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Save the Gaiety
Why does Mayor Menino want to destroy a cultural landmark? Plus, the Bush administrationís war against freedom of the press.

IN WHAT APPEARS to be a misguided attempt to wipe out whatís left of the Combat Zone, Boston mayor Tom Menino is actively supporting a plan to tear down one of the cityís most significant historic theaters. By allowing developers to reduce the 96-year-old Gaiety Theatre to rubble and replace it with a luxury apartment tower, Menino would destroy a precious part of our cultural heritage and violate the cityís own zoning codes. Moreover, the mayor would be thumbing his nose at a broad-based coalition of activists that has developed its own plan to rehabilitate the theater and build a more modest housing development.

As Phoenix staff writer Kristen Lombardi reports (see "Curtain Call," News and Features), plans for the Gaiety ó located in the dodgy lower Washington Street area, at the edge of the Midtown Cultural District ó are shrouded largely in secrecy. Despite the Phoenixís numerous inquiries, Menino, along with everyone else favoring the plan, declines to discuss the Gaiety, citing pending litigation. But essentially, the mayor and other top city officials have signed on to a plan by businessman and philanthropist Alan Lewis, who owns a number of properties in the Combat Zone area. Lewis, whoís also not talking, seeks to tear down the Gaiety and build in its stead a $120 million, 346-unit glass-and-steel tower whose 290-foot height would be nearly double the areaís 155-foot limit. In a concession bordering on mockery, the tower ó to be called Residences at Kensington Place ó would incorporate an "interpretive exhibit" on the Gaiety in its lobby.

The long-shuttered Gaiety may not be much to look at right now. But in its day the theater, designed by the distinguished architect Clarence Blackall, was a pioneering home to vaudeville, and was the only venue in New England where African-American vaudevillians could perform. And though some understandably wonder whether its 1500 seats could be filled, given that itís surrounded by such theaters as the Colonial, the Wang, the Wilbur, and the Shubert, advocates say the Gaiety, in addition to its manageable size, has an unusual advantage: near-perfect acoustics, rivaling those of Symphony and Jordan Halls, which are so heavily in demand that they regularly turn away bookings. Properly rehabbed, the Gaiety would be an ideal place for chamber music, opera, and jazz. Community activists say the Gaiety could also function as an Asian performing-arts center, in keeping with its location near Chinatown.

To demonstrate that the idea of saving the Gaiety is not just wishful thinking, the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) has put together a plan pairing a fixed-up theater with a smaller apartment tower. The ACDC plan would also set aside a higher proportion of units for affordable housing than the Kensington plan does, and would do so at prices far more affordable for working people.

Yet Menino has rejected this common-sense approach, and appears to be hell-bent on giving Alan Lewis what he wants, over the objection not only of activists but of Boston city councilors Chuck Turner, Felix Arroyo, and Maura Hennigan. "No one who looks at that theater can say with a straight face that it is not important to the city," says Hennigan, who is often mentioned as a possible rival to Menino in the 2005 mayoral election. Sadly, Councilor Jim Kelly, whose district includes Chinatown, and Denny Ching, Meninoís liaison to Chinatown, have both voiced their support for the Kensington project. It is unfortunate that Kelly would place his need to curry favor with the mayor over the wishes of his constituents. Ching, of course, is the mayorís man. Chinatown residents would be wise not to confuse their interests with his, or City Hallís.

Given that none of the principals, including Menino and Lewis, is willing to talk, one can only guess why the mayor would rather violate the zoning laws than preserve a cultural landmark. The most likely explanation is that Menino sees the Kensington proposal as a chance to drive the last nail into the coffin of the Combat Zone, the tiny remnant of what was once a large adult-entertainment district. The Glass Slipper, a strip club, would be torn down as part of the Kensington development. (Indeed, the owner of the Glass Slipper is one of those who has filed suit.) In addition, the presence of a large luxury-apartment building could tip the balance of the neighborhood to the point where it no longer makes sense for adult businesses to stick around. After all, that is what happened in Times Square, in New York.

But the Combat Zone is already so small that it poses no threat to anyone ó if adult entertainment can even be considered a threat. It is perverse to tear down a once-and-potentially-still-great theater in order to drive out of business a dirty bookstore or two (at least one of which rents space from Lewis). Itís also a direct contradiction of Meninoís numerous pledges over the years ó largely unfilled ó to meet the needs of Bostonís arts-and-culture community.

Rather than fighting the community, Menino should join with it ó and save the Gaiety Theatre.

SPECIAL PROSECUTOR Patrick Fitzgerald is out of control. Appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft to find out which "senior administration officials" revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July 2003, Fitzgerald has instead embarked on a witch-hunt against the media ó and, by extension, against the First Amendment (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, August 20).

For months now, Fitzgerald has been issuing subpoenas to journalists, threatening them with jail if they refuse to tell him the source of the Plame leak. Among them: the Washington Postís Walter Pincus, Time magazineís Matthew Cooper, and NBC Newsís Tim Russert. Last week, this witch-hunt reached a new level, with New York Times reporter Judith Miller being held in contempt of court, and threatened with an 18-month jail stay, if she continues to insist on protecting her confidential sources. In singling out Miller, Fitzgerald has plumbed the depths of outrageousness: Miller has not written one word about the Plame case, and she has also been slapped with another subpoena by Fitzgerald ó acting in his capacity as US attorney for Chicago ó in a totally unrelated terrorism case.

Journalists do not have an absolute right to keep their sources confidential. Over the years the courts have made it clear that reporters have the same civic responsibility as any member of the public to provide relevant information in an ongoing criminal investigation. But in its landmark Branzburg v. Hayes decision, the US Supreme Court in 1972 suggested that certain standards must be met before prosecutors can start dragging journalists to the witness stand. As interpreted by the courts, the Branzburg ruling has come to mean that journalists may not be forced to reveal their sources unless the information they have is crucial to an ongoing criminal investigation, and unless there are no alternative means of obtaining that information from non-journalists. Above all, Branzburg makes it clear that prosecutors may not use their power to harass reporters. Yet that is precisely what Ashcroft, through Fitzgerald, is up to in the case of Judith Miller.

Oddly enough, there have been no reports of Novak himself having been subpoenaed or called on to reveal his sources, even though he presumably knows as well as anyone the identities of those "senior administration officials" who whispered Plameís name into his ear. Novak has consistently declined to comment, so itís impossible to know whether heís been called or not.

But itís important to keep in mind the political roots of this dispute. Plame is the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has criticized the White House for ignoring his report contradicting the official line that Saddam Hussein had attempted to obtain uranium for Iraqís nuclear-weapons program from the African country of Niger. Plameís name may have been leaked to Novak and other journalists, ruining her career and possibly endangering lives, in retaliation for Wilsonís outspokenness.

If he wished, George W. Bush could find out tomorrow which of his underlings outed Valerie Plame. Instead, his administration, in the person of Fitzgerald, is harassing and intimidating the journalists who were the recipients of White House leaks. Itís a characteristic tactic for these thugs ó and it sends a chilling message to any reporter who promises confidentiality to a source while attempting to ferret out the truth. This is just one more reason that Bush and his administration need to be turned out of office.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com


Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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