WHAT IS SOMERVILLE?
Somerville is my hometown. It’s where I am from, and it’s hopefully where I’ll die. Strong words, but a necessary truth. Chances are, you will end up living in Somerville at some point in your life, maybe even for a respectable five to seven years, so I suggest you pay attention.
The literal meaning of ‘Somerville’ is ‘not Cambridge,’ derived from the Latin, ‘anti Cantibrigiae’ meaning the ‘Anti-Cambridge.’ For anyone not familiar with Somerville, it is both peculiar and awesome – an enigmatic locale that is neither city nor suburb. Nestled roughly three miles from Boston, as the crow flies, it’s a tiny, but densely populated narrow strip of land that runs between a plethora of other cities/towns that think they’re better than it. After years of being known as ‘Beyond the Neck’ of Charlestown, we broke free from Charlestown in 1842 and saved ourselves from the constraints of Boston’s eventual 1874 annexation of Charlestown. Somerville was more or less formed by a bunch of rich people who wanted bigger houses and more land, though much of the land started as marshes. They also needed a place for the insane asylum. Despite its autonomy, in some ways the city of Somerville also lost something by ensuring its independence from Boston. As it developed, Somerville became a residential go-between, a path between Boston and the eventual suburbs. While Cambridge developed as the more desirable go-between, Somerville struggled and faced the brunt of industrialization throughout its history. On the subject of history, many of the forthcoming posts will cover historically related topics, among other things.
WHY DO YOU PERSIST ON CALLING IT ‘THE MIDDLE GROUND?’
Short Answer: Somerville is a geographic middle ground between Boston proper and various suburbs. It’s also a metaphoric middle ground, a place for cultural negotiations between its divergent communities. Basically, the middle ground is a very interesting, challenging place, that’s often hard to categorize.
Long, Complicated Answer: Somerville is both a historic and a contemporary middle ground. For the past forty years or so, many native Bostonians have affectionately referred to Somerville as ‘Slummaville,’ ‘Scummaville,’ or simply as, ‘Shithole.’ People are immensely creative. But that was the Somerville of yore, a working-class, rough and tumble town of old-school Irish and Italians, and original home to the infamous Winter Hill Gang. Growing up, this was the Somerville I knew best, and in many ways, the one I still love best, if that makes any sense.
In the past fifteen years; however, something has happened to Somerville. It has increasingly become cool. Cool by the standards of the yuppies, the upper middle-class, hipsters, and the country of Brazil. It remains in many aspects working-class, but places like trendy Davis Square, and areas in close proximity to universities such as Tufts, Harvard, and MIT, make it an ever-emerging vessel for yuppies and gentrification. In fact, until recently, Tufts University would carefully fail to mention that part of its lovely campus is actually in Somerville. Now it’s a selling point. Despite the gentrification and the changing communities, Somerville is still not, nor will it ever be, Cambridge. In my opinion, it’s much too awesome to ever be that boring. If I sound overly defensive and harsh on my Cantabrigian neighbors, it’s because, like I said, I am from Somerville. Being from Somerville, I have had a lifetime of people from Cambridge reminding me what a shit-hole they think Somerville is. To be fair, Cambridge is swell, but I think it’s only fitting that I love Somerville more. So I love Somerville because it is where I am from, sure, but also because it’s not Cambridge.
Now more than ever, I view Somerville as a middle ground. As a student of history, I was deeply inspired by historian, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. The 1991 work describes a multi-level cultural middle ground between Native Americans of the Great Lakes and Europeans. Historically, Somerville has always been a cultural and ethnic middle ground between various immigrant communities, socio-economic classes, etc. To start, it was also a strange mix of residences, emerging roads, and marshes. I think the inherent and continual negotiations between native Somervillians and newly arriving communities reaffirm its status as a cultural middle ground. Just walk into the local market, aptly name “Market Basket,” and you will witness these chaotic ‘negotiations’ first hand.
WHO AM I AND WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO WITH SOMERVILLE?
The first part of that question is part of a long-standing internal, existential debate.
This rest of the question is meant to be asked with a suspicious tone exhibited by all native Somervillians. As previously stated, Somerville is my hometown. That’s actually sort of a rare claim these days for Somerville residents. The above brief history of Somerville somewhat explains how this locational lineage has become such a rarity. So, yes, I am a native villen, if you will. Born and raised. In fact, I come from a long line of Somervillians. My mother is from Somerville, and her mother is from Somerville, and her mother was from… Italy. My maternal line has been in Somerville since the turn of the century. My father is from New Hampshire, which at first glance might be an immediate disqualification from Somerville. Yet, as fate would have it, my dad moving to Somerville in 1980, or the First Wave of Yuppies as I call it, was actually a familial homecoming. After researching our family history, we discovered that some of the first residents of Somerville proper were direct ancestors of my father. I will speak more on this monumental discovery in a later post, possibly entitled, “I am More Somerville than You.”
Partly because of these established familial ties to the city, I relentlessly love my home and can sometimes lack perspective and objectivity when it comes to discussing it. To be fair, I have left Somerville twice. Once, to go to college in Cambridge for four years. You will hear more about how this came to be later on. More recently, I spent a year ‘abroad’ in Montréal. After each of these jaunts into otherness, like a breath of fresh air, I returned home. Yet, because of the social, demographic, and physical changes to Somerville, I sometimes feel confused. When a yuppie chases out a townie, I feel as though an alley cat dies while a fancy dog park simultaneously thrives. On the flip side, a fair number of these new inhabitants are my friends and people I went to school with. Likewise, I like fancy coffee and bookshops and not getting jumped. Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile all of these things. In some ways the new Somerville is really great. And yet…I am a townie. I hate when people get in my way. I continuously ask myself, “Who are all these people in Market Basket?” And then we have the bicycles…Instead of packs of dangerous teens or gum-chewing youths riding bikes on the sidewalks, the new bicycles are wielded by helmet-wearing twenty-somethings with accompanying cropped skinny jeans and beards.
On a deeply personal and introspective level, I have always related to Somerville as if it were the entirety of my existence. I am in many ways a microcosm of Somerville, a middle ground between the townie and yuppie communities. Despite my love of Somerville’s hardcore past and the many ways I exhibit certain Somerville characteristics, I have also never 100% fit in. There are clearly times I favor my townie instincts over my yuppie/ hipster inclinations, but it’s still something that calls for constant reflection and negotiation on my part.
WHAT WILL THIS BLOG COVER?
This blog will cover things that deal with Somerville, including, but not limited to, my personal stories of Somerville, stories from other people, maybe stories from you [?], historical pieces, photos and artwork, anything dealing with cultural negotiations/ clashes, interviews from some lifers, and who knows what else. Keep in mind, I do not speak for all Somervillians, so if your experience of Somerville has been something different, then well, it’s been different. These are my perceptions and my blog, not a celebrated work of nonfiction. That being said, I’d love to hear your stories and perceptions too.
PLEASE SHARE YOUR STORIES OF GROWING UP IN SOMERVILLE, MOVING TO SOMERVILLE, OR VISITING SOMERVILLE. THANKS FOR READING.
 Still a part of Charlestown, Somerville was the 1811 first home to the infamous McLean Hospital. The work I refer to is Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Somerville also calls to mind another favorite and similarly related history, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, by Alan Taylor. Taylor’s work deals with the divisive elements of the cultural and political middle ground Native communities found themselves in. Thinking of the often-divisive relationships that emerge among Somerville’s varying communities, I sometimes wonder whether this is the better term for Somerville. I won’t lie. I was technically born in Boston because, well, one tries to avoid birthing at Somerville Hospital as much as one can.
© The Middle Ground, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.