BY TOM NASH
Go find an empty toilet paper roll. Place that over one eye, and cover the other with your hand.
This is something like having retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease Eileen Feldman negotiates with every step she takes.
“It’ll feel disgusting to you,” Feldman says as she sips a chai at Bloc 11. “I have no peripheral vision. I just kind of have to scan the room all the time.Especially if I’m in a new environment.”Feldman, who’s lived in Somerville for nearly a decade, has had plenty of time to adjust to the surroundings of her Prospect Hill neighborhood.
As we head back up the hill, Feldman walks along the edge of the curb as if to show that having tunnel vision out of one eye doesn’t have to be an issue.But a few weeks ago, this familiar hill became unfamiliar enough that Feldman was noticeably hesitant as she approached the end of the curb at a cross street, which was odd. New curb cuts had just been installed.
Those curb cuts are supposed to let anyone – wheelchair user, stroller pusher, tired cyclist, drunk college student – navigate those intersections without a six-inch sheer drop where the sidewalk ends and the road begins.Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, these curb cuts need to be at a certain angle and positioned in a certain way.A few degrees can mean the difference between rolling and stuck.
It’s obvious to Feldman that some of these new curb cuts are dangerous. A few of them are positioned about twelve feet from where they should be, meaning someone in a wheelchair would have to cross the street in a blind spot for most drivers darting up Walnut Street and taking a corner.
Feldman is rarely wrong about these things. She knows the codes, and often carries around a level, tape measure and camera. These things come in handy.They allow her to register what she calls “remedies.” Feldman’s remedies are what you might recognize as complaints. She’s filed 149 of them against the City of Somerville with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) for non-compliance with state regulations on disability access. From curb cuts to handrails, Feldman has repeatedly shown that Somerville has failed to enforce regulations that would allow approximately 5,000 disabled Somerville residents equal access to facilities most take for granted.
“If you don’t have an equally accessible situation by code standards, how do you have equal opportunity?” Feldman asks as she sits on a bench next to the Prospect Hill monument. “A foundation for people to show their capabilities is to have equal comfort entering and exiting.”
A review of Feldman’s cases filed with the MAAB shows the City of Somerville has not lived up to that foundation.
Like any city largely built before equal access became law, it’s easy to blame 19th century architects for the problems. But Feldman insists it’s more. Instead, she says Somerville is stuck in “19th century disability rights theory – the social contract that says people with disabilities aren’t producing, they’re not participating, they’re not mutual. Let’s just push them aside.”
“It’s a 19th century discriminatory notion that people with disabilities are burdens on the system, instead of just …”
She pauses for a moment, then sighs: “People.”
Feldman’s work, through a loose collection of volunteers dubbed the Community Access Project of Somerville, is simple.Armed with her tools and a blog, she points out basic faults in buildings the City owns and uses that could be fixed.
During the course of a few years, Feldman went from being ignored to ridiculed. Now she wonders if change is happening.
‘IT WAS ALWAYS A FIGHT’
Feldman hasn’t always worked from the outside. From 2006 to 2008 she served on Somerville’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities. She left in frustration after failing to convince the City to adopt an ADA transition plan that mapped out how to bring Somerville into compliance with the nearly 20-year old federal mandate.Worse, she added, the City had taken to shutting down commission meetings, using bylaws she said were selectively enforced.
“It was always a fight,” Feldman said of her time on the commission. “We were not getting any harmony.”
So Feldman went from City Hall to the web. Community blog Somerville Voices provided a forum for Feldman’s investigations into curb cuts, building entrances and ramps throughout Somerville. The reports featured pictures of levels set against the ground, silently making the point that everything from decades-old sidewalks to brand new construction were off the mark.
There were other photos, too. One especially heart wrenching series features an elderly woman in a wheelchair unable to make it up the curb in Union Square. And Feldman’s words are equally evocative. An early post titled “Joe the Mayor’s Irresolute Pledge” criticized Mayor Joe Curtatone for what she considered failings. She has also superimposed Curtatone’s face on a wheelchair user.
There were people who took exception to her confrontational style. One especially revealing comment: “jeebus, lady. would you give this a rest? there are more pressing issues than 2% variation in handicap ramps.”
The MAAB doesn’t see it that way.
“I know the bean counters might say,‘Well why should we do this when there are only so many of you?’” director Tom Hopkins said.
“They wouldn’t dare say that to an Iraq veteran coming home without two legs, would they? These are systemic issues. Eileen Feldman is doing good work.”
While it’s a building official’s job to make sure codes are enforced before issuing a certificate of occupancy or signing off on work done for the City by contractors, Feldman’s complaints showed that wasn’t happening in Somerville.
“People just [build] the stuff, and don’t think about it,” Hopkins said. “Then comes along a well-trained advocate like Eileen, and the games begin.” Egos and people’s reputations get involved. Name calling and all kinds of things occur. In the end it’s our job to find some reasonable solutions.”
Hopkins, who when interviewed was the only person working at the MAAB that week, could have been forgiven if he said her staggering number of complaints was a burden. But he didn’t. Instead, it was the City that lashed out.
AN INACCESSIBLE FORTRESS
The Armory building has been renovated in the past decade from its past fortress figure into an ostensibly modern facility. The building dates back to 1903, and housed the Massachusetts National Guard for decades. It was sold by the state in 2004 to a Cambridge nightclub owner and his business partner.The programming offered at the facility has won wide acclaim.
But for some wheelchair users, the facade of a fortress was too real. Feldman says the entrance of the building, which features a ramp that may have been meant to evoke a drawbridge, was too steep for at least a few wheelchair users who wrote to her.
So Feldman did what she had so often done before.After the City hosted its All-America City celebration there in 2009, Feldman took a tape measure and a level to the ramp. She filed a complaint, tipping off a series of events that gained her work more attention than ever.
The Armory responded to Feldman’s complaint with a request for a variance – allowing building owners to operate outside of regulations. But once the variance expired, the MAAB began issuing a fine of $500 per day.
As the action unfolded, Feldman documented the issue on Somerville Voices and wrote emails to Curtatone complaining when City events were hosted at the Armory. When the U.S. Surgeon General planned last March to drop by and celebrate a $1.57 million grant to a state program, Feldman took her complaint to state officials.
They listened.The event was moved to the Holiday Inn. Suddenly, the Curtatone Administration sprung into action, too. In a letter to The Somerville Journal, Somerville Health Department Director Health Paulette Renault-Caragianes called Feldman’s actions “regrettable and disappointing.”
Renault-Caragianes said that while the ramp was known to be inaccessible, Feldman waited until the last minute to request the move. She added that Feldman’s charge that the Amory’s variance had expired was untrue:
“[T]his use of half truths that misinform has the potential to undermine the credibility of others involved in the cause of increasing access for all – making it more difficult, not less, for city agencies like mine to work with Ms. Feldman…on long-term accessibility issues.”
But Feldman was right.The variance had expired.
Feldman, Somerville Voices editor Barry Rafkind and others took to the paper’s editorial page and the blog to refute what Renault-Caragianes said. Rafkind, who chairs the City’s Human Rights Commission, spoke of putting forward a request that Renault-Caragianes appear and defend herself.When the City began shutting down the HRC meetings, Rafkind insisted it was a retaliatory move. Mayoral spokesman Tom Champion told The Journal it was a matter of following the law – the HRC, he said, did not have a quorum for the meetings.
The Armory made the ramp accessible in April 2012, after raising the sidewalk to meet the required angle at an estimated cost of $30,000. Its owners finished paying $3,750 in fines in August, reduced from the $75,500 fine it had accrued.
A NEW CAREER
“The doctor said,‘Go find yourself another profession.’”
Sitting on the steps of the Prospect Hill monument, Feldman recalled being told her days as a pianist were numbered. Born with the inability to digest food, Feldman said she has had a “cascade” of disabilities throughout her life.
“I did a lot of 20th century works – a lot in pencil. Not yet published,” she said.“It’s degenerative.The doctor said,‘You’re going to lose your sight.’” The piano was one of the first things Feldman discovered after coming home from the hospital – where she says she spent “the first few years” of her life. After 15 years as a musician, retinitis pigmentosa caught up with her in the 1980s.
Feldman seemed reluctant to talk about her past in detail. In general, Feldman has a lot less to say when the topic is herself.
“I have a lot of disabilities,” she said. “So it was difficult to think I can’t be a musician. I love it a lot.”
She started a performance group that raised money for arts therapy charities. Within 10 years, more trouble set in, and she gave that up, too. She now works as an arts therapist.
While Feldman has used bitingly clear language to describe why building after building and street after street in Somerville should be accessible to people with disabilities, there’s clearly something even more painful when it comes to the struggle with the Armory, which has become synonymous with the arts center it houses.
“It’s so exciting there,” she said. “For people with disabilities, all these different types of people are totally blocked.”
Feldman said the letter in the Journal confirmed the City’s attitude toward her.
“There’s a culture that treats me like I don’t deserve to be alive,” Feldman said.“I go around with a level and that might be called an asset. Instead, we have a culture that wants to kill me.”
Barry Rafkind, whom she referred to as one of the “wonderful friends” who have supported her, had joined us. He interjected: “Figuratively.”
“We hope,” Feldman said.
AN EXPERT OPINION
Josh Safdie is the director at the Institute for Human Centered Design, an architecture firm that specializes in accessible buildings. But anyone who has ever wanted zoning relief, which can mean anything from putting a deck behind your house to building condos, knows him as a member of Somerville’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
Safdie is among the quietest board members during meetings. When he does speak, it carries weight. He has criticized the City for allowing itself to be emotionally blackmailed by a developer looking to build condos in Davis Square by throwing in a new building for the Dilboy VFW Post. He’s also chastised residents for Not in My Back Yard attitudes.
Feldman’s advocacy aligns closely with both Safdie’s professional work and issues he wants to focus on with the ZBA. But he said advocacy is a difficult road.
“It’s a real art to learn how to balance your carrots and your sticks,” Safdie said.“It’s easy to get frustrated when something that seems so patently clear to you just isn’t getting through.The road to correcting the things you want to see corrected is always right through the heart of the municipal machine.”
That being said, he cautioned that the problems Feldman finds don’t come from a place of malice.
“So much of ADA is misunderstood and so much of the environment is non-compliant,” Safdie said. “There’s a pervasive confusion about what the law does and doesn’t say.”
While Feldman’s advocacy is showing Somerville to be lacking in compliance, Safdie’s work with the Institute for Human Centered Design has shown that the issue is not confined to Somerville.
“In Somerville’s defense, I can say it’s pervasive,” he added. “And across the country, it’s generally not willful. People are unaware of the negative impact they’re having on pedestrians and residents.”
Safdie said separate state laws multiply the confusion, and that ADA compliance isn’t reviewed by zoning boards anywhere in the country. As a member of Somerville’s ZBA, that’s something he’d like to change.
But Safdie doesn’t defend a lack of compliance. His voice rose slightly as he shifts from blame to the issue itself. He says he begins his lectures on ADA compliance with a slide showing Martin Luther King Jr.
“The conversation has always been about a minority of people who have unusual needs,” he said.“It’s rarely remembered that accessibility legislation is civil rights legislation.”
And this is where Safdie, a part of the ”municipal machine” Feldman says is stuck in the 19th century, sounded off with almost as much passion as a fellow activist.
“When you think about this us and them mentality, and the couple of people you might see rolling around the city in a wheelchair, it makes it easy for somebody who’s opening a coffee shop in a historic storefront to say, ‘We have to do all this because there might be one person in a wheelchair someday who wants to come?’
“I understand the pressures that cause people not to feel like they can do what they need to do because they see the cause as serving a minority.The attitude change we want to make is to get people to recognize it’s not just for a couple of people.”
He apologized for lecturing. I asked him if he had tried to tell this to Curtatone. He had.
“It just wasn’t productive anymore,” Safdie said of the exchange between Curtatone’s administration and Feldman. “It had ceased to be about the real issues and had become who said what and when.”
Safdie said he never received a response from the mayor, but he was quick to add that he could have followed up and didn’t.
‘WE NEED EVERY STAKEHOLDER’
City Communications DirectorTom Champion demurred when first asked if he or Curtatone would be willing to talk about Feldman. Perhaps they had reason to be war y in light of the fact that recent announcements of City initiatives for both a streetscape evaluation and ADA transition plan – effectively everything Feldman has asked for from the Curtatone Administration — were met with Feldman’s press release announcing a federal investigation prompted by one of her complaints.
But a few days later, both wanted to talk about it. Meeting at Bloc 11, Champion brought the stick and Curtatone offered the carrot.
Curtatone began by praising Feldman and stressing that he is committed to accessibility, noting both the plan to evaluate every street and curb cut in Somerville and the newly announced aim to develop an ADA transition plan.
“In terms of strategic plans, we’ve lacked that velocity over the years,” Curtatone admitted, adding,“If our values are live, work, play in Somerville, that means everyone.”
“When she issued her call to state and federal officials to move the [Armory] event, she knew something we didn’t,” Champion said.“She knew the variance had expired, so she did a very smart thing. She used that opportunity to create a stir.The MAAB confirmed the building was not in compliance, but is usable. Her position is if you’re out of compliance, you’re out of compliance.”
And ultimately, he added, “The event got moved. It seemed more to us like a stunt. A smart stunt, but a stunt.”
As for the new initiatives, Curtatone said he also understands Feldman might be skeptical that the City would suddenly follow through. Especially since she’d been pushing for such actions for years.
“If I feel I’ve been advocating and I feel the City has been non- responsive, I’d have some pessimism,” he said.“We need everyone who is a stakeholder on this issue.”
But he said that it’s a two-way street, and that Feldman hadn’t returned his calls, either.
He insisted Feldman’s reluctance wouldn’t put him off. Leaning in, Curtatone added: “I’ll keep calling her until she files a restraining order against me.”
A week later, Feldman met with me again. She and Curtatone had met earlier that day.
“I was impressed,” Feldman said. “He’s a likeable guy.”
By her account, the conversation was cordial, and that Curtatone asked her to work with him going forward.
But Feldman insists she won’t be at the table until Curtatone apologizes for the way his administration described her efforts to the Journal.
“I expect him to apologize in the same venue that he smeared me,” she said. “It’s just a small bit of medicine to clear the air.”
In the meantime, Feldman said she would like to be optimistic that Curtatone will follow through on his promise to enact the systemic changes she has been advocating.
“It’s a very hopeful sign,” she said. “But it wouldn’t have come about without my remedies.”
Hopkins, the MAAB director, said that is proving to be true.
“I think people’s consciousness has been raised by Eileen,” he said. “While some people may disagree, we think the [Department of Public Works] and the City of Somerville are starting to turn the corner on how they deal with these things. That’s all we can ask for. It’s not a perfect world.”