From Slummerville to Somerville Sundays

“I’ll drive her,” I negotiated with my husband.  This past summer, our 15 year old signed herself up for a six-week series of courses at MIT on Sundays.  “I’ll drive,” I nudged my husband again.  My driving was not a full altruistic act.  I wanted time to have some urban adventures on the Cambridge side of the Charles River.  I recruited my best-ex, Joel who lives with his partner and identical sons in the top unit of a two family house in Somerville.  Joel is always up for crazy fieldtrips and off-the-beaten-path wanderings.  Maybe that is why he has been a fairly consistent figure in my life for over thirty years.  When we were eighteen, he got me onto a bicycle and I’ve never stopped pedaling! He taught me that bicycles are not just for recreation but can be used for actual transportation to get one from point A to point B.  So many years ago, he assured me he would be safe on the slippery winter roads because he had switched to studded bicycle tires for the long commute to his job at an architectural firm in Boston.  

Trash picking is another one of our many common interests.  Wandering around the city with Joel provides an important lesson in the practice of “reuse”.  An old bureau in front of an MIT dorm has some good boards to use.  Washers, old cell phone cases, a wet and dirty shirt may very well end up in one of Joel’s bike baskets to bring home.  He found this like-new recumbent bicycle tossed out in the trash and rescued it to become one of his primary modes of transportation in the city.

Trash picking is another one of our many common interests.  Wandering around the city with Joel provides an important lesson in the practice of “reuse”.  An old bureau in front of an MIT dorm has some good boards to use.  Washers, old cell phone cases, a wet and dirty shirt may very well end up in one of Joel’s bike baskets to bring home.  He found this like-new recumbent bicycle tossed out in the trash and rescued it to become one of his primary modes of transportation in the city.

But this is not really a story about Joel.  This is more a story about the places where Joel took me on several of those Sunday afternoons this summer.  I wanted to learn about Somerville and how it has changed for the better and the worse since he moved there in the 1990s. 

When I lived in Boston in the 1990s, Somerville did not have the best reputation.  Known back then as Slummer-ville or even Scummer-ville, Somerville was seen as the poor cousin of adjacent Cambridge and the arm pit of the region.  Home to newly arrived immigrants, poor students and low income families, Somerville was somewhat rough-around-the-edges, gritty, not refined.  In this way, Somerville back then reminds me a bit of our not-so-pretty-but-so-functional Worcester.

 But Somerville had all the basic bare bones to emerge someday as one of the most livable cities – 1) It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with almost 79,000 people jammed tight into about 4 square miles.  (Compare that to our sprawling Worcester with 182,000 people spread out in about 39 square miles) 2) Its extensive public transportation network of subways, trains and buses, allow easy access to Boston, Cambridge and surrounding suburbs.  3) It’s incredibly walk-able with short blocks.  The housing stock of predominantly closely packed multiple family dwellings are within easy walking distance to commercial squares where one can find everything from restaurants to service businesses.  (Joel lives equidistant from Union Square and Davis Square.)

Over the past twenty years, Somerville has been discovered as the gem it always was underneath the grit.  High tech workers in the new and fancy office buildings sprouting up in Cambridge’s Kendall Square and other high income earners have scooped up the cheap housing in the past ten or more years.  High demand to live there escalated housing prices.  It’s no longer a cheap place to live.  If you want to understand the process of gentrification, all you have to do is head on over to Somerville.  Joel is lucky.  He had the foresight to buy a property before the invasion of the yuppies. 

What would have happened if you didn’t buy all those years ago?
— Joyce to Joel
I’d be stuck out there in Worcester with you!!!
— Joel to Joyce

Joel now wishes that they had anticipated and planned ways to prevent real displacement in the city he calls home.  Twenty years ago, who would have ever thought that Somerville would become unaffordable even for middle income folks? According to Joel, the teachers, police, firemen don’t make enough salary to live in the very city that they serve. 

Joel's message to Worcester:  Don’t think gentrification can’t happen in Worcester.  You better start preparing for it now!

Somerville is light years ahead of Worcester in buildling biking infrastructure.  Dedicated bike lanes are all over the city streets. Check out what we found here -- bicylists get a head start and wait for lights in front of the cars in their own painted bike boxes.  I'm reminded of the phrase labeling bike lanes as "white lanes of gentrification". Don't ever believe that having kids means you have to tool around in a mini-van. Joel bikes everywhere with his family.  When they were babies, Joel transported his kids in his bike trailer. Now that they are older, the kids explore the city on their own bikes.  As hard core bike activists, Joel and his partner, Lynn were instrumental in the development of converting an old railroad line to a community bike path from Davis Square in Somerville to Alewife and beyond.  

Somerville is light years ahead of Worcester in buildling biking infrastructure.  Dedicated bike lanes are all over the city streets. Check out what we found here -- bicylists get a head start and wait for lights in front of the cars in their own painted bike boxes.  I'm reminded of the phrase labeling bike lanes as "white lanes of gentrification".

Don't ever believe that having kids means you have to tool around in a mini-van. Joel bikes everywhere with his family.  When they were babies, Joel transported his kids in his bike trailer. Now that they are older, the kids explore the city on their own bikes.  As hard core bike activists, Joel and his partner, Lynn were instrumental in the development of converting an old railroad line to a community bike path from Davis Square in Somerville to Alewife and beyond.  

Exploring Assembly Square

Joel and I explored a lot on foot and by bike, but I’m choosing to focus on Assembly Square, one neighborhood in Somerville that I had to visit twice just to understand what was happening there.

A bit of background:

This little neighborhood on the edge of Somerville and on the banks of the Mystic River was an industrial powerhouse in its past.  The Ford Motor Company opened a huge manufacturing plant there in 1926.  With its crisscross of railroad extensions, the plant thrived until 1958 when it shut its doors.  The blighted property was finally reinvented as the Assembly Square Mall in the 1970s, one of those traditional malls with Kmart and Jordan Marsh as two anchor stores at either end and a food court in the middle. Even though Home Depot, one of the first big-box retailers in Somerville, opened up shop there down the street, the mall didn’t make it and closed in 1999. 

Again, what would happen to this vacant, large parcel of underutilized commercial and industrial property?

In 2006, Assembly Square Marketplace opened with the typical national big chain tenants – Staples, Christmas Tree Store, TJ Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc.  You know this kind of development – Anywhere USA, a straight long row of huge big-box stores all set back from the street with mountains of surface lot parking out in front. 

In 2006, Assembly Square Marketplace opened with the typical national big chain tenants – Staples, Christmas Tree Store, TJ Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc.  You know this kind of development – Anywhere USA, a straight long row of huge big-box stores all set back from the street with mountains of surface lot parking out in front. 

But what was the new kind of development across the street?  This 45 acre “smart growth” project abutting the Mystic River opened up its first phase in 2012.  I HAD NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS!

 

Assembly Square Row:  What the heck is this?

Let’s check it out!

If you head into the Welcome Center on Canal Street, you can pick up a detailed brochure with a map listing all the stores where you can spend your money.  Assembly Row is a twenty four hour, mixed use community with housing, commercial and office space.  Four blocks of the development have already been completed to date but you can see the cranes and workers continuing to build out on the adjacent empty lots. In the photo above, you can see the vacant, to-be-developed lots outlined in gray.

If you head into the Welcome Center on Canal Street, you can pick up a detailed brochure with a map listing all the stores where you can spend your money.  Assembly Row is a twenty four hour, mixed use community with housing, commercial and office space.  Four blocks of the development have already been completed to date but you can see the cranes and workers continuing to build out on the adjacent empty lots. In the photo above, you can see the vacant, to-be-developed lots outlined in gray.

The Assembly station on the orange line subway opened up in 2014.  Now, this once-landlocked neighborhood offers an easy, short commute to downtown Boston.  As a transit oriented development (TOD), this project is nestled near this transportation node to spearhead radiating growth.

The Assembly station on the orange line subway opened up in 2014.  Now, this once-landlocked neighborhood offers an easy, short commute to downtown Boston.  As a transit oriented development (TOD), this project is nestled near this transportation node to spearhead radiating growth.

This is Artisan Way, the main drag in this two T-shaped street village.  Note the wide sidewalks, the benches, the street trees and plantings, the old fashioned street lamps.... all making this a walking friendly place.  Bikers are welcomed here too.  There are plenty of bike racks scattered throughout the development and street markings designating bicycle passages.  Bikers and walkers are free to enjoy the path along the Mystic River.  The streets in this development (see in photo) are human scaled with just one narrow lane in either direction.  Cars are allowed to park in metered spaces on the street on the right side.  This is a good example of a "complete street" where cars, bicyclists and walkers have equitable access to the road space.

This is Artisan Way, the main drag in this two T-shaped street village.  Note the wide sidewalks, the benches, the street trees and plantings, the old fashioned street lamps.... all making this a walking friendly place.  Bikers are welcomed here too.  There are plenty of bike racks scattered throughout the development and street markings designating bicycle passages.  Bikers and walkers are free to enjoy the path along the Mystic River.  The streets in this development (see in photo) are human scaled with just one narrow lane in either direction.  Cars are allowed to park in metered spaces on the street on the right side.  This is a good example of a "complete street" where cars, bicyclists and walkers have equitable access to the road space.

Ah, but now I'm super confused!  Just when you think you've found a great place accessible on foot, bike and subway, you see that this is really an auto-centric development.  Here is a disguised parking garage.  I love the really cool, artistic touches such as what you see here on this pole in front of the garage.  Let's face it though.  People are driving and parking all around here.  Here is the truth about Assembly Row.  This is a former industrial neighborhood that has been cut off from the rest of Somerville over the years and geographically isolated by several surrounding huge roads and highways (Route 93, Route 28 and McGrath Highway). Consequently, most people drive to get here.  Joel and I biked here but we had to negotiate some harrowing, major arterials and dark underpasses

Ah, but now I'm super confused!  Just when you think you've found a great place accessible on foot, bike and subway, you see that this is really an auto-centric development.  Here is a disguised parking garage.  I love the really cool, artistic touches such as what you see here on this pole in front of the garage.  Let's face it though.  People are driving and parking all around here. 

Here is the truth about Assembly Row.  This is a former industrial neighborhood that has been cut off from the rest of Somerville over the years and geographically isolated by several surrounding huge roads and highways (Route 93, Route 28 and McGrath Highway). Consequently, most people drive to get here.  Joel and I biked here but we had to negotiate some harrowing, major arterials and dark underpasses

Many of the parking garages are unobtrusively built into the fabric of this development and then, there are plenty of garages like this where there is no mistaking their function.

Many of the parking garages are unobtrusively built into the fabric of this development and then, there are plenty of garages like this where there is no mistaking their function.

This is the center square of the development.  It's a walker paradise - beautiful brick lined sidewalks, a huge car-free space, chairs set up in the square where people are lounging, plenty of trees, plantings. In the background, one can see some of the new apartment buildings.  These are not cheaply constructed affairs.  If you look closely, you can see beautiful, artistic stone facings and large curved windows on the middle building.  

This is the center square of the development.  It's a walker paradise - beautiful brick lined sidewalks, a huge car-free space, chairs set up in the square where people are lounging, plenty of trees, plantings. In the background, one can see some of the new apartment buildings.  These are not cheaply constructed affairs.  If you look closely, you can see beautiful, artistic stone facings and large curved windows on the middle building.  

Here is the Jane Jacobs ideal of mixed use -- retail stores on ground level and apartments up above.  

Here is the Jane Jacobs ideal of mixed use -- retail stores on ground level and apartments up above.  

Plenty of restaurants (some local, some chains like JP Licks)... People sitting at restaurant tables on the large sidewalks and pedestrian plazas make for an active street life.

Plenty of restaurants (some local, some chains like JP Licks)... People sitting at restaurant tables on the large sidewalks and pedestrian plazas make for an active street life.

Just across from Great River Road, one can walk or bike past the banks of the Mystic River and watch the boats and wildlife.  An amphitheater and children's park with playground equipment are public spaces to enjoy.  

Just across from Great River Road, one can walk or bike past the banks of the Mystic River and watch the boats and wildlife.  An amphitheater and children's park with playground equipment are public spaces to enjoy.  

There's even a Riverfest coming up on September 10th.

There's even a Riverfest coming up on September 10th.

This all seems like the Jane Jacobs kind of ideal, doesn't it?  Then, why did I feel so, so, so.... um, uncomfortable and uneasy when Joel and I biked through the "neighborhood."  Something just didn't seem right.  

"Disneyland," I yelled out to Joel as we biked past the giraffe outside of the Legoland Discovery Center and the twelve screen AMC theater.  "It reminds me of Disneyland!" I didn't mean that in the most flattering way.  The most idealized vision of Americana and the way-it-never-was perfection on Main Street Disneyland!  And then more movie images came to mind:  Pleasantville (the romanticized vision of 1950s main streets hiding the sexual repression of women and prevalent racist dismissal of everything- but- white suburban life) and the Truman Show (the main protagonist doesn't know it but he is actually starring in a televised show and his whole world is a prefabricated stage).  When Joel and I biked out of the small development to the vacant blocks along the edge, I half wondered if I would see the cameras rolling on this seemingly idyllic playground. 

Could I be uncomfortable because it seemed like a place for only the wealthy living in high end apartments and condos and shopping at expensive stores?  Well, that is not exactly the reason. Somerville has 20% inclusionary zoning, meaning that all new developments must set aside 20% of residential units as "affordable".  Even if "affordable" only applies to middle income folks who make 80% of the median, at least there are some provisions that provide housing for those who can't pay market rate.  What was the source of my dis-ease?

I'm so used to differentiating between the two main models of urban planning but I had never quite seen a project like this before, almost a bastardized hybrid of the two.  

Hmmm, seems like Jane Jacobs!  Let's take an inventory:

  • Pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation centered. CHECK!
  • Mixed use:  It even has her ideal of stores on the lower level and housing on top.  CHECK!
  • Short blocks: CHECK!
  • High density: buildings close together, people living in close proximity. CHECK!
  • Mix of old and new buildings:   AAAH, here it is!  Here is the issue!

Despite all the Jane Jacobs neighborhood rejuvenating elements, Assembly Row is still an example of an urban renewal project where large tracts of land are cleared all at once for new development.  It seems as if Assembly Row just descended from the sky to this little corner along the banks of the Mystic.  There is no history here!  Consequently, there are no natural uses that emerge from a naturally occurring, organically grown neighborhood.  What is noticeable then is what is lacking.  The kids who live here have no schools to attend within walking or biking distance.  There are no churches where folks can gather.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a huge fan of churches as symbols of the moral heartbeat of a living neighborhood.  Residents have no place to go to buy groceries, even a mom and pop store on the corner to get a needed carton of milk.  

So, what is here? The retail tenants who can afford the costs of new construction are predominantly national chains here - Legal Seafoods, Outback Steakhouse, Nike, Saks Fifth Avenue, Banana Republic, Reebok, etc.  Maybe this is the wave of the future - a Jane Jacobs inspired, main streets copy of a mall.  (Jane Jacobs would die if she came back to life!)  Here is the nature of my discomfort:  Here, residents and visitors can become good consumers but not better citizens.  There are plenty of places to shop but no public spaces to debate and to organize and to build a better world.  

Most people don't realize it but traditional indoor privately owned malls are not like public open spaces.  People can be escorted off the premises.  So anything that makes us uncomfortable - people who display signs of mental illness or people who are asking for money-- are excluded to give us the illusion that there is no such thing as social problems in our society. I wondered if the public streets at Assembly Row were treated as public or private spaces.  How mall-like was this place?  What would happen if someone took out their guitar to play for money at the pedestrian plaza near JP Licks?  or what would happen if someone visibly down-and-out, sat down on one of the benches on the picture-perfect street and asked for money?  Would they be escorted off these premises? Joel and I came up with a huge guerrilla-theater experiment.  What if we got an artist friend to create a giant life sized beggar built out of legos and we deposited him at midnight outside of Legoland in front of the giraffe  pictured above?  Would he be arrested and courted away by police?  Would people put pennies into his lego begging cup?

Most people don't realize it but traditional indoor privately owned malls are not like public open spaces.  People can be escorted off the premises.  So anything that makes us uncomfortable - people who display signs of mental illness or people who are asking for money-- are excluded to give us the illusion that there is no such thing as social problems in our society.

I wondered if the public streets at Assembly Row were treated as public or private spaces.  How mall-like was this place?  What would happen if someone took out their guitar to play for money at the pedestrian plaza near JP Licks?  or what would happen if someone visibly down-and-out, sat down on one of the benches on the picture-perfect street and asked for money?  Would they be escorted off these premises?

Joel and I came up with a huge guerrilla-theater experiment.  What if we got an artist friend to create a giant life sized beggar built out of legos and we deposited him at midnight outside of Legoland in front of the giraffe  pictured above?  Would he be arrested and courted away by police?  Would people put pennies into his lego begging cup?

Ok so what do you think of Assembly Row?  I like it... kind of.  I say that with reserved tone.  So, what about something like this in Worcester?  Could you see something like this on the site of the Wyman-Gordon property?  Well, I guess we could do a lot worse.  We could have had a casino there!!