Preserving a Fading Culture

Jason FaulknerPhoto courtesy of Jason Faulkner.

’Ville Native Gets People Talking About the City of His Youth

Jason Faulkner likes to think Somerville grew up with him.

He was raised in Spring Hill in the ’80s and ’90s, at a time when, as he puts it, the city was “a little rougher.” When he entered adulthood, artists started to pop up, taking advantage of the cheap rent, and the city began to become a more dynamic and attractive place to live. Now, he feels Somerville is the perfect family-oriented place for him to raise his two daughters.

If Faulkner is nostalgic for the Somerville of his childhood, he doesn’t long for those days. Instead, he is matter-of-fact about the changes in the city, and is careful not rule them good or bad.

But he does want to preserve the local identity he remembers, the one that he thinks remains only with his parents’ generation. His mother and father, both raised in the city themselves, were fully entrenched in the Somerville that seems almost folkloric to newcomers. As Faulkner has dug into his city’s past, he’s realized the ways in which his own family was a part of it.

What characterized the old Somerville personality? Toughness, in Faulkner’s experience.

“There’s a whole personality, a whole identity that’s being washed out,” he says. “The way that people speak, the jobs that people do. Somerville was traditionally very working class, very blue collar, and so was a lot of the city of Boston. I think it’s really important to just catalogue it. It’s not saying it’s right, it’s not saying it’s wrong, it’s just saying this is an identity that is fading. And for me, it’s a really deep part of me, it’s what I grew up with, so I don’t want it to be forgotten.”

Faulkner set out to preserve the voice of old Somerville through an alliance with Dirty Old Boston, an online community where people post and share photos of Greater Boston from before the ’90s. Faulkner saw how the images sparked commenters’ memories, and it lined up with the storytelling he wanted to encourage in Somerville.

On a photo of a woman outside Thurston Spa, a commenter posted a recent photo of the same spot. Another: “My aunt worked there for years!” A third: “My beautiful hometown.”

One of Faulkner’s contributions to Dirty Old Boston is creating T-shirts with the logos of iconic but now-defunct Somerville businesses. There’s Steve’s Ice Cream, which he claims was at the cutting edge of the artisanal ice cream trend. There’s Somerville Lumber, which he calls Home Depot before there was Home Depot. There’s Johnny D’s, whose inclusion can give more recent Somervillians a sense of how beloved these businesses were.

“When people see the shirts, they say, ‘I remember my dad used to take me here for ice cream,’ things like that,” Faulkner explains. “They all trigger these memories and stories that people have. And that’s really the core of what I’m trying to get to.”

Faulkner also created the Old Dirty Boston podcast (up on YouTube), where he interviews people to preserve their voices—both their ways of speaking and their stories.

Earlier this year, he interviewed John Baino, who was raised in the Somerville Housing Authority Mystic River Development and is friends with Faulkner’s father. 

“I’m so happy I have that voice, because it’s the way he sees things, the way he describes things, that’s fully his identity, and the identity of a lot of other people,” Faulkner explains.

Some highlights: “I got in a lot of fights.” “They couldn’t catch me.” “The best time of my life was growing up in the housing projects … That was the closeness of growing up in the housing projects: You did everything together, you shared everything.”

Having traveled in his early adulthood, Faulkner sees reminiscing as uniquely prevalent in the Boston area. 

“We would just sit around, especially with old friends, and it was always like ‘Remember the time that this happened, remember that time,’” he says. “And you’d go around the room, and everybody shares a funny story. It usually has to be funny, or crazy. In Somerville, it’s either about something that was totally crazy, wild, and violent, or it was something that was hilarious, or both.”

While Faulkner’s focus is on the stories of the past, he also notes the benefit of sharing stories as they’re happening to you. That’s the driving idea behind another project, in which he hopes to install phone booths throughout the city. Each phone booth will have an iPad, and people can make messages that will be uploaded to an Instagram page.

He doesn’t know what kinds of stories people will post, but to him, it’s like a confessional—the kind of confessional that would’ve been helpful for him as he dealt with a bad relationship.

“People either have great stories or they have things that they’re carrying around that are heavy on them, and saying them out loud sometimes helps take that pressure off,” he says. “That triggers some personal stuff for me … I was always so afraid to say that or let that out. I thought that like the whole world would end, I couldn’t imagine my life after all that coming out. But then it did, and I actually feel a world better. I feel much happier, much more calm. I just want that to happen for some people through that.”

And the stories of the past inform the lives we live today, Faulkner argues. As a third-generation Somervillian, the more research he does and the more memories he hears, the better he understands how he and his family fit into the picture of the city.

“There’s so much here in the city,” he says. “You can either go forward and talk about what’s going to happen in the future, talk about ideas and concepts, or you can go back, and really dig into what’s happened. Because if you can understand the past, you can usually get a really clear picture of what the future’s going to bring.”

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

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