Interviewer: Michael Nobel Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Carrie N. Kline
Michael Kline: Okay. Here it is.
Deborah Bier: Okay.
MK: We're in the Concord Free Public Library. And it's a Tuesday afternoon, the 22nd of December (sic). It's a brilliant autumn day outside; just take your breath. Beautiful. And would you please say, "My name is," and introduce yourself?
DB: My name is Deborah Bier.
MK: Okay. Can you--? Hmm.
DB: Can you--? Would you like this closer?
MK: Maybe I can--. [Microphone noise]. Okay, that's good.
DB: Okay, should I try it again?
DB: My name is Deborah Bier.
MK: And we never ask people their ages, but maybe you'd tell us your date of birth.
DB: Oh, my--. Just so the math is not a problem, I'm 50. And my date is 8-26-58.
DB: Just turned 50.
MK: Happy birthday.
DB: Thank you.
MK: Maybe you'd start out and tell me about your people and where you were raised.
DB: I was raised in New Jersey, outside of New York City. Both sides of my family were immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jewish immigrants. They all came either at the very end of the 19th Century or the early 20th Century. I have one grandmother who was an immigrant. And the other grandparents were first generation Americans. But they grew up in households that spoke Yiddish as a first language. And my parents grew up in households that spoke Yiddish part time. But their first languages were not, were not Yiddish. English was their first language. So there's roots back several generations to Europe, but bringing the culture with them, and living in the New York area, which was very common, in a very richly Jewish area, as New York was at the time, and then eventually moving out to the suburbs of New Jersey and, which is where I grew up.
MK: Umm hmm.
DB: I think my parents have probably never lived more than twenty miles from where they were born, until this last year when my mother moved to Concord. So they--. They've traveled, but they've never lived anywhere else. And when I went to college, I came here to Waltham, to Brandeis, and never occurred to me that I would ever want to go back to New Jersey. It was such a developed place that I was very happy—overdeveloped place—that I was very happy to no longer call that my home.
MK: So you're a transplant with a fierce admiration for the area.
DB: I am. I've been here since 1982 in Concord, but I came to New England--. I came to nearby, Waltham, in 1976. And I tried leaving here, but the transplant did not take. And I came back in a few months. So I have fully succumbed to being in Concord. And our parents--. Three of our parents are here, and we--. We are--. My husband and I are the geographically closest. We're the only ones who are in Massachusetts. So we know that our—part of why we're here is to care for our parents through the end of their lives. And we wouldn't think of leaving until after they passed away, and maybe we would never feel like leaving. I don't know. Yeah.
MK: What is it about Concord that has had such a tight hold on you?
DB: It's a very good question. Some of it I can articulate, and some of it there is this mysterious magnetism that Concord has for me and for so many people that I don't really know how to account for it. The things that I can account for are its physical beauty. The thing that has always been attractive about Concord is that it's close to the city, but it's not of the city. It's somewhat rural, but it's accessible to everything of modern life that you want, which is true in Emerson's day as well, when the train came through. And I never felt a sense of belonging to a place until several years into living here. And I felt a sense of connection to here, which I never felt growing up in New Jersey, even though I lived in only two cities in New Jersey, or a city and a town. I never felt that sense of connection before. And I think part of it is that we here in Concord are aware of what has come before us, and we connect to those people through the physical place, the landscape, the buildings, the problems, the solutions. The things that we're still doing, or trying not to do, were things that were of issue to people who came before us, even in the 17th Century. And I think because of our self-awareness, maybe too much self-awareness of our history, it's easy to connect to being a part of a lineage, which I never felt before. Now I can drive down Main Street and see--. I know these people, I know the people who own that store. I have been a part of so many people's lives, and they--. And I've been a part of their lives, so that we really are so interconnected. And I just never imagined that that was something I was missing in my life until I experienced it. You know I--. You know, New Jersey has history that's just, has European history that's just as old as the history here, just about. Yeah, I think it would be about the same. But we don't learn it, and we're not conscious of it. The only thing I know about Revolutionary history was Valley Forge and Washington. And that was in, nearly Pennsylvania. You know that wasn't where I lived. I never got a sense of what came before us. There might be old houses, or old objects, or old parts of the city. But I didn't know how they connected to me, and my life, or how different my life was from them. I didn't have a relationship with them. And I feel very related to the many ghosts that are here in the landscape and in the buildings and even some of the pre-history. I live in a part of town that has a lot of First People's artifacts that have been found. So as I work in the land I can feel my connection to the people who have come before me, even thousands of years ago, which I never imagined was possible. So yes, I am planted, firmly planted.
MK: As you work in the ground, as in gardening?
DB: Gardening, or--. Yes. Yes.
MK: Talk about what that feels like to have that soil in your hands.
DB: Well I sometimes ponder the changes in the physical terrain that would have occurred over the years. I live on a, next to a street that's named for a spring, which is not apparent any longer. But it used to be apparent, so. The ground was filled in, or--. You know, I ponder, where did that stream used to go, and what used to be filled in, and--? I know the low points in the neighborhood that get flooded when it rains. So I figure that's probably where the streambed was. And I like to think about what was, what might have been dry ground before people started filling in land. Was this land inhabited by people before the Europeans came? And I think it's very likely it was, because I know, oh gosh, a tenth of a mile away they've, there are artifacts found from 10,000 years ago, which, and every age in between. So I figure I'm not the first to have been working this land or finding sustenance in the land, food or animal, however the land was used. So I'm humbled by that. I get to be here for just a very short amount of time. And then it's someone else's turn to take care of the land. And I hope that someone will take care of the land. I think there are fewer stewards now of the land than there used to be. I know that we used to--. The place where we live was a development for returning soldiers in the Second World War. It's 1953.
MK: What's it called?
DB: It--. Then it was called Liberty Acres. But nobody except the old timers remembers the name. They were $12,000 houses bought with VHA mortgage. What was it? I think it was the Veteran Home Association mortgage. We've lived there for only 20 years. But these were very simple ranch houses, small, simple, basic, thrown up practically overnight. Before that it was an asparagus farm. And I think when each house was built apple trees were put there, because you could see a couple of remnants of trees, old apple trees around the neighborhood. Mostly they've kind of fallen apart in 50, 60 years. But you know I like the modest houses that don't overwhelm the landscape. They're low, they're small. The trees have grown up around them in 55 years. So you--. It looks--. That too is a big change from the sandy soil that was great for asparagus. We still have that sandy soil and now mature trees, or fairly mature trees, and very green and lush, which is really nice. But very different than how it was probably for a long time. Yup.
MK: Does this--? You've described a way in which Concord seems to have reached out and almost enveloped you.
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: Does this mean acceptance by old Concord—
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: --families, people that--? Are they willing to--?
DB: Some are. I feel like I've had to earn that, which is not unreasonable, not unreasonable among people to have to prove themselves over time. But it has been a funny fit. When I first came here I felt alien. And I don't think it was just that this is a Yankee town and, as they say, you're not a local until you've been here for three generations. I don't think it was just that, although I think that may have been part of it. I didn't have a self-consciousness about being Jewish and being culturally Jewish, not religiously but culturally Jewish, because I grew up in an area where I wasn't a minority. So I wasn't self-conscious. And then I went to Brandeis, which was only much more Jewish culturally. So once I left I had that alien feeling. But I didn't know what to attribute it to. I might interrupt people while they're talking, which is just a normal part of exchange about Jewish people, talking over each other. And we can listen and talk at the same time, but it's a gift. Not everyone can do it. And I would feel like I was being terribly rude. But it was just normal for me. And I had to figure out some way--. Once I finally figured out what this alien feeling was, that I just had no idea that it wasn't a predominantly Jewish world, because my world was, I had to figure out how much would I assimilate for the local mores and habits, and how much would I retain because that's who I was. And I still haven't quite figured that out. That changes moment to moment. But I'm much more comfortable with it, and I don't feel so alien anymore. At least I also understand why I feel alien.
MK: Well it's especially a nice trait I think when you have something to say, which you do.
DB: Oh, thank you!
MK: So I can see how people might have reached out to you.
DB: Yeah. Yeah.
MK: In other cases maybe they wouldn't. But I can see in your case how. . . .
DB: Well thank you. Well there--. I seem to be more energetic and enthusiastic and vibrant in some ways in my communication than most other people. And that is part of what seems alien. There's a more sedate, withdrawn aspect that I don't inhabit very well, which is okay with me. But I had to learn that that was part too, that I had to just accept that in myself and that was all right, and that people were drawn to it. And I could accept that. Yup.
MK: So tell me a little bit more about this, these unspeakable attractions and qualities. Are they--? Is this a fragile state of being? Are there external threats to this? Is it possible that it could get--?
DB: You know, there are some aspects that are fragile in the physical beauty aspect, because we are close to the build out stage, if we haven't passed it already, to the point of which we will be overdeveloping, whatever that means. And I'm not sure that we all know what that means. That sense of peace with the land, that the land has not been overstressed or overdeveloped where there are too many human beings living on this land than we can support. I mean we might see this downtown where there's more traffic and too little parking than is really tolerable. But in general I don't feel that's the case. So that is fragile. But I've been publishing The Concord Magazine for ten years now. And The Concord Magazine is an online journal that at first was monthly. God knows where I got the energy for that. And now it's twice a year. It went to quarterly, and now it's twice a year. And it's on ConcordMA.com, which is the domain that I own. And because I had that domain name oh gosh, since about 1985 or '86, and then the magazine, which gives fresh information frequently enough to attract over 100,000 visitors a month, so that I get to see a little slice of Concord through other peoples' eyes a lot, because I get a lot of email for them. And there is this magnetism that people feel about Concord that is a place of pilgrimage for people all around the world in ways that I'm not sure I fully understand. But they have this connection here. It's lifelong dreams of many people to visit here. And once they visit here, they're so excited. And maybe they want to keep coming back, or move here. Some people say, "I've had a lifelong dream to live in Concord. And I've never even visited Concord. But I want to move to Concord." There is something that draws people here. And I don't know if it's the history, and they feel an identification with what has gone on here, particularly with the Transcendentalists, or with Louisa May Alcott, or whatever, something that maybe doesn't exist any longer.
But mostly people don't seem real disappointed once they get here. They're pretty excited, and I generally hear that it has fulfilled their expectations, which is surprising, because lifelong dreams, often once you fulfill them they're not what they were, they're something else. So there is something magical here that is not really easy to communicate, except that people feel drawn here. And people will go to great lengths to sacrifice to live here or visit here frequently, because they feel this sense of connection, which they don't feel other places. I often wonder why people get so excited about Walden Pond, and why when something's going on that may impact Walden Pond people from all over want to be part of the political process here in town. And I always think, "Go take care of your own pond. You have a pond in your town, I'm sure. Go love, passionately defend, and preserve your pond in the way that you're preserving Walden Pond." Because this is just one place. We need Waldens everywhere. But they don't feel that sense of connection the way that they do as deeply as they do through Henry Thoreau.
It's quite an interesting phenomenon that I can't quite do the math on and add it up, but it's very powerful. I observe it in many, and it's very powerful. And I have to wonder, if I lived elsewhere would I be as passionate about some of these things. I hope I would be, because we, everything needs a local champion. All politics is local, and all issues are local. And you've got to have the people who are willing to take care of things where they are, never mind halfway across the world. So.
MK: So you have found here a chance to exercise the political side of your nature?
DB: That I didn't even know existed, actually.
MK: Can you start that sentence at the beginning?
DB: Right! Or start--. Right.
MK: I don't want to put words in your mouth.
DB: A full sentence, yes! I did not know I had a political aspect or political nature. I'm very unfond of politics. I'm a pretty straight forward person, and I don't like the type of politics that has to do with—let me see—the personal aspect of politics where you can't say the wrong thing to the wrong people, because it could cause a problem. That's a kind of politics I have zero patience for. But the kind--. But working the political system to get things done I seem to have some adeptness at. And I didn't know that until I felt, until I was on the Historical Commission here, which I've just recently retired from. I was a member of the Concord Historical Commission for seven years, and I was its Chair for three years, not that I had any particular knowledge in history. But I had been doing some research and writing for The Concord Magazine for several years. And I think I was seen as someone who had an intellectual capacity to both learn and to consider many facts without having to play politics about them, and to make decisions about what seems to be the most factually oriented--.
MK: But not just learn, but also disseminate.
DB: And disseminate. And to be able to write and educate the public, which I have continued to do. It was an exhausting, just absolutely exhausting to be on the Historical Commission for seven years. You would think that with, as much as we've done to preserve historical stories, artifacts, places here, it would be surprising to know how much historic preservation, for the town fathers at this point, those who are in positions of political power, it's just an afterthought. In fact it's often seen as an inconvenience. So it's the only committee without staff, one of the only committees that have no staff. It's certainly the only committee that has hearings and is part of the community preservation committee that has no staff. Most things that have to do with historic issues go on without our ever hearing about them until it's too late or almost too late. And then we had to interject ourselves vigorously into the process, which is always seen like an intrusion. But you know, too late is too late. We didn't want to be too late, and we felt our job was to bring historic issues to the fore. Now it's often thought that if we are sensitive to history it will be a terrible imposition on the process of development or the process of getting anything done. Sometimes that's correct. And sometimes it's just incorrect. Sometimes we can simply, through good planning, do a good job of being sensitive. But we have to start in the beginning. Otherwise it's a terrible imposition. Plans need to be changed. Contracts need to be voided. It's an unnecessary problem, doesn't need to happen. Now there are times that, yeah, it's true, we may not let you do it. We may not, we may have to use the political process to prevent something from happening, because we, historical commissions don't have a lot of power. And it was very hard for me to learn what power the Commission had, what little, teeny amounts of power the Commission had and how to leverage them the best. And I'd say now that I'm retired I know it best. But I certainly didn't know it while I was in a position to use it. So now as a citizen I feel I really need to use those tools.
For example there is an historic hangar at our local airport that many really fascinating things were invented in and around or tested in. And Massport who owns the airport would like to tear it down and develop it in some other way. And we're working really hard to preserve that hangar and make it into a museum about the discoveries that were developed at Hanscom AirForce Base. And I now better understand the processes, the little bits of power that we can use as citizens. So I still remain hooked into the process, because I can help train others hopefully, how to use those powers. But they were very hard information to come by. Yet we see so much preserved around us. We think, "It must be so easy to preserve something in Concord. Just think it and it happens." And I just don't know whether to laugh or cry when people tell me that, because I don't think anything here was ever preserved without a huge fight. And that was probably true since Europeans came. We probably have been ignoring history for the new as a tradition. And the tradition is we have to fight to preserve. So.
MK: Is the story of the hangar or whatever else, is the story itself in the toolbox?
DB: As part of the preservation?
MK: Umm hmm.
DB: It is. It's an absolutely fascinating place. And what's fascinating—.
MK: No, but I mean is the story itself, the story of the place—
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: --a story in itself?
DB: It is.
MK: Is that a strong part of the toolbox?
DB: The power of the story.
MK: Umm hmm.
DB: Yes, it is. It is. And it's not well-known by the community, because it was all top secret when it happened. And people in the community who lived here and worked on those projects still can't talk about many of them, but maybe some of them they can talk about. So we never could appreciate it, because it was secret. And when that hangar was first proposed to be torn down that was when we brought the story together to present it to the community who was agog. They—. Because it's such an exciting story that, "How did we not know this?" And I think that there's a lot of hidden stories that we don't know that are pretty exciting. Just have to find the right people to talk to, ask the right questions. Yup.
MK: Is the story of the hangar something worth capturing?
DB: Sure. Yeah. It's a very funny looking place. It's very eccentric looking. It was a pre-World War Two hangar that was actually used in a different part of the country, I think Georgia. Was used during World War Two. And then it was--.
MK: You mean the design of it.
DB: No, the actual hangar. And then it was deconstructed and brought up here and reconstructed. But it had to be modified, because it had center columns, so that it now has--. If you were to turn the roof on the side it would look like a parenthesis with a point in the middle and then two curving arches on top and bottom. And that's because trusses had to be added to remove that center post for aircraft with a big enough wingspan to get in and out. And technologies that were connected with all of our transportation: navigation, aircraft, all the space missions, Naval, etc., were--. It's called inertial guidance systems—were first tested there. It was part of Draper Labs, Charles Draper, who was quite a genius. And he was a genius in that he could imagine things and also make them happen, put them into an application and make them happen, which was, is quite an amazing talent. And he could also bring out the best in people working together as teams. They also did early development of solar power applications there. They moved it from the space program.
MK: With NAFTA?
DB: I think he either lived in Brookline or Nadick. But a lot of people.
MK: Who are you talking about?
DB: Draper. Charles Draper. I think he lived in Brookline or Nadick. But a lot--. The test facility is the only building on Hanscom Field that's actually in Concord. Hanscom Field is four, takes up four towns, and we just have a little corner of it, and it's the only structure. So that's why it falls into our bailiwick here. But people who worked for MIT, Lincoln Lab, and Draper Lab used that facility for decades and lived here and were sworn to secrecy. And some of them are still keeping the news secret. Some of them have still said that some of the work is still classified and they can't talk about it. So early applications of solar power were transferred from the space program into early experiments of commercial use, which of course is very germane right now. All of the navigation for all the space programs up until the GPS era--. And I'm not sure about the technology, if they still use inertial guidance as a backup, or whether or not it's not there any more. Up until GPS that was how everything was navigated. And the first test flight was flown from here to the West Coast on instruments alone, no radio contact and no pilot having to operate the plane. So it was early auto pilot. And the technology to have warning systems about mid-air collisions and things like that was developed here too. So it's a pretty exciting list of achievements. So we don't know what'll happen with the hangar. We're really fighting uphill on this one.
MK: I can picture some pretty juicy exhibits though.
DB: Great stories. People still alive to tell the stories too. Yeah. Yeah, I bet it would be really interesting. Yeah.
MK: What other kinds of things did the Historic Commission--?
MK: Historical Commission.
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: What other kinds of projects did you tackle?
DB: We have very, had a very broad charge of being advisory about all historic issues, which is just about, which is very broad, going from pre-history to planning for the future. The only piece of kind of a legislative part that we held were, was what we call the Demolition Delay Bylaw, which is held on about 60 properties. That means you can't get a demolition permit without a six-month hearing if the Commission says, following a hearing, that you need a six-month wait. And that six months will be used to find alternatives to demolition, because these are properties that are historically important, but do not, don't have other protections, like they aren't in Historic District. And it was fairly successful in the few years since 1999 that the Historical Commission administered it. Just--. I'd say everything that came under the Bylaw-- and there may be four or five examples-- has not been destroyed. One of the properties was deconstructed and put into storage hoping to reconstruct it. So it's not destruction. It's just dismantling. But otherwise, it did save, in some fashion, everything that it was meant to save, so far. So it is, it does have some benefit.
One of the things that we didn't know we had a role in, and learned quite belatedly, but thank goodness not too late, was we didn't understand our role in the siting (pronounced "sighting") of cell towers. And that--. We were consulted about those because we actually could influence the outcome. And we never understood that. Our departmental staff never explained that to us correctly. They do not understand it themselves, and this is the 106 Review, which is a federal review that requires anything having to do with a federal license or permit or funding has to be reviewed for impact on historic resources. So [sighs] there were some really missed opportunities there. But one missed--. One opportunity that didn't get fully missed, though it wasn't our doing that stopped it, was the placing of a cell tower, a visible cell tower in the middle of three historic districts on town land. Would've been visible from the National Park, from the Town Square, from all over. And that would've been just the first one, because once you let in one, it's the nose, the camel's nose under the tent. And we, at that point, learned the importance of our opinion, that it actually did have some weight outside of Concord. It's inside of Concord it may not have that much opinion, that much weight. But to the State, they actually depend on what we would have to say. They would have no way of knowing that that address was really going to impinge upon the viewshed of the rivers, and the park, etc., etc. The one that was the most impactful to me is that the place where Henry Thoreau put in his canoe when he took that week on the Concord and Merrimack, you would've seen the cell tower right from there. And I thought, "We got to stop this." And it was almost snuck through. But the Historic District Commission did stop it. Luckily they have more power. They had the power to do that. But it could've happened. And it was very sobering, very, very sobering. And we got a lot of crap for it, not much--. We got thanks from the townspeople, but not from the people in the government.
MK: And the town government?
DB: They saw it as rental income that they weren't going to get. In fact they had a lease that they had to void. They had signed a lease, I believe. I'm not sure, but I think they may have signed the lease without ever consulting with us. So of course we seem like a terrible intrusion, because it was after it was already signed. And we had to push our way through it. And it was quite a ruckus, but it was worth it, because the way it would've devalued the viewsheds would be--. I just think of the impact on--. The loss of property value would outshine the small rental each year that we would've gotten as a town. It would've been pennywise and pound foolish. So we have to--. My reputation in some quarters has not recovered from that, but I, it was worth it. It was very much worth it.
You know I think about having grown up in New Jersey, which is probably the most populated state in the country. And when I was in my early teens we moved to a township that was probably economically equivalent to Concord, quite affluent. And I was astonished when I moved there at the development after development of ostentatiously affluent houses that were really displays of wealth that had very little to do with, had nothing to do with taste, fine craftsmanship, sensitivity to the landscape, or the historic traditions of the architectural traditions of the area. They were just big and ugly. And that was 35 years ago. They were mini-mansions before mini-mansions came to Concord. And they came to Concord much, much later than they came to New Jersey. And it has been kind of shocking to see them come here. But I think I saw what it looked like when you have mile after mile of these horrendously oversized, ugly intrusions, visual intrusions that are homes. They don't even seem humane or human. So I kind of am sensitized to that when I see it coming to Concord, when I see development and overdevelopment coming, when I see things like cell towers that impact residential neighborhoods that are historic, important to the country, historically important to the country. And I think about [sighs] if we allow a cell tower in the middle of Concord's historic districts, there is not a historic district in the country that would be able to keep one out. You know it would have overlooked where the British came from the North Bridge back to town after the fight and where they went up to the, back in, up and down to the bridge, where they retreated out of town.
I just can't see how we could allow that kind of intrusion without thinking about it and talking as a community about it, as to whether or not this is okay. I don't mind at all if the community, through a really public process, talks about something and comes to a conclusion that I don't agree with, because I feel like it has been democratically obtained. And people have expressed what's important to them, and we've hashed it out together. I do mind when we don't get that opportunity. I mind it terribly. I think Concord is a place where we still have very strong vestiges of democracy, grassroots democracy. And I feel like one of the most important things we need to preserve here, given what trends we've had in the country over the past eight years, of loss of the democratic process and personal liberties, we have just got to preserve the process here. It's okay if the town came together and said, "You know, we need that rental income from those cell towers more than we need the visual space and the historic preservation," though I wouldn't have agreed with it necessarily. But a case could've been made, and maybe I could've understood the other side. But this was just kind of put through without public process. And I think that that's--. I think that democratic piece, that piece of citizens having their hands on their own power as a political entity, as a member of the legislature, because we have an open Town Meeting where each . . . [41:53] member of the legislature. It's so vital that if we lose that practice here I don't know where it's going to be practiced in America.
I feel like we're kind of holding back this wave of loss of power of the democratic process here, and it doesn't to me matter that much what the outcome is of the process, though that matters somewhat. It's that process of people, anyone, anyone regardless of how much power they hold because of money or position, but because we each have a say, and we each have the right to be heard and considered. If we give that up here, it really is fearsome to be what could happen in this country. Because we--. So--. We've had such a hands-off kind of attitude about, "We're just going to trust the government and let it kind of go on. And it doesn't really need us. And oh, we'll vote, but maybe not. You know, we won't have our voices be heard." But here in Concord we see the incredible vitalness of each person's voice. And you never know from what quarter that voice is going to come that says the thing that changes everything. It changes the outcome of decisions. It changes the way people think about issues, just because someone pipes up and has a different view. And that's I think very basic to the democratic process. It is the democratic process, having a variety of views, opposing views, yet not being penalized for having opposing views and having them valued as part of the process.
I'm seeing more and more that we're all supposed to agree and be nice and not make waves. And I think Town Meeting is still strong here, but I feel the pressures of, as someone who often has a different voice, the pressures of, "Oh well you don't want to cause a problem. You don't want to get people upset." Well, you know, that's not the point, upset. Upset is not the point. Informed is the point, equipped to make good decisions with all the information is the real point. When our bylaw about cell towers was passed at Town Meeting, I remember specifically that I had never heard of it really before, which I should have, but that it talked about it being conscious of being sensitive to historic preservation. And I thought, "Well that's good. That's good." But you know that didn't end up being really what it meant. And historic preservation was not important in the end. And I wish that we could've had a really public discussion. I hope in the future we will have a very public discussion about what are the pros and cons of preserving not just individual buildings or individual object or individual properties, but streetscapes, and viewscapes, and riverscapes, and things like that, which is a more modern way of thinking, not just the solitary object out of context, but preserving historic contexts.
MK: And as you've already said, the traditions of the Town Meeting.
DB: And the—
MK: That needs—
DB: --traditions of the Town Meeting also.
MK: That needs to be fully understood to be completely preserved.
DB: To be preserved. And to see the ways that it can erode through pressure from people who agitate for the status quo. But I think that's a pretty normal thing. I'm not saying that there's something going on here that doesn't go on in the rest of the United States or any other democratic place. I think it's pretty normal to feel like, let's just go with the way things are and not rock the boat. But it really takes a lot of effort to say, "You know, this boat--. This is a boat that needs rocking, not just for its own sake, but because we got to wake up the occupants." And I think it's always going to be that way. It always was that way. I think it was Jefferson who said that every few years you need to clean out the stall completely, throw all the bums out. I may be misattributing, but there is a need for a constant tending that we have to all the things that we hold dear, or they will just fall apart and go away. Or those who oppose them or find them inconvenient will take advantage of our lack of attention and will be all too happy for our fears of speaking up and rocking boats. They will be very happy to step in and overdevelop and put up cell towers or whatever it is that they're going to do, if we don't pay attention.
MK: So you have mentioned--. You've given this incredible description of the political process—
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: --and how it can be used locally, and you've also talked about stewardship.
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: Are those the same ? Or where is the line between them?
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: Or what is the--?
DB: Well you know the political process can be used to, for personal gain as well. It doesn't need to be stewardship in terms of preserving the assets of the community for the community's well being. It can be--. I mean politics has every potential way for being distorted. And it can be used for the purposes of giving a favor, to giving greater ease to development rather than less ease. We--. There are a lot of zoning bylaws we could have in Concord that the State Legislature allows us to have that other towns use that would be more restrictive and slow down development. We don't use those. And I think it has been through the political process that those things have not been put in place or they have been defeated.
MK: Rolled back, or--.
DB: I'm sorry?
MK: Rolled back, would you say?
DB: Say it again? The political process has been used to either nip zoning bylaws in the bud before they get to Town Meeting. The idea of, "Oh, there'll be so much opposition, and people will be so upset, and you'll rock the boat, and people will be unhappy," often will nip an idea in the bud before it gets to a fully public process. Or something can get to Town Meeting and through either distortion or a great deal of agitation, so that people fear the worst could happen through some of the proposed bylaws, they can be defeated. Or we may not be fully informed of the pros and cons. These things are complex, and it depends upon who's presenting sometimes as to whether or not you hear all the up and down sides.
And I think a new thing we're starting to see are zoning bylaw proposals that may also help development be easier, having to do with being able to, for example, rebuild nonconforming structures in a nonconforming way, without a special permission, so that it's easier to redevelop an old parcel, you know, tear down historic property and redevelop it in a way that makes the use of the land easier and more profitable for the developer, as opposed to looking at what is the good for the community. There is an assumption that I see in town government that, at least I see it through observation, that development is good for us; it's good for Concord, as opposed to thinking about really how many people and how many structures do we need here and having a large and free-ranging discussion about what do we really want this place to look like. How many souls do we think should be housed here on a nightly basis? How many people should be working here on a daily basis? Right now we're having discussions about a new sewage treatment plant. We are not having discussions about whether or not we should add another one, whether it will, because it will enable us to have a lot more development, as to whether or not we want that. The question is where and how. But we've skipped the part where we're asking if. And it's--. That's no longer being entertained. It's kind of a fete complete that we need it. I hope it's not a fete complete that we'll get it, because that will unfetter our ability to develop into the future for quite a while. Right now our sewage treatment being at maximum capacity has put on some serious brakes. If we double our sewage capacity then what would that mean? Does that mean that we get to have twice as many people? Would we want that? I'm not sure what the proposals are, if they are for twice as much. But these questions aren't being asked. It's simply you're--. We need a sewage plant. We need to expand the development capacity. Where should we do it and how can we make it happen? And I think that's pretty backwards, because now anyone who's asking if is an intrusion. And I'm asking, still asking if we need it! So I'm intruding again.
MK: Did you raise a family here?
DB: I have no children.
MK: I was going to ask about the schools.
DB: The schools--. No, I haven't raised children or put them through the schools here. They're supposed to be quite good schools. I think they're--. They may be more rigorous than they should be. But I think a lot, a lot of that comes down from the state requirements as to what children need to be taught, and it's extremely rigorous. I'm pretty pleased not to be in school myself. [Chuckles]
MK: Did you mention early on EMT service, some connection with those--?
DB: I--. Not as an EMT. I'm the CERT Coordinator. And CERT, C-E-R-T, stands for Community Emergency Response Team, and it's training community members to be part of emergency preparedness and response. And it's a--. Actually CERT is a federal program, but it's administered locally so that each CERT program really reflects the needs and the abilities of each community. And actually before CERT I was one of the founders of the Concord Neighborhood Network, which came about in late 1998, early 1999, to organize neighborhoods for social closeness and emergency preparedness and response, because most of us experience emergencies in neighborhoods, where we live. And--.
MK: How do you train a neighborhood for those things?
DB: Well, one of them is to have means of communication and familiarity. Most of us in suburbia don't know our neighbors anymore. In 1999 in Concord Neighborhood Network had 50 different neighborhood meetings in 50 different neighborhoods. That's a lot. And there was not one of those meetings where someone at some point didn't say, "It's so good to finally meet the neighbors." And so we said, "Well how long did you live here?" Seven years, five years, eight years, ten years. And you hadn't--. And they hadn't met the neighbors yet. So part of what we were doing was an introduction service. You can't help each other if you don't know each other, if you don't know each other's needs or strengths. If you don't know each other you don't know how to depend upon each other. So that's why social closeness as well as emergency preparedness seem like they were--. It was a two faceted program, but they made sense to fit together.
Now the neighborhood organizing isn't as much a part of CERT at this time, and it's certainly not a part of the federal program in CERT. But the idea of passing a long a message in the neighborhood to get people informed quickly about something, or to send, to find someone who had a skill or an object that was needed in an emergency, seemed like it made a lot of sense. But if we didn't even know how to look up each other's names in the phonebook we couldn't call each other. And most neighborhoods did not--. I mean there were some neighborhoods that had neighborhood associations, so they have that information. But just that developing of an email list or a phone list and a way to pass messages was enormous. And I think about--. I'd say probably at the height there were about 70 % of the neighborhoods in Concord, which were self-defined, participating. Now that's--. The community network, the neighborhood network has kind of fallen by the wayside, but I picked up with the Fire, working with the Fire Department when we had a new Chief come in who wanted to work with volunteers and saw that his 38 or 36 men and a population of almost 20,000 in Concord, it wasn't a very good ratio for a widespread emergency. It would need to be, that people needed to take responsibility for getting their households prepared and being able to take care of each other as needed. So we developed a lot of, a lot of things that we've never had in this community before.
The previous Fire Chiefs had said, "If we need a shelter we'll open the high school." And I used to say, "And then what?" "Well, we'll close it when we're done." And I'd say, "There's a lot that goes on between that." You know, what happened for feeding, or giving them water, or bedding, or any of the hundred things that people need in a new place that isn't equipped for sleeping? So we now have a shelter team. And we drill regularly. We're able to register, receive, feed, water and discharge people now in a short amount of time, because we've practiced this. We're able to do a lot of problem solving in that kind of setting.
We also have done a lot of teaching in the community about the kinds of things you might want to have at home for emergencies. We're so used to going to the store here and having everything at our fingertips that the idea that we might not have that ability, like you see on a, when you look at CNN--. Before a hurricane people have shopped out all of Home Depot, or WalMart. It's empty! We can't imagine that here, and we have very--. We don't have a lot of grocery shopping. We have very small stores, and very few of them, so it could easily get tapped out. So how do you be prepared at home, and how can you look out for your elderly neighbors or a neighbor with a new baby? If we lose, were to lose power, how would you keep them warm, the most vulnerable people warm, and how would you cook, and things like that? Just get them to be thinking through these things. I found that in my neighborhood almost no one has a gas stove. Everyone has electric. So if we lose the power, no one can cook anything, except on their grill. And then we have to teach them not to bring their grill inside, because of the carbon monoxide. So there's a lot of training in very basic things, because we sophisticated, educated people sometimes forget about the very basic and very simple things that we need to do on a survival level, because we have not had to do that for a long time. So that's a lot of what I'm engaged in. Yup. In my--.
MK: And this is a volunteer--?
MK: --on your part.
DB: Yes. Yes. Yes. It has been fascinating. And I--. People ask me why I do this. I was concerned about the Y2K problem back in 1998 and '99. But I also saw that this was an opportunity for us to know our neighbors in a way that nothing else seems to have breached the fences between us. And then I became very ill in '99, and I was actually--. It was considered to be terminally ill, quickly terminally ill. And I thought, "Well, you know. I can cash in the retirement money and go down to the Virgin Islands or something, and sit on a beach." But I figure in about three weeks I'd probably be causing trouble down there, saying, "This isn't right. Why are you people putting up with this kind of nonsense? You guys should organize and start having your voices be heard." And I might as well, I thought I might as well stay home and do that. So I decided to continue with the organizing work, and I certainly have outlived my diagnosis and I--. It's not an issue any more, but it was not--. I was not expected to see the new year healthy, much less alive, so the change in the Millennium--.
So that really helped me realize this was very important work for me. I feel that people when dealing with emergencies are very real in ways that we may not allow ourselves to be real in day to day life. We get down to what's really important to us. And I had my emergency. I lived it for that year. So I knew that that was very much what emergencies did for people. And luckily I haven't been in parts of the country which have emergency after emergency, like hurricanes, or floods, or earthquakes or whatever. So this is--. That was my testing ground to know that it really does bring people into what is most central to them and their community and in each other. So I think in talking about emergencies it makes it more real for us and we can be more real with each other, because we get to realize, this is not a permanent situation this life; it's very temporary. And in the terms of history we are just a little speck, a little speck on the clock. So let's get real and do what's important, do what's really important.
And I've been very, very fortunate that first the Chief of Police and now the Fire Chief are so accepting and embracing of this. They have only said, "How can we help? How can we help make this happen," as opposed to, "Well, it might shake things up. I don't know if that's a good idea." But they know that when it hits the fan, whatever it is, they're going to be right there with the fan. So they might as well have as many people as possible responsible and trained and as many hands on deck as they can have. And so the CERT program also trains people to assist first responders, or to act in their stead if they are not available, let's say in a widespread emergency and roads are impassible kind of thing. Just your very basic things like working in a mass casualty situation, which we see on television all the time. Happens. We had bridges fall down and hurricanes happen. And someone has to be on the scene first. And to help equip people to be those people who happen to be there at the time, but then to be effective.
I also was instrumental in helping the town develop a ham radio network that would act as a backbone for emergency communications throughout the town and kind of help invent some really innovative ways of using ham radio and the little FRS radios, the little family radio service radios to be able to communicate within neighborhoods and then communicate across town and be able to hook into fire and police as needed, because we have very slim municipal budgets, and we're going into a couple of years of very poor budgets. I mean it looks very grim, that we're not going to be looking at expanding our capabilities as a town. We're going to be looking at just kind of maintaining where we are. To be able to have citizens help fill in some of the gaps, rather than just allow the gaps to be there to fall into, has been wonderful to see. It has been really wonderful. And it has really helped mobilize a lot of people into being very active. And I eventually became a ham radio operator myself, against my will, kicking and screaming the whole way. And I haven't been practicing the past year, but I do have a license.
MK: Amazing. Well you're in league with some very good people.
DB: I'm very fortunate.
MK: Chief Willette.
DB: Umm. We'll be so sad to lose him. But I think he has got some good people coming up. We'll see who his hire is, but he has got a great department. And they have been so wonderful to work with. Ach! Just wonderful. Really solid people who really understand that we're all in this together. It's not, "We will save you." That's kind of the old style of community policing and fire fighting.
MK: Leave it to us.
DB: "Leave it to us. We will save you. We will carry you from that burning building." Well that's okay, but what if there are a thousand people in that burning building? Are you going to carry each of us? We're each going to have to be responsible for ourselves. We're not going to be sitting, have to sit around and wait. "Well, I could leave, but. You know, I could take care of myself, but the government will take care of me." We saw that in Katrina. People waited for the government to come and evacuate them, and they didn't. So luckily we anticipated that. We figured that Concord is not populous enough that if, whatever the tragedy is that happens doesn't happen right here, the Red Cross isn't going to be available. They'll go to the population centers. They'll go to the cities. FEMA won't care. MEMA [Massachusetts Emergency Management Authority] will be doing the same thing. We're going to have to take care of ourselves, like they did in the old days, when Boston was probably a couple of days' ride or a full day's ride. I guess it would be a full day's march. The Cavalry wasn't going to come over the hill very fast.
So we think a little of ourselves as stretching back to that Minuteman tradition, that we will have to take care of ourselves, without it being a resentful thing but just, it makes sense. We have to take care of ourselves. So.
MK: That's fabulous. Tell me some more stories about the online magazine.
DB: Dot com.
DB: Yup. My husband and I started a town, community website before a lot of communities had websites. So it was mid-'80s. Now of course, not only are there community websites, but the governments all have their own websites. But this was not of interest to the town government. And it was, would've been unusual if it was. It's usually a solitary thing. So we started this way back when, to talk about general information about the town and to point to resources for more information. And then I got this idea to be an E-Zine, an electronic magazine in 1998. 1998. It has been--. I really have enjoyed publishing things that are not mainstream, usual voices that we hear. I really like to publish things about the famous people that aren't stories that we hear, to make them more human, to make them more complex and multi-dimensional. I've met people from all over the world because of this, either through email, email friendships I have, or in person friendships I've developed through contact.
I finally got an A+. I finally fixed my high school grade average through the Concord Magazine. And this is how it went. I got all but straight-. I got all straight "A"s in high school, except for one B+. And that was in American Literature in Ninth Grade. And it was particularly around the teaching of the Transcendentalists. My teacher, I felt, was really not able to hold an 8th grader's attention, let me say. And I remember his teaching Thoreau in the most unengaging manner. And I was so outraged at how dull it was that I was acting up in class, which was not like me. So I got a B+. And that ruined my straight "A" average.
So here I find myself all these years later, in Purgatory working out my sins! And I was contacted by email by an English teacher in my high school, who I didn't know, hadn't been there at that time. And she said that she had been using some of my articles on Thoreau as part of her teaching, part of her curriculum, because now classes apparently have websites in high school. They have their own websites with the different links. I mean it's a completely different world than when I was in college. We had key cards with the punch cards when I was in high school. So we got to become friends, and she said that she had a standing promise that anyone who brought her a Thoreau pencil was going to get an A+. Sheer bribery. Sheer bribery. But she thought it was pretty unlikely she would ever get a Thoreau pencil. So I was at the Thoreau Birth House, which is on Virginia Road here. It's the house Henry was born in that's being renovated right now. And the Thoreau Farm Trust, who's doing the work, had had pencils made up that said "www.thoreaufarm.org." And they thought it was kind of nice tying the pencil in with the Thoreau Farm. So I sent her one, not realizing that I was going to be fulfilling her lifelong dream of getting a Thoreau pencil. So I finally got my A+ in 8th grade English. Unfortunately I was in my late forties, and we couldn't really correct the transcripts. But it was a sweet correction nonetheless.
MK: Well you're--. You've become your own Registrar now, so.
DB: Yes. I'm the one keeping score.
MK: This has been delightful. And it has been inspired. And--.
DB: Oh, thank you.
MK: And I'm just blown away.
DB: Are you really?
MK: Absolutely. By all these--. Because this is--. Community action, grassroots community action is a passion of mine and something I've been devoted to all my life.
MK: And you know I'm always looking for good—
DB: Kindred souls.
MK: Good models. Well, good models--
DB: Yeah. Yeah.
MK: --of real action by people to people.
DB: Umm hmm.
MK: So this has been a—
DB: Oh, thank you.
MK: --an especially . . .
DB: Oh, thank you.
MK: --for me.
DB: Oh, I'm glad it hit notes for you, particular notes.
MK: And so I'm just thrilled to have met you and had this opportunity
DB: Oh, thank you.
MK: --to talk.
DB: Anything else you need to cover, or you think we've got the ground?
MK: Well you know better than I. I suppose I could ask you, how would you describe the lay of the land here, of Concord, to somebody who had never seen it and never would see it?
DB: It's very verdant, very ver—
MK: What is?
DB: Verdant. Green.
MK: Start with "Concord."
DB: Concord is very verdant and very green. We have an enormous number of acres here under forest, tree-lined streets, houses overhung by mature trees. The trees are very, very important here to the landscape. And it's very ironic, because Thoreau went to Walden because it was one of the only places with trees in his day. Everything had been stripped for firewood and farming. And they kept tree lots. And the Emersons had a tree lot there that he built his cabin. And it was esti--. It has been estimated that twelve percent of our landscape was treed at that time. It's very small. So when you drive around here--. And many visitors say they can't believe how green and lush it is. That's a very important part of the landscape. Plus we have three rivers. They're not mighty rivers like the mighty Mississippi pounding through areas where it's big and mighty, like, what is it Memphis I think it goes by. They're lazy rivers mostly. The Assebet is a little less lazy. But they're flat. The Sudbury and Concord are flat and wide. Broad flood plains. We have three great ponds, which in other parts of the country would be called lakes. I came to, come from New Jersey where a lake was about the size of a bucket. And here, the further north you go, ponds could be several miles across. But Walden is a pond, but it's really very big. People are surprised at how big it is.
We have--. At this point we have a lot of overgrowth of invasive species. People may not realize that if they can't pick out the different species, but we have a lot of invaders that are taking over a lot of the native trees and also the wild plants that are smaller than trees.
DB: Wetlands are filled with the purple lustrife, which is actually a fairly close by import. Lustrife supposedly came over in some wool or cotton, probably wool from Great Britain in the 19th Century to the mills in Lowell, which are on the Merrimack River. And the mills make cloth, the thread and things like that. And it has slowly spread to be quite a scourge. It is very beautiful in bloom. But it is--. It has got all the problems of a mono-culture. We don't want just one plant in our wetlands, and that's often how it is. We have the red maples; the Norway maples taking over from the red maples, swamp maples. And we do have rather a lot of intrusion by a lot of very invasive plants, like bittersweet and even nastier plants. I can't remember some of their names. That does make it look very lush and green, but some of it is overgrowth that is really not something we're very proud to have. But it's a very big problem.
Most of Concord is developed residential. And there are many beautiful, gracious homes, just such beautiful homes, in beautiful settings that are not all chock-a-block next to each other. And they have nice amounts of land around them, so they fit in with the landscape as opposed to predominate the landscape. There are homes of many different sizes and many different ages. Some of our small homes can be of any age. They can be even 17th Century, or they can be--. Well, 21st Century, no one is building small homes any more. They're all building quite large homes. But we have--. Some of our historic resources are both very large and very small, working class and the landed gentry kind of thing.
We have, still have quite a bit of land in agriculture. So there is a somewhat rural look and feel. And that is very fragile right now, because farming is very expensive. When your land is worth upwards of a million dollars an acre, it's very hard to put corn and pumpkins on it. It's--. As the farmers die, their way of life is dying with them, because their children may not continue the tradition. Some of the farmers I know work regular jobs and are farmers, in order to support their, what I call their farming habit, which I'm ever grateful for them, because it must be incredibly stressful, but it gives so much to us. And I think we really need to have agriculture in every community. We need to have food close by. And as we see the sustainability sensitivity that we're gaining right now, having agriculture in your community is part of sustainability. So we're very--. We're happy to see—
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--So we're very, we're happy to see entire quarters of Concord are quite rural, which is lovely, and still worked. But I--. Sometimes we see pieces of the land, of the farmland sold off and subdivided for housing. And that's hard to see, particularly if it breaks a swath, and you see a lot of development in the middle of farming country. Often--. Well usually there's no trees, so it looks so naked when you have that kind of development. But it's understandable. It's very valuable land. And when someone who was in the farming tradition passes away, and no one wants to take it up, it's quite understandable. Even renting--. There are farmers who rent land from others who are no longer farming. It's still a very expensive proposition. And so the economics really aren't there. And I don't know how to tip that balance. It's problematic in that if people who are farmers want to move to Concord they can't afford to live here or farm here. So if you don't have someone to farm the land you can't be, have farmers anymore. [chuckles]
So that's something as a community we have to solve. We have to come to some decisions about how to subsidize farmers and their crew. That's in particular very difficult. The work crew has to be subsidized, or they can't live here. They'd have to take the train in from elsewhere, live in places that don't have trains. And with the cost of gas it's exorbitant at the wages that they just can't be in farming. So these are things that we're going to have to face as a community pretty soon. Yup.
MK: Thank you.