Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Boston: Whither Somerville? by Andrew Zimmermann

[ Urbanophile reader Andrew Zimmermann sends us this tale of change in Somerville, a suburban town near Boston – Aaron. ]

Urban planners have long cast the artist and gay/lesbian communities as urban pioneers and harbingers of gentrification. We’ve heard the stories of North Halsted in Chicago, the Pearl District in Portland, the South End in Boston and Soho/Chelsea in Manhattan. But, ever since hipsters became part of the sub-culture lexicon, urban experts have blamed gentrification on them. From Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the Mission in San Francisco hipster havens have continued to demonstrate that gentrification isn’t limited to the artists or gays (although I’m not sure there is much of difference). The latest installment, not to anyone’s surprise in the Boston area, is Somerville, which was the subject of a recent piece by Beth Teitell in the Boston Globe.

Somerville’s back story is what you would expect of a turn-around tale in urban terms. Inner Ring suburb – check. Architecturally rich yet deteriorated housing stock – check. Mass transit connectivity – check. Cheap rents – check (well not anymore). Walkable, dense urban neighborhoods – check. Enter artists, gays but more overwhelmingly, hipsters, or so portends the title of the Globe article “Somerville worries it’s growing too hip”. Somerville is noteworthy however in a couple ways. First, it is the densest city in all of New England, almost exclusively achieved through low-rise residential housing types – think triple deckers, condos and townhomes. Second, local government has proved not to be a hindrance, instead turning it from a crime ridden place known as “Slummerville” to among the state’s best run municipalities. The schools however have a long way to go (we’ll discuss later).

As the story points out if gays, artists and hipsters are the first adopters, it won’t take long for the effects of gentrification to show themselves through drastic changes to the retail sector and the good ol’ barometer of choice, housing prices. Let’s take a look at both, since the retail and real estate sectors approach gentrifying neighborhoods much more systematically than do our hipster friends.


If you’ve visited Davis Square recently, you know that the retail landscape has changed drastically in the last decade. Walgreens and Starbucks are among your anchor tenants. The food and beverage offerings have gone from cheap working-class linoleum floor eateries to upscale bistros and kitchens and cantinas. Alfresco’s, a modest Italian restaurant got rebranded as M3, a “concept in southern dining” replete with catfish, chalkboard paint tables straight from a Pinterest board and plenty of canned beer you’ve never heard of. Likewise, the Painted Burro, which calls itself a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar”, expanded in less than a year into the space occupied by Spike’s Junkyard Dogs – a blue collar, fluorescent lit hole in the wall. It won’t be missed – and no you still can’t get a table midweek at the “burro” without a reservation. That doesn’t even begin to describe the explosion of fro-yo shops in Davis which saw its count jump from zero to three in the last year. Even if the new smell wears off, as Teitell’s article depicts, top local chefs are elbowing their way into Somerville to be part of the action.

Elsewhere in town, the loveable loser Johnny Foodmaster grocery chain has been supplanted by Stop & Shop and Whole Foods. You don’t need to be from Boston to know that when Whole Foods takes over for any grocer, things they are a changing. The fact that national behemoths like Starbucks, Chipotle, Pinkberry and Whole Foods are betting on Somerville is telling of what stage of gentrification the city is now experiencing. If retail is said to follow rooftops, then clearly retailers are paying attention to who is underneath those rooftops. Somerville’s population has largely remained static while its demographics have changed considerably. It’s now home to the second largest concentration of 24-35 year olds in the country – a Neilsen analyst’s version of shooting fish in a barrel.

Population hasn’t changed since 1980 – but WHO composes that population has.

Real Estate

It wasn’t long ago that “Slummerville” was a moniker real estate agents had to overcome when selling homes in Somerville. The days of getting bargains in town have largely disappeared as developers have chopped up large three story homes into condos and townhomes that routinely sell for $500/sf or more. Hipster populations in Somerville’s Davis Square have migrated within city lines to places like Union Square, Magoun Square and East Somerville. Even with a red-hot real estate market in greater Boston, Somerville remains white hot.

Red Fin reports a 103% sale to list ratio with a median home price of $470,000 and an average of 28% down in the second quarter of 2013. Clearly its not 24-35 year old hipsters putting down an average of $131,000 to claim of piece of Somerville as their own. White Collar professionals and families are among the early late majority that are betting on Somerville just as much as Starbucks and Whole Foods are. The loss of affordable housing and diversity would be lamentable if it weren’t so inevitably predictable. It’s not as if riders of fixed gear bikes wearing skinny jeans have disappeared, they just have to dodge baby strollers on the sidewalks and VWs, Mini Coppers and Audis in the streets.

Davis Square and Inman Square are no bargain any more.


Lastly, all the kids in strollers will need a place to attend school someday. If only Somerville were that place. SchoolDigger.com recently rated the city 299th out 325 school systems state wide. For all the progress Mayor Joe Curtatone has made, he’s clearly focused on the early adopters and the hipness of the city, with the schools as a longer term project. It might be sensible, but he and the city are running out of time. The Wellesleys, Newtons and Miltons might lack hipsters or artists or gays but they have a leg up on schools, an advantage suburbia has always had over the urban core. Undoubtedly its schools will have to do better and they will as gentrification will lead to higher standards, be they in the retail, real estate or city services sectors.

Somerville finds itself (by definition a suburb, yet still a city) in an interesting position as the effects of hipness and gentrification point to seemingly distinct paths. One is like other hipster havens in Brooklyn or Wicker Park – places that have retained a shade of the counterculture tendencies that define hipster identity. Two is like mature urban inner ring suburbs, Brookline and Cambridge being two local examples. The latter can claim to be cool but lack the authenticity of Somerville’s creative culture. The former over deliver on cool and trendiness and priceyness but because they are neighborhoods within New York and Chicago (or any large city) respectively, under deliver on the city services that suburbs provide. Whatever happens, the hipsters likely won’t be a permanent part of Somerville history as it’s usually the politicians or the wealthy elite of any given place that decide its fate. For now the trendy capital of Metro Boston can pat itself on its plaid-clad back, and keep its beanie cap-covered-head high. See you at Chipotle.

Andrew Zimmermann is an architect and urban designer with NBBJ, a global architecture firm with a presence in Boston. He lives in Somerville’s Davis Square with his wife and occasionally writes about design, real estate or anything that he finds interesting on www.zimmswhim.com.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Urban Culture
Cities: Boston

17 Responses to “Boston: Whither Somerville? by Andrew Zimmermann”

  1. George Mattei says:

    Somerville is essentially a neighborhood of Boston in a physical sense. It’s just administratively that it’s a “suburb”.

  2. Bob Sawyer says:

    No, see you at Anna’s.

  3. It’s only going to get worse after the green line goes in unless they do something about the change. Here’s a report that looks at what that could be from back in 2008 – http://www.reconnectingamerica.org/resource-center/online-tools/map-room/somerville-analysis-maps/

  4. AlexB says:

    The author doesn’t think there’s a difference between artists and gays? Really?

  5. AlexB, I think his point is that there’s no difference between today’s hipsters and yesterday’s artists and gays as it applies to the effects they product re:gentrification.

  6. Andrew says:

    I was fearful that might get misunderstood. Aaron is right, functionally the two groups have gentrified neighborhoods with similar outcomes. From that standpoint the “label” doesn’t matter so much as the effect the group had on its surroundings.

    Thanks for the comment though.

  7. George says:

    I would guess that as gentrification grows and the new residents children become a larger proportion of the school, Sommerville schools will skyrocket in the rankings. A more educated populace will value education more and the results will be obvious. Often its not the teachers but the parents that need to be changed to improve schools.

  8. Ron Newman says:

    There is no Walgreens in Davis Square.

  9. urbanleftbehind says:

    Doesn’t CVS dominate the NE drugstore chain market? I’ve always felt that Walgreens was an indirect marker of diabetes and thus of less than desired demographics.

  10. wkg in bham says:

    It appears that Somerville hit the pentafecta:
    1. The “just right” (at least to my way of thinking) density. The three story flat layout seems ideal to me.
    2. Right size for a city to be. I’ve always thought that a city should be big enough to support one 6A high school and its feeder elementary and middle schools. It goes without saying that the schools should be a city system, not part of a county system. Cities larger than this become unwieldy.
    3. Government that stuck to basics – like public safety – and let development take care of itself.
    4. Exists in the Boston Metro.
    5. Didn’t have a sizeable underclass to deal with.

    P.S. I think it’d be even hipper if Spike’s Junkyard Dogs and Alfresco were still there.

  11. Andrew says:

    Hey guys,
    You are right, CVS occupies “One Davis Square” along with Boston Sports Club. However a new upscale, upmarket Walgreens just went in at “One Porter Square” a stone’s throw from Davis though technically over the line in Cambridge. The Walgreens is part of a rebranding trend the chain is undergoing (see also Downtown Crossing). It seems to fit the gentrification narrative. See the article in the globe here:


  12. wkg in bham says:

    I don’t think this is a thread-jack; I don’t know any hipsters. I’ve heard the term and after reading the article done a little asking around. My circle of friends aren’t all that up on them either. I think I’ve got the uniform down: skinny jeans, plaid shirt (flannel preferred), beanie “hat”, Converse All-Star Sneakers and black rim rectangular glasses (at least for the guys – is this a girls MO too?).

    From the article old Schwinn bicycle and fondness for Whole Foods markets,

    A college says they prefer Apple gadgets.

    The Schwinn bikes and Converse Sneakers indicate a fondness for retro anything.

    Given this sketchy information, it starting to sound and awful lot lot like what White People like (as in WhatWhitePeopleLike.com).

    Any recommendations for a site that’s basically WhatHipstersLike.com?

  13. James says:

    You will find that Aaron and Andrew have a dislike of the young educated people who are moving into cities from college towns and suburbs and use pejoratives like hipsters, gentrifiers, lake front liberals, and coastal elites to describe and dismiss them. Why someone who is passionate about cities would have such a dismissive attitude towards a group of urban immigrants is beyond me but there you have it.

  14. Even as recently as 2009 when I lived around there, Somerville was significantly cheaper than Cambridge. Way back then, while Inman Square was already fairly trendy, much of Somerville had the reputation of being dominated by working- and lower-class whites. Thus, I guess it should come as no surprise that hipsters would overtake it…they often settle in scrappy lower-income white neighborhoods. Does this mean that the cost-of-living differential between Somerville and Cambridge is now pretty much negligible?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Zimmerman,
    Somerville is unusual in many ways. When the Yankees ran Massachusetts through the early 20th century, they chose to avoid the dominance of the Boston Mayor by freezing that city’s boundaries in the 1920’s. That tactic produced distinctive little high density cities like Somerville, Cambridge, and Chelsea, Revere, Brookline and Newton trapped as separate cities and towns, as if they were real suburbs. That froze their government, insulated their tax base and further produced a kind of segregation for schools that few Southern cities could even imagine.

    This distinction also separated their transportation system from direct local control, leading to strange redundancies and omissions and limited accountability for one of the most expensive infrastructures of any urban area. Each of those “suburbs” had their own high school, and high schools have become, along with zoning and police, the primary focus of their politics. That’s why I take strongest issue with your characterization of Somerville’s schools, since they are not all that tests make them out to be – regardless of national dialogs.

    Before I get to that major argument, I think its useful to look more closely at the anthropology that made Somerville a city very different from some of your other descriptions. First, it was – as your numbers show but your interpretation fails to show – the most densely populated city in the nation, when its 4.2 square miles housed 100,000 census respondents. Even then, there were many more students and immigrants not counted, for various reasons. That kind of density reflected other distinctions – 27 miles of trolley lines and a Ford assembly plant for two, equal distance from Harvard, MIT and Tufts for others, and, later, as the headquarters for the Mafia and their Winter Hill Gang (on whose hill once lived Barack Obama as a grad student).

    Those are not common distinctions, and they lend a very, very distinctive history to a culture a lot more complex than you imply. I share your frustration at the gentry of Whole Foods, but you miss the far more important feature that most of those new stores are at the borders of the city, where the yuppies of Cambridge and Arlington can buy from Somerville residents who, themselves, shop at the super-discount Market Basket local chain, which has – like the eight ethnic grocers of nearby Union Square – more diversity than the UN. In not many cities of 70,000 can you find Afghan, Indian, and Korean grocers, much less Peruvian fish markets within a six block radius.

    Some of that anthropology reflects a history even more distinctive than a President’s former address. When Ford Motors stopped making Edsels, for example, the company fired 4,000 auto workers with little notice, giving the Mafia a base of many, many “auto shops” to cut up every stolen car from Florida to Maine for European resale as parts. That lends both economics, politics, government, and international markets square in the center of small and very, very distinctive little city.

    And some of that history has been well documented in various forms, none of which seem to have influenced your quick summary. Susan Ostrander, at Tufts, for example, recently published (through Temple University), Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City. Her book has been well received for its analysis of the dialog between immigrant and yuppie and townie populations. In spite of her careful documentation, however, I find her book still a little light. My view is guided by her book signing in Cambridge. I was a little late and slipped into a rear row seat. Soon after a friend from Somerville joined me just as Dr. Ostrander described some of the many interviews from which she built her book. “Did she interview you?” whispered my friend. “Nope, did she you?” I replied. “Nope!” my friend answered. At that point I mildly exploded, “YOU are the President of the Board of Aldermen and she’s writing about politics in Somerville.” Experiences like this make me more tolerant of your analysis than of some others.

    Citizen Somerville, by Bobby Martini and Elayne Keratsis, is a much better example of the voice of the city, although more than a little obsessed with its Mafia history. They do catch the tone of Whitey Bulger’s buddies, some of whom are still your neighbors. For that matter, Jeff Speck’s Walkable City is a textbook on your model, and he has been a consultant to Somerville for the past few years in its design to maximize the value of the new subway system. Funny that you don’t cite him, since he invented some of your best observations.

    Your view of the city’s “walkability” misses much by ignoring both that history and that anthropology. You don’t seem to realize that, before they closed their Edsel home, Ford forced the city to pull up their trolleys and its residents to buy more cars. That gave this city some of the most difficult driving and parking problems in the nation since the place was built before cars, for trolley transit. And that, in turn, is the foundation of Davis Square’s gentrification, since it is – as of today – the only mass transit stop in town.

    With eight more stations – seven on the Green Line (the first subway in America, and, for Somerville, a revived trolley in a ditch) and one on the Orange Line (a new stop for Assembly Square, the former Ford site and now, finally 50 years later, the site of $350,000,000 housing and office development) – the city will benefit from more than $1.4 billion in transit deals negotiated from Boston’s Big Dig fiasco. That’s a lot of money to serve 70,000 riders from Somerville, so the changes you suggest are pending have been “in the air” for at least two decades (when that subway was first planned at $14,000,000).

    These features contrast markedly with Brooklyn, Queens, and North Jersey. Five decades ago, at Columbia, I studied the New York subway development. It followed many of the same patterns of Somerville’s, except that some of the first stations were to farms. (Of course, the farms were owned by Tammany Hall members who soon built high rise towers in their place.) The Somerville development and burgeoning gentrification were specific targets of the former Mayor, current Congressman, and potential Governor, Mike Capuano, who created an Affordable Housing Task Force to consider how such intense development might also incorporate some community stabilizing affordability. I was on that task force 15 years ago. Capuano then moved to Washington and left successor mayors to make deals with developers. Recent zoning changes incorporate higher inclusionary rates than the State requires, and several other of our proposals would easily have produced the kind of diversity you now consider impossible. Those proposals – like a real estate transfer tax patterned after Cape Cod’s, for one example – are not yet dead, in spite of your obituary.

    Finally, I am personally outraged at two specific oversights. In the 1970’s, I worked for Irene Alinsky (Saul’s wife) teaching at Emerson College, with Elaine Noble. Elaine moved on to become the first elected gay person in this country’s history. You are more right than you seem to know about gays and gentrification, but not in terms of class and yuppies. Gay politics emboldens diverse politics, and invites activism from many different interests, most of whom were previously excluded. With the decline of the Mafia in the last twenty years, the rise of the creative community – and pivotal role of gay artists, performers, and writers – changed the social ecology. Whether feminist or Brazilian, black or South Asian, many now find it “safe” to be political where once they hunkered down to hide until they had enough money to buy votes like the Irish and Italians did. They, quite logically, presume that, “If THOSE people can do it, we can too.” There are, for example, two gay candidates in our Alderman races scheduled for next week, yet few even bother noting the fact. I don’t have a sense that you realize the real transformation gay politics has helped produce, even in this small, dense city.

    And, regarding schools, citing “schooldigger” implies that you’ve got little kids and don’t know how or what to look for in a school or school system. I first got involved in Somerville school politics assessing “at risk” patterns for the Regional Employment Board of Metro North regional districts, about a dozen years ago. Somerville’s got many flaws, and many of its schools show them, but it’s also got some unique and critical benefits that are nowhere more evident than in its school population. We then found the city’s multicultural population far more diverse than most people expect – in part because of children of so many graduate students and faculty from abroad. Parents – and state educators – who presume foreign speaking children are “at risk” have not the slightest sense of this incredible wealth of culture. For example, there are 54 languages in Somerville high school; it is one of only three to integrate vocational and academic subjects; and it is one of the few in the nation to have online, multimedia, electronic portfolios for both self, student, teacher, and school evaluation and assessment. Those portfolios reflect cutting edge theory applied to real world examples, supported by Ford, MacArthur and other national foundations.

    Where Schooldigger uses ONLY state tests to assess and rank schools, teachers, and kids, the portfolios produce incredibly rich documentation (and rankings, based on skills identified by decades of work with unions and corporate partners). The reason Schooldigger is – simply put, wrong – in their assessment of the Somerville schools particularly is that the high school test is administered in 10th grade, and the system gets a major jump in bilingual involvement – due to student transfers of young families – in 9th grade. For two decades a corrupt system held back 25% of that 9th grade in order to bump their test scores, and look good to naïve reviewers like you. My first political contribution was to embarrass them into changing that system, which they replaced with peer tutors from 12th grade working with those most at risk in grades 8 and 9. That is not a symptom of a failing system.

    For that matter, the high school has been approved for an Innovation School, based on that same kind of portfolio based assessment and feedback system and integrated vocational and academic subject matter. That model, which it calls the STEAM Academy (for science, tech, engineering, arts and math) will be a distinctive school that runs from 10 a.m. to 5, 12 months a year, with a team of teachers and a larger team of kids from grades 8 through 12, to build projects and document their skills for employers, parents, and colleges.

    It is embarrassing to see parental ignorance like yours, in relying only on one metric. Were you to ask, I could itemize many flaws in the system, but its not weak on assessment, just on testing. And that happens to be a controversy that goes way beyond our 4.2 square mile border.

    So, please think a little more, look a little more, and analyze a little deeper than a superglib column in the Times. There is more to this little city than a quick survey shows.

  16. Jim D. says:

    Anonymous, what is your source for the statement that Ford ‘forced’ the abandonment of Somerville’s trolley lines? The Boston Elevated Railway and later (after 1947) the MTA were under the stewardship of the legendary Edward Dana during those years. Dana was a no-nonsense operator who ran a system that was among the more forward-thinking of American transit agencies. Faced with beginning the modernizing of a fleet of old streetcars dating back to the 1910’s and 1920’s, Dana’s management team believed that the electric-powered ‘trackless trolley’ (or trolley coach) was a faster and more comfortable vehicle that would be more economical to operate than the streetcar for many suburban trolley lines. He began this transition in the early 1940’s not only in Somerville but in other adjacent cities including Everett and Malden, and after the war oversaw the development of what would become the third largest trolley coach network in North America. Most of the major lines in Somerville were operated with trolley coaches until the early 1960’s and the trackless almost certainly provided service equal to or better than what streetcars would have on what were primarily two-lane streets.

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