Freezing Time in Harvard Square

By Olivia Gehrke

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Harvard Square, as rich in history and culture as it is, is no longer the central hub of Cambridge.

“You don’t hang out in Harvard Square [now],” said Elizabeth Green, a longstanding Cambridge resident.

The music has moved to Central Square, with an extensive amount of venues, and the trendy coffee shops and independent shops have shifted to the more affordable, slightly more humble Porter Square.

But nestled in the heart of Harvard Square is an unassuming white house tucked in between the city’s iconic brick buildings. Warm light glows from the thinly-paned windows, while the sound of distorted guitars blare from within.

This is the Democracy Center, a community space in Harvard Square that hosts non-profit organization meetings, various programs for minorities and the underprivileged, and on occasion, rock ‘n’ roll shows.

On a recent Friday night, Harvard rock bands gathered to showcase their music. The room had a portrait of Nelson Mandela, creaky hardwood floors, and the room was brimming with other Harvard students ready to support their friends playing the show.

It was an oddly juxtaposed scenario—the formality and history of the room with the gangly teens with guitars laughing at their own jokes on stage, or rather, the back corner of the room.

Meanwhile, the streets outside were fairly barren, minus the few Harvard students searching for parties elsewhere. Yet the room was lively, creative, and had the buoyant excited energy that Club 47 may have had when it was the hub for folk and blues music in the ‘60’s.

In the no longer hip and happening Harvard Square, there may be a haven to go to on a Friday night every once in a while. It’s unassuming, but The Democracy Center may have figured out a way to freeze time.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Again)

By Olivia Gehrke

Morrissey once sang “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, then it meant that you were a protest singer,” in The Smiths’ 1985 hit “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Though this could have been true for Bob Dylan as he sang “The Times They are A-Changin’,” making waves with his quivering voice, the statement perhaps doesn’t hold as true today.

With the times a-changing once again in light of the recent presidential election, musicians are raising their voices to force political change as if on cue. But this time around, all that is needed is a computer, a determined DIY, grassroots ethic, and some creativity.

“[In the past] if you wanted to protest something, you had to be a band as big as Rage Against the Machine and you literally had to light a flag on fire to get your message across,” said Nick Regan, the founder of Deep Shred, a DIY collective Regan books shows under around Boston. It’s also described as being an “inclusive, virtual show space” that hosts online, livestreamed concerts.

“But now it’s as easy as organizing and clicking and typing. You don’t even need to light a flag on fire at Woodstock. It’s a lot easier now,” he said.

Under Deep Shred, Regan put together an extensive two-tape, 40-track compilation album titled Smooches. It features 39 local, national, and international artists, and all the proceeds from the tapes go directly to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, National Immigration Law Center, and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Back in November when shit hit the fan politically, I was like ‘Wow, this sucks,’ and then I had a couple friends that weren’t too involved with Deep Shred reach out about being interested in releasing a kind of cassette,” said Regan. And Smooches was born.

Over the course of the next month, Regan and his friends reached out to countless bands, decided on charities, and put in orders for physical copies of the album.

The compilation was supposed to be released on cassette tapes by Trump’s inauguration, but due to a few “hiccups” in the tape orders, the release date was pushed back. However, because of the availability of the digital streaming platform for music like Bandcamp, Deep Shred was able to release the compilation immediately online and have it available for February 3, when Bandcamp donated their 25% profit from bands’ music to the ACLU.

“Before this fall, before this current presidency, I can’t really remember a time when anybody was really doing stuff like that. It kind of sucks that this is what it had to take for people to smarten up and be like ‘Yeah, yeah giving money to the ACLU is good,’” said Regan.

While some bands donated songs to put on compilations like Smooches, other took advantage of the online platforms to personally spread their thoughts on the current political climate. The Prefab Messiahs, a garage psych pop band formed in Mass. in 1981, released a kind of a protest song called “The Man Who Killed Reality” in March of this year. It’s accompanied by a cartoon animation of Trump, created by singer Xeth Feinberg.

Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist, said the band had “always grouched together about the state of things” and offered “social criticism” in the past, but was never that pointed or “specific” with their songs until they wrote “The Man Who Killed Reality.” Feinberg had started writing the song and finished it with the entire band, then animated the video that went along with it, which has since collected over 4,500 plays just on YouTube.

“[The music video] definitely helps [spread the message] because in the case of this song specifically, Trump isn’t named at all,” said Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist. “Probably someone could hear it any number of times and not necessarily suspect it’s about him. But when you hear the song as part of the video, there’s no question because it’s just lampooning him the whole way through.”

The grassroots activist music, especially in DIY scenes in Boston and other cities like NYC and Providence, is seemingly placing their roots in the digital domain. After Shea Stadium, an iconic DIY venue that supports independent musicians, was shut down, the venue raised just over $99,000 via an online fundraising campaign to help them get the proper permits to be a venue. Additionally, Deep Shred hosts online benefit shows, where a concert is livestreamed over the internet, and people can tune in and donate just as if they were at a live concert. Regan has raised money for the Dakota Access Pipeline protestors at Sacred Stone and also Ladyfest Boston, a music festival that took place in mid-April benefiting Rosie’s Place and Girls Rock Campaign Boston.

Even if the modern musical activism has taken a digital tangent, the premise remains much the same as it did decades ago.

Ruth Perry, an MIT humanities professor, recently held a protest song singing session during MIT’s Day of Action. She, being a folk musician and activist herself, is particularly interested in traditional folk songs of which protest songs are “a very large and serious component.”

“Genuine traditional folk music is not music that has been composed and produced in order to make money,” said Perry. “It’s the musical expression of people themselves…it comes out of people’s need to make music on these themes.”

And it’s this common philosophy of doing good out of internal necessity and a conscious mind that remains a theme in politically active music no matter the era or the scale of the platform, whether it’s to the millions who tuned in to hear Dylan on the radio, or the few hundred livestreaming a benefit show on their laptop.

“Using the platform that you’re on to spread good is the next best thing to do. When I wake up, I’m not like ‘It’s time to make some money! Let’s make some fans!’…You should wake up and be like ‘I’m going to do the next best thing. Oh, I can’t do that? I’m going to do the next best thing,’” said Regan. “It’s just paying it forward.”

 

Protest Song Timeline

Harvard law student continues to share a 50-year-old message during Boston Marathon

Fifty years after the first female, Kathrine Switzer, raced in the Boston Marathon sending an empowering message to females around the globe, Harvard Law Student, Neha Sabharwal, ran the marathon hoping to relay the same message to young girls in the greater Boston area.

Sabharwal ran for the Girls on the Run marathon team, which raised money to benefit Girls on the Run, a national organization that empowers girls from third to eighth grade through a motivational curriculum based upon running.

Sabharwal got involved with the organization when she herself began running as an undergraduate student at Duke University, and continued her involvement when she began law school at Harvard University. Her love for running developed alongside the girls’ who she coached and mentored in the program.

“[Girls on the Run] provides a really healthy environment that fosters what we think is truly an opportunity to push self-esteem development and honestly, through teamwork itself, which is a really beautiful thing,” said Sabharwal. “And they get to become confident through sheer physical strength and fitness, which is something we do think is a natural form of empowerment for girls.”

For the marathon, Sabharwal along with her teammates who also have been engaged with Girls on the Run, raised almost $100,000 for the organization.

“Our policy is to not turn any girl away based on her family’s ability to pay for the program, so the runners are helping to raise scholarship funds for girls otherwise can’t afford the program,” said Bethany McDonald, the executive director of the Greater Boston Girls on the Run chapter.

After completing the marathon with a 4:24:44 time, Sabharwal hopes that girls realize their potential through the sport of running.

“I think that’s just a powerful reminder that this sport is really something that both men and women can do equally well and equally beautifully,” she said.

 

Newstrack 4/20

Portland councilors want city to use 100% clean energy by 2040

This article had a lot of potential for date visualization, but there were not any graphs or tables that enhanced the article visually. The article itself was scarce with data, but data would have been a good addition considering the article was about lowering fossil fuel emissions, which can be quantified. Having a graph showing Portland’s current fossil fuel emission levels would have been helpful to comprehend what the city’s impact on climate change is right now. Furthermore, if there was a graph to project how switching to clean energy would effect emissions, save money, increase air quality, etc., the piece would be a lot more informative.

Instead, the news hook seemed to be that the councilors were going to formally announce the clean energy plan in the near future, but changing the nut graf to a more data/effects focused could have lead to a more comprehensive, interesting, and potentially visual article.

Newstrack 04/13

Maps: Maine’s 2016 overdose deaths by county

This was a unique article by the Portland Press Herald in that it wasn’t an article at all. Instead, a series of two maps were presented: a map of death rates from all drug overdoses, by county and a map of death rates from opioid overdoses, by county. If you roll your mouse over an individual county, there was a list of data including the total number of deaths by overdose in that county, the county’s population, and overdose deaths per 100,000 county residents. It’s engaging because it’s interactive and very visual, but the data itself is just listed. The maps are a little redundant as well, since each map, when rolled over with your mouse, presents exactly the same data, but it does help to distinguish where opioid overdoses are a bigger problem.

I think a supplementary article, or at least a little blurb about overdoses being a problem in Maine above the maps would add a little more context. Even links to the Press Herald’s previous and recent articles about this epidemic would provide more context. But perhaps the lack of an explanation makes the data itself more central and striking.

Newstrack 04/06

Readers react to series exploring Maine’s heroin crisis

This article by the Portland Press Herald is particularly unique, because there’s not necessarily any hard news reporting going on. Rather, it’s an article entirely composed of reactions to a series done by the Press Herald about addicts. What’s even more unique is that readers’ reactions aren’t just quotes in an article, but also Facebook comments and comments from the Press Herald’s site. The Facebook comments are embedded, so readers of this article can like or share the comments directly from the article’s page. The comments from their site are just embedded as screenshots.

I thought it was an interesting approach, because it achieved essentially the same thing as a typical article; there was background info and then quotes that exhibited differing opinions on the topic, but the quotes were almost interactive. It presented voices of the public in a very direct way.

I did think that at a certain point the comments became a bit exhaustive, but I found the format interesting enough to stick with it. It’s odd to think that 10+ years ago, an article with this format wouldn’t have existed–it’s a new spin with a classic effect.

 

Newstrack 03/30

Stiff competition among Maine’s craft brewers leaves some with no place at the bar

This article had an interesting angle; Maine’s craft beer industry in light of an upcoming meeting to discuss the growing industry. Content-wise, having a brewer who got turned away from The Thirsty Pig would have been a good interview to have, or a comment by a very new brewer talking about the difficulties of breaking into the thriving local industry.

Visually, I think it could be a really appealing story. There are two photos that are definitely appropriate for the story and add to it, but I think there was an opportunity for more. A gallery of photos highlighting different breweries whose beers The Thirsty Pig has on tap fairly regularly could have been an interesting and informative visual bonus to the story. Or even a video that would have the same effect–the owner of The Thirsty Pig talking about the different beers, the breweries, the tastes, etc.–would have been a fun supplementary piece of media for the article.

Links or lists, or perhaps more mentions or hyperlinks to local breweries would have made the reading experience more comprehensive as well.