The Boston Phoenix

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Best reminder of local hubris

It sure seemed strange when boosters of Davis Square proclaimed the five-block-square patch of stores and coffee shops the "Paris of the '90s." But such presumptuousness may be encoded in the neighborhood's historical genes. For the evidence, just stroll on over to Seven Hills Park, a stretch of grass, trees, and public sculpture behind the Holland Avenue entrance to the Davis T stop. The park is studded with seven tall pillars, each of which bears a plaque on the bottom and an elevated piece of statuary on the top. They form the external manifestation of Somerville's Rome complex, as the plaque on the Walnut Hill pillar makes abundantly clear: "Like Rome, Somerville was established among seven hills. These hills were once regarded as the city's most precious feature. . . . "

The dissonances here are many. First, it doesn't swell the heart with patriotic pride to learn, upon further reading, that several of the original hills have been trucked off as landfill (Cobble, Ploughed, and a good chunk of Prospect), or that Winter Hill's once-famous apple orchards were clear-cut in the 1840s to modernize an area now notable mainly for gangsters and savings banks. And then there's the laconic, Edward Gorey-like eeriness of the passage on the monument for Ploughed Hill: "The Ursulines of the Mount Benedict community chose the site for a convent, teaching young Catholic and Protestant women. . . . The convent was burned down by an angry anti-Catholic mob in 1834."

But for sheer weirdness, it's hard to beat the floating sculpture. The monument for Spring Hill -- with a giant, solemn, swollen-uddered Holstein cow -- is actually rather awe-inspiring. And then there's the enormous, grinning, shimmery, blue-green, skyborne, man-size alewife commemorating Clarendon Hill. Do not behold this fish while under the influence of any perception-expanding substances, for you may never recover. The statues may be the perfect example of why comparisons between Somerville and Rome are both apt and completely ludicrous: in their own strange way, the floating fish and cow are not unlike Delphic oracles or prophetic temple idols. But only in America would we present works of such sublime silliness as straight-faced monuments to our Puritan past.

Seven Hills Park is behind the Holland Street T entrance in Davis Square, Somerville.

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