How has Somerville changed?
Dramatically. It seems to have attracted the very sorts of people I’ve become and I was sorry to see that. That is, the class shift that I witnessed in my old neighborhood between Davis and Ball Squares feels regrettable. But then, the poverty in Somerville was always palpable, I could sense it as a student in the city’s public schools (the Brown on Willow Ave. before the Powderhouse, and the Western after that), among my classmates, and on the walk home passing the deeply shadowed bars in Davis Square, doing steady business on weekday afternoons. So I guess if I still lived there or was in fact committed to Somerville’s economic health (instead of just writing from the place I abandoned her for) I would be delighted to see so many yuppies pushing exotic “design-y” strollers down the railroad tracks whose freight cars I could hear every summer night from my open first-floor bedroom window. Used to be an easy place to get your ass kicked, those tracks—or get high, or try and cop a feel. I don’t like to strike a sentimental (and benignly contemptuous) pose here; I recognize that residents with more money will only do my hometown good, and though my friends and I jeered at Harvard barnies and Cambridge in general (also Californians, Medford kids, the Sixers, Apollo Creed, New York and New Yorkers and particularly the Yankees), I’d embraced most of these places and things (Harvard excepted but New York ardently) before I even left Somerville. Even though my family’s arrival there in 1973 was the beginning of the sort of change that was difficult to look at when I took my partner back to see where I’d grown up last summer, and even though I’m also part of the problem here in rapidly-gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I remember Somerville being much tougher and much truer than it appears now. But then I’m the worst sort of critic; an expat nostalgic for the bad old good old days.
My parents are from Connecticut and had only lived in cities for a few years before they moved to Somerville. My Dad went to Harvard on a full scholarship but will tell you he barely managed to graduate; he was saved by the university’s Philips Brooks House and the internship he served there, where he discovered that what he truly enjoyed was teaching. My Mom is now a graphic designer (at Harvard, ironically, 18 years after she and my Dad split up) but when we moved to Somerville she worked at Star Market in Porter Square as a cashier. My Dad worked in inner-city Boston (Roxbury and Dorchester) while bussing was going on.
I was this misfit kid with “hippie parents” (hardly, but compared to my classmates and friends in the neighborhood…) who wore sandals, brought the wrong lunchbox to school, and didn’t comb his hair (much). I didn’t have an accent so kids in my class concluded I must be from New York, which was barely true (I was born and spent my first three years there) but which I was secretly proud of. I remember being a total reject, hopelessly sensitive except when it came to gathering any kind of a clue as to how to fit in with other kids. It must be my operatic self-mythologizing impulse, but I recall hiding not from bullies at recess, but from virtually everyone.
Cluelessness aside I tried desperately to gain some savvy about going along and getting along in school and consequently studied my classmates with alien-captive scrutiny. As a result I have many very distinct memories of a lot of the kids whose tiles are mounted in Davis Sq. Station. Virtually all of them were terrific people whom I admired (and would love to be in touch with again).
After 7th grade at the Western Junior High, the grim edifice next door to the Powderhouse which was soon to decommissioned (or condemned? Did it just always look condemned, not to mention condemning?), my parents sent me to the Cambridge School of Weston way out in the suburbs, catalyzing my own personal gentrification. The place was as different from everything I’d been exposed to in Somerville’s schools as can be imagined, a whiplash-inducing culture shock.
I’ve made it sound like I lived as a fugitive all my days under the Somerville pubic schools’ tutelage, but I didn’t—I made a place for myself and also some good friends in those 9 years. And I had the privilege of studying under some wonderful teachers too (Bruce Cohn in particular was a fantastic English teacher). Obviously I’m a total and unforgivable dissident at this point, but I never met better or more loyal people than the kids in my neighborhood and in my classes at the Powderhouse and Brown and Western. I was and am proud they took me in and called me a friend.