of Medfield is dominated by single-family homes on large lots, there are more multifamily units than I would have guessed. The 2006 American Community Survey reports the following for the fraction of housing units that are single-family detached:

  • Medfield: 81%
  • Seattle: 48%
  • Boston: 12%

The rate of home ownership follows a similar trend:

  • Medfield: 78%
  • Seattle: 52%
  • Boston: 39%

When I was in grade school in Medfield pretty much everyone I knew lived in a single-family house that their family owned. And on the rare occasion I heard about a kid in our school who lived in an apartment, I remember having this sense that they were different from all the rest of us, that their families must be defective in some way. This wasn’t something I learned from my parents, or from any other explicit source. Ostensibly our widely held cultural bias against multifamily housing furtively seeped into my impressionable young mind from multiple, subtle origins.


[ Medfield Town Hall, built in 1874 ]

For 357 years since its incorporation as a town in 1651, Medfield has been governed by the purest form of democracy currently practiced in the United States: open town meeting. Any resident who is registered to vote can can show up at the annual town meeting and cast votes on all major legislative issues, including town administration, budget, bylaws, and zoning.

Though the open town meeting in a community with such a small population would seem to be the ideal expression of democracy, the reality in terms of participation is not so ideal. A quorum of 250 residents is required, which is about 2% of the population. Typically, around 500 residents attend. So even though the open town meeting offers the opportunity for 100% democratic participation, only about one in twenty residents feels it is worth the time.

It’s All About The Lawn

The people of Medfield respect The Lawn. These are 1/2-acre lots in the photo above, not quite big enough to fall in the “too big to mow, too small to farm” category, but it takes real work to keep these beauties looking so good.

And so the signature sound of the suburbs is the gas lawn mower. On my first morning here the droning growl rang out from across the street at about 8 a.m. (5 a.m. Seattle time). A widow in her seventies lives alone in the four bedroom, two-car garage house, and one of her sons who lives across town has taken on the chore of keeping the lawn up to neighborhood standards.

But here’s the weird thing: For all the time and care people put into their lawns, they rarely seem to use them for anything. For sure lawns are great for kids, and that thick lush grass feels wonderful in bare feet, but pretty much every lawn I’ve seen around these parts in the last two days has been empty. Empty except for people pushing lawn mowers, that is.

A vast green lawn can be a pleasing site (and quite vast they can be when the front lawns of several adjacent suburban lots are strung together). And of course there’s nothing wrong with the wish to create an attractive landscape. But this whole lawn obsession has roots that stretch back over a century or so, and was born out of the desire to ape the wealthy and their country estates. Perhaps it’s time for a new aesthetic.

In Seattle and many other urban areas, it is becoming increasingly popular to replace turf grass lawns with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant and/or native plants. Imagine if this trend catches on in low-density, suburban neighborhoods like the one shown above. With such a large area of land that could be converted, the potential for creating wildlife habitat, saving water, and reducing pesticide/herbicide and fertilizer use would be immense.

And the good people would be released from servitude to The Lawn.

Medfield, Massachusetts

Greetings from Medfield, Massachusetts, population: 12,000, median household income: $98,000. I seem to recall that when I was in high school I spent a lot of time drinking Budweiser on deserted dirt roads in this town. When I was in college my friend’s brother died of a heroin overdose in a building about a block away from the church in the photo above.

Only about 20 miles southwest of Boston, the population density here is 1.3 people/acre; Boston is 19/acre; Seattle is 11/acre. From 2005 to 2008 Seattle’s housing unit stock grew by approximately six Medfields.

How will a town like Medfield fare in the 21st Century? Currently, Medfield is among the wealthiest communities in Massachusetts. It is also completely car-dependent. Medfield, like many similar small towns in the Boston suburbs, has changed very little over the past several decades. But can it withstand the shock of a transition to carbon-free energy?