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The beat goes on?
Once a hardscrabble city, Somerville has turned itself around, due in no small part to its thriving community of artists. But in the midst of a struggling economy, what does the future hold?
BY CAMILLE DODERO


IT’S A SUMMER Saturday in the Massachusetts milieu recently ranked among the hippest spots in the country by The Hipster Handbook, and designated one of the most rock-and-roll towns in the US by Blender magazine. Although anyone familiar with the neighborhood would agree that both superlatives are slightly overstated, there is a smattering of folks here today at Somerville’s annual ArtBeat Festival who’ve certainly earned their hipster stripes. On stage is Shods drummer Scott Pittman, hitting the skins behind gravel-voiced warbler Frank Morey. Off in the distance is novelist Pagan Kennedy, who literally wrote the book on aging hipsters (aptly titled Pagan Kennedy’s Living: A Handbook for Maturing Hipsters). Spotted a few minutes ago was 29-year-old Emily Arkin, WMFO DJ and guitarist for indie rockers and LadyFest vets the Operators. And around the corner is Jef Czekaj, a freelance cartoonist and former scribbler of the retired ’zine R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker, who’s wearing his adopted-hometown pride on a shirt that reads SOMERVILLE.

Although a city agency organizes ArtBeat, this isn’t some coffee-klatch craft fair of blue-haired grannies and handmade doilies. The thousands passing through today (the final estimate is between 7000 and 9000 attendees) represent both ends of the age spectrum — kids clump along with wooden stilts strapped to their feet while graying artisans sit behind tables vending their wares. But there’s also an eclecticism to today’s line-up that’s atypical of events arranged by municipal agencies. At the mouth of Dover Street, a "Human Loom" — a participatory event in which a bobbing-headed mob interweaves long, motley strips of fabric while a woman with a megaphone shrills a pep-rally-style call-and-response: "Who are we?" "The human loom!" Concurrently, over in the Elm Street Plaza, a concrete-and-brick mall that usually serves as an outdoor patio for Starbucks, something quieter, but much more surreal, is going on: an all-female troupe of four twitching Butoh dancers is performing an ethereal Japanese dance style developed after World War II. ("I think they were the ones who wanted to dance on the roof," one Somerville Arts Council board member later says. "But we couldn’t let them.")

Clearly, this is not the Somerville of old. Not so long ago, this city was dilapidated, a place where artists got harassed; they certainly didn’t hold court at major intersections or thrash about in the street like dying fish. Over the past 20 years or so, the stigma of living in Somerville has been reduced, if not completely removed. Some attribute the change to the end of rent control in Cambridge; others point to the tech boom of the late ’90s. But whatever the general explanation, most folks credit local artists — and, on a larger scale, the visible integration of art into the community by the Somerville Arts Council (SAC), one of the state’s 329 Local Cultural Councils (LCCs) — for helping to revitalize the city and improve its residents’ quality of life. While most other LCCs are small grassroots volunteer organizations that exist solely to reallocate Massachusetts Cultural Council money to cultural and educational projects within their districts, the SAC is much more than a funnel for state grants. It’s a relatively high-profile, community-based collective that not only produces independent cultural programming all year long, but works to draw out the artistic strengths of its community. Which makes Somerville a kind of local-arts-scene success story, a city in which the influence of art isn’t merely discernable, but recognized for helping improve the town’s very tenor.

Across Massachusetts, though, the arts now face a pivotal moment. As evidenced by the plea inscribed on signs asking for $3 donations to KEEP ARTBEAT ALIVE!, drastic cuts at the state level, along with a struggling economy, have slashed the SAC’s already-slim operating budget and decimated the amount of money the SAC can redistribute to Somerville’s artists. And with the rest of the city smarting from fiscal cuts — cops are getting canned, pink slips are piling up in the public-school system — "nonessential" services like the arts are often considered expendable.

But some lifetime Somerville residents, who are typically chary of newcomers, concede that the long-term benefits of art come at a relatively small cost. Like Evelyn Battinelli, who volunteers as assistant director of the Somerville Museum and today stands behind a booth of Somerville postcards, books, and maps. "What does art bring to Somerville?" Battinelli asks, beaming. "Look at this!" she cries, sounding like a woman who’s just witnessed a frog morph into a handsome prince. "Look at this!"

LOOK AT THIS. Somerville used to be a dump. At least, that’s what anyone with historical memory will tell you — hence the well-known epithet "Slummerville." This was once a hardscrabble place of sojourners and immigrants — a city subdivided by a highway, known infamously as a mob-boss haven, Whitey Bulger’s playground. Regularly cited as the most densely populated municipality in the state, Somerville is the kind of place kids grew up hoping not only to depart, but to flee as if from a burning building.

State census results reflect this mass exodus: from 1950 to 1980, the city’s population dropped nearly 25 percent. "Many natives had strong feelings about trying to leave," remembers Battinelli, a 1955 Somerville High graduate. "There was a feeling of escape for many people."

Twenty years ago, "there was this strange dynamic in the city," recalls Cecily Miller, who began working as executive director of the SAC in the 1980s. "On the whole, there was this insularity, this feeling of lost power struggles, this feeling of ‘us versus them.’"

The "us versus them" mentality also seeped into the blue-collar contingent’s reception of newcomers, including the influx of artists who’d moved to Somerville for its cheap rents and the city’s close proximity to Boston — which seemed even closer when the MBTA extended the Red Line to Davis Square in 1984. Miller remembers distinct moments of culture clash, such as the time a group of Vernon Street artists’ car windows were smashed in the ’80s.

"You always have the new guys and the old guys looking askance at each other," says US Representative Michael Capuano, a lifelong Somerville resident who served five terms as the city’s mayor. "That’s normal. It happens in Charlestown, in Cambridge, in Somerville."

When Miller took the helm of the SAC, she knew she had a vibrant local artists’ community at her disposal. But as the SAC grew, its greatest challenge was integrating the artist population into the world of nine-to-fivers with kids in public school.

"You have to find a way to marry the arts community with those who aren’t artists," says Capuano. "And to allow the arts community to see that the less artistically inclined community is okay — and vice versa." The SAC set out to show local residents that art and beauty aren't confined to galleries and esoteric settings, but exist in their everyday lives — in their homes, in their neighborhoods, along their commutes. "If you have a nice garden next door to me," notes Capuano, "you make my life a little nicer and I know it."

"Everyone looked down on their city; their more-successful peers had moved out," says Miller, now the director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust. "So we tried this very creative way of re-seeing their home, of using the arts to celebrate the positives of Somerville." To that end, the SAC sponsored the Somerville Garden Awards, the brainchild of First Night founder Clara Wainwright. In 1990, the Garden Awards were established, and encouraged residents to nominate themselves, a neighbor, or a stranger for their verdurous sculptures, cultivated flowers, and vibrant vegetation. This approach to art fit Somerville well, since the city’s residents often have gardens in their front yards — "probably because we have such small back yards," jokes Louise Vrande, treasurer for the Friends of Somerville Public Library. Then again, horticulture seemed contrary to the city’s character: "Gardens in Somerville — a city of three-deckers, crowded streets, tiny yards and urban congestion?" wrote the Boston Globe in September 1990.

But Miller thought Somerville naturally contained an "amazing blend of worlds" — all it needed was someone to try to commingle them. "One time, I was walking around this neighborhood I’d never been in. The sun was starting to set," she recalls. "And I started a kind of conversation with these people in their yard who showed me a tree that had four or five different plums growing from it. They couldn’t really speak English and I couldn’t speak their language, yet there was this kind of friendliness and warmth and shared sense that we lived in the same place. There was a civility to it. And all of a sudden, I hear this violin concerto coming from a nearby window. There’s a little classical quartet rehearsing there." For Miller, the moment epitomized the SAC’s purpose. "It was two examples of the different ways people enrich their worlds through creating this little Eden in their own lives."

In 1993, the SAC was recognized for its ingenuity when the Massachusetts Cultural Council designated it one of 10 winners of the Commonwealth Award, an honor for exemplary service in the arts, humanities, or "interpretive science." Meanwhile, the SAC continued to develop other events. There was the Windows Art Project, a month-long Davis Square installation in which local business owners exhibited artworks in their front windows. There was the Switchbox Project, an effort to turn the yellow and silver electrical eyesores stationed at intersections into paintings. There was also the "Illuminations Tour," a trolley trip around town to admire the best of the city’s holiday decorations — another way of highlighting the town’s indigenous "folk art."

But Miller recalls the original Somerville Garden Awards, which inspired a subsequent photography-and-writing exhibition, as the event that led Somerville to rediscover its collective pride. The transition didn’t happen overnight — it was gradual, with a detectable surge after Cambridge ended rent control during the dot-com technology boom, when young urban professionals, grad students, and upwardly mobile Cambridge transplants trickled into the city. Still, it wasn’t long before Davis Square became known as the "Paris of the ’90s."

 

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Issue Date: August 22 - August 28, 2003
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