“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.
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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!!