East Somerville residents hope photo exhibit
changes the neighborhood's rough reputation
By Danielle Dreilinger
For many people in the western two-thirds of Somerville, the McGrath Highway might as well be an ocean. On its far reaches, bounded by Interstate 93, Charlestown, and Washington Street, lies mysterious East Somerville.
To outsiders, the reputation of the neighborhood - which is on the Orange Line, not the Red Line - is mixed. A little more shabby, a little more dangerous. A good place to eat pupusas and other Central American specialties. And isn't that Italian restaurant in the mini-mart somewhere around there?
A new exhibit aims to change that rough reputation. Forty-three amateur and professional photographers share their inside perspectives in "Interpreting East Somerville," which opened in Somerville City Hall last month.
"It's probably known as the worst part of Somerville," said Tony Colella, 68, a 30-year resident filling in as a bartender at Fasika, an Ethiopian restaurant. "But they've cleaned it up a lot."
"People have this idea that it's like a wasteland," said Carrie Dancy, executive director of East Somerville Main Streets, which organized the show. Instead, she enthused, "You get this amazing energy you don't get other places."
The pictures in City Hall show a thriving community. A woman picks up a crate of vegetables that came from a Dracut farm. A girls' soccer team sits at the side of a field in Glen Park. The congregation of St. Benedict's acts out the stations of the cross in the street, complete with white headdresses and their own Jesus.
Though East Branch librarian Marylin Eastwood didn't submit a photo in time, she said, her small building is ever more hopping. "Lots and lots of kids" come in the afternoon. Story hour attendance has increased. Circulation went up 30 percent.
Some photographers captured nature - purple flowers, crimson leaves. "Old Somerville" gets a bid as well, represented by a Virgin Mary statue; Tony behind the counter at Vinny's Deli, the aforementioned Italian restaurant; and patrons at Louie's Ice Cream, whose script menus hark back to Norman Rockwell.
However, the faces of the neighborhood don't always.
The East Branch beats all other library locations for attendance in its English as a Second Language class, with 15 to 32 students recently coming each week for the first hour. Most came from Brazil or Spanish-speaking countries, though "right now we're seeing more people from Nepal," she said.
Dancy emphasized that not all immigrants are new. The Salvadoran community, she said, has been there for a good 30 years.
Taco Loco - whose "tempting tastes" are shown off in the exhibit by Ellen Stoolmacher - gets almost as many white patrons as not, said assistant manager Denis Herrera of East Boston, 28.
The library attracts "a lot of people who have been in this neighborhood forever," said Eastwood, plus "some newcomers to the neighborhood who are native-born folks who are younger."
Safety remains a disputed question. Jessica Brennan of Somerville wrote in the exhibition guide, "People usually think that East Somerville is dangerous and I wanted to show that there are some places that are really pretty." Her photo shows a brick roof so elegant it could be on Newbury Street.
Some locals considered the neighborhood just fine. In his six-plus years at Taco Loco, Herrera said, he has never seen any trouble. Eastwood said no one has even stripped the library's pussy willows of their fuzz.
Others painted a more mixed picture. Colella said: "You have your ups and downs. You have your wiseguys . . . and then you have the people who take care of the place." He thought most problems stemmed from the bars, which attracted people "coming from all parts of Somerville."
When Befekadu Defar, 48, bought Fasika (then a bar) about five years ago, he said there was "more violence, more riff-raff." He called the police once or twice a week. But now he hasn't called them in almost a year.
In 2008 through Dec. 2, the police reported 614 crimes in roughly this area. That included 28 incidents of assault and battery and 106 of breaking and entering. Citywide, police report a total of 2,282 violent and property crimes for that period.
The department opened a substation on Broadway in October, though it's not staffed 24/7. "Interpreting East Somerville" includes a photo of officers by Captain Mike Devereaux.
As for fixing up appearances, the city has held a number of community discussions on potential improvements for Broadway from Winter Hill to Sullivan Station.
Jill Jackson, 10, might approve. Waiting for the bus, the Prospect Hill Charter School student said the street "needs to be cleaned up!" Her companion Joe pointed indignantly to debris in an alley.
The stray bit of litter notwithstanding, "I've never met more people that love their neighborhood," said Dancy.
Even one of the crustier residents agreed. "I like my neighborhood. I got no problems here," Colella said.
Danielle Dreilinger can be reached at email@example.com.
Interpreting East Somerville
Somerville City Hall
93 Highland Ave.
Open during City Hall hours.
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