Somerville is a city in perpetual change. The cinemas and soda shops of yesteryear have become the office buildings and cell phone stores of today. To better appreciate what Somerville is, where it’s come from, and where it’s going, it helps to hear the stories of those who grew up with it.
My grandmother Muriel Daly (McNeil), and my mother, Dona Mae Scannell (McCutcheon), were born and raised right here in Somerville.
My grandmother was born on February 5, 1924, in a worker’s cottage at 6 Partridge Ave, just north of the tracks next to Vernon Street. Her father was a plasterer, and her mother a housewife. Muriel had four brothers. When she was about five, the family moved three streets over, to 82 Albion Street, near the corner of Lowell. It was there that Muriel grew up, and there that she raised her own family, having my mom Dona first in 1943.
As the house became more crowded with kids, Muriel purchased and moved into number 77 Albion. Her mother Jessie Mae (my great-grandmother) remained at no. 82, and everyone had more room. Muriel had her last child, my aunt Rose-Marie, in the dining room of 77 Albion St. As she put it, “I figured after having four kids in the hospital, I knew what I was doing.”
I took a recent drive through the old neighborhood with my mom and grandmother; it was a pleasure listening to them reminisce.
Albion Street is loaded with name-associated memories for both ladies. “That’s the Robilards’, the Scurrios’, Barbara’s house, that’s the Lightbodys’, the Scafitis’, Lena’s…” Babysitters became mothers; eventually they hired the kids they’d previously cared for to babysit their own children, and so on.
Halfway down Albion is Centre Street, a short private way that turns immediately into Woodbine Street. “We used to go coasting (sledding) down to the tracks”, my mother recalled. And according to my mom (so it must be true), Woodbine Street is where Bobby Pickett, of “Monster Mash” fame, grew up.
The alley that connects Albion and Woodbine, which my mom, aunts and uncles walked thousands of times, is still there, squeezed between the warehouses. Turn right on Lowell St. and you’re immediately at the old Hostess Bakery, which is now a nursing home. Back at 90 Albion, (the corner of Lowell St.), a corner store known as Irving’s used to stand. Before that it was Benny Gordon’s. “That corner is where my brothers used to hang out”, my grandmother remembered, “And that’s the house my brother ran to, that time the cops were chasing him!”
As we headed down Highland towards central, my grandmother remarked “That’s where Coo-coo got killed.” Coo-coo was her dog, and it ran out underneath the trolley cars that used to run up and down Highland Ave. I tried to imagine Highland Ave., with the clank of trains running towards Boston, and my grandmother as a little girl, with dogs, and people, running wild. As we passed , my grandmother informed me that they used to have dog shows there. That’s not the only thing The Armory had in those days.
The Proctor School
The Proctor School was an elementary school on Hudson St., on the grassy knoll just behind The Armory’s parking lot. The parking lot was the schoolyard. Both Muriel and Dona went to the Proctor School. It is one of several emblems of their youth that have since been razed. “The girls had one entrance, and the boys had another,” they recalled. Sometimes they would ride home from Proctor School in style. My grandmother would drive to Morrison Stables just off Rte. 16 in Medford, drop her car, and pick up her pony, ‘Muffins.’ She would ride Muffins up Boston Avenue and back into Somerville where she’d then pick the kids up at school in a pony cart! My mom recalls, “We would drive the pony back home, and I would give the neighborhood kids rides up and down Albion Street.”
Southern Junior High School
If you’ve ever driven up Summer Street from Union Square, you’ve probably noticed the large field/dog-park, in between Vinal Avenue and Putnam Street. It’s now called This is where Southern Junior High School was located. Both my mother and grandmother went there. Originally, there were four junior high schools: Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western. As the school system morphed over the years and the junior high schools closed, Southern was eventually torn down.
Belmont Baptist Church
My mother and grandmother attended Belmont Baptist Church, located on Belmont Street across from Bailey Park. It is now a parking lot for . My mom remembered how once some devotees came in for the service, but when the minister began his sermon, they quickly left as they realized they were at the wrong church. My mom Dona also was a member of the “Rainbow Girls,” a church group that would gather and sing for events in Davis Square. “I don’t know why we were called the Rainbow Girls,” she said with a smile. “We always wore white dresses.”
Central and Highland
Today people flock to the intersection of Central and Highland for the cocktails and dishes of the . In my mom’s days, there were different attractions at this intersection. The Central Theatre movie theatre opened in 1921 and operated for nearly 40 years. For a time The Boston Rock Gym used the brick wall behind the screen for indoor rock climbing. Today, it’s divided into offices and home to the Tabernaculo dos Pentecostais. Across the street was the Knights of Columbus building, where my mother would take my aunt for tap dancing lessons. Today it’s Anthony’s Banquet Hall.
Perhaps it’s the folly of every generation to blindly believe the places and scenes of their youth will last forever. I already catch myself remarking, “That used to be the…” I think it says something, though, that while many of the landmarks that defined the earlier lives of these two ladies are gone, the stories remain very much alive in their memories.
I hope they last at least as long as a pony-ride to Medford.