Category Archives: Somerville

Our New House

Yesterday, Rick and I closed on our new house in Somerville, just a 10-minute walk from where we live currently. Woohoo!

Video tour:

Photo tour:

From what I’ve heard about the homebuying process, I think we had it fairly easy. We bought a house within our budget, in our desired neighborhood, that was for sale by owner (friends of friends, actually, which means the house remains in the local geek family), and we did not encounter any nightmarish issues in the process.  Sounds pretty ideal to me. There’s a lot of work to be done, of course, but nothing we can’t handle.

Throughout this whole process, one of the things that has gotten me the most excited is the knowledge that we are putting down roots in a city that, in the nearly eight years we’ve lived here, has come to mean a lot to us.

The idea of “home” means a lot to me, in a broad sense. I can find home in people, and I can find home in special places (like the Consecration Dell at Mount Auburn Cemetery). Now, we get to create a home, in the city that we love, in a neighborhood that we know.

Somerville is a special place – artsy, nerdy, diverse, culturally vibrant, evolving, fun, multifaceted, urban. It’s kind of perfect. To know that we are locking ourselves in as members of this community fills me with a great sense of both pride and privilege.

Welcome home.

Introducing Your Winter Hill

I love Somerville, but I especially love my underappreciated corner of it, Winter Hill. We have little in the way of economic development, sandwiched here between burgeoning East Somerville and gateway-to-hipsterdom Magoun Square, but I think it’s a swell place to live.

So, blending my love of Winter Hill and the web, I decided to play with Tumblr and create http://winterhill.tumblr.com/, what I hope will become a community blog for people to share media, links, thoughts and other content about our neighborhood.

This is an experiment in many ways, but aren’t the best things? If you live in, visit or appreciate my neighborhood, I invite you to read and contribute!

SomerStreets Comes to East Somerville

After last month’s highly disappointing SomerStreets event in Ball Square, I was eagerly awaiting Sunday’s SomerStreets/FossFest event in East Somerville to see what lessons the city learned from that event. And they learned a lot.

There was no shortage of activities lining the blocked-off roadway. At Foss Park’s FossFest, there were several vendors, folks from the Open Air Circus giving stilt-walking lessons and live music. Festive flags were draped across the medians. State Police facilitated safe passage across McGrath Highway to main SomerStreets area, where many vendors and local businesses set out tables (highlights were the $5 pottery sale by Mudflat Studios, free Ethiopian food from Fasika and free Mexican food from Tapatio). Many stores had handmade signs proclaiming their support for SomerStreets. Dance exhibitions and lessons, face painting, a drum circle, party bike rides and hula hooping were all on the agenda. Families, bicyclists, even one acrobatic guy on roller skates all took to the streets. And who doesn’t love a parade?!

It was no ArtBeat, and the wide, mile-long expanse between Sullivan Station and Winter Hill is a challenging space to fill, but the community was definitely out in force, taking advantage of the closed roads and the activities on hand. Having East Somerville Main Streets as an organizing force that could better incorporate the surrounding community into the event was likely key to its success.

Somerville has reason to be optimistic about events like FossFest and SomerStreets. If there is one city that knows how to create great programming, it’s Somerville, and the growing pains from these relatively new events will surely get ironed out as the city keeps on doing what it does and the community becomes more aware and involved. And the fact that SomerStreets is non-Davis Square centric is fantastic. Davis is doing fine. Union Square is doing pretty good, too. Let’s celebrate all corners of this diverse city — there are wonderful things happening everywhere.

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Glee Comes to Somerville’s Artbeat

As I eagerly look forward to the East Somerville installment of Somerstreets tomorrow, I’m looking back fondly at last weekend’s Artbeat in Somerville. After taking last year off of Artbeat, I was happy to return this year and sample the performances, art vendors and tasty treats. Even though Artbeat is reliably on the hottest day of the year, it’s always a great opportunity to get together with friends (and often run into folks unexpectedly).

One of the highlights of this year’s Artbeat was the performance by the Somerville Sunsetters, a youth singing group. They brought a dash of “Glee” to Artbeat with their performances of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Here are some video excerpts from both songs, which had the crowd (including me, as is evident on the video) grooving and singing along.

Don’t Stop Believin’:

Bad Romance:

SomerStreets

This afternoon, my husband and I had a lovely day out, visiting the “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” exhibit at the Museum of National Heritage in Lexington (which you should most definitely check out before it ends next Sunday), grabbing baked goods in Arlington Heights, getting burgers for lunch at Joe Sent Me and ice cream at J.P. Licks. (Yes, it was a very tasty Saturday.)

We then planned on visiting SomerStreets on our way home, eager to get our dose of fun Somerville community programming after missing the farmer’s market this morning. We saw a bunch of families taking in the jazz concert in Powderhouse Park, and ways down Broadway we saw the annual Family Fun Day at Trum Field drawing a good crowd. But in between?

This was around 3:45. Granted, the event ran from noon until five (flier 1 | flier 2 [.pdf]). But at the time we were there, we saw an extremely small number of people out and about between Trum and Powderhouse. As we walked down the sidewalk and wondered out loud what the deal was, a guy walked past us and snarked, “Your tax dollars at work.” Apparently.

The first Somerstreets event, last month in my neck of the woods in Winter Hill, was an apparent success. But while the programming bookending the SomerStreets area seemed to be going well, the vast, vacant boulevard separating the two hubs was a bit depressing. And the number of police on special details minding the road closures and directing traffic did make me think about how much it was costing to essentially have a giant, empty roadway. I wondered about the effect on area businesses, as well.

I actually like the idea behind SomerStreets a lot:

This program allows residents to explore the City by shutting various streets to promote safe walking, running, biking routes in various locations throughout the City.

But it seemed to both my husband and I that there needed to be more programming happening on the roadway itself, not just at Trum and Powderhouse. Maybe some historical exhibits or talks, representatives from civic and city organizations, biking demos/workshops or local bike shops showing off cool/vintage bikes, local eateries offering samples of their fare, musical performances, dance troupes, street chalking, fitness/health exhibits… the list goes on. Just walking from Powderhouse to Trum, we came up with at least a dozen viable ideas that would have drawn residents to the area and involved local businesses into the event. All we saw was a kiddie choo-choo listlessly ferrying people up and down the blocked-off stretch of road.

Don’t get me wrong. If there’s one thing that Somerville is not short on, it’s amazing civic programming that champions local business and the arts. I applaud the city for the SomerStreets initiative, and encouraging fitness and community pride. I just think this afternoon’s event fell a bit short. Perhaps the planning was rushed or the beautiful day drew people to less urban environs. I hope to see future SomerStreets events — the next one is said to be on July 25 — be great successes.

Worlds Within a City

This weekend, the high temperatutes broke 70 degrees, and I took to the streets.

On Saturday, I wandered the streets of Somerville, as I am wont to do. Living here for six and a half years, I’ve ventured down many of the city’s streets. I feel like I have a good handle on its secrets, its treasures, its special corners.

But on this day, while wandering down Beacon Street, I encountered something I hadn’t seen before: it was a pedestrian underpass that connected Beacon Street and Somerville Avenue, running below the railroad track. A new discovery, sure, but nothing special, right?

Wrong.

Continue reading

Why Would Anyone Move to the Suburbs?

35357278That’s what I said Saturday night when I was with a friend in Davis Square, watching Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band (left) playing HONK! Fest. I went to HONK! for the first time last year and was captivated not only by the eclectic collection of musicians that take residence in Somerville for the weekend but by the spirit of irreverence and celebration they bring to the city. Stiltwalkers mingle down Elm Street with college kids and hipsters. Bowler hats and band uniforms rival Sox caps and North Face fleeces. They take up residence on sidewalks and in plazas by day, crash on our couches by night. Walking around in Davis Square Saturday night was like wandering into a delicious blend of Carnevale and high school band practice. A flamboyantly geeky and political music explosion.

Sunday afternoon, my husband and I met up with a friend to take in the parade. (You can see my photos and videos here.) On the way, I mentioned my observation from the previous night. “Why would anyone move to the suburbs?” I had said to my friend. “You can’t get this in Natick.” While both Rick and I are hoping to raise our kids in a city like Somerville that is so unique, artistic, and dynamic, he came to the defense of suburban life — different strokes for different folks, after all. There’s nothing wrong with the suburbs — they have plenty of advantages. But we also talked about how maybe for some people — like his mom — the suburbs may present a refuge from things that are just “too weird.” (Admittedly, my standards of weirdness are probably much different than the average person’s. After all, I spent the better part of high school hanging out with supernerds, role players and the other weirdos that Dragon World cultivated.)

I know some people move to the suburbs because they want to be able to afford a nice home with a yard, or they want a quieter, safer place to raise a kid. But honestly? I don’t mind raising my kid with a little ruckus, in a smaller house, if it means being exposed to events like HONK!, What The Fluff?, Artbeat and Somerville’s many other offbeat cultural offerings. Not that there aren’t cool events and experiences in the suburbs, but I think I particularly value the weirdness of what Somerville offers. I also like the idea of raising my kid(s) with a healthy appreciation for the odd and off-kilter. A little street sense can’t hurt either.

The other day, The Spotted Duck posted about a last fling with her neighborhood of Coolidge Corner, which it seems she is moving away from in the near future.

Coolidge Corner is one of the most fun, lively neighborhoods in the Boston area, and it’s only as I’m leaving that I find myself really appreciating it…. But for us, it’s time to grow up and move on. Time to buy. Time to exchange location for space. Delicious space. Wonderful space. Still. I’m going to miss it.

I guess that as we get older, we all make calculations and trade-offs. Our priorities shift. Practical concerns may necessitate a change. So, for me? Space is great, but location and experience mean so much more. And I don’t want to become one of those people who gets all worked up about “coming into town.” Am I being naive? Idealistic? Maybe. But I also don’t want to settle for something less than satisfactory. This isn’t just my life I’m talking about.

If we can (and of course, the markets may conspire against us), we’d love to be able to stay in Somerville or somewhere nearby, start a family and raise a little weirdo or two. Maybe, Rick and I joked, one of them will march in some installment of HONK! 15 or so years down the road, hula-hooping while playing the trumpet and waving proudly to us as we stand along the route — just down the street from our house.

A Non-Judgmental Bike Shop Comes to Somerville

When I emerged from the basement digs of Open Bicycle on Friday evening, the day’s grey and rain had dissipated, replaced by blue skies. I had a souped-up bike and a warm, fuzzy glow that had nothing to do with the recently reappeared sun. The only thing missing was a helmet, so I could have taken in the evening from the seat of my bike, zipping down the road back home.

susanxx-R1-052-24AI came late to bike riding. It wasn’t until 2005 (the same summer I learned to drive and, well, tried to learn how to swim) that I pursued bike-riding lessons. Luckily, a lovely woman in Somerville, Susan McLucas, specializes in adult bike-riding lessons. . (See picture at left of me during a bike-riding lesson.) I remember being astonished the first time I was on a bike, feet off the ground, and not falling over. In time, I was zipping down the bike path, riding between my house and Davis Square and enjoying the feeling of transportation independence — no bus schedules, no engine maintenance, just me and two wheels.

Those two wheels, however, were purchased somewhat ill-advisedly. I found a good deal on Craigslist of some guy looking to get rid of a bike, helmet and lock. The bike was in fine shape, but I bought it not knowing anything about different kinds of bikes, what kind I needed, what size was right for me.

Over the past couple of years, as I’ve ridden my bike around, I’ve always felt like I’ve been slower and more sluggish than other riders I see on the road, and I knew it wasn’t me. I figured there were probably some changes — whether simple adjustments or more comprehensive work — that could be made to my bike to make it more adaptable to my needs and my body. Failing that, it would probably be time to buy a new bike, this time in a proper manner.

I’ve been taking my bike to Paramount in Powderhouse (now Ball Square) as long as I’ve had it — in fact, I wheeled it over there directly after buying it — and I’ve never gotten anything but quality work done there. But this year, as I looked to give my bike its annual tune-up, I also felt it was time to confront all these existential questions I had about my bike. And, well, I didn’t feel like I could go to Paramount for that. The work’s always been good there, but I somehow felt like I wasn’t “bike-y” enough to be there. Like since I wasn’t some hardcore, calves-of-steel, all-season biker, I was a bit of a pretender. And I didn’t feel like having my ignorance thrown back at me or being subject to someone’s judgment. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, but based on previous vibes, that was my fear.

I first saw flyers for Open Bicycle a few months ago, a few blocks from their Union Square location. Then I began to hear a bit of a buzz. And the buzz was… they’re nice. Some nice young men running a bicycle shop. Isn’t that lovely? And Yelp backed up the buzz. I did some more research and saw they were very into art and coffee and community. This seemed like it might be my kind of place.

So, two Saturdays ago, I rode to the Union Square Farmer’s Market and then brought my bike over to Open. They’re located on Washington Street, just two blocks from the Square, in a basement next to a beauty supply wholesaler. The exterior belies the funky little shop and gallery space they’ve created inside. Once inside, I talked to Zack and explained my situation. He and one of his co-workers examined my bike and talked through what might be causing it to feel so heavy and slow. Wrong fork. Knobby tires. The energy I put into it, they said, gets sucked right out by those things.

So, I left my faithful bike with these nice young men, to get a new basket and a tune-up on top of the other changes. To my shock, they told me they would have it ready on Wednesday. Wednesday. That’s just four days after drop-off.

Wednesday night, however, I was at the Freedy Johnston show, and Thursday brought downpours. So after work on Friday, I took the bus over to Open.

When they wheeled out my bike… it turns out they had installed a rack and not a basket. I had been afraid of this, actually. During our conversation on Saturday, I had asked for a rack, but one of the guys said a basket might be better for my needs, and I agreed. When I got the call on Wednesday that the bike was ready, there was still some lack of clarity about whether I wanted a rack or a basket, but eventually it was decided that I would pick out a basket when I got there for the pickup and they would install it while I wait.

When I saw the rack and no basket, I explained my Wednesday phone conversation. It seeemed like there had been a miscommunication between the guys at the shop. They told me they would take off the rack and install the basket.

With the new fork, however, getting the basket on proved to be a tricky proposition. They had to shave some metal and do other bike-magic things that ended up taking about an hour. I was slightly annoyed, but I also felt bad that a confusing conversation had given them all this unexpected work to do. Because even in just the hour, hour and a half that I was there — between 6 and 8PM on a Friday, mind you — a bunch of people came in: some picking up, some who had just gotten flats, some who had other problems. In just a few months, Open has built up quite a following for themselves.

When the work was finally done and Zack and I exchanged apologies, he rang me up. To my shock, for the trouble, they dropped all the labor charges off the whole bill. The final total for all of that work? $105. I had been quoted $160. I was floored, and impressed. While they could probably stand to come up with a better system for confirming orders, the service was still high quality, and they were more than willing to account for any problems that came up.

I told Zack why I’d come to Open: that I’d had all these bike questions I wanted to ask in a non-judgmental environment, and I had heard they were nice guys. He smiled and shook his head, lamenting that there seemed to be a lot of bike snobbery in the area. He said it didn’t make sense to judge people for not knowing everything about their bikes.

“If they did, they’d probably work in a bike shop,” Zack said.

“And wear a cool hat,” I said, referring to his short-billed bike cap. He laughed. “I don’t know if I’d say cool hat.”

Zack said that if I wanted a city that was the opposite, where bike-riders were not expected to be two-wheeled geniuses, I shold try Portland, Ore. I think I’ll pass. If Open Bicycle sticks around, I think Somerville will be good enough for me.

Concert Review: Freedy Johnston

It was a tough night for Freedy Johnston. But it had nothing to do with the fact that only about 20 people had come to the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville for his scarcely publicized show. And it wasn’t just because his guitar bit the dust earlier that day. Rather, he was frustrated because he could not properly tune the guitar he borrowed from opening act Mike Fiore to play the title track from his forthcoming, long-awaited album, “Rain in the City.”

“I just want to do it right for the people,” said a visibly annoyed Freedy. After a few moments and a couple of muttered curses, he abruptly got up from his chair on stage, banging the guitar into a mic in the process, grabbed one of the folding chairs near the front-row table I shared with my friend, and plopped down in the middle of the audience. The twenty-odd of us turned around to face him, along for the ride, ready for wherever he was taking us.

Unplugged, he launched right into a spirited cover of Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” which is on his covers album “My Favorite Waste of Time.” It was as if he had to work through the frustration that his guitar was giving him, and the only way he could do it was by playing a song, and damned if that same troublesome guitar wasn’t going to do the job for him, whether it liked it or not. As he went back onstage, he said, “We artists are not stable types. You may have learned that.”

If we hadn’t know this before, we certainly knew it by then. This was only one in a serious of magical moments at Freedy’s June 17 show, the first being the fact that he showed up at all (read more about my first near-Freedy encounter).

Inside the Armory

This was my first time at the Center for the Arts at the Armory, and it was a miracle I was there at all. The only way I found out about the show was via a posting on the Somerville Arts Council Yahoogroup. Really. Later on, I saw a press release republished by the Somerville Journal. But in terms of promotion, there wasn’t much. No buzz among any of the Boston music bloggers I follow. No posters around town — that I saw, anyways.

I hadn’t yet been inside the Armory. I’d followed the protracted construction process, the conflict with the neighbors over parking and other snags and delays. But the end result seems well worth the wait. On the first floor, there is a galley area that also doubles as a nice function room for a small talk, reading or film screening. The main hall, however, was truly impressive, and made me realize the building was much bigger than it looked on the outside. The high, exposed-beam ceilings have been coated in insulation foam that was painted purple. It makes the ceiling feel like a permanent sunset. The hardwood floors, brick walls and exposed air-ducts give the building a hip, industrial loft feel. Along the sides of the space, birch trees mounted upright on wooden platforms were wreathed in white lights. The audience area consisted of some folding chairs scattered around, with some cocktail tables set up closer to the front. The tables were covered by white tablecloths adorned with pictures of fruit. Imagine Club Passim in a gymnasium, and you’ll be close.

The folks running the show seemed a bit disorganized — I’m not sure how many live events they have hosted there yet — but they did not lack in kindness, graciousness and enthusiasm. Everyone received us warmly. There’s a bar, which is nice, and prices are quite affordable ($4 beer/wine, except $3 PBR, and $2 water/soda)

The intimate stage was set against a moveable wooden backdrop and made homey by a rug, lamp and some plants. As Freedy mentioned at one point during the night, it was nice to think that at one point the hall had been filled with guns and ammunition, and now it was filled with music. Indeed, the acoustics in the large hall were spot on. And that’s why we were here, after all. Not for an architectural survey. For the music.

We got to the Armory nearly a half hour before the 6:45 doors (I may have been slightly over-eager), which gave us time to take in the facility. But we also got to hear Freedy soundcheck. I even saw him briefly, looking at the setup in the hall. The knowledge that he was in the zip code assuaged anxiety I didn’t know I had built up — or had leftover from nine years ago, apparently.

I’m not sure what I was thinking — that there would be a line of people waiting to see Freedy Johnston play, clamoring when the doors opened to get seated up front? It was us and one other guy, some diehard who had seen him three or four times. The thing Teresa and I learned was that nobody else knows who this guy is. We would excitedly tell people about the show, and get blank looks in return. Oh well. It’s totally their loss.

The Concert

“Thanks for having me over to your house,” Freedy said when he took the stage, seemingly unbothered by the small number of people attempting to fill up the cavernous hall. When I heard the notes from “Evie’s Tears” float out of his initial noodling, my breath caught. As the song, one of the best on his most popular album, “This Perfect World,” began to fill the hall, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was sitting ten feet from a man, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, playing a song from an album that had helped define a formative part of my adolescence. There were just about 20 other people in the room sharing this moment with me, including one girl and her male companion who seemed like an even more hardcore Freedy fan than me. I felt as if we were being told a secret nobody else knew and it was ours to relish, and if anyone else found out what they were missing, they’d be pissed.

After “Evie’s Tears, he played a couple of new songs, “Too Close to the Rio Grande” and “Neon Repairman.” Freedy then pulled out his cover of “Wichita Lineman,” which had inspired the previous song, before playing a song from “Blue Days Black Nights,” “Pretend It’s Summer.” Next up was a poppy new track, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl.” I started getting excited for October, when “Rain on the City” comes out on Bar-None. He then reached back for the title track on “This Perfect World” before playing two more new songs, “Central Station” and  “When The Love is Gone (?).” He had tried to play the title track to the new album, but was unable to get the guitar appropriately tuned. Then he hopped back to another TPW track, “Cold Again.”

At long last, he played his one hit, “Bad Reputation,” telling the story about a guy who came up to him at a show and said he had played that song everyday while he was imprisoned. “If he did play it every day in the pen, I”m sure he got lots of death threats eventually.”

Hearing Freedy play a song is likely on my top 10 or 20 all-time… it’s impossible to describe. It felt like closure. It felt natural and right and inevitable. It felt glorious.

Sitting up front, I enjoyed studying Freedy’s mannerisms. He was conversational and self-effacing. Looking like a cross

between Dr. Cox from “Scrubs” and John Malkovich, he did this thing after every song where he would sort of sit back, lean from left to right and smile widely, exuding a blend of humility, graciousness, pride and happiness. A way of saying both “Shucks” and “Damn, I love this job.” At times, though, he seemed to wrestle, both with himself and the guitar. “No, you play it like this,” he told the borrowed guitar as he tried to tune for “Evie’s Tears. “Let’s try that again, Fred,” he muttered when he bungled a lyric in “Pretend It’s Summer.” It was a real joy to watch the way he works, a fine complement to the music.

After playing another song by request, “Remember Me” from the 17-year-old album “Can You Fly,” he re-attempted “Rain in the City,” resulting in the above-described moment. Afterwards, he took more requests, and I called out one of my favorite Freedy songs, “I’m Not Hypnotized” from the album “Never Home.” To my absolute pleasure, he agreed, and he nailed it. Next up were the haunting TPW album-closer, “Emily,” CYF’s “The Mortician’s Daughter,” and “Caroline” from the old EP “Unlucky.”

As the show came to a close, he thanked us for our patience and attentiveness, expressing his pleasure with the venue and, despite everything, the evening.

“That’s all I can do, is entertain you with chaos,” he said. For his last song, the third time was the charm, and he finally succeeded in playing “Rain on the City.” It’s fitting that, the next day, a several-day long rainy stretch began in Boston. But that’s okay. I saw Freedy Johnston live, after all these years. And that’s worth a few blue days and black nights.

Planeteers at Work

The other night, I saw this flyer tacked up on a lightpole near my house:

It looks like some kids started a recycling awareness campaign. I found the typo very cute.

This morning, I saw some more flyers stapled to the trees leading the way to Broadway. This one had a geographically perplexing rendering of our fair planet:

Unfortunately, it looks like the campaign needs some of its own advice.