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.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: