I came to PlaceMatters this summer from Somerville, Massachusetts, a Boston-area city best known as Cambridge’s slightly grittier, more affordable, and no-nonsense neighbor to the north. I’m a proud two-time resident of Somerville, and in my time there I’ve gotten to know my adopted hometown—the most densely-populated municipality in New England—block-by-block, one triple-decker and Brazilian corner store at a time. It’s a remarkably diverse community, a mix of students, new immigrants, young professionals, and older ethnic communities that have been a part of the socio-cultural fabric for generations.
But in all my municipal trekking there has always been an outer limit, an end of the known universe that is Somerville. And that boundary had always been McGrath Highway. Nary a ten-minute walk from my Union Square apartment, McGrath is a fearsome behemoth of a road, with rickety concrete and steel overpasses and busy at-grade on-and-off-ramps. Beyond McGrath lies a vast industrial zone, bisected and circumscribed by railroad tracks and highway overpasses, stretching to Sullivan Square and I-93, and Charlestown beyond. This forbidding terra incognita—far off the mental maps of a great many area residents, myself included—is Somerville’s Inner Belt Brickbottom district.
But with a boulevardization plan under consideration for McGrath Highway and the planned construction of an MBTA Green Line Extension light rail station at Washington Street, Inner Belt and Brickbottom are well on their way toward integration with the rest of the city. On June 25th, PlaceMatters—in partnership with Goody Clancy and the City of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development—facilitated an opportunity for area residents to expand our mental maps, inviting us to explore this undiscovered neighborhood and formulate a vision for its future. The Inner Belt Brickbottom (IBBB) “Walkshop”—think “walk” + “workshop”—divided us into five teams, envisioning new corridors along McGrath Highway, Washington Street and New Washington Street, and investigating the potential for neighborhood development in the more-remote industrial cores of Inner Belt and Brickbottom.
With the support of my fellow walkshoppers, I conquered and scoured the McGrath Highway corridor, photographing everything from the car dealerships to the Portuguese social hall to the highway structure itself, envisioning how this scar in the urban fabric could perhaps—someday—become a seam, joining once-disparate parts of the city. After a morning of critical exploration, we reconvened at the local Holiday Inn to share our pictures of existing conditions via a Flickr feed and a rear-projected “Photo Wall,” using touch-screen technology to scroll through the feed and bring up selected images on screen. Based on our impressions, we went on to discuss our priorities for the district—what to preserve, what to change—and reinvestment strategies for our respective areas of inquiry, using PlaceMatters’ Brainstorm Anywhere tool to organize our ideas and share them with the group. At the end, we rated each group’s top proposals using keypad polling, prioritizing plan elements moving forward.
The walkshop attracted local residents from diverse walks of life, ranging from my classmates at MIT to long-time residents of adjacent East Somerville and the Brickbottom Artists Association, a massive live-work studio building in the heart of the neighborhood. I enjoyed the opportunity to take part in the process—as both an organizer and a stakeholder—and to work with my neighbors to build a vision for Somerville’s future growth. I look forward to remaining involved in the IBBB planning process, and hopefully spending some more time poking around this fascinating neighborhood, appreciating its current hidden charms, and contemplating its bright future.