Part 1: The road thus far
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
In cities built before the automobile, neighborhoods developed around commercial centers. So an urban dweller needed to walk no more that ten or fifteen minutes to purchase the necessities of daily living.
The pleasant, human-scaled environment nourished amiable encounters among neighbors, providing opportunities to maintain the bonds of community around food, drink, entertainment, worship and associations.
Looking at Magoun Square’s shuttered storefronts and transient enterprises, one might not guess that in past years it was one of Somerville’s most vibrant neighborhood centers.
The city has invested $2.5 million to provide an infrastructural foundation for reanimating the Square’s vitality. And neighborhood activists have worked toward that goal for 13 years.
Accurately diagnosing the tough challenges they face and crafting effective responses requires understanding what the Square was, and how it became what it is.
It’s name comes from the son of a Revolutionary War soldier who came here from New Hampshire in 1817 at the age of 24 and got into the dairy business. His farm ultimately extended between what is now Central and Lowell Streets, and Broadway and Vernon Street.
He wed Sarah Ann Adams, daughter of Joseph Adams and Sarah Tufts, and they spent their married life in the house that her parents had built in 1783. It still stands at 438 Broadway.
Active in civic life, Magoun served variously as Captain of the militia, Assessor, Justice of the Peace, School Committee member, and cofounder of the Unitarian Society.
Broadway was initially built to transport farm materials and products. In the early 19th Century, Medford Street was constructed because Broadway was too steep for horse teams to negotiate during icy winters.
Until about 1880, what is now the Square was just a dirt crossroads with a livery. And James Patrick Ryan, great grandfather of neighborhood activist Joe Lynch, had immigrated from Ireland in 1858, saved his money working in a Tufts-family brickyard, and had opened a hay and grain store there.
A seemingly bottomless well fed a watering trough near the Medford line and provided relief to thirsty horses that were driven by teamsters hauling cordwood and freight, or by farmers bringing their products to market. Three establishments served beer and liquor to thirsty two-legged travelers.
Meanwhile, real estate developers were building grand houses in East Somerville and on top of Winter Hill, marketing the area to affluent Bostonians as a leafy and genteel suburb. In the 1890s, the West End Street Railway built an electric trolley running from the beginning of Highland Avenue, along Medford Street, and ending at the Square.
Between 1882 and 1900, the national economy went through four recessions. Following a panic and banking collapse in 1893, and another panic in 1896, business activity dropped by 37% and 25% respectively.
The market for Somerville’s elegant manses disappeared. Scrambling to stay profitable, developers bought up agricultural land and subdivided into tiny lots, with modest houses. Their market was immigrants, whose first great wave had been Irish, fleeing the 1845-52 potato famine. The tide slowed somewhat during the Civil War, and then resumed afterward, with Canadians joining the Irish. Many immigrants worked in Somerville’s burgeoning industries, while the trolley enabled others to commute to Boston and work in service occupations.
Developers were making a killing. So much so that they began buying up the Winter Hill manses, razing them, and building brick apartment buildings.
The 1910s marked a high point of Italian immigration to the U.S., and it continued into the 1930s. By 1920, Magoun Square was a thriving commercial center, serving a neighborhood dominated by Irish, Canadians, and Italians, with pockets of Eastern European Jews and Portuguese.
Into the 1960s, there were two grocery stores, a tailor, jeweler, shoe store, hardware store, drugstore, dry cleaners, seamstress, bank, penny-candy emporium, variety stores, and various eateries. Every building was fully occupied.
Parents were comfortable with letting their kids roam free. The Square’s merchants were also residential neighbors, and they looked out for the young people.
Following World War II, economic forces began to transform cities throughout the U.S. The lure of the suburbs reduced Magoun Square’s population. The same growth in car ownership that enabled suburbs, also facilitated regional stores and shopping centers that offered a broader array of goods than did the Square’s merchants, and at lower prices.
When the trolley stopped running, people who had commuted on it were no longer in the Square twice every weekday. Somerville’s factories closed, and for many families, economic necessity dictated that both adults work. Their after-work companions became televisions rather than neighbors in the Square.
The decline began slowly. First National’s grocery store succumbed to competition from larger chains. The A&P followed. One by one, specialty stores closed as their market dropped below their threshold of viability.
Some were replaced with bars like Danny’s, Drake’s, Mahoney’s, Canty’s, and others. Winter Hill Gang members and hangers-on frequented the bars, which too often were scenes of assaults and murders. Parents kept their kids out of the Square. By the 1990s, it was a wasteland, with many storefronts empty, and others occupied by 6-to-12-month tenants.
In 1999, a group of neighbors—Sheila Ehrens, Margie Polster, David St. Denis, and Joe Lynch—formed the Magoun Square Revitalization Group. They recruited other neighbors, engaged merchants, and asked the city for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money for street improvements.
Then-mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay called on them when a developer wanted to buy five storefronts and replace them with a CVS drugstore. Three years of negotiating the footprint and design guidelines produced a CVS store that seemed to catalyze some new economic activity. Frank Privatera Jr. bought a block of storefronts and brought in some new businesses. A few new tenants moved in elsewhere.
In 2002, Mayor Gay submitted to the state a $540,000 CDBG proposal. Bay Side Engineering, working with local new-urbanism expert Anne Tate, prepared the design.
But in October 2005, the Revitalization Group learned that Mayor Joe Curtatone had withdrawn the CDBG proposal. He said he had done so because he wanted to submit a more comprehensive proposal that would include improvements to the Square’s traffic congestion.
Ward 5 Alderman Sean O’Donovan said that he hadn’t informed the neighbors because he was waiting for David Giagrande, the city’s design consultant, to finish the new plan.
In fact, the plan was not completed for another three years. But at that point, the recession had hit, and there were no funds to implement it.
The activists believe that the Square’s revitalization momentum ebbed during that period. Changes in merchants’ attitudes, storefront occupancy, and tenant mix support this contention.
The Square got a break in 2010 when Congress passed the President’s stimulus package. The city obtained $3.1 million and invested $2.5 million in road and streetscape improvements, supervised by MassDOT’s Highway Division.
But last year, neighbors realized that sewer drains were sinking, the roadway was buckling, and sidewalks weren’t compliant with disability guidelines. The project was redone. It is now complete.
Improved infrastructure is necessary, but by itself insufficient, to revitalize Magoun Square. And city government is only one stakeholder.
To breathe new life into the Square, all stakeholders must collaborate on formulating a revitalization plan, implementing its tactics, and maintaining commitment over the long term. In doing so, they can learn a lot from other communities that have been succeeded in such efforts.