Ode to Urban Artifacts: A Curious Bird

© The Middle Ground, 2015

© The Middle Ground, 2015



The winter of our discontent and the long hibernation are over.

A mysterious woman was recently spotted dragging a red wagon full of old toys and trinkets around the neighborhood. There were no children in tow. When I arrived home later that afternoon, this small urban artifact – a tagless Beanie Baby of unknown value – awaited, perfectly perched on the rock wall below. It stood there for two days, disappearing on the third just before a rainstorm moved in.

The bird, subsequently identified as “KuKu” the Cockatoo, was about 7 inches long and retired from the beanie circuit on December 23, 1999.

Perhaps KuKu’s arrival was a coincidence, perhaps a whimsical gift from a neighbor. We may never know.

I, however, remain forever wary of unsolicited treats from colorful caravans. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’m talking to you.


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Pregaming PorchFest

Pregaming PorchFest

Pregame essentials: lilacs, blueberry bush, sneaky cat, music, porch, and 1906 Somerville directory © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Doors and Windows

Secret Garden © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Secret Garden © The Middle Ground, 2013.



European portico or Somerville stoop? Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.

Window © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Window © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Portal © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Portal © The Middle Ground, 2013.

A lifelong pedestrian, I am forced to roam the streets by foot or bus to get to many a destination. Walking  allows me to appreciate the hidden treasures of Somerville streets and homes that I might otherwise miss. An elaborate bird house, a hidden terrace, a dancing neighbor in the nude—all wonderful details worthy of prolonged gaze.

This of course includes architectural details such as ornate doors, stained glass windows, balusters, stone facades, swags, and other external decorative features that welcome visitors entering Somerville homes and gardens.

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Porch with all the fixings © The Middle Ground, 2013.

So, in the spirit of springtime walks and house-gazing, I’ve chosen the broader theme of doors and windows for this post. I’m also looking forward to having an excuse to check out people’s front yards during PorchFest 2013 this coming weekend!

A great way to enter a basement, © The Middle Ground, 2013.

A great way to enter a basement, © The Middle Ground, 2013.

You shall not pass. © The Middle Ground, 2013.

You shall not pass. © The Middle Ground, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One other, somewhat random, reason for this theme is an old saying of my grandfather’s that has been stuck in my head all week. “Shut the door, they’re coming through the window. Shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” he would say rather ominously before breaking into a chuckle. I always thought it was a bit strange, though not enough to actually ask him about it. I figured it was some wartime saying or anti-commie reference.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

You really shall not pass. © The Middle Ground, 2013.

You really shall not pass. © The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

Secret Garden 3, © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Secret Garden 2, © The Middle Ground, 2013.

 

After much Googling, I discovered that the old saying was, in fact, a song by the name “Shut the Door.” The version he most likely listened to was recorded by Vaudeville alums, Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan, in 1929. Though I’m still unsure of its exact contextual meaning, it seems to be a humorous radio tune on either surveillance, immigration, or just plain silly nonsense. My grandfather would have first heard it as a teenager and it’s funny to think he was still repeating it some eighty years later.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.



So enjoy these windows and doors! I’ve left the locations off the captions in case you’re in the mood for a mystery.

A few damaged tiles on an otherwise awesome roof © The Middle Ground, 2013.

A few damaged tiles on an otherwise awesome roof © The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

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© The Middle Ground, 2013.

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Stenciling below porch balusters © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Barn © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Barn © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Window © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Window © The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

Magic shed © The Middle Ground, 2013.

Magic shed © The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

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© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

© The Middle Ground, 2013.

Oh, your house is on fire? Get off my lawn.

Is this hydrant for real? I think it is. I threw a pebble at it and it made an appropriate ding, more like a dung actually. Then I ran away. I’m not sure fencing off a hydrant is legal (especially on a dead end street), but I like the juxtaposition of white picket fence idealism and Somerville ‘no trespassing’ suspicion. © The Middle Ground, 2012

Ode to Urban Artifacts: Lawn Ornamentation

The Wesley Park Robot. A hero from the 1983 intergalactic war with Cambridge. © The Middle Ground, 2012.



Lawn Ornamentation: Visionary art or backyard junk?

In this latest installment of urban archaeology, I will document objects of intrigue found in Somerville yards. Some of these items seem to be placed with great intention, others, not so much. I will leave it to you to determine their artistic value, anthropological merit, and overall effectiveness. You may find yourself wondering, “Where are all those terribly classy stone lions I see in Somerville yards?” Have no fear, I am currently on a mission to document as many of the stone/ceramic/ gold/ lions proudly displayed in front of Somerville homes. Much has been written about the Blessed Virgin Mary statues with accompanying bathtub shelters. Now it’s time for the Somerville Lion to take his rightful place as the king of lawn ornaments, before he is extinct. Cataloguing the lions will be an ongoing and highly edifying endeavor.

In the mean time, if you know of any particularly striking lawn ornamentation, urban artifacts, or interesting backyard junk in the ville, shoot me email with its location and I will try my Somerville best to feature it in a subsequent Ode to Urban Artifacts post.

We begin with Hobo, The Stripper-Clown, friend to the Wesley Park Robot. Times are clearly tough and he has taken to the bottle. No one understands him, but his frog, Afterthought.

Hobo, The Stripper-Clown and Afterthought the Frog. © The Middle Ground, 2012.



Also in the same yard, Not-Optimus Prime, enemy to Wesley Park Robot. If you thought Not-Optimus Prime was in fact, Optimus Prime, chances are we don’t travel in the same circles.  His markings are distinctly Power Ranger-esque, so I’d have to say he’s The Power Rangers Ninja Storm dX Power Megazord Transformer. Let’s call it an educated guess. Not-Optimus is relatively new, though his compatriots have been in this yard since before 2007. Very interesting choice for a lawn ornament, especially given his proximity to The Wesley Park Robot and Hobo, The Stripper-Clown. What does it all mean?

Not-Optimus-Prime

Not-Optimus-Prime. © The Middle Ground, 2012.



As we  move uphill, just off Walnut Street, we find a Time Machine. I am pretty sure this is a time machine and not art. It may also be a torture chamber, given that it seems to have an oven door. Whatever it is, we can all agree that it’s awesome.

A Time Machine. No big deal. © The Middle Ground, 2012.



Next up, is a yard that appears to be full of crap. And yet.. there is something beautiful about the disarray of objects. It could be townie. It could be yuppie. It’s definitely part of The Middle Ground.

Yuppie art installation or Townie Junkyard? © The Middle Ground, 2012.


No Urban Artifacts post would be complete without a pile of tires (See: Ode to Urban Artifacts: The Quintessential Somerville Tire). Here we have a collection of tires of various sizes and models. I walk by this house on a weekly basis and happened to know these tires don’t see much action. There are seven tires; no more, no less. Always the seven tires, but I will let you know if anything changes…

Pile O'Tires. © The Middle Ground, 2012.


In the same yard, we find Pipe Man. It may very well be that Pipe Man collects tires. Though comprised of a few old pipes, I’d venture that Pipe Man is a sculpture. Pipe Man and I share certain physical characteristics. I’d like to think we  have chemistry and that our children would be athletes.

Pipe Man Cometh. © The Middle Ground, 2012.


You can find these next little creepers on Hall Street, off of Cherry. Despite some moderate shelter, they appear fairly weathered so I was curious as to how long they may have been living in the streets. According to an image from Google Earth, timestamped August 2007, the twins have lived outside for at least 4.5 years, although I would venture longer. Sheltered by the house’s gas meter, they resemble Hummel figurines, but with the glazed-over eyes evocative of a post-apocalyptic pastoral society. The boy holds a white dog; the girl a white cat. There is some type of deep symbolism going on here and it reminds me of the wolf cub in I, Claudius, who falls from the talons of  an eagle into the hands of a young Claudius foretelling of his future reign as protector of Rome. Yup, that’s what comes to mind.

Post-Apocalyptic Pastoral Twins. © The Middle Ground, 2012.


Now to birds. One of my favorite lawn ornaments is this fake rooster in a birdcage with accompanying twinkle lights. The cage has been here for at least three years. A few houses down, there’s a house with numerous bird cages on the porch with actual live birds. This one is clearly a booby trap for yuppies seeking farm fresh eggs. Trouble is they’re not cage-free and they come from a rooster.

Booby Trap. © The Middle Ground, 2012.


Last but not least, we have some birds of prey. Are they eagles? Hawks? A combination of two species? Impossible to be certain. In a city with an abundance of stone lions, the owners of this house made a bold choice to veer from the Somerville standard. They even had their beaks expertly painted red. Or maybe that’s just blood from a recent kill?  I think I will investigate any particular significance these birds may have in Portuguese culture (I say Portuguese because the owners also have a statue of Our Lady of Fátima and a Portuguese flag displayed to the right of the birds).

Birds of Prey. © The Middle Ground, 2012.


This edition of Ode to Urban Artifacts has come to an end. Stay tuned for future posts involving Somerville bricks, random glass bottles, gang symbols, derelict basketball hoops,  and more curious sculptures. Thanks for reading!



© 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.

Easter Greetings from The Anarchy Egg

The 2012 Anarchy Egg of Somerville, © The Middle Ground, 2012.

 

On the eve of Easter each year, my family partakes in the pagan ritual known as egg coloring. My mother hard boils about three or four dozen eggs for our extremely loud and incredibly close family. Both children and adults draw on said eggs with crayons. We fight to the death over the “magic crayon,” the clear crayon that reveals secret truths upon dyeing. We fight to the death over desired colors of dye.

For the most part, we abide by standard egg coloring decorum and practice, save one minor familial invention – THE ANARCHY EGG.

Guts of The Anarchy Egg, displayed in an old creamer, © The Middle Ground, 2012.

 

I’m not sure who first thought of The Anarchy Egg or when it started, but it was definitely prior to the birth of the glorious youngest child (that would be me). As legend has it, it is but an ordinary egg born from the depths of fowl despair, doomed to fall at the hands of negligent children, and destined to rise from its outer shell of indifference, into a beast of beautiful chaos. Quite simply, it is the egg that some kid drops or breaks during the decorating process. Once we have dyed all of the perfect eggs, we combine all of the dyes into a vat, sometimes sprinkling a little of this or that to add to the holy discord. Then we place the unholy beast into a cup or vessel and stab it Somerville-style with martini swords, straws, or whatever bizarre things we can find. I’m not sure why we do this or what it says about my family, but I think we can all agree that The Anarchy Egg is an awesome Somerville invention.

Please note The Anarchy Egg is meant for worship, conversation, and anarchy. It is not meant for consumption.

Old cell phone photo of the 2008 Anarchy Egg, © The Middle Ground, 2012.

 

© 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.

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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