Somerville Encounters: March 16th Edition

A necessary addition to a Somerville stop sign. © The Middle Ground, 2012



I recently took several long, leisurely strolls around Somerville to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. I had a few errands to run, including taking some preliminary photos of an unmarked land plot that I am investigating for a forthcoming blog post. March 17th was Evacuation Day in Boston (and Somerville), which is basically a made-up holiday that people in Boston use as an excuse to have a long weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.[1] Needless to say, tons of people were off from work, out and about, enjoying the weather on Friday the 16th. I decided it would be a great opportunity to chat with fellow Somervillians and do research for the blog. I’m admittedly not the best at sparking small talk, and I generally don’t make a habit of walking up to random strangers and inviting their crazy upon me. It’s not like I’m a horribly awkward person. I can certainly be borderline charming when necessary, but I tend to have a suspicious nature, one that makes forced conversation or networking (I even hate the word) a challenge for me. I look fairly harmless and young for my age, but it still comes across as inhuman and unnatural when I try to force the beaming friendliness vibe from my eyes. My wave ends up looking robotic and foreboding. But I decided to go for it and talk to EVERYONE I met on the streets of Somerville. If someone looked like they had a story to tell, I gave them the old charm. At first, the old charm just got me a few hollers and one lecherous wink, but after a while people spoke to me. Here are a few highlights from my Friday 3/16 encounters, though most of my meetings were pretty uneventful. Sadly, I didn’t chance upon any crazy people. Next time.

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Old Man on High

Location: Just outside Union Square.  Time: Noonish.

I’m not having much luck until an old man sitting five stories up in Properzi Manor (known as “old folks home” to some, but I don’t think it’s all elderly housing) calls down to me.

OLD MAN: Hey you there.

I am confused. I look around. I think I spot an old man on high.

OLD MAN: You there. Down there. You!

I am the only person in sight. He’s definitely talking to me.

ME: Oh. Hello?

OLD MAN:  How ya doin down there?

He seems nice. I am very excited about this conversation. He might share stories with me, and I can learn about Somerville in the 1930s!

ME: I’m doin well, sir, how are you?

OLD MAN: Ohhhhhh, I’m good.

Then he goes inside, shuts the balcony door, and walks out of my life forever. Old Man is all done with me. I feel sad.

I recover. I engaged with a stranger and I *think* it was a success. Part of me worries Old Man found me inadequate, but at least I wasn’t awkward. I also didn’t get stabbed. The whole thing was very neighborly, right?

SECOND ENCOUNTER: Artsy Guy by a Church

Location: Trull Lane, next to Mission Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Highland. Time: 2ish

I am heading towards Trull Lane from Highland Ave because it’s one of my favorite areas, but then I hesitate when I spot a hipster man sketching something. This means he is artsy. I assume he’s sketching the awesome church behind him, but turns out he isn’t. I fight my unfriendly instincts and proceed downward the lane. He is staring at a very unremarkable old house with an equally unremarkable old shed. It is red. Again, I am guilty of not initiating the conversation. He sees my big camera and decides I must be an artist too. I SMILE and prepare.

ARTSY GUY:  What do you think?

He stares intently at the ubiquitous shed.

ME:  Of what?

That didn’t come out as friendly as I had hoped. No matter, he’s staring hardcore at the same shed.

ARTSY GUY:  The house. Doesn’t it look like an old country house?

I am not so sure about this. I think I hate this house. It doesn’t seem historic.

ME:  Um, yeah. Definitely. Are you going to draw it? Cuz you know the church behind you was built around the turn of the century. And that other church across the street is really creepy and cool if you go to the back lot… like behind where they keep the dumpster…

System fail. I try to not look like a crazy person who hangs out in creepy back lots (I totally am). I am smiling.

ARTSY GUY:  Creepy or cool?

Um.

ME: Both. Yeah, both. Very cool though.

ARTSY GUY (disinterested):   Interesting. Maybe I’ll check it out.

Shit. That shed was definitely some sort of a litmus test for artistic minimalism. Can’t help it if I go for the obvious, but I like me some big church.

ME:  Yeah! Do it.

I resist the urge to run away shouting, “Enjoy that shed, motherf*****!”  Instead, I smile and walk away.

THIRD ENCOUNTER: Lady with a Really Nice House on Prospect Hill

Location: Prospect Hill   Time: 2:30ish

This one was all me. I see a lady on the porch of a really nice house.

ME: I REALLY LIKE YOUR HOUSE!!

LADY:  Oh. Thanks.

ME:  Yeah, I really like your house. It’s really nice. I’m from Somerville. I have always really liked your house. It’s really nice.

The lady starts to walk down her front steps, presumably to leave and walk her dog. She has a dog with her. I like this dog.

LADY:  Thank you. That’s very nice of you. Take care.

Cue to me that she is leaving.

ME:  HI DOGGIE!

She walks off.

ME: Yeah, have a great day!

We didn’t get to talk longer, but I was definitely friendly. I really wanted her to invite me into her home, perhaps even take me on as her ward.

FOURTH ENCOUNTER: Gardening Couple, also with Nice House

Location: Highland Ave  Time: around 4pm

This one went much the same as the last. Again, I use my awesome people skills to start the conversation.

ME:  Hi. I like your house!

Husband turns around. Wife keeps digging a hole.

HUSBAND: Thanks.

I am very enthusiastic. I like this home. It’s definitely not a house, but a home. I want in.

ME: Yeah, it’s really great. When was it built?

HUSBAND:  I think around 1895.

ME: You don’t have it registered with the Historic Preservation Commission????

HUSBAND:  No, we thought about it a while back, but then they could tell us what color to paint our house and stuff. We didn’t want to be bothered with all that.

ME:  I hear ya. They restrict my dad all the time with his house. Cool, well have a nice day.

HUSBANDYou too.

That was pretty successful. They really should register that house. I decide to walk north of Highland towards Winter Hill.

Things are getting less yuppie. People are more suspicious, but still friendly. I see a house with a bunch of bird cages and live birds on the porch. I like these birds, but realize I am too easily distracted and could spend all day recording my conversation with said birds. I keep walking.

FIFTH ENCOUNTER, OR THE FINAL ENCOUNTER IN WHICH I GET OWNED: Punk Kids (not as in kids who listen to punk, rather, kids that are turds.)

Location: Around Medford Street. Time: Around 5pm.

I’m walking. I see two teenage boys, probably between ages fourteen and seventeen. They look like punks. Real Somerville kids. I’m excited. I used to be a punk Somerville kid too. One is wearing a red cap, the other a blue Sox cap.

RED CAP KID:  Hey. Sup?

Awesome. He’s talking to me.

ME:  Hey! Howya doin’?

GUY SITTING ON THE PORCH BEHIND ME TO PUNK KIDS:  Sup.

I realize red cap kid wasn’t talking to me.

This is bad. They are giving me dirty looks now. I am passing them by. They are detecting I am lame. I think they think I am a yuppie. Shit.

I pass them.

PUNK KIDS (RED CAP, then BLUE CAP, then in a mocking CHORUS):  Hey, Oleeeve Oil! HEY OLEEEVE OYL!!!! OLIVE OYL!! OLIVE OYL!!! OLIVE OYL!!!! OLIVE OYL!!!! OLIVE OYL!!!!

Well, shit. They are making fun of me. What’s worse,  they are calling me Olive Oyl, the fictional gangly love interest of Popeye the Sailor Man. This isn’t the first time punk kids in Somerville have called me that. These little punks have struck a nerve and unknowingly tapped into a quarter century history of people calling me frickin’ Olive Oyl. Bastards, totally got me. I am tall and skinny, and I guess slightly resemble the fictional character in that way, but I swear the resemblance stops there. Course, I am wearing an Olive Oyl-esque ensemble, but it looks way more Zooey Deschanel than Olive Oyl, right?? I look damn good. I thought the Olive Oyl days were behind me. ALSO, how do they even know who Olive Oyl is??? I’m pretty sure they don’t air the old Popeye cartoons like they did when I was a kid. Lucky shits. I DO NOT START CRYING. I tell myself I am ‘losing the light’ and there’s no point in taking any more photos of Somerville or talking to anymore strangers today. I convince myself that I am happy that those two little shits even know who Popeye is, and that the whole encounter was awesome. IT WAS AWESOME.  I make my way home, having been owned by two kids nearly half my age. I do not look like Olive Oyl. I will not look like Olive Oyl. [2]

Those kids were punks, but they were true Somerville punks, and you have to respect that.

© 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.


[1] Yes, the British did evacuate Boston and head north during the Revolution, but the holiday wasn’t observed until the 1930s, and it was at the bequest of the large Boston Irish population. It’s really quite an awesome day and I’m glad Somerville observes it because  we were after all part of Boston during the Revolution. I’m also a quarter Irish myself (aren’t we all?).

[2] I later checked Wikipedia for more info on Olive Oyl’s background, and I’m sad to say I only discovered that Olive Oyl and I do in fact have a great deal in common. To make matters worse, I also discovered that she was once portrayed by the actress, Shelley Duvall, another person that people I dislike will often say I resemble. Sometimes these people even make slashing gestures and ask me to make grotesque faces of fear, à la The Shining. I can no longer deny that I look like Olive Oyl. This information is quite disheartening.

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Ode to Urban Artifacts: The Quintessential Somerville Tire

Tire at the foot of Prospect Hill. © The Middle Ground, 2012



Today I found a Tire at the foot of Prospect Hill,
With it came a flood of memories, rolling with me still.

As kids, we’d find them tires in empty parking lots,
Take ’em out of dumpsters, or fill ’em with some rocks.

We’d haul them up the summit, to the top of Prospect Tower,
Then roll them off the landing, to make our day less sour.

If we found a big one, time to take a ride,
Double dare. Say a prayer. Climb on inside.

We might get caught, or have our fill,
Death traps are fun, but cars can kill.

Today I found a Tire at the foot of Prospect Hill,
With it came a flood of memories, rolling with me still.


If it isn’t obvious, I thought of this silly little diddy when I came upon an old tire at the foot of the hill today. I snapped the picture and started rhyming, which made for an entertaining walk home.

There always seemed a disproportionate amount of tires and shopping carriages in my neighborhood and its environs. I’m not sure whether Somervillians were leaving carriages and tires behind, or if residents of surrounding cities just used Somerville as a dumping ground. I’d suspect a mixture of outsiders and native hooligans. Though undoubtedly urban eyesores, tires and shopping carriages made for endless juvenile fun. Like tires, shopping carriages from DeMoulas provided joyrides and shenanigans. These ‘carriage rides’ came to an end though when a particularly foolish chap, let’s call him ‘John,’ took a ride down from the top of Prospect Hill at Monroe St. to ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ at the bottom of Prospect Hill Parkway where it meets Columbus Ave. He survived relatively unscathed, but it was a bloody mess, enough to become a teachable moment. Looking back, it’s pretty remarkable he made it and that there were no incoming cars.[1] Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find many carriages, given the magnetic locking devices that prevent removal from lots. Tires, too, are scarce, which is why I was oddly delighted to find this one. The disappearance of such urban artifacts seems just another indication of the city’s changing atmosphere.


[1] Years later I worked with said ‘John’ at one of the youth programs in the city. Consequently, I could never shake the memory that he was THAT kid who took a joyride down the hill and lived to tell the tale.

© 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.

Welcome to The Middle Ground. Welcome to Somerville, Massachusetts.

View of Prospect Hill Tower taken from the roof of the powder house.   © The Middle Ground 2011

 

WHAT IS SOMERVILLE?

Somerville is my hometown. It’s where I am from, and it’s hopefully where I’ll die. Chances are you will end up living in Somerville at some point in your life – maybe even for a respectable 5-7 years – so I would 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 at one time or another have felt they were superior to fair Somerville. 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.[1] 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 metaphorical 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. It is most definitely not Cambridge.

Long, Complicated Answer:  Somerville is both a historic and a contemporary middle ground. For the past 40 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.

In the past fifteen years, however, something has happened to Somerville. It has increasingly become cool — cool by the standards of various communities that at one time or another did not see it as such. It remains in many aspects working-class, but places like Davis Square, and areas in close proximity to universities such as Tufts, Harvard, and MIT, have made it an ever-emerging vessel for 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, there is still a strong sense of the “old Somerville” community.

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.[2]  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 Market Basket, and you will witness these chaotic ‘negotiations’ first hand.

WHAT WILL THIS BLOG COVER?

As the title indicates, I will share tales and photos of Somerville. Some of the stories are personal ones from growing up here, some are stories passed by word of mouth, and some are stories you will share. I will discuss a variety of themes, including, but not limited to, Somerville identity, the clash between various demographic groups in the city, the evolution of the city, Somerville’s relationships with surrounding towns, cultural negotiations in the city, and the history of Somerville. I hope to also include interviews from Somervillians, photography, artwork, and any random Villen-related subjects. Please kindly remember that a sense of humor is needed to enter The Middle Ground.

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU 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.[3] 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 (the former hippies) 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. You will hear more about how this came to be later on.  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. Many of the people I grew up with can no longer afford to live here. Sometimes I wonder if a scrappy alley cat dies each time a fancy new dog takes a poop on a Somerville sidewalk. On the flip side, a fair number of these new inhabitants are my friends and people with whom I attended college.  I like the fancy coffee and bookshops and living with less fear of getting jumped. It’s hard for me to reconcile all of these things. In some ways the new Somerville is really great. And yet…it’s not my Somerville.  I continuously have to ask myself: “Who are all these people in Market Basket?”

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 the city, 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.  I increasingly favor my townie instincts over any “New Somerville” inclinations I might have, but it’s still something that calls for constant reflection and negotiation on my part.

Thanks for reading.

 


[1] Still a part of Charlestown, Somerville was the 1811 first home to the infamous McLean Hospital.[2] 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. [3] I won’t lie. I was technically born in Boston because one tries to avoid being born 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.

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