A Q&A with Union Square Main Streets

Union SquarePhoto by Irina M. / IM Creative Photography.

Voted Best Neighborhood to Eat, Live, and Work

There’s an undeniable, infectious energy that permeates Union Square these days. A new brewery, dozens of new businesses, and restaurants consistently on regional or national “best of” lists all contribute to the square’s vibrancy, says Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets. If its popularity wasn’t evident, Union Square racked up three Scout’s Honored categories—best neighborhood to eat, live, and work—to prove it.

More changes are afoot in the square, including the Green Line Extension, a $1.5 billion mixed-use development, and a new complex in Boynton Yards that’s poised to create office space and hundreds of new apartments. But Union Square Main Streets wants to ensure that longtime local businesses don’t get left in the dust as the revitalization the organization spearheaded in 2005 gets turbocharged. 

Scout spoke with Eshleman about why the neighborhood stands out and what the future holds.

Why do you think Union Square won the “best food” designation?

We’ve become a destination because of the caliber and variety of restaurants. Which flavor of the globe do you want to experience? What price point are you working with? Are we talking a French-inspired cuisine like Juliet, or are we talking Peruvian, Mexican, Nepali? Are you looking for a Greek social club experience where you can get special pastries and Greek coffee? There’s this density of so many different possibilities.

Why are so many chefs flocking to Union Square?

There are restaurants like the Neighborhood that have been here for more than 30 years, and Cantina. There are restaurants that have strongholds here. I know that Ken Kelly really infused an additional culinary focus when he opened the Independent. I also think [food is] an extension of that creative economy that’s always been here. There’s a creative maker spirit that’s throughout the square, whether that’s in something like Union Press, all the way to the other extreme of RightHand Robotics or Greentown Labs, where innovation is happening. And, really, cuisine is another expression of that.

How do you plan to help the community navigate the upcoming major developments?

We are working with a particular focus on strengthening the local businesses that have existed here for many years, or in several cases, many decades. We’re really taking a deep look at what resources we can help connect these businesses with so that we can strengthen their revenue streams so that as rents do rise, because they will, those businesses are prepared to take advantage of all of the new workers and residents that are going to come with this development as well.

We’re also really looking at the promotional side of things. How can we market the district as a whole? We’re creating a printed map that will be distributed at destination businesses and elsewhere. Essentially, we’re suggesting itineraries. We’ve curated this list of possibilities for a customer to take an adventure throughout the square.

We’re also partnering up with the city on a campaign that’s designed to support businesses through construction. We know that there’s going to be real impact for businesses and customers as well. This can be something as tactile as signs themselves on street poles and in bus shelters. It could also be an event or merchandise where people are sporting their pride for the community.

Another of the approaches we are taking is working in concert with groups like the Neighborhood Council, the master developer US2, the city themselves, and really creating clear lines of communication. Many of these groups have the same goals, which is development done well.

What else makes the square a special place?

Our incredible international markets. Union Square has a tradition of having a variety of immigrant populations throughout our history. And that’s really well illustrated by markets that have been here for a long, long time. Whether this is Reliable Market, Mineirao, Bombay Market, Internacional. You can find things in these markets, certain ingredients or certain cookware necessary to make these recipes that you just won’t find at Walmart. It’s an opportunity to try on whole new flavors.

I think about the street festivals that happen here: Ignite!, the Evolution of Hip Hop, the Big Gay Dance Party. There’s so much street life because there are groups who want to come and express themselves, and the city has named vibrancy at the street level as a priority.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

This story originally appeared in the 2018 Scout’s Honored issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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