One Street, Two Neighborhoods

10-25-17

There’s something cool about walking in a straight line and watching change unfold.  I once ventured down a one-mile stretch along Massachusetts Avenue, from Berklee College in Back Bay to Boston Medical Center in Roxbury, where the average life expectancy plummets from 92 to 59 years.  Hoping to get to the root of this startling statistic — to discover some obvious difference in litter, traffic, air quality, architecture, infrastructure, medical centers, or any other environmental characteristic between the two neighborhoods — I took almost five hundred photographs along the way. 

But when I got home and strung my prints in a line, something rubbed me the wrong way.  The left-most photographs had brighter colors, scenes of greenery and renovated exteriors and clean streets; to the right, I saw dilapidated corner stores and litter and lots of concrete.  The progression made sense in my mind — and that’s precisely why it concerned me.  In my quest to be objective, I didn’t consider all the ways in which my own suppositions about the place informed the way I documented it.  Sure, there was litter on the richer side of town, but I didn’t bother to photograph the piles that did appear until I crossed into Roxbury.  Meanwhile, I stopped paying attention to doorways, many of which were brightly colored and ornamented in Back Bay, once they became progressively less flashy.

My trip highlighted an important lesson.  Even with the most objective medium of documentation (the camera), I produced highly subjective work, capturing moments that confirmed my biases about the place.  But if I were to go back and do it over again, would applying a scientific method — some rules about only photographing doorways or taking a shot every hundred steps — enhance or undermine a candid portrayal of the place?

It’s with this skepticism that I approached my neighborhood walk in Somerville.  I chose my route after revisiting the maps in the Wellbeing of Somerville Report, gravitating once again toward regions of stark contrast.  I noticed that Inner Belt and Union Square — neighborhoods with the highest and lowest percentage of people age 65+, respectively — were directly adjacent.  Once again, a major street connected the two neighborhoods, so I decided to walk along that.

 

 

It was my first time going to Union Square, and I have to say — for all the buzz around Union Square Donuts, the store was surprisingly hard to find among the other low-rise Mom and Pop shops.  And it makes sense: Somerville (at least the parts I’ve seen so far) is so unpretentious in the way it serves its citizens.  Even with its “hipster central” title, Union Square still feels residential, casual, and rooted in unique history.  A combination of old buildings (like the First United Methodist Church, built in 1858), colonial architecture (narrow, two-story, porch-bearing houses), and antique shops (“Grooves,” for instance, which sells second-hand CDs and records) gives the Square its charming character, while modern establishments, like a juice bar serving $8 beverages, caters to Somerville’s newest and “hippest” residents.  The streets are easily bike-able, thanks to a bright green lane, and easily crossable, thanks to frequent pedestrian signs.  Moreover, within five minutes, I had already stumbled upon an aesthetically pleasing park (Figure 2).  Aside from its health-promoting landscape, Union Square also boasts multiple health centers: “Tree of Life” (a tai chi center), “Respond” (an organization that fights domestic violence), Union Square Chiropractic, and Mount Auburn Healthcare At Union Square.  Lastly, a large number of ethnic eateries and corner stores (“Cantina La Mexicana,” “Pollos a la Brasa,” “Machu: Peruvian Charcoal Chicken,” “Mercado Brasileiro,” and “Mineirão”) attest to Somerville’s multicultural makeup.

 

 

 

 

As I headed eastward on Washington St., I couldn’t help but think of history — this idea of aging, collapse, and restoration — as it applied to the increasingly older population that inhabited Inner Belt.  Contrary to my original mission of unbiased observation, I started looking for clues of a changing demographic.  People on the street didn’t look noticeably older.  But the landscape itself changed drastically — making me wonder why some of Somerville’s most fragile residents ended up in a place so hostile.

In the early 1800s, Inner Belt was a marsh.  But as new businesses entered Somerville during the Industrial Revolution, land from the adjacent neighborhood was extended, and the remaining water became a place for factories to discharge their pollutants.  While the wetlands no longer exist, it’s interesting that Inner Belt — to this day, an industrial area with warehouses, distribution centers, railroads, and maintenance facilities — has come to symbolize a sort of pollutant in and of itself.  After all, the Inner Belt Brickbottom Plan, a 2013 report that urges for urban renewal, calls attention to the neighborhood’s current “low density,” “unfriendly pedestrian environment” and “underutilized, partially forgotten industrial land” (p. 26 and 3).  That’s the sense I got, too, when I transitioned from Union Square’s glowing shops to the noisy, traffic-ridden, sprawl near the Northern Expressway.  As I scouted for crosswalks, I tried to imagine doing so with mobility constraints.  Inner Belt sure didn’t seem like a safe place to spend the last years of one’s life.

But, it also didn’t seem practical.  In my twenty minutes of walking, I passed a gas station, a car wash, and several liquor stores.  Everything else looked abandoned — a testament to the different approaches between Union Square and Innerbelt in preserving and respecting their histories.  While the former neighborhood kept longstanding establishments clean and accessible — an old “neighborhood restaurant bakery,” for instance, had a sign that read “The Borges Family Welcomes You” — Inner Belt’s industrial history materialized through dilapidated buildings and neglected infrastructure.  Signs were missing letters; factories with niche services like glass-tinting, book-binding, and bible repair appeared closed; and even the shops with desirable services had unwelcoming exteriors.  The neighborhood felt particularly eerie once it got darker outside.

 

But the Inner Belt Brickbottom Plan re-imagines the neighborhood entirely, focusing on ways to turn its assets — a “highly educated workforce residing in Somerville and adjacent cities,” “proximity to major office and research concentrations in Cambridge and Boston,” and a “large overall development potential (5 to 10 million square feet of building floor area)” — into a thriving business hub.  As I scanned the 142 page report, I was heartened and excited by the colorful drawings of green lawns and sleek buildings.  Similar to the urban transformation of the Smart Growth movement, this plan promises to “revitalize neighborhoods, provide more transportation choices,” and make “more efficient use of existing infrastructure” (Geller, 2003, p. 1411).  The Inner Belt Brickbottom Plan isn’t just about business development; it’s about “improving quality of life for all citizens.”

But these noble intentions may have unintended consequences.  Does “improving quality of life for all citizens” really encapsulate current residents — in this case, predominantly elderly people who may have been living in Inner Belt for decades — if urban renewal changes the landscape of who can afford to live there?  How can developers preserve original characteristics of the community — in this case, Inner Belt’s industrial history — while instating modern amenities and attracting newcomers with drastically different priorities?  Can Inner Belt achieve the same functionality of its neighbor, Union Square, while maintaining character — and if so, why is such preservation important?

All in all, while Inner Belt’s “5 to 10 million square feet of building floor area” holds so much business potential, part of me felt sad to think about a complete overhaul.  I’m glad I had a reason to venture into a neighborhood I otherwise never would’ve seen, if only to appreciate a unique pocket of Somerville’s history before it was erased.

A Taste of Somerville

11-29-17

“People like their data like they like their food — fresh and local.” 

Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Curtatone, dropped this statement at the launch party for Somerville’s 2017 Wellbeing Report last Monday, where stakeholders celebrated the publication of citywide health data that underscores social determinants of health.  Although intended as a joke, Curtatone’s analogy was surprisingly accurate — capturing both the flavor of the party and the conduction of public health research that led up to it. 

Somerville’s betterment agenda, as I’ve come to realize, is fresh in the sense of ingenuity; local in the sense of rootedness.  In the public health realm, the city prioritizes up-to-date information, ever-evolving strategies, and the co-mobilization of various groups — all while leveraging the city’s unique history and local characteristics.  And everything about the launch party reflected that.  The venue was a beautiful (but modest) multipurpose space; the vibe was casual and friendly, despite there being some big-name stakeholders in the room; even the food offerings celebrated some of the mom and pop shops nearby.  It was an apt celebration for an ambitious undertaking within a humble and community-oriented city.

But it wasn’t all celebration.  Although the mayor opened by mentioning Somerville’s strengths, he also highlighted some of its weaknesses: persistent gaps in educational achievement, housing security, and enrollment in food assistance programs among the city’s poorest residents.  There were also problems the mayor neglected to mention.  Namely, in glorifying the Green Line extension — forecasting lower pollution, increased mobility, and higher residential desirability — he overlooked (or, at least, refrained from mentioning at this celebratory event) potential unintended consequences, like the displacement of low-income families due to the higher cost of housing surrounding new Green Line stops.

But do unintended consequences matter?  For the most part, those conducting research and spearheading interventions are separated — demographically, spatially, emotionally — from those on the receiving end. 

Most guests at the launch party, for instance, were white, well-educated, and held some position of power — a breakdown that made me question who was conducting research for the Wellbeing Report to begin with, and how they would later design interventions in response to its findings.  As we’ve learned in class, demographic differences between researchers and subjects can often lead to compromised trust, paternalistic attitudes, and incomplete findings (Cacari-Stone et al., 2014).  And the Wellbeing report, while claiming to “engage community members and stakeholders… for feedback and comments,” is still community-based rather than community-driven — meaning that research is conducted with, but not driven by, community members.

But maybe that’s okay.  The efficiency that comes with a more official, targeted agenda makes up for lapses in inclusivity.  And given the mention of “shared purpose,” “co-production,” and “community partnerships” throughout the launch party, the stakeholders seem both interested and skilled at engaging those frequently left out of the discussion.

It was an appropriate ending to the party, then, to involve all guests in a rotating discussion about Somerville’s remaining public health gaps — informing attendees of the problems and encouraging participation in solving them.  I personally felt a vested interest when I walked around and highlighted issues that stood out to me.  Maybe at the next launch party, they’ll have more community members doing the same.