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The making of Somerville: A working history

Published: Thursday, April 22, 2004

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 15:08

This is the seventh in a seven-part series on Somerville by students enrolled in Sociology 149A, Organizing Urban Communities, taught by Professor Susan Ostrander.

The average 21st century citizen knows little of the often rich history of his local community. This is arguably true of students like us at Tufts, since many if not most of us live here only temporarily. To better understand modern society though, it is often useful to examine the history that gave rise to our local communities. In our own backyard of Somerville, the history of industry goes far in defining the history of this, our city.

"Communities can be planned or spontaneous, rooted in past experiences and also built on future hopes, established on the basis of place as well as on a foundation of ideas," sociologist Margot Kempers argues in her book, "Community Matters." Somerville's vibrant economic history past and present can help us understand the city as we students live in it now. From Somerville's shipbuilding yard -- where the first sailing vessel of the British colonies was produced -- to the present day bustling streets of Davis Square, Somerville has long been a hotspot in the state's and nation's commercial development.

As the predominantly Irish, industrial community of Somerville began to flourish during the mid-nineteenth century, the appeal of positions in the city's growing industries began to attract various other ethnic groups. Today, the city boasts a diverse workforce twenty two thousand people strong that speak 50 different languages and practice 15 different religions, according to the Somerville city hall website (www.ci.somerville.ma.us).

Before Somerville became a township in 1842 the area was primarily populated by British farmers and brick makers who sold their wares in the markets of Boston and Charlestown. As the markets grew, the population of Somerville increased six-fold between the years of 1842 and 1870. With the sharp influx of immigrants to the Somerville area, industry boomed and brick manufacturing became the predominant trade. Before mechanical presses were invented, Somerville produced 1.3 million bricks a year. Thereafter, production increased rapidly to 5.5 million bricks a year, and the success of the brickyards began to attract numerous other industries. In 1851, American Tubes Works opened, followed by meat processing and packaging plants. Other Somerville factories came to produce steam engines, boilers, glass, and iron.

Between 1870 and 1915, as was the case for the entire country, the population again exploded. This increase in people stimulated demand for the goods Somerville industries made. The brickyards' production reached 24 million bricks a year. The meat packing industry was dubbed "The Chicago of New England." During this time of industrial prosperity, continuing through World War II, the city of Somerville reached its population apex at 105,883 residents. The city was the densest in the United States, with many residents living in double-deckers and working in the city's meat processing and packaging factories.

With momentum gained from commercial success during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, Somerville continues to have a manufacturing sector today, but the city's base of work has changed substantially. According to the Massachusetts Division of Employment and Training, of the 22,958 people employed in 2001, only 1,970 work in factories or manufacturing. With over 42 percent of those employed within Somerville working in retail or sales, "services" is now the most available job category. While most of the large meatpacking and brick manufacturing plants have moved elsewhere, Somerville possesses almost two thousand small businesses, many of them service-providers and employers.

While many Somerville residents are content to work for others, the city today offers several programs that promote entrepreneurship and self-employment. Through the Somerville Economic Development Partnership, small businesses are offered two options, either a short term, primary financing program that provides a maximum of $50,000, or a financing option up to $100,000 working with a primary lender. Through various financing options like this that the city provides, many of the diverse shops operating throughout Somerville have been able to succeed.

In further effort to aid the small business community, Somerville funds the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP). With goals of creating more aesthetically pleasing storefronts, the city offers to provide "architectural services" and renovations in partnership with the storeowners, by covering 50 percent of the cost up to $40,000. The Economic Development Partnership has taken on eighteen projects, financed $950,000, and has resulted in a net gain of $9 million in private investments. In 2001, SIP invested $128,000 towards storefront renovation projects, which have added to the visual appeal of Somerville, and provided a growing appeal to outside prospective businesses.

From its strong manufacturing-based economy created during the 1800's to its current service-based economy, Somerville has efficiently attempted to maintain and promote a city based on opportunity and blue collar work. However, this community built by working class people may soon be facing problems. With a budget shortfall this year approaching five million dollars, for the third straight year Somerville is facing the issue of cuts and mass layoffs. In efforts to attract more affluent residents from the overflow of Cambridge, Somerville has begun to gentrify. The double-decker neighborhoods that once housed the factory workers of the 1800's are being renovated, bringing in more young, upwardly mobile professionals, and pushing out long-time working-to-middle class residents. As Somerville moves towards the future, it will struggle to regain its past economic vigor while maintaining its present residential diversity.

Dan Roan is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.

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