Lament for “Old” Somerville, Is the Price We Are Paying Worth the New Somerville That Many Will Never See:

By Eugene C. Brune

In Somerville, we place a premium on historic preservation, as we all recognize the importance of understanding our past and where we came from. But, in my view, historic preservation is not just about preserving buildings but is also about preserving culture, values and the ideas of community that we hold dear. For the “old timers” in Somerville, we hold dear the hard-working people of our City; the various immigrant groups that made the mosaic of our tight knit neighborhoods; the tolerance of each other and our ideas across the political spectrum; the multi generations of families that lived and loved together; and, of course, a City filled with the laughter and play of children on our streets and in our playgrounds.
To the “New Comers” of Somerville the city appears, exciting, convenient, young and hip with cafes, restaurants, bars, bikes and close proximity to Boston. But, for many of us who were born here and or lived in Somerville for many years, we feel like we lost the close-knit community of families, immigrants, artisans and artists that made up a very unique fabric of the City for many decades. It’s hard to fully capture it in words, but, for those of us with these longer- term memories, it feels like a little bit of the soul of our City has been lost. Naturally, we understand that change is inevitable but perhaps no City in the Commonwealth has changed faster, demographically, then Somerville.

We can begin to trace that change into the 1980’s when as Mayor, it was a time when we brought the Red Line into Davis Square. There were many who thought that this new public transportation would bring “undesirables” into our city and that we would drastically change the face of the neighborhood square that they lived and loved for so long. They worried that Davis Square would look more like Harvard Square, or Central Square. I told them that under no conditions would I allow that to happen but that I also wanted the Square to come back to life with better stores, with better restaurants, with more office employees and frankly with less barrooms. I also wanted to keep that friendly neighborhood feel where people can meet, sit on a bench and just enjoy each other’s company.,
So, along with the Ward 6 Civic Association, which later turned into the Davis Square Task Force we sat and planned the future of Davis Square. This neighborhood committee had serious concerns about high rise buildings and so we put in a height limitation not to exceed fifty feet. I, as well as future Mayors made sure that it was enforced, and Davis Square today is still a wonderful neighborhood square. This was accomplished by bringing in a good mix of businesses such as Harvard Health, and the State Social Security Office, and more office space, all bringing many new employees that enjoyed using the services all of which gave the square new life.
But the new Davis Square and the Red Line naturally attracted new residents. Its opening coincided with the elimination of rent control in Cambridge and the aggressive condominium conversions in Somerville. Three family homes which once house extended families with aunts, cousins, and grandparents, now housed young apartment dwellers in three individual units. While new folks are always welcome, they are often not long-term residents, stopping through the City on their ways to other communities after they graduate college or have families. Research appears to indicate almost a 25% turnover rate year to year in the City population.
Old timers were born in Somerville, attended its schools, got married had children and when it was time also sent their children, often times to the very same schools that they attend. Many immigrants came to this country to make a new life, many were Irish, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Portuguese, Haitian, Afro-American and later several other nationalities, several settled in Somerville, most had no money, low paying jobs, worked many hours and provided as well as they could for their family. They never complained, and they asked for nothing except for a chance to learn English to prove to their neighbors that they were thankful to America. Many were like my father, who when world war 1 started they joined the service to fight for their new country. Everybody got along and helped each other. No one cared what church you went to, what color you were or where you came from. They didn’t care if you were a Democrat or a Republican, and what little they had they were willing to share. They truly were the fabric of this city and they were a strong part of the “Spirit of Somerville”
Many can’t help feeling that, today it’s hard getting to know their neighbors. Young professionals, and mostly renters, leave their homes early in the morning and you don’t see them much at all. Also due to the constant rent increases, many of them find cheaper rents and move out, almost as fast as they move in. While the population of the City as grown in the past decade, the number of children has declined, dramatically. I find that sad as I feel that it is the children that truly made a village. I speak for many when I say that we miss the noise of kids playing on our city streets and now with so many more cars all parking on both sides of the streets as well as the constant traffic I worry that today it would not be safe at all.
Typically, there were several kids in every house and on every floor. We were out playing on our sidewalks and streets from early morning until the street lights went on, that was our clue from our parents to get back into the house. We always had so many games to pick from and when we went in for lunch, we had our games all planned for when we came back out, kick ball, half ball, baseball, ringolevio, king of the mountain, roller skating in the summer, and ice skating in the winter, that is if the city set aside some space in our parks and lined it with dirt and filled it with water, flying our home made kites, building box cars with wood and old wheels, sometimes we would play tag, hopscotch, and hide and seek with the girls. Later, when I would watch my two daughters and all their friends playing in front of the house doing the very same things that I did and playing the same games I couldn’t help feel nostalgia, and think about the great memories that we each had and that they will also have someday. I’m afraid that those wonderful days are gone and never to return in the same way.

Somerville had always been a blue- collar city- but with huge jumps in average household income in the past decade, that is no longer the case. Thankfully we still have State and Federal senior housing for those that could never afford the current rents and would also have to leave. The City is trying to address the affordable housing issue, but frankly the horse is out of the barn and adding thousands of more market-price units to get 20% of them affordable, is going to put a tremendous burden on the existing residents and tax the City’s infrastructure. Assembly Row is most certainly doing great, but housing development there makes sense whereas increasing density in our residential areas does not.
The City will have new challenges ahead with a newly developed Union Square, the green line extensions and a brand new Two Hundred and Seventy Million plus high school. Hopefully we will have more than the only two hundred plus seniors graduating that we had this past couple of years. And this could be the very thing that moderates the rapid change in the City, a focus on rebuilding the City as a family community, even extended-family community. If we do that, I believe we could recapture much of what I think has been lost in the trend of catering to a younger more mobile population. This past summer’s block parties were a good start to rebuilding that family feelings in our neighborhoods, but the City should align a lot more of its policies and strategy to rebuilding families as the bedrock of Somerville.
I worry that it’s because I am old school that I can’t be as liberal or progressive as the many that are now taking over the levers of city government. I also don’t understand, just when it started that if you don’t agree with each other’s politics you’re the enemy. I have never seen so many bitter people on both sides than in the past years, more so when debating State and National Politics. What ever happened to both sides sitting down and come up with a solution that doesn’t depend on what’s best for them or their party, but what is best for the country and the people that elected you. What ever happen to the America that everyone has the right to their opinion? Isn’t that what always made America the greatest country in the world?

So, when all is said and done, we will have a brand-new city with brand new people that will, if the can afford it, enjoy the Somerville that so many others worked so hard to make a village of caring people but are now living somewhere else looking in. But for those who are fortunate to be able to stay, they will have a fine city in which to live, work, dine and we hope to raise a family. We can embrace the new, by giving respect to the old, and preserving the best of what’s gone before.

Eugene C. Brune
Mayor Emeritus, Somerville
Former Register of Deeds
South Middlesex County

18 thoughts on “Lament for “Old” Somerville, Is the Price We Are Paying Worth the New Somerville That Many Will Never See:”

  1. Born in Somerville, summered at my aunts house on Pembroke St. every year. Visit sisters, cousins and extended family every year three to 6 times a year, sometimes more. Every time I pass Foss Park I see my cousins and me in the small sprinkler back to 1944. Davis Square, Powder House Square, the Doll Carriage Parades off of Pembroke (Maybe Kennedy Park), we all played outside. We walked to the movies and to St. Ann’s Church. We walked to the candy store with my aunt watching from the side of the house on Sycamore. Beautiful and wonderful memories just like Mayor Brune described. I see some of that Old Somerville when I go visit. Thanks for this post.

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