The New Face of Old Somerville

Amanda Hellen (Left) and Merri Hellen Dziuba still happily call Somerville Home. Photo by Gabi Gage.

What do you shop for at the end of an era? Mild pepper jelly, raisin sauce, sweet and sour mix, garlic jelly puree, canned cuttlefish, Spiderman cookies, liver pâté, dried beef, anchovy paste, Miracle Whip, chicken spread, rawhide bone, marmalade, White Lightning Chili, artisan soup mix, Pop Tart protectors and an entire shelf of Bell’s Meatloaf mix.

These were the remainders — the forgotten unsavories — on the shelves as I combed the aisles of Johnnie’s Foodmaster on its final full day of operation. Unhindered by the frenzied product overload I usually experience in supermarkets, I patiently absorbed every last item on the shelves before I bid my final farewell to Johnnie’s and the host of solemn residents walking its vacant aisles.

The demise of the local chain and its sale to Texas-based Whole Foods Inc. seems emblematic of the changes in Somerville witnessed by natives like myself. There’s a growing sense of confusion — an identity crisis tied to changes to our environment — and both an external and internal struggle to find our place in this new Somerville. A solid appreciation of positive changes to the city seems a strange bedfellow to a loss of identity. For Generation Y’ers, it feels like we are the last born of our kind — what can only be called “Old Somerville.” Like the older generations of Somerville, we grew up being called residents of “Slummaville” and experienced the city through stretches of communal tragedy, but these circumstances also instilled in us an unshakeable sense of identity and a defensive pride.

Somerville has always experienced change, but perhaps no more than in the last 20 years, making us the last of Old Somerville and the ones to come of age during this unique, transitional period. The strength of the city’s formidable identity comes from the diversity of its Somerville-born sons and daughters, but it appears their numbers are dwindling. What is it about Somerville that is making it one of the most happening, desirable places to live in Boston, and simultaneously causing multiple generations of its people to feel unwelcome in their own home?

I sat down with a few Somerville residents of this generation, the youngest of the Old Somerville guard, to get their take on the changes they’ve witnessed, clashes between Old and New Somerville, and whether they plan to stay in the city they’ve called home for their entire lives.

HUSTLER AND HELLRAISER 

Kenney Park, photo by Michael Rose

Kenney Park, photo by Michael Rose

Chances are if you were ever a fan of Somerville sports or public access television, you’ve heard of Amanda Hellen and Merri Hellen Dziuba. These twin sisters helped lead the Lady Highlanders to a Division 1 North Sectional Final win before competing in the Division 1 state championships at the FleetCenter back in 2001.

Better known as “Hellraiser” and “Hustler” from their SHS days, the Hellen sisters met me at the Starbucks in their Davis Square neighborhood. Wearing their Somerville pride on their sleeves, as evidenced by Merri’s “Entering Somerville” bracelet, the sisters were beacons of Somerville enthusiasm in the overcrowded café.

The twins learned to play ball at their neighborhood court at Kenney Park and remember the area prior to the Davis boom in the past ten years: “The park was always packed,” Merri remarked. “We would fall asleep to the sound of bouncing basketballs. Now there’s never anybody there. It just doesn’t feel the same.”

Amanda and Merri both reside at their childhood home. When Merri and her husband Teddy had trouble finding a home in Somerville, they moved nearby to Malden. But, Merri said, “It just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t my home.” Instead, she referred to her Malden house as “the condo,” with her parents’ Somerville house still serving as “home.” Amanda added of her sister’s Somerville hiatus, “She lived in Malden, but everything she did was in Somerville.” After a little more than three years of trying to make a go of Malden life, Merri and Teddy recently returned to Somerville and are seeking the ever-elusive single family home.

When asked if they think there’s a divide between Old and New Somerville, the sisters remarked on the noticeable presence of “hipsters.” They described the communities as “polar opposites” that “coexist.” Amanda noted of the transient neighbors in their highly sought-after Davis Square neighborhood, “I feel they come and go. We don’t have any neighbors that stay anymore, except the ones we don’t want in the old crack house.”

And how do they describe the native Somerville identity? “Scrappy yet classy. The city’s right at your back, but it’s not the city. It has its own character. I can’t explain it,” said Amanda. Merri added, “It has an air, a rep about it.”

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD

A fellow Scout staffer, office manager Melinda LaCourse, is also a native Somervillian of my generation.

Melinda made the difficult decision to leave her Somerville home, right next to the new Maxwell’s Green development, this past November. “Our street has changed drastically in the past decade. It doesn’t feel like as much of a neighborhood,” Melinda remarked, “Growing up I was always surrounded by family, friends and kids. Now everything is condos and there aren’t any families on my street. I want what I had for my daughter and I couldn’t give that to her here anymore. The old folks are passing on or moving elsewhere. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going over to the neighbor’s to get a bowl of sugar.”

Despite the loss of neighborhood camaraderie, Melinda has also seen positive changes to the city. “I think the diversity is great and that there is more outreach in the community,” she said. “Nobody wanted to come here back in the day, now everyone wants to be a part of it. It’s great for the city, but it’s taking some of the originality away.”

Also leaving: Melinda’s parents, who immigrated to Somerville from the Azores and spent most of their lives calling Somerville home. It took them three years to make the difficult decision to move.

“Changes are fine, but they shouldn’t try to change the true identity of the city as a place with small families, immigrants and a distinct community. It’s being taken away,” Melinda said. “So many things are gone. Like the old elk statue that marked the Elks Lodge on the corner of Central Street and Highland Avenue. It used to be a landmark, a place where you could give directions from. Now nothing is there but a parking lot.”

The iconic Elk statue is now at the Elks Lodge in Wakefield. Its journey mirrors that of some of Old Somerville – it moved to the suburbs.

THE RAH RAH REVOLUTION

I met with Mike (who has asked to omit his surname) in East Somerville. Like Merri, Amanda and Melinda, Mike has spent his entire life in the Ville. His family has lived in the same house for roughly 90 years and has no plans to leave. Like the city itself, Mike has an enigmatic quality – tough yet thoughtful – that makes him hard to pigeonhole. After seamlessly ordering his meal in Spanish, something he’s proudly picked up as a function of growing up in East Somerville with a burgeoning Hispanic community, Mike opened up to me about Somerville identity.

“Somerville has a reputation as a wild land,” he said. “It was a place for outlaws back in the day. It is what it is. It used to be ‘slummy,’ but it’s not anymore…There’s a clannish mentality for the people who are from here.”

169286_10100594012271441_2116019397_oMike said wary feelings between Old and New Somerville can cut both ways. “Some of it has to do with the old school element and some of it has to do with the new cultural element and the gentrification. I’d say we’re [East Somerville] probably the least welcoming neighborhood and you can see that because we are the last to be gentrified. We are welcoming when it comes to diversity, but not when it comes to yuppies.”

Mike said positive visual and cosmetic changes have masked some negative elements of city life in the last few decades. “Opiates have made a big impact on the city,” he said. “It’s more of a problem with the locals than the new arrivals. It’s cheaper to get heroin in some places than prescriptions.”

Among the positives, Mike mentioned the impact of the Hispanic community, as well as physical improvements to the city and its homes. “It isn’t as bad as it used to be,” he said.

Like the twins and Melinda, Mike said the biggest change was a loss of interaction with the community. “I wish new neighbors would be more outgoing and part of the community. I wish people would say,‘Hi.’ I wish people would stay.” He also lamented, “There’s a decent amount of creepers over here. I wish there were more cops walking the beat. I feel safe generally, but I wish it were safer for women.”

As I was wrapping up with Mike, I asked him about the term “Rah Rah.” If you don’t know the word, it’s a synonym for crazy locals coined by Mike a few years ago, but one that is spreading like urban wildfire throughout the network of Old Somerville. A Rah Rah is a word by townies for townies, not just in Somerville but across Greater Boston.

“They like yelling. They like their Dunkins and their Marlboro cigarettes,” he explained. As to its roots and usage, Mike said, “The sound they make when they are yelling, it’s like, ‘Rahrahrahrahrah.’ Like, you could say, ‘Someone came at me with some Rah Rah shit.’”

The Rah Rah revolution isn’t about cruelty, it’s about acknowledging our flaws and bearing them with that same old Somerville sense of humor, the same way we bore “Slummaville,” by asserting agency over our own identity. “I mean I have some rah rah in me,” he said. “You certainly have some rah rah in you and in your family.” We laughed in agreement.

Somerville is gentrifying. Has been for 10 or 15 years. So it also must renegotiate its identity and secure a future for its longtime residents. The first step to settling any divide between the old and new Somervilles is acknowledging the problem, ever-present for locals, but not necessarily apparent to newcomers. Part of this divide is a fear of the unknown, but it is also rooted in an ever-increasing feeling of disenfranchisement. It’s about not wanting to feel like the unwanted remainders on the shelves of Johnnie’s on its final day, the end of an era, in a home that is both unrecognizable and unaffordable.

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