Breathing new life into Somerville’s squares

On July 9, 2010, in Latest News, by The News Staff

 

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.)

East
Somerville is our city's oldest neighborhood. The stretch of Broadway
that runs between Sullivan Square and McGrath highway was a thriving
commercial and social center not all that long ago. Neighbors bought
groceries, clothing, and shoes there. They ate in its restaurants,
drank in its bars, were entertained in its theater, and worshiped at
St. Benedict's. Kids passed long, sun-drenched summer days in Foss and
Glen parks.



Among all the city's neighborhoods, East Somerville
has taken the most abuse as well. In 1969, I-93's construction tore a
strip out of its heart. Millions in mitigation funds promised by the
Commonwealth never materialized. Proposals for a trash incinerator and
an adult entertainment district focused on East Somerville. An
agreement between the City and the Ackerley Group (now Clear Channel)
grandfathered billboard advertising there while maintaining a
prohibition elsewhere.

Yet the neighborhood has endured,
continually re-energized by newly arrived residents, and grounded by
old timers who grew up there. It is Somerville's most diverse community
and its greatest concentration of families.

If East Somerville
Main Streets (ESMS) has anything to say about it, Lower Broadway will
thrive again. In fact, while people in much of Somerville weren't
looking, it's already regained much of its bustle and vibrancy. Home to
award-winning restaurants, it has one of the lowest vacancy rates in
the city.

ESMS is a partnership of East Somerville
stakeholders-residents, business people, city officials, and community
leaders. The city has committed $75,000 per year in Community
Development Block Grant funds to the organization. And city staff have
pitched in to support ESMS's many projects.

A proven model
developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation guides its
revitalization strategy. The Trust's 2,000 Main Street programs seek "a
return to community self-reliance, local empowerment, and the
rebuilding of traditional commercial districts based on their unique
assets."

Assets-based development is one of the model's core
principles. As ESMS Executive Director Carrie Dancy explains, "we are
always working from what is unique and valuable about our community."

For
her, East Somerville is a "down-home" unpretentious place. You can sit
and converse in one of its eateries for three hours and not be asked to
make room for more lucrative customers. Its many diverse ethnic groups
are accepting of each other while enriching its culture. Immigrant
entrepreneurs are enlivening commerce, filling storefronts, and hiring
residents.

Dancy believes that, "while there is work to be done
to pull all the pieces together and make a business district,…all the
pieces are already here to create something that's even more of a
contribution to the everyday quality of life."

The Main Streets
program advocates a four-point approach to revitalization. The first is
community engagement. This involves recruiting and mobilizing a broad
range of partners who have a stake in the community.

There is a
multitude of tasks required to support successful revitalization. ESMS
does not try to do them all, but works to build a shared agenda. Its
staff, board, and volunteers show stakeholders the value of having a
stronger business district, a better center for the community. They
help stakeholders find roles that fit their skills and interests. They
identify sources of funding.

The second point is to promote the
community and its assets so as to instill confidence in consumers and
investors. The first audience for such promotion is the neighbors
themselves. The more that they patronize local businesses, the more
they build momentum that will draw other customers and merchants.

ESMS
sponsors free movie nights. Italian, Brazilian, and Latino cinematic
selections reflect the neighborhood's diversity. The organization's
East Somerville Cookbook features recipes from 20 local businesses and
25 residents. It describes the contributors' backgrounds, offering
insight into each other's culture. ESMS produces a business directory
and an "East Somerville Eats" brochure.

The afternoon of
Sunday, July 25, ESMS will partner with the city to conduct a
SomerStreets event on Lower Broadway, featuring music, dance, and
circus and martial arts demonstrations.

A healthy business
district cannot exist without healthy businesses. Supporting existing
enterprises and recruiting ones that will improve the mix is the third
point of the ESMS program. It conducts workshops for business owners
and connects them with sources of technical assistance and finance. It
identifies opportunities for new enterprises based on market needs,
space availability, and synergies with existing businesses.

The
final point is improving the physical environment-making it pleasant
and attractive to customers and merchants, while communicating the
neighborhood's unique identity.

The city is redesigning
Broadway to make the street more pedestrian friendly, an essential in
any commercial district revitalization. The new streetscape should
catalyze many improvements in private buildings. City Economic
Development Director Rob May is leading the effort.

He also
oversees a program that partially finances design and implementation of
building facade improvements. Casey's, City Line Laundry, and Fasika
are participants. The latter is an Ethiopian restaurant whose windows
will open onto the street.

A healthy neighborhood commercial
district is a place and means for connecting people. East Somerville
Main Streets is working to realize that promise by building
relationships among people who would not normally interact. In so
doing, they are building community as well.

 

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