Born-and-raised ‘Villens share their Somerville stories.
Somerville celebrates its 175th birthday this year—a pretty huge milestone! In 1842, Governor John Davis signed the document that officially separated the city from neighboring Charlestown. At the time, Somerville had a population of a little over 1,000.
Things are a little different today than they were then. Neighborhoods that were once farmland eventually housed brick-making or meatpacking plants, and now, many of those buildings—those that are still standing, at least—are artist spaces or apartments. Areas like Assembly Row, the former site of a Ford Motor Company factory that helped auto manufacturing pass meatpacking as Somerville’s biggest industry, welcome outlet shoppers and restaurant patrons to stroll along their streets. The city’s population is nearing 80,000.
That’s a lot of change in not a lot of time—change that’s only accelerated exponentially in recent decades. It’s easy to forget what Somerville looked like 175 or 50 or even 15 years ago—and that’s where one online community comes in.
Every day, on a Facebook page called “Somerville ‘The Good Ole Days,’” residents past and present share photos and text posts with their memories of growing up in the city, whether that’s organizing the card catalogue at the public library or taking a five-cent bus ride to Fenway and catching a Sox game from 50-cent bleacher seats. Many remember the streets where they grew up or shout out their favorite teachers. Some see if old Little League teammates belong to the group or recall questionable fashion choices from bygone eras. There are pictures of high-school pennants and grade-school classes, of Easter Sunday outfits and Halloween costumes. And of course, there are memes. (One recent upload instructs readers how to “speak Boston”—turn signal = blinkah, TV remote = clickah, etc.)
Ron Bargoot, who was born in Somerville in 1960 and lived in Davis Square for 45 years, has been an administrator of the group for the last few years. He stumbled upon the page back when it had only a few hundred members and started sharing some of his old photos, inviting a handful of his friends to join. Many added their friends to the group, and it took off. Today, it has more than 7,000 members—all of whom have Somerville ties.
“As far as people trying to join, if they don’t have Somerville on their profile— that they’re from Somerville— they won’t get in,” Bargoot says. “We probably turn down 20 people for every person we let in the group.”
In addition, Bargoot and his fellow moderators, Darryl Babineau and group founder Christine Masiello, don’t allow people to post advertisements, nor do they approve political messages. There are other online communities for that; this one, for Bargoot and others, is a place to remember being a kid in the ‘Ville during a time in which there was “so little supervision,” when most parents just asked their kids to head home when the street lights came on. Bargoot says that along with many from his generation, he considers “the good ole days” to be those prior to the Red Line extension coming to Davis Square. Back then, at just ten years old, he remembers heading home from school and grabbing his shoeshine box, setting up in Davis to earn a little cash.
But to be clear, while he loved growing up in Somerville, he doesn’t view his childhood here through rose-colored glasses. “It was a rough city—a lot of violence,” Bargoot reflects. “From 1961 until I think ’72, the Winter Hill Gang was at war. It was commonplace for people to get killed in the middle of the day, walking down the street. And in the early ’70s, you were taking a risk walking through Davis Square after dark.”
Drugs were commonplace; Bargoot says many kids he grew up with are dead or in jail. School was often violent— he recalls the fights that used to break out in the middle of class, sometimes going uninterrupted because the brawling students were bigger than their teachers. (When his family shipped him up to school hundreds of miles away in rural Maine—and Bargoot swears this is true—his new principal saw that he was from Somerville and asked, “We’re not going to have a problem, are we?”)
Overall, Bargoot says he’s happy that the city’s cleaned up, that there’s less crime, that property values are up. “Generally, it’s a good thing,” he says. “But it was what shaped us. It was what made us the people that we are now. For people like us, [development] killed a way of life. Everything we grew up with is gone.”
One thing you’ll notice as you scroll through the photos and memories in the Good Ole Days group is just how many of the people posting, folks who grew up here and who loved growing up here, also miss living here. Bargoot’s moved out of town. The majority of members, it seems, no longer live in the city. Their families had to sell their homes, or rising rents pushed them out. Now scattered around the country, they long for bygone days not only because they were young and carefree, but because those days represent a time when they had the option to stay here.
In that sense, Bargoot says the group has an almost therapeutic value.
“That’s the thing—if you’re from some little town out in the suburbs, chances are if you really wanted to, you could go home again. You could go, get an apartment or buy a house, and you could go home again. People like me? We can’t. We can never go home. We can’t afford to move back to Somerville again. That’s really the sad part of it.”
Below, a few born-and-raised Somerville residents share their memories of growing up in the city.
“My grandparents bought their Somerville house in 1922 or 1923. My father grew up there, I grew up there, my son grew up there. My grandmother lived downstairs, my uncle lived downstairs, we lived upstairs. That actually was the norm back then. Families tended to fill up a whole house. We all went to school with our cousins—I went to school with my cousins, they lived right down the street. That was common. Families didn’t go too far. And every house had kids. Literally every house had kids— two, six, eight, 10 kids.
There were so many kids, there was like a whole subculture. We had our own society that I’m not fully sure parents even knew about—our own industries, our own economies, our own things that we did. We used to hop on the bus at 12 or 13, get the train at Lechmere, and we’d go to either Wonderland or Suffolk Downs. As people were coming out, we’d ask them for their programs, wait until we got eight or 10, and then we’d go stand around the other side, and as people were coming in, we’d sell them back to them. We’d make like 20, 30 bucks—back in 1972, 30 bucks was a lot of money—and we’d go to Revere Beach.
Harvard Square used to be all hippies back in the ’60s. I’m talking real hippies—Jim Morrison hippies. The Harvard Common, they used to camp out there on weekends, playing guitar and smoking pot and singing. It was an amazing time to grow up around Boston, and Somerville was way different than it is now. It was all working class, blue-collar families. It was a cheap place to live close to Boston, basically.
When the Red Line came to Davis Square, that was pretty much the beginning of the end for the Somerville that we grew up in. People who had lived in West Somerville their whole lives cashed in; houses they bought in the ’40s and ’50s for seven- or eight-grand, all of the sudden they were worth $500,000. The whole texture of the neighborhoods changed.”
Jimmy Del Ponte
“At Supreme Deli in Davis Square, on the corner of Elm Street and Chester, my dad had his own table, and he used to basically hold court there. Everybody would just listen to him. He was Fred Del Ponte, and he was like me—he loved to tell stories, he was a good storyteller. Davis Square was completely taken over and transformed by kids, people like my sons. Millennials. I’m 63, and I’ve seen it all. When I was a teenager, we hung around at the corner of Bay State Ave. and Kidder Ave. Most kids back then, in the ’70s, had hangouts: Belmont Park, Powderhouse Park. A lot of kids didn’t have cars, after supper we just hung out with our friends.
For me growing up, I was always involved with music. We’d play in school dances and a thing called Somerfest. They used to block off the street, and we’d set up our band in the bed of a flatbed trailer and do concerts in the street. We were playing in a band called Shadowfax, and those three guys who were in the band are still my close friends. We just got together last week and went out and had lunch. We’ve been through everything together.
When I was 14 or 15, me and three or four of my friends got jobs at Revere Beach, and it was the greatest thing in the world. We worked on the dodgem cars when there was an amusement park there. We used to take the bus and get off on the Blue Line, and we’d work—underage, under the table—and take tickets. The Hurleys owned most of Revere Beach; it was unbelievable. Now, there’s nothing there anymore. The Cyclone roller coaster was the last, and it burnt down in 1974 or something.
This is funny: My father was an usher at the Somerville Theatre, I was an usher at the Somerville Theatre, and my son was an usher at the Somerville Theatre. Three generations. Why? Because it was down the street! We could walk there.”
Annette Fiore Bassett
“When I think back to my fondest memories of growing up in Somerville, I would have to say they center around my wonderful group of friends and my amazing and exciting neighborhood. I grew up in Somerville during the ’60s. I lived in a triple decker in the Winter Hill area, and my neighborhood was Forster Street and Tennyson Street—a very close-knit group of families. I remember being the only “Italian” family in a predominantly “Irish” neighborhood. The friends I made in that neighborhood were my very first friends and remain my friends to this day.
My memories revolve around the seasons, summer being the most memorable because of the total freedom of being outside from morning until the street lights came on a night. Bike riding, roller skating, soccer ball (our made-up version of kickball), hide-and-seek, relevio and telling ghost stories under the street light at the corner of Forster and Tennyson Streets were all our games and activities throughout the summer months. Fall, a time when the Concord grapes were ripe for picking—all of us having paper bags would go through our neighborhood yards, filling our bags with delicious, juicy grapes and enjoying them sitting on a curb. During the snowy winter months, all of us actually sledding down Tennyson Street on our Flexible Flyers—very few cars back in those days made that possible.
Other things that stand out… walking down Central Street to Don’s and buying penny candy or getting a popsicle or fudgesicle. In junior high—the Northeastern— walking to school and stopping at Johnny’s (Thurston Spa), for the most delicious tuna sub or Johnny Special, bologna and cheese. I think it cost $1.00.
I met my future husband during that adolescence! He lived on what we called lower Tennyson… the other side of Medford Street. We both graduated from Somerville High in 1971, became Somerville Public School teachers in the mid ’70s. We also married and bought our first home in Somerville in the late ’70s.”
“For the first 10 years of my life I resided at 16 Hamlet St., a home my grandparents owned. It was a carefree life for a child, as I was born in 1946; we lived upstairs, we had a small farm (as many did at that time). My maternal grandparents were from Italy, and we had chickens, rabbits, large vegetable gardens. We made wine and tomato paste in the fall, and we did not consider it work—it was contributing and doing things as a family, as it was years ago.
We took the bus to Boston to shop in the North End; we walked to Union Square. I attended the Pope School, and we walked to school—sometimes on McGrath Highway—or up to Prospect Hill. We walked home for lunch. During rain or stormy weather we would dry off our clothes and then walk back to school.
The streets were loaded with people: dads dropping in to the State Spa, Kozy Grille, Murphy’s and many bars after a hard week’s work. You could buy fresh vegetables at Walkers across the street from the State Spa, where they had fruits and vegetables out on the stand in the street. You could buy butter at Kennedy’s next to the Kozy Grill. We had a great neighborhood.”