An expansive, deserted building sits on Broadway in Winter Hill. Even though the property has been vacant for 11 years, the sign’s imprint still points out to passersby that this was once a Star Market.
The vacant grocery store looms heavily for the people of Winter Hill. The empty building and the lack of in-neighborhood grocery options it signifies come up regularly at neighborhood association meetings, according to Winter Hill resident Erika Tarlin.
“It’s such a blighted thing to have in your neighborhood. What other part of Somerville has a huge hole in it?” she says.
Broadway was once a vibrant main street in the Winter Hill neighborhood. But the end of trolley service in 1958 left the area largely car-oriented and cut off from other parts of the city. Bordered by I-93 and McGrath Highway and filled with streets that are structurally unfriendly to pedestrians, the area is “now seen as a place to pass through,” the city’s neighborhood plan says: “Broadway is seen as tired, past its prime, and a shadow of its former self.”
While Winter Hill may have lagged behind the rest of the city in terms of change—Tarlin, who moved to the neighborhood over 20 years ago, says it’s virtually the same as when she arrived—it is still loved by many of its residents, including Tarlin.
The Green Line Extension ultimately plans to restore transit to the neighborhood, but for now its residents need to eat. There are several small marts in the area, but fresh produce that doesn’t require a car or crossing a dangerous highway on foot is scarce.
Enter Neighborhood Produce.
A Neighborhood Affair
On a morning in late September, Matt Gray sat on a cinder block in the store that would soon become Neighborhood Produce, a small market on Medford Street focused on providing Winter Hill with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The floor was rough and the walls were unpainted. Gray, clad in a Neighborhood Produce shirt and a red flannel, had just discovered that the ceiling leaked.
Over the following weeks, Gray transformed the store with his own two hands. He painted, he put in a new floor, he built wheelable display stands in his basement, putting to use the woodworking skills he learned at his high school in rural Ohio.
Neighborhood Produce, located at 415 Medford Street, is the culmination of extensive work and dreaming for Gray, who as a Winter Hill resident recognized the community’s need for healthy grocery options.
Gray piloted his idea last summer and fall with a pop-up produce market in Winter Hill Brewery’s parking lot. A Kickstarter that raised nearly $22,000 made the brick-and-mortar location possible.
About seven out of every 10 donations to the Kickstarter came from community members, according to Gray.
“Essentially, the neighborhood funded this project for themselves,” he says.
Two goals guide Neighborhood Produce: being a one-stop-shop for everything you need for a healthy meal and giving a second life to “ugly produce.”
While about three-quarters of the store’s stock will be fruits and vegetables and Gray intends to largely stay away from boxed or canned items, the shop will offer staples like eggs, pasta, olive oil, and canned tomatoes.
Gray got acquainted with ugly produce, also known as number two produce—or, as he prefers, “produce as nature intended”—while working in food acquisitions at the Greater Boston Food Bank. Number two produce is fruits and vegetables that are deemed too visually unappealing to sell. Those items are typically destined for processed foods, animal feed, or a trash can.
Millions of pounds of produce are categorized as number two every day, according to Gray. It wasn’t always like this, he says—before World War II shoppers expected variation in their fruits and vegetables, but high competition among grocery stores raised the bar.
“When I worked at the Greater Boston Food Bank, we would take it in, and there would be nothing really wrong with it, other than maybe the sizing was off. It’s really completely cosmetic,” Gray says.
Gray plans to sell local produce regularly, and aims to keep prices at or a bit below those at Stop & Shop. He’s able to do this because Neighborhood Produce, unlike large grocery stores, will have low overhead costs, as the 500-square-foot store will only need one or two part-time employees.
Shape Up Somerville has been working with Gray along the way. The organization runs a mobile farmers market in several parts of the city to provide fresh produce. Director Lisa Robinson says Shape Up Somerville is excited that Neighborhood Produce will provide that kind of access year-round and that the store could even eliminate the need for the Shape Up Somerville farmers market in the area.
As the store gets up and running, Robinson says Shape Up Somerville plans to help Gray by spreading awareness about number two produce and promoting the store.
Shape Up Somerville is also helping Gray go through the approval process to accept SNAP benefits.
What’s Next for Winter Hill
The city’s neighborhood plan for Winter Hill zeroes in on the vacant Star Market property. The Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development tried to find a grocery store to take over when the grocer moved out in 2006, but between the building’s awkward size—too small for a large grocery store like Stop & Shop and too big for a company like Trader Joe’s—and its need for repairs, there were no takers.
The building owner tried to fill the space with a discount store chain, but the Planning Board denied the deal based on zoning. The owner repeatedly fought the city over the decision, and no tenant has been found.
Using eminent domain to take over the land is an option as the city moves to revitalize Winter Hill, according to Melissa Woods, senior planner in the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.
The city also hopes to bring another grocer to the area. The neighborhood plan explains that there is demonstrated demand for a 40,000 to 50,000-square- foot grocery store near Magoun Square, and lists the Salvation Army at 483 Broadway, the Pini’s Pizza block at 511 Broadway, and a block on Medford Street as potential location options.
City efforts to improve grocery access in the neighborhood will come alongside other area-wide changes including improving walkability, bikeability, and transit, lowering the speed limit, and an uptick in mixed-use development.
And when the Green Line eventually extends to the area, it will relieve the effects of the trolley service’s termination that have been present in Winter Hill for nearly 60 years.
But for now, Neighborhood Produce is making Winter Hill a bit more connected again—at least to fresh, healthy food.
This story appears in the November/December print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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