Somerville in Photos: More Architecture

Old World Charm in Davis Square

It’s great that a place like Sessa’s Italian Specialties has managed to stay afloat for more than 30 years in Davis Square. Walking in the door you are immediately greeted by all sorts of sensory treats: delicious smells emanating from the deli where they serve calzones, sauces, and other homemade foods; fresh loaves of bread stacked in front of a variety of bulk olives; and strands of cured meats, garlic and peppers hanging from the ceiling tiles.

delicious calzones

When I first moved to Somerville I was psyched to discover this place full of Italian imported products. They actually carried the only canned sauce my grandmother would ever allow in her home: Don Peppino. A distant relative in Italy made it and sold it wholesale to Italian restaurants in America and used to bring her and her brothers cases of it when he came to visit, she told me, though the company has long since changed hands.

Being choosy about the bagged pasta and other items with a shorter shelf life is advisable. It’s not unheard of for some of the items on the shelf to have “expired” sometimes years before, and I prefer to go for the canned goods and amazing selection of olive oils. The deli meat and selection of homemade food is also quite delicious.

The owner is about as surly as my great-grandmother looks in all the old family photos, and you’ll read other statements to that effect if you check out their page on yelp. He’s rarely there, though, and it’s usually his much friendlier daughter behind the counter. You won’t find many places like this anymore, however, and it’s well worth stopping in and helping them stick around for hopefully another 30 years.

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DAILY TRIVIA: The first sitting president to visit Somerville was Bill Clinton.

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Freedom of a Zipster

I’ve owned a car since I was 15 years old. My dad was about to trade in his  ’85 Oldsmobile Calais when at the last minute he decided to give it to me, since I was about to turn 16. I was beyond ecstatic and spent many days out in the driveway washing its silver paint until it sparkled and dreaming of all the places I would soon be able to go of my own accord.

To this day I am addicted to owning a car, and tend to view it almost as an extension of my being.  I would like to give up the habit someday if I end up staying in the city indefinitely.  I do feel a little guilty about it for the whole “carbon footprint” aspect, and also know I’d get a heck of a lot more exercise without it. And there’s really no reason to own one living in a place with so many options: trains, buses, cabs, Enterprise Rent-A-Car for those occasional longer trips to see family… and Zipcar, to get around locally at a price so much more affordable than owning a vehicle.

So at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I think a blog about Somerville should include a shout out to Robin Chase and Antje Danielson, Cambridge residents who founded Zipcar right next door about a decade ago. When the weather is lousy and you just don’t feel like walking to the laundromat or grocery store, with a one-time membership fee of $50 you can rent a Zipcar for $8 per hour (or $66 per day). Gas, insurance and maintenance are included.

I’ve heard a lot of raves about Zipcar from friends and co-workers over the years. If I do end up getting rid of the car this spring, which I’m highly considering, I’ll definitely be signing up. If you have Zipcar and agree or disagree with anything I’m saying, you’re welcome to add your thoughts by commenting below.

Looking toward Cambridge/Somerville from Boston.

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DAILY TRIVIA: The famed pirate Captain Kidd once hid from the law at Ten Hills Farm and was rumored to have buried treasure somewhere on the property.

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Murals II

We speak for those who can’t.

This is my favorite local mural. It’s right on the Somerville/Cambridge line and may be technically in Cambridge, but I drive by it nearly every day and have always wanted a reason to pull over and take a picture of it.

Painted by muralist Be Sargent

Though this mural is a “wall of respect for animals” and sponsored by organizations including Massachusetts Network for Animals and Abolish Primate Experiments and Slavery, I like that there is also an infant in the painting. It sends a very powerful message.

Two more murals from around town are below; please click photos to enlarge:

There was once a train that went down Broadway... more about this in an upcoming post!

Union Square; also by Be Sargent.

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DAILY TRIVIA: General Charles H. Taylor, editor and founder of American Homes Magazine, the first 10-cent magazine in this country, lived in Somerville. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Asylum for the Insane

Charlestown Asylum, 1800s

Most people are familiar with Belmont’s McLean Hospital. Affiliated with Harvard Medical School, McLean is one of the most revered psychiatric hospitals in the country. Famous patients throughout the years have included James Taylor, Ray Charles, Rick James, Sylvia Plath (author of The Bell Jar), and  Susanna Kaysen, whose memoir was the basis for the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted.

McLean Hospital was founded in 1811 as the Charlestown Asylum for the Insane and its original location was in the present day Cobble Hill section of Somerville, at the time part of Charlestown.  Though not a trace of the hospital remains — it was demolished and relocated to Belmont in 1895 to make way for the railroad — the entrance to the grounds featured a long driveway lined with Elm trees at the approximate intersection of current day Washington and Franklin Streets.

In the 1790s doctors began to explore the idea that beautiful, peaceful surroundings could alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill, and the Charlestown Asylum was founded on these progressive principles of moral treatment. In the past the insane had been chained and beaten in a misguided attempt to scare them out of their madness. The Charlestown Asylum (later referred to as The Somerville Asylum, The McLean Asylum for the Insane, and eventually McLean Hospital) spanned 18 acres on grounds with picturesque terraces, trees, flowers and vegetable gardens designed to inspire tranquility.

A man by the name of George Folsom, an early apothecary at the asylum, remarked in his diary: “Crazy people are much more pleasant than I expected.”

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DAILY TRIVIA: The nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” was written about Mary Sawyer, an attendant at the Charlestown Asylum in the 1830s who had adopted a sickly lamb abandoned by its mother and nursed it back to health. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Prettying Up Union Square

Deriving its name from the Civil War era, Union Square was once a major recruitment center for the Union Army. Today it is a melting pot where the working class of East Somerville intersects with the city’s fashionable western parts, and is one of the oldest and largest commercial areas in town.

There is much to say about bustling Union Square, but for today I wanted to write specifically about one step that was taken a few years ago to better the community through art and the active involvement of its residents, a hallmark of Mayor Curtatone’s legacy.

In 2005 the Somerville Arts Council held a design competition for local artists and craftsmen to design and build street furniture. The competition was based on 4 objectives: to engage local artists/craftsmen in design and fabrication, to recognize the city’s cultural diversity, to celebrate Union Square’s unique character, and to create beautiful and innovative new street furniture designs. The uncommon furniture can be found throughout Union Square.

Glass-top benches: Aaron Binkley; copper benches: Mitch Ryerson; trash barrel covers: Christina Lanzl, Phil Manker; engraved design on glass: Heather Townsend, Jeff Czekaj, Julie Chen, Wes Boyd.

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DAILY TRIVIA: The Queen Anne residential building at 113 College Ave. became a major national focus in 1968 for an alternative Jewish religious movement; it is still the home of the Havurat Shalom community.

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Powder House Park

The Nathan Tufts Park, known locally as Powder House, is a place rich in colonial history. The Massachuset Indians were drawn to the area for the abundance of alewife in the nearby Mystic River, and the natural stone outcroppings that defined the landscape provided an abundance of materials for tools as well as a clear vantage point for surveying the area.

By the early 1700’s the Two Penny Brook Quarry was established on the land to make use of the blue-brown bedrock known today as Somerville Slate or Cambridge Mudstone.  A French refugee by the name of Jean Maillet bought the quarry in 1704 and erected a windmill, which was unique to the area in that it was built of stone and operated with only the top part moving to catch the wind, instead of the entire body.

The province of Massachusetts purchased the stone mill in 1747 and began using it as a gunpowder storage facility. During the 1775-76 siege of Boston the Powder House was a critical Continental Army munitions depot, or ‘powder magazine’. Peter Tufts, a farmer, purchased this land in 1818, and the Tufts family bequeathed it to the City of Somerville in 1892 to be turned  into a public park.

The Field House was constructed in 1935 using stones from the demolished Highland Railroad Station as a testimony to F. D. Roosevelt’s efforts to create jobs during the Great Depression. The building is available today for public use by petition.

The Powder House mill remains the oldest stone building in Massachusetts, and is depicted in the City of Somerville’s official seal.

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DAILY TRIVIA: Local legend is that a virtuous young woman once took refuge in the mill to hide from a man with dishonorable intentions, and that when he came for her, became tangled in the mill’s machinery and died.

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Murals I

Murals painted alongside the Rogers Foam Corp. building, Central Street.

Winter Hill Liquors on Broadway Street

Crazy Tacos

If one day you happen to be driving down lower Broadway and find yourself, for reasons beyond my personal comprehension, tempted to make a stop at Taco Bell for lunch, I implore you to keep driving. Just a half mile up on the other side of the street is the best Mexican joint in town – Taco Loco.

Everything I’ve ever tried from their menu is fresh and delicious, not to mention very affordable. I usually try to sample different things when I go, but I have to admit I have a tough time forgoing the $2 tacos. There’s a small seating area downstairs, but it’s often full.

I don’t recall ever seeing another “gringo” there when I stop in; I almost always get a double-take from one or two of the Hispanic folks waiting in line. The people behind the counter are always smiling and friendly. If you’re nearby and haven’t checked this place out, the tasty food and pleasant vibe make it well worth the ride over.

Vegetarian taco and chicken tamale.

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DAILY TRIVIA: 600-acre Ten Hills Farm, which spanned parts of present-day Somerville and Medford and was home to Massachusetts’ first colonial governor, utilized Native American slaves. Slavery in MA ended fairly unremarkably when slaves petitioned the courts for their freedom after the Revolutionary War, though it was never officially outlawed.

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Somerville’s Oldest Pub

The oldest liquor license in town belongs to the Sligo Pub on Elm Street.  In operation for more than 75 years — long before the red line came through town — it’s everything a dive bar should be: small, dingy, cheap and regularly sprinkled with old timers grumbling at the bar about the latest Bruins game.

The local watering hole takes its name from Sligo, Ireland – the town from where the original owners hailed. Once frequented exclusively by locals in mostly blue collar trades, the crowd is now comprised of town folk, college kids from nearby Tufts University and everyone in between.

I’ve always been a fan of dive bars, and this is definitely one of my favorites. I love the high tables and friendly staff; the place just has a comfortable vibe that makes it my preferred meeting spot for grabbing a casual drink in Davis.  There’s a jukebox with a decent selection of tunes in the back, across from the graffiti-strewn tables and next to the lottery ticket machine where I once won $500 with a couple of friends… good times…

An interesting side note: many years ago, a friend and I were smoking cigarettes outside when we were approached by a black gentleman who looked to be in his 50s. He told us that his dad used to kneel exactly where we were standing and shine shoes for pennies as a boy; “Negroes” weren’t allowed inside at that time, the man said, so he had to work outside.  He also told us that for decades right above our heads there was a sign warning that ladies were not allowed inside the bar unless accompanied by a gentleman. It’s fascinating to contemplate the history this place has seen over the years.

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DAILY TRIVIA: Somerville’s “Sister City” is Gaeta, Italy.

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