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)
First, let’s stipulate that you aren’t really a hipster. It’s just coincidental that you wear apparel, maintain your hair, prefer music and films, embrace philosophies, engage in modes of discourse and make consumption choices associated with hipsters.
Now that even Alife, American Apparel and Urban Outfitters eschew the term, no one wants to be called a hipster. I don’t blame you, I don’t like to be stereotyped either. I prefer to be known for who I am.
Please understand that since I don’t know you for who you are, I use the term as a convenience. If you would like a more precise definition, then I am addressing you if you identify with rebellious subculture(s), but you enjoy privileges associated with the dominant class; if your rebellion is more about recondite consumption choices than humane institutional changes.
The Boston Globe told me that you are moving in substantial numbers to Somerville. This belated observation confirms my own. For some years now, people whose appearance and behavior are consistent with hipster ethnographies have been locating in my neighborhood.
So I thought that I would reach out, welcome you, and speaking just for myself, let you know what I would like from you as a neighbor. I don’t think that doing so is presumptuous. I think it’s healthy for neighbors to have certain expectations of each other, the most basic of which is common respect. I am receptive to hearing what you would like from me as well.
First, I would like you to understand what made Somerville special. Among American cities it was exceptional in its sense of community. By “community,” I mean interweaving networks of relationships in which people are known for who they are rather what they are. Within community there is an unconscious understanding that what we share is more important than our differences.
Communities know how to integrate odd or difficult people, how to make use of their assets while working around their flaws. But to do that the individuals must be known.
It’s challenging to convey what this is like. Lived community exposes “online community” as a convocation of strangers. Consider that in the Somerville of the 1950s and 60s, kids couldn’t smoke or cuss anywhere in the neighborhood without the likelihood of someone telling their parents. This is quite different from an in group of individuals who compete for status based on early adoption of obscure bands, films, ideas, and other commodities.
In fact, it’s different from most American cities and neighborhoods. But born and bred ‘Villens weren’t aware of that until it was gone, or until they moved to the suburbs. Many lost jobs when the factories closed. And as happened across America, economic necessity obligated women to enter the workforce, whether they wanted to or not. The opportunities they had routinely created for social interaction and community building diminished.
In the 1970s and 80s, low rents drew young people and hundreds of working artists and musicians here. Meanwhile Somerville took in a new wave of immigrants, as it had for over a century. These were from Central America, the Caribbean, Brazil and Asia rather than Europe.
Tensions were high at times. Racial conflict closed the high school for a few days in February 1990. Many cities with demographic and cultural conflicts like ours experienced drive-by shootings and persistent gang violence. We didn’t. ‘Villens worked through their differences. Although none of us is immune from racism, discrimination and racial taunts are now rare here.
We were a city that was unpretentious, yet rich in culture and in diversity. So much so that people who make their living as professionals began moving here. While many of our formal and informal networks that wove the fabric of community had unraveled, Somerville remained exceptional in its sense of community and level of volunteerism.
Then Massachusetts voters chose to abolish rent control in 1996. In-migration increased, fed by financially comfortable people who had been able to accumulate capital by living in Boston’s, Brookline’s, and Cambridge’s rent-controlled dwellings. Housing prices, which had been steadily rising, skyrocketed.
Affluent people bought houses at escalating prices and charged more for their rental units, the better to service their mortgage debt. Often they moved to a leafy suburb when their kids came of school age, selling out at top dollar. Developers converted multifamily homes to expensive condos and sold them to childless buyers.
If you had come here fifteen or twenty years ago, some ‘Villens would probably have called you a “Barney.” One doesn’t hear that term today. It’s not that the grief and resentment over loss of community have evaporated. It’s that they have boiled down to an unvoiced despair over things being different.
Ours is an old story of market relationships dominating human relationships. Somerville is not exceptional in its gentrification. Hundreds of communities have experienced it. Somerville is exceptional in what it has lost.
So many people who grew up here cannot afford to live here. They are the children of ‘Villens who built the city and of immigrants who brought their hopes and dreams.
Their departure coincides with your arrival. You didn’t personally push them out. You were simply able and willing to pay housing prices they cannot afford. And many of you will eventually suffer the same fate. Yet you enjoy some measure of privilege just to be here.
I’ve heard that privileges should be paired with responsibilities. So there are some things for which I ask you to assume responsibility.
Please work to understand our community. You won’t learn much about it from the regional press, whose coverage is little more than press release embellishments.
You might not know, for example, that Somerville’s fiscal health is shaky. We rely on state welfare for a substantial portion of our city budget. And the more that affluent people move into newly built luxury units, the less state aid we will receive, while the increase in net property taxes will not be proportional.
Get to know your neighbors and look after their wellbeing, especially elders living alone.
‘Villens communicate forthrightly. In conversations, don’t employ irony or sarcasm, which undermine trust. Don’t answer a question with a question.
Yes, be yourself. As I’ve suggested, you can’t be part of a community if you are not known, and ‘Villens have integrated people who are much more diverse than you. A good attitude to aim for is dignified humility.
Sociologists tell me that your politics trend toward progressive. There’s nothing wrong with that. But please don’t substitute ideology for working to understand your city and neighborhood, as too many progressives do. You will discover that in a variety of ways Somerville reality differs from your ideological assumptions.
Please commit to the community. Considering your personal preferences, you will probably be drawn to localvore and artisanal activities. Somerville is rich in them.
But consider doing something that not just celebrates virtuous commodities but builds human relationships. You are well educated. Why not tutor a kid? While we now have an abundance of residents with advanced degrees, our school test scores remain deplorable.
Coach a youth sports team. Work for more affordable housing. Join a local congregation. If you’re an entrepreneur, start your company here. If you work for a growing company, influence it to move here. We have two workers for every job, while Cambridge and Boston have two jobs for every worker.
Help to reweave the fabric of community.
Do my requests seem presumptuous? Demanding? If so, I’m sorry you feel that way. But then I would also ask you to consider living elsewhere.