The Infamous Slum of Old San Juan

They say the body acclimates to warm weather over time. A three-hour flight was not enough for this lifelong New England native to prepare for the wilting heat of Puerto Rico. Laura, on the other hand, was born and raised on the enchanted island. She handled the climate much better with her thinner Caribbean blood.

Beads of sweat rolled off my forehead as we wandered through the historic cobbled streets of Old San Juan. The occasional droplet ran down my back. Heat and humidity have a way of breaking me down ruthlessly– my biggest weakness. I toughed it out. Puerto Rico is hot, but it’s absolutely beautiful as well.

A typical colorful street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A typical street in Old San Juan lined with colonial buildings and colorful walls.

Old San Juan is the historic section of Puerto Rico’s largest city, San Juan. Fortified by Spain in the 1700’s, the city is loaded with beautiful colonial buildings and historic monuments. Steep cliffs and concrete walls were built along the shore as protection against invading forces. Every calle (“street”) has remnants of history, religion, and Caribbean traditions. Generations of families with deep African and Spanish roots still live here. Churches and cathedrals are everywhere.

There are also plenty of bars, theme restaurants, and souvenir shops on every street catering to tourists and locals alike. You can take a walking tour through a colonial-era military fort, buy a computer, and fill a prescription on the same block. The old seamlessly blends with the new.

Under every blue Spanish cobblestone hides a dirty secret.

On our first night in Old San Juan, we met two of Laura’s cousins at a popular restaurant near the harbor. They lived in the neighboring town of Carolina a few minutes up the main strip. They were polite and looked like any other fellows in their early 20’s–flat-brim baseball caps, matching Jordans, and surgically attached smartphones. We introduced ourselves, ordered a few rounds, and discussed island living over plates of roast pork, fried plantains, and white rice. An idyllic start to our Caribbean getaway.

After dinner, they drove us around San Juan to check out the sights and sounds. We passed a few clubs along the harbor that were stuffed to the gills with middle-aged tourists dancing on the open patios, sipping fruity umbrella drinks, and wearing bright summer linens. Police details were on nearly every corner. Luxury resorts were stacked along the beach in orderly rows like Monopoly pieces. As were more cops.

“Avoid people that look like us,” said one of the cousins.

He was referring to a certain breed of young Puerto Rican males–flashy ones with nice clothes, bright jewelry, and expensive cars. They were most often well-connected drug dealers or gang members looking for trouble. Lots of legitimate money runs through these bright and elegant avenidas, but San Juan has a much darker side–a serious criminal underworld lurking in the shade from the palm trees.

That night was the first time I’d ever heard of La Perla.

It’s a hidden slum within Old San Juan. Legendary among locals, it inspires countless stories and rumors about drugs and murder. It’s location outside the city walls secludes its cogs and inner-workings from the curious gazes of nosy tourists.

A cemetery sits between Castillo de San Cristobal and the monument of El Morro in the distance.
On the left, a car exits through one of three main access points into La Perla slum. To the right, a cemetery sits outside the city’s walls.

These two guys knew all about it. They witnessed the plethora of gang activity, drug trafficking, and violent crimes that permeated the streets of San Juan. Shootings and stabbings were incredibly common. They described which sub-barrios to avoid while site-seeing and stressed the importance of self-awareness in Puerto Rico. They warned us about local gang members and their penchant for violence.

About 80% of crime on Puerto Rico is drug-related. The island’s geographic location and political ties with the U.S. make it a critical jump-off point for drug cartels and smugglers looking to sneak their products into America. Cocaine is still a big seller. In recent years, traffickers from Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico have started funneling drugs through Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic at much higher rates.

Most of the cocaine is destined for major cities along the eastern U.S. seaboard, like Miami, Atlanta, and New York. The rest of it remains on the island leaving gang members to wage violent wars against their rivals over money, drugs, and control of the local drug trade. The sky-high murder rate in Puerto Rico is a direct result of the major increase in drug traffic.

New-Old San Juan

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Old San Juan was in a state of disrepair. Prostitution & drugs plagued the streets, crime was rampant, and the infrastructure was in really poor shape. It was Detroit with palm trees. Politicians started pushing legislation to revitalize local businesses, clean up the neighborhoods, and turn the city into a Caribbean hotspot for tourists and honeymooners. They modeled the redevelopment of San Juan after the wildly successful Disneyfication of Manhattan (which still continues to this day).

The government created tax incentives to attract businesses and eliminated rent control to drive out poor folks. They started building endless hotels, clubs, and restaurants. The poorer segments of society were pushed away from the community–banished to the outskirts of the city where the cost of living was more affordable. That made plenty of room for hotel magnates and restaurant conglomerates to demolish and rebuild.

Overall, the government’s efforts to rejuvenate San Juan (particularly Old San Juan & the colonial neighborhoods) were successful.

Except for La Perla

The next day, Laura and I toured the fortress of Castillo de San Cristobal. A street vendor persuaded us into trying a Puerto Rican delicacy known as piragua (Spanish for “snow-cone”). How exotic! The pineapple flavored one was the best. We stopped to enjoy our frozen treats on a grassy hill as a group of students gathered nearby to eat their lunches.

Then, Laura pointed it out.

La Perla sits between two historic Spanish forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The micro-slum of La Perla sits against the ocean, nestled between two historic forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Four hundred feet from snow-cone-eating tourists and students on field trips sat La Perla.

The infamous drug-infested slum was smaller than I’d imagined. It stretched about 600 yards or so along the rocky coastline. It was completely secluded and tucked away between the ocean waves and the old fortress walls that once protected the city from invasions. An ideal location for anyone wishing to partake in illegal activities in private.

And it was certainly the most picturesque slum I’d ever seen.

A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla. Concerts and gatherings are held here. We could hear chickens squabbling nearby.
A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla where weekly concerts are held in an effort to change the community’s poor reputation.

La Perla originated in the 19th century as a zoning area for cemeteries, slaughterhouses, and slaves to stay outside the city walls away from the community center. Over time, farmers and the city’s poorer residents established their homes there.

With Old San Juan under the scrutiny of a clean-up effort by local government, the drug dealers and gang members moved to La Perla in droves to lay low and begin new enterprises. The DEA estimates about $20 million worth of drugs are sold within the slum each year. Drug traffickers, arms dealers, and slumlords control the neighborhood with impunity.

Laura’s cousins explained that, for the most part, law enforcement leaves La Perla alone. Aside from an incredibly rare police raid in 2011 spurred by international criticism due to record-breaking murder rates, the cops simply hang back and make sure violence doesn’t spill into areas where tourists frequent.

A self-governing system of illegal activity operates within the slum–a real-life Puerto Rican version of The Wire. With cops looking the other way, the black market can thrive out of plain view which keeps crime off the busy streets and away from tourists. The city maintains a safe, positive image and the criminals continue to rake in big profits. Everyone is happy! Except the residents of La Perla

So, is it safe..?

Generally speaking, outsiders and tourists are not the target of violence in Puerto Rico. It’s a safe place to visit and I recommend it to friends and family.

It’s even safe within the boundaries of La Perla, relatively speaking, of course. Outsiders only enter La Perla for one reason: to buy drugs. Dealers don’t want their customers harmed or scared away–that’s bad for business. So, outsiders are usually allowed to enter and exit unscathed during the day.

However, flashy unsuspecting tourists can easily find trouble. Unless you’re desperately trying to feed a bad dope habit, I’d reconsider venturing into the slum for an adventure.

Tourist maps posted in the city often omit the existence of La Perla’s streets to deter tourists from accidentally wandering into the high crime areas. Even though it sits mere steps from major tourist attractions, there are only three main access points to La Perla. Each one is clearly marked with plenty of graffiti and grime–the international symbol for “this is a bad neighborhood.”

We chose not to breach the inner walls of the slum during our stay and only explored the outskirts during the day. We were not willing to take the risk of ruining our rare opportunity for a romantic Caribbean getaway in the name of spontaneous journalistic adventure.

All of the same “Rules of Street Smarts” in the U.S. (or any other country for that matter) apply in San Juan: Don’t flash your cash, look like you belong, walk with confidence, and know exactly where you shouldn’t be.

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Catnip Junkies: Getting High With Your Cat

Drooling, sleepiness, licking, and purring–my cats and I act the same way when we’re intoxicated. Laura and I are the caretakers of two beloved felines: Colonel Whiskers & Little Shinobi.

Colonel Whiskers & Little Shinobi watching you sleep, plotting your demise, and waiting for the automatic pet feeder.
Colonel Whiskers (left) & Little Shinobi watching you sleep, plotting your ultimate demise, and waiting for the automatic pet feeder.

These two miscreants love eating, sleeping, and re-enacting battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan at 4am. Other hobbies include sitting on laptops and attacking window shades.

They also love to get high on a regular basis thanks to an organic compound called nepetalactone. No jobs, no responsibilities, 16-hour naps… I’m basically supporting two useless, greasy teenagers.

Life is tough.
Life is tough.

And we all get toasted together!

Nepetalactone is the active attractant found in catnip–a common perennial plant belonging to the mint species. Many cats like to sniff and chew dried catnip clippings; gently bruising the leaves releases the nepetalactone and gives cats a quick, innocent, euphoric “high” feeling. They typically spend the next fifteen to twenty minutes pawing, licking, purring, and rolling around. I exhibit similar behavior under similar conditions.

Catnip has been shown to have behavioral effects on larger cat species like tigers and leopards, too.

Colonel Whiskers is completely wasted on catnip. He'll be in a happy place for the next couple of hours.
Colonel Whiskers is completely wasted on catnip. He’ll be incapacitated for the next 20 minutes or so.

Not all cats are affected by catnip. The phenomenon is hereditary.

As a child, my family had an adorable demon kitty that was completely immune to the stuff. Not even the slightest interest or effect. He was a prolific hunter, though. And I suppose getting stoned all the time would have distracted him from hunting. He loved to catch small critters and leave them on my pillow as presents. Coming home from kindergarten to a bed full of dead animals was scarring to say the least.

It took me a while to understand cats…

Rehabilitation not Incarceration!

Catnip is not addictive. Cats don’t stress out when they’re coming down from a catnip high. They don’t crave more and more. You won’t catch your kitty sneaking out in the middle of the night to score a jar of ‘nip from his dealer or lifting twenty bucks from your wallet when you’re sleeping.

However, catnip can cause some cats to behave aggressively. Typically, the aggression stems from an elevated level of excitement and euphoria, so watch your cat to see how it reacts to getting high. Some cats have sensitive stomachs, too. Excessive amounts of catnip can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

Cats, like humans, can get paranoid or anxious. Not everyone can handle the trip. Make sure to have plenty of soft pillows, chill music, and cold water on hand. You know, for your cat…

From Naples With Love

Worcester is a city that is quite rough around the edges. It’s like a cannoli coated with thumbtacks and arsenic; if your system can somehow handle the rough exterior you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful variety of flavors in the center.

“Restaurant Row” is the tasty center of the filled pastry. It’s a famous stretch of Shrewsbury Street where many of the city’s top restaurants and bars live. There is a healthy mix of new and old here; modern conglomerate-owned bistros sit just steps away from classic diners and family-owned restaurants. Take a walk down Shrewsbury Street on a summer night and you’ll come across young bar patrons & revelers getting liquored up next to middle-aged professionals out for a gourmet cocktail and a well-cooked snack. You might even see a drunk girl yelling at her boyfriend and searching for her cellphone.

There is always an interesting crowd.

Death of a Car Salesman

The newest member in the pack of Italian restaurants in Worcester is Volturno. Bringing passion and cuisine straight out of Naples, they arrive onto the scene to thunderous applause and critical acclaim. Recently, Volturno was chosen as Best New Restaurant of 2014 and Best Pizza 2014 by Worcester Magazine. They are constantly featured on local television and numerous other food publications, too. Deservedly so. We’ll get to that.

Volturno was built inside the old Buick dealership on Shrewsbury Street near the I-290 overpass. My father bought a car here in the late 90’s: a classic old-man white Buick LeSabre complete with luggage rack, fake convertible Presidential roof, and silver hood ornament. I distinctly remember being a kid, sitting on an uncomfortable metal chair waiting for him to finish haggling with the car salesman over white-wall tires and stain-resistant floor mats.

Out of the Wood-Fired Ashes…

It’s really pleasing to see how Volturno transformed the space. Parking in a freshly paved lot and walking along smooth concrete feels strange at first, but entering the restaurant will make you forget a car dealership ever existed here.

Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.
Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.

“Open” is a great way to describe it. Fucking gorgeous is even better. The windows stretch from floor to ceiling and there is a large, deep square bar in the center of the dining area. During the day, sunlight hits every corner. At night, the hanging lights give off a warm glow that you can see from the highway.

The tables have that reconditioned wood thing going on which gives the place a very natural and relaxed vibe. If all car dealerships looked like this, then I’d be in big trouble financially.

The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.
The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.

The back of the restaurant is home to two large wood-fire pizza ovens; the most essential piece of equipment for making a true Neopolitan pizza. Workers shuffle pies in and out surgically every few minutes.

One of the wood-fire pizza ovens. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.
Wood-fire pizza oven. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.

Volturno fires the oven up to 900 degrees as per master pizza-making guidelines set forth by the Italian government. The owner, Greg Califano, traveled to Italy to become a certified pizzaiolo. The intense heat nearly scorches the pizza giving it that signature leopard-spotting which makes Neopolitans so recognizable. It also imparts a fantastic smokey flavor that no other pizza style possesses.

Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.
Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.

Here’s the deal: I’ve tried pizza in Boston, New York, Rome, and the motherland of modern pizza herself, Naples. Volturno pizza is right up there at the top with the best of the best. The dough was phenomenal. Soft, slightly charred, a delicate chew, and great flavor–I almost fell off my bar stool and I was rather sober.

The toppings (sausage, potatoes, onions, mozzarella) were all homemade and fresh, but frankly, you could put a homeless guy’s sock on that pizza and I’d still gladly eat it. It was that good.

I thought world class American-made pizza was only available in places like Brooklyn or the North End. Now, you can get legitimate pizza in Worcester that can impress the pickiest of big city pizza snobs around the globe.

Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.
Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.

To round things off, and because I want to be super fat, I had to get some homemade pasta. The carbonara with homemade bucatini, fried guanciale (a fancy type of bacon), onions, and a gooey soft-boiled egg topped with a mound of salty grana padano cheese was excellent. A very clean, simple, modern spin on a classic.

Volturno has something special going on. Passion and quality like this don’t come along often anymore, especially in a place like Worcester that sometimes feels forgotten. We’re incredibly lucky to have this gorgeous spot in our front yard. I look forward to coming back and trying all of their pizzas.

Sequels, Remakes, and The Death of Cinema

Paramount Studios recently revealed their movies slated for 2016 and it’s no surprise that only one of them is an original concept: Project Almanac. But, it’s a Michael Bay flick about time-traveling teenagers and explosions. I wish I was joking.

The rest of the list is comprised of remakes and sequels without any improvements aside from a little polishing and waxing:

Transformers 5
G.I. Joe 3
Star Trek 3
Beverly Hills Cop 4
Mission Impossible 5
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The stars of these movies are entirely interchangeable, too:

Dwayne Johnson
Mark Wahlberg
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Tom Cruise

It’s not necessarily the actors’ fault. The story, the writing, the character development, the acting–everything is designed to be formulaic. It almost seems like Hollywood intentionally gathered a group of statisticians together to develop bland, generic, white-bread-and-mashed-potato movie concepts in order to guarantee some level of box office sales at the expense of originality and innovation.

Wait a minute… That’s exactly what’s happening.

Paramount isn’t the only guilty party. Every studio is busy firing up another reboot or sequel with a famous name stapled to the poster.

It’s all about the easy sell. A shiny product with a famous face and a simple, translatable story can be marketed and sold to a much larger audience. Hollywood studios rely on international box office sales to supplement a stagnant domestic market. The results are movies with lots of punch, minimal dialogue, and easy-to-follow stories. They translate better and they’re cheaper to make.

And they do fairly well here, too. While bloggers, film critics, and talk show hosts complain endlessly about the lack of variety or originality in movies (I’m no exception), the general public still ends up in the seats. Americans still spend hundreds of millions every year at the movies even if what’s on the screen is the equivalent of diarrhea.

That’s what you call a “Hollywood” move.

Hollywood blames the easiest of targets–pirates. The kind that be stealin’ me movies and downloadin’ me music, yarr!

Studios often like to remind us that making movies is incredibly expensive. And it is. They say illegal downloading hurts their bottom line and, as a result, they’re less able or willing to take chances on edgier films with smaller niche audiences that might not generate enough money to break even. That’s what they like to say, anyway.

It’s hard to sympathize. Instead of rolling with the punches and adapting their business model, Hollywood decided to go after their own customers in court. They fought kicking and screaming against the internet and copyright infringement as if bootlegging is a modern enterprise unique to Hollywood.

This is Ground Control to Elon Musk

Elon Musk is going to put humans on Mars in the next ten years or so. He hopes. The Tesla entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX told CNBC he’s “hopeful that the first people could be taken to Mars in 10 to 12 years. I think it’s certainly possible for that to occur, but the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multi-planetary.”

For now, any mission to Mars would merely be a look around. It’ll be a while before Tesla installs charging stations for super-rich families on Martian space vacations. But, SpaceX has two goals: reduce the cost of space travel and colonize Mars. If they succeed, one day humans will finally be able to discriminate against one another for being born on a different planet. And we’ll be able to sit in space traffic.

It all sounds very… futuristic. But, why should we invest in outer space?

Electric cars, solar-powered high speed trains, space transportation–these ideas were spawned from inebriated discussions in smokey college dorms and dimly lit dive bars. Along comes a scrappy investor with a big brain, a bigger imagination, and millions of dollars from the sale of PayPal to eBay and, before you know it, science fiction dreams become reality. That’s what big thinkers do: imagine the future, take risks, and shape the world.

Interplanetary colonization is not a science fiction fantasy anymore. Basic production of fuel, food, water, and energy can be accomplished on the surface of Mars. That’s enough for humans to survive, extract resources, and begin terraforming. This blueprint could be replicated on any number of sister planets, which means humans would have the option of transplanting themselves across the entire universe. Combine that with lower space transportation costs and, theoretically, the human race could survive forever.

It’s a great option to have considering how easily the species could be removed from the planet. Plenty of footage exists displaying the brutal destructive power of natural disasters, like hurricanes and tsunamis, which are only expected to get worse due to sea level rise and unusual weather patterns caused by global warming. Every few years, the media runs stories about killer asteroids, and, despite Hollywood’s feel-good portrayals, no real plan exists to stop a massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

So, Is Elon Musk the only hope for humanity?

If SpaceX accomplishes its two goals, humans will be in a unique position of controlling their own destiny. For the first time, a species will hold the power to completely destroy themselves or save themselves from extinction.

Space transportation will never be affordable to the common man since regular transportation still isn’t affordable to the common man–just ask the people waiting at the bus stop in February. If the species is facing extinction, it’s a safe bet that most of the tickets will go to titans of industry, political leaders, and other important people. Elon Musk himself probably has a reclining chair reserved. But, saving the species is not about the individual human; it’s about humanity.

That’s the kind of big picture thinking that separates Musk from other entrepreneurs. He realizes that humanity is bigger than one person, or one country, or even one planet. The advancement of the species depends on teamwork. It explains why Tesla recently gave away all of their electric vehicle patents in the hopes that sharing their technology would spur the advancement of the industry as a whole.

Get Mugged: Gourmet Coffee in the Ghetto

A single luxury high-rise stands alone in Worcester, Massachusetts stretching twenty four stories into the sky. You can see it from I-290, the highway running through the middle of the city. It’s one of the definitive buildings in Worcester’s modest skyline: The Skymark Tower. I saw floor plans and video tours of the interior when I was apartment hunting last year–it looks really nice. When President Obama was here last week, he stood just blocks away from it. And I’m sure he could see it from Air Force One as he took off from Worcester Airport.

Don’t be fooled. Directly across the street from the tower’s entrance, a homeless guy is pissing himself and blacking out in front of a liquor store in the warm afternoon sun. Further up the block, a shirtless guy is yelling at himself and massaging his own belly fat like a couch pillow, while a crackhead wearing a suspiciously unseasonable winter coat passes by on a girl’s bicycle.

Welcome to my hometown.

Ironically (and perhaps symbolically for locals), the tower marks the entrance to the self-proclaimed ghetto of Worcester–the southern neighborhoods of Main Street affectionately known as Main South.

This is where dreams go to score dope. Visitors rarely venture into this part of town (shockingly, you don’t see many Yelp reviews in these parts) and self-preserving locals know what streets to avoid. Most of the city’s drugs mingle here. Shootings and stabbings are common. Worcester Police recently installed a gunshot detection system that targets several problem areas in the city, including Main South and Grafton Hill (a rising star on the high-crime watch list).

The city’s movers and shakers have tried to gentrify parts of Main South for a long time, focusing their efforts primarily on the area surrounding the iconic Hanover Theatre. Buying up devalued property, raising rent, and pushing poorer residents to the outskirts of the city and surrounding suburbs–Gentrification 101. The tower is one of the most identifiable symbols of “revitalization” in the city.

Results have been moderate and progress has been slow. Main South is still home to low-level street gangs, prostitution rings, and plenty of drugs, but it also has some awesome ethnic food (naturally), highly-ranked Clark University, and…

Acoustic Java

Empty tables at Acoustic Java on Main Street, Worcester, MA.
You’ll forget all about getting robbed at gunpoint and remember the emergency $20 you crammed in your ass (gotta have street smarts). The coffee is that good.

An oasis. Not the shitty British band. This place is a true oasis from the drug-infested shooting gallery that surrounds it. Ok, that’s overly dramatic. This isn’t Compton. But, Main South is definitely a desert wasteland especially if you grew up around here. Thankfully, Acoustic Java on 932 Main Street is a magical pool of glorious life-nectar (and you don’t even have to leave the heavily-patrolled main artery).

It’s a welcomed respite from the grimy streets. The green storefront blends into the row of adjoining shops but there is a dark sign above one of the doorways. Find it and get inside quick.

Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee and snack. The troubles outside will seem like a distant memory.
Have a seat and enjoy a book with your coffee. The rough streets outside will seem like a distant memory.

Stocked bookshelves, loaded dessert cases, gourmet coffee & tea, a clean lunch menu, and a really warm atmosphere–all the makings of a great little coffee shop. The smell of coffee beans will smack you in the face as you walk in. Hard. Beans from all over the world. Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Colombia, Costa Rica, and more. I asked for two pounds of Ethiopian and Sumatran. It sounded like a drug deal and I cackled to Laura in the store. I am 28 years old. Why do you ask?

Coffee, tea, sandwiches, snacks... Are we still in Main South?
Coffee, tea, bistro-style sandwiches, pastries… Are we still in Main South?

I’m hittin’ that Ethiopian shit right now, man. Strong stuff.

This should be the future for small businesses in America. The new generation of business owners are not afraid to take chances in developing neighborhoods with lower rents; neighborhoods previously thought to be fruitless and too dangerous. They rely on good relationships with locals to remain relatively unscathed (aside from recent surges in graffiti & tagging) and quality products & services to succeed.

Or maybe they don’t have a choice?

Credit is hard to come by and most cities have made it clear that “presentable” areas of town are reserved for established business owners and national chains. The cool kids table.

Instead of peppering the edges of the ghetto with parking garages and loft apartments, the city needs to attract more small business owners by offering financial incentives and increasing police reinforcement. Get people to spend money in our city again and feel safe about doing it. Let’s keep things funky and grimy without the threat of getting stabbed.

We don’t need to cover our tattoos with cheap suits from Macy’s to pretend we fit in. Rough edges are more interesting.

Paul Revere Ate Here

 

World Famous Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End
An accordionist serenades customers waiting in line at the world famous Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End.

Boston’s North End has come unstuck in time. I think it was the cheering that did it: hundreds of toasted bar patrons wearing blue Italia jerseys screaming with joy as Italy went up 1-0 against England in the World Cup match. The echoes are still bouncing off the narrow alleys if you listen carefully.

The red-brick tenements that once lined the cobbled streets are now upscale restaurants and condominiums sold off to the highest bidder. The floods of Italian immigrants and their children have moved on; replaced by floods of tourists, young professionals, and business owners. Even my beloved Prince Pasta hasn’t been local since 1987–they’re a lone brick in a massive Spanish-owned food conglomerate based in Madrid. Little Anthony would hardly recognize them.

This isn’t all bad, though.

Those toasted bar patrons I mentioned? 99% of them American-born. Maybe their grandparents or parents came here from Italy, but like me, they’re first or second generation Americans now. Those blue Italia jerseys were purchased with good ol’ American greenbacks.

Ever since I can remember, the North End was packed with restaurants, a few designer shops, and a lot of historic attractions. Stiff competition is good for the consumer–with so many Italian restaurants and cafes vying for your dollar, the quality of your experiences will always be top notch. The Italian food in this neighborhood is world-class. It rivals anything that comes out of New York, Sicily, or the Pope’s house. A lower population (barely 25% of its 44,000 peak during the influx of immigrants in the 1930s) means less community services are required, like schools, which leaves more room for development.

But not enough room for parking. Good luck with that.

"The Original Italian Caffe in the North End of Boston" -- T-Shirt from Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street
“The Original Italian Caffe in the North End of Boston” — shirt from Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street

I’m not a foofy coffee type of guy, generally speaking. I like my coffee black, my beer dark, and my steak rare. So, this was my first caffe latte experience, appropriately at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street. This is a legendary spot directly next to the equally renowned Mike’s Pastry. The two have conspired for decades trying to turn me into a fat piece of garbage.

Remnants of a cafe latte and a sfogliatella at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street in Boston.
Remnants of a cafe latte and a sfogliatella at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street in Boston.

Ok. It was fucking glorious. The steamed milk was thick, frothy, and buttery–it added a texture and dimension to coffee that I’d never tasted before. A true complement to the bitterness and acidity of a well-made espresso. The sfogliatella was constructed with two million layers of flaky pastry baked around a rich lemon custard. Are you sick and/or aroused yet? Good.

For a moment, sitting in that coffee shop with Italy vs England in the background, I felt new. I felt slow, too, in a good way. Ironic, given the surge of caffeine pulsing through my veins at that moment, but I was in my happy place. The world was no longer in a hurry. My next sip of nectar was my only concern. I felt connected to the history that soaks these streets. I wanted to climb the statue of Paul Revere (that was the caffeine). It re-awakened that desire most people have to drop everything and move to Europe to become a travel writer and work the vineyards in the summer. Not that I’ve looked into it.

That dreamy, haze-filled moment lasted briefly because Caffe Vittoria is cash only.

So, I wandered down Hanover Street…

…for an ATM of which there were many. Yeah, that whole gentrification and development thing again. That should have made for a quick trip while L finished her coffee at our table. But the ATM across the street was out of order. And the one at the end of the block wasn’t reading my card.

I kept walking. The streets were crowded with tourists and soccer fans heading to dinner and taking in the sights. I heard so many different languages. I love that about Boston and city life in general. I counted Spanish, French, Italian, and German within two blocks. I passed two older Italian men standing on the sidewalk holding a bottle of wine. The shorter man was describing, in his broken English, the differences between cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, while the bald one politely refused to accept the gift. For another moment, I time traveled.

Finally, I came to the statue of Paul Revere. Families and tourists were posing for photos and reading the placards. The North End is a snapshot of history. There is still an “old world” feel down here despite the intrusion of new world amenities and baggage. It’s a reminder of what existed before and what might exist in the future and how they can peacefully co-exist. When I have children, I’ll take them here. And I’ll be sure to bring cash so I don’t pay a $3.50 fee again. Thanks, Paul.

Soccer in America: A World Cup Half Full

Today marks the beginning of the World Cup 2014! I know this because the Google doodle looks different. I also heard something about it on the radio this morning during my commute. This is the first of several matches in a global competition between gladiators, they say, kicking off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The reward is supreme national pride, four years of ultimate athletic bragging rights, and 0% financing for 36 months.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest soccer fan. And I’ve never heard of futbol, so stop trying to push whatever that is on me.

I am a huge hockey fan though, and Canadians are the Europeans of America, so that got me thinking about soccer viewership, TV ratings, and how the sport can generate more American fans. Hockey has seen a swell in viewership in recent years. The Stanley Cup finals attract more viewers and fans each year, slowly upgrading hockey’s national status to “almost talked about.” The NHL’s growth and success is not by way of accident and should be something of a model for soccer to follow in this country.

 

Why isn’t soccer a major sport in the U.S.?

We want the best. Period. Americans have a very hard time investing in a sport when it’s known that a better version of that sport exists elsewhere.

  • Our four major sports already have the best and highest-paid players in the world. We get to witness them perform on the biggest stage, spend lavishly, and get arrested. Knowing there are higher caliber leagues out there makes it difficult for the U.S. to attract top talent.
  • No star players means losing to better talent which means no championships. Modern sports (and modern fans) are built around a “what have you done for me lately” attitude. No stars, no wins, no fans.
  • The tale of the underdog only becomes a sensation when the underdog actually wins. The movie Rudy isn’t as heart-warming if a linebacker ruptures Rudy’s vertebrae on the first day of practice. It’s a lot funnier, but not very heart-warming. U.S. Soccer is still waiting for its moment in the sun.

Lack of a rivalryThe greatest and most attractive aspect of sports to the casual fan is camaraderie. Whether you’re an athlete or a fan, you feel some degree of teamwork, group unity, and pride when the common enemy is embarrassed nationally in front of their friends and family.

  • Teams have been competing in the world’s top leagues for decades already; their rivalries have long been established. The same passionate, fiery hatred doesn’t exist between a new batch of American competitors yet.
  • A decade or two of heated contention are needed to change carefree sentiments. Enough time to come up with some really biting insults. Racial or otherwise by the looks of things.
  • No rivalry means no vested interest from the common fan. Why should I care if Chelsea beats Liverpool?

No historic or traditional value. I grew up in Boston surrounded by baseball fanatics. Baseball wasn’t a supplemental option, it was an essential part of a young boy’s summer afternoon. People took it seriously. We weren’t allowed to eat bagels when we played the Yankees.

  • Soccer is more than a sport in many parts of the world; it’s a tradition, like baseball to Americans.
  • When sports become embedded in the culture they become immovable. Teams become symbols of pride local and attitude.

 

Planting the Seeds of Fútbol

The average American boy can trace his first soccer experience to a singular miserable moment in his formative years: local youth soccer leagues. I played in a few different town leagues in Massachusetts as a child, mainly as a means of torture. My father needed a reason to get me out of the house and away from my Super Nintendo for a few hours, so I slowly learned about the sport. There are lots of things to love. I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I meant run. There are lots of runs to run.

Most youth sports programs are simply locally organized ways to tucker kids out so they leave you alone for an hour or two afterwards. One unlucky parent draws the short straw and has to coach, but kids can only absorb so much strategy. Just keep them hydrated and you’ll do fine. That was my experience, anyway. Lots of running, occasional contact with the ball or other players, then more running.

Football players get to wear pads and give each other concussions. You know, fun stuff. Basketball players are constantly passing, shooting, and scoring. No time to be bored. Hockey players zoom around, hit each other, and punch the teeth out of each other’s mouths. Baseball is boring, which is finally catching up to the ratings, but it will forever have a rich history in this country and can continue to survive based on traditions and namesakes.

Soccer, when played at its peak, is a brilliant sport of setups, maneuvering, angles, and speed.

Soccer, when used to distract children, is a miserable game of chaos, anarchy, and flailing arms. And orange slices. And sticky hands. Seriously, who brings two bags of orange slices and no napkins?

 

Spend it like Beckham

In order for soccer to grow in the U.S., team owners have to spend big money on top tier talent. Players and coaches need to see the U.S. as a destination spot to play and they need to be wooed by team management. There has to be a deliberate, coordinated effort to improve the league as a whole. One well-performing team is not enough to bring soccer to the national spotlight.

Soccer will grow as long as advertisers see ratings increases, owners begin to invest more on the team, and media coverage expands beyond the World Cup every four years. American soccer fans will be watching closely this time around.

The next big question: Is there enough space at the cool kids’ table?