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Keep Union Square Gritty

Union Square is changing for the better, but before it gets too pretty, let's not lose the essential grittiness.

For the past seven years I've been working to advance Union Square—to enliven the streets with people, to beautify the public spaces, to increase the viability of the businesses. I, and a lot of other Somervillians, have been investing time and money and energy to  transform the dirty, neglected neighborhood back into a bustling business district.

Change is happening.  I celebrated when the auto glass shop moved out of the former movie theatre to make way for the housewares boutique called Grand.  When the long vacant bank building on Bow Street nearly became a check cashing office,  the little green space beside the building proposed as a parking lot, I blanched and did all I could to change the course.  Today there's a bustling cafe, yoga studio and patio there, a blooming tree encircled by a lovely bench where folks sip their coffee, read the paper and chat with friends.  Over towards Boynton Yards and Inman Square, I remember the apartment I had back in the mid 80s.  The ramshackle 3-family was a run down mess, kept together by a sad combination of duct tape, caulk and misplaced nails.  I used to joke about it but it was completely true that we didn't even have paneling -- we had poorly installed wallpaper to look like paneling.   The house overlooked several used auto parts lots, and directly below our kitchen window I'd watch the neat grouping of windshields and fenders. Today, many of those lots and that old house are  replaced by a complex of new condo buildings, the apartments just right for singles and young couples starting out.

This week was a community meeting to look at the proposed Green line station for Union Square that will be over under the Prospect Street bridge.  The MBTA will need to conduct a "negotiated sale" with Prospect Iron and Steel that's operating there. That big mound of scrap metal will need to go. Those trucks laden with the big black dumpsters won't be barreling through the area anymore.

These changes are good.  They're all steps in bringing Union Square back to the life it held in its  heyday in the first half of the twentieth century.  We're bringing back the mass transit that the Square grew around. We're claiming  public space for uses other than cars.  Folks are again able to make a living from businesses that don't pollute the neighborhood.  Trash and vagrants and prostitutes no longer linger and instead the plaza's benches attract a regular gathering of men from the Sikh temple, commuters waiting for the bus, parents with strollers, the farmers market bustles.

But let's not make Union Square too nice. Some of these ramshackle buildings, these funky industrial spaces—these are an essential element that keeps the neighborhood alive. Just as Union Square grew up around the transit and the retail businesses, it grew up around these industrial spaces too.

Take the long building right on the Elmer Bumpus Bridge on Washington Street.  It's accessible from Hawkins and behind from Olive Square, an impossible to sort out jumble of levels.  That creaky old factory building might not look it, but it's served as home for dozens of small businesses.  Some of the businesses the city is becoming known for like Metro Pedal Power and the designers of Fringe.  Or down on Somerville Ave.  Often called the Paper and Provisions warehouse, this old brick building was part of the old American Tube Works complex of factories. Tucked behind the cemetery and Market Basket on Somerville Ave and hidden behind those dirty windows are artist studios, practice spaces for circus oriented street performers, and rooms where dozens of bands rehearse.  For lots of twenty-somethings, this is where they  connect early on with the area's arts scene. Or  321 Washington Street, down that alley beside the railroad tracks. Not so ramshackle but still bare bones, artists have divided the space into a gallery and studios.  Closer to the center of the square, right on Webster, the former convent school is home to the Community Builders Coop.  It's not been  maintained in a way that the former life is apparent from the outside, but here too you'll find an assortment from intriguing endeavors, where furniture makers, book binders, canoe builders, and house renovators have set up shop.

We've got a wealth of these spaces. Consider how Artisan's Asylum was able to launch in Boynton Yards, quickly move into larger digs over a garage on Joy Street and then dream big with a move to the Ames complex over on Dane, all within a year or so, because of the wealth of flexible, accessible, industrial spaces.

For these, the low rents keep the bar to entry accessible. The lack of amenities reinforces the DIY ethos necessary for the tenants' creative and entrepreneurial enterprises.  The communal nature of the spaces builds  social connections and Somerville's social capital.  There's a lack of formality—it's all a matter of talking to a guy who'll hook you up.  It's business done on a handshake, decisions make with a gut instinct or a whim. It's where ideas bubble, connections are made, experiments are conducted.

Every house should have a space where you can tinker—that grubby spot where you can fix stuff and can store that thing you know is gonna come handy someday. Every theater needs a  backstage, where the messy, creative stuff is contained  before the magic of the show goes on.  To function, ecosystems need to accommodate all the functions of life, even the less pretty ones.

Every neighborhood has a character. When describing Union Square the words I hear most are eclectic, funky, off beat, quirky.  We can and should and are making Union Square better.  Change is good and keeps the community alive.  But as we change, let's remember to keep Union Square gritty.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

alex ezorsky March 06, 2014 at 02:50 PM
Thanks so much for this article! Very helpful and written by someone who clearly knows the field. Do you by any chance know of a way to get in contact with the Paper and Provisions people? Thanks

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