It Takes a ‘Ville-age: Part II

Open space advocate Michèle Biscoe poses with her pup at the Zero New Washington Dog Park. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

This is the second in our four-part series highlighting local leaders in Somerville, which first appeared in our July/August issue. You can find part I here.

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When Methodist pastors are appointed to a new church, that nomination isn’t only to their congregation but to that city or town at large—a commitment that Justin Hildebrandt takes seriously. “Maybe I’ve got 25 people here on a Sunday, but there are 80,000 people in Somerville,” Hildebrandt explains. “I say that I spend my time accordingly.” His community-focused space on Broadway in East Somerville is a frequent host to organizations that need a place for their board meetings and retreats, and the church holds a monthly meal in partnership with area nonprofits. Every summer, the building houses Freedom Connexion, a six-week program that provides free education to students who are at risk of learning loss during the summer months.


Justin Hildebrandt, photo by Sharona Jacobs Photography.

There’s no better metaphor for that community-first focus than the communion table where Hildebrandt and his congregation break bread each week. It’s a simple card table; Hildebrandt believes that communion shouldn’t feel like it’s happening in a formal dining room, meant for special occasions and fancy table settings, but instead in the family room, where meaningful conversations between loved ones take place. Groups that borrow the church’s space will sometimes use the communion table for their work, and Hildebrandt recalls once looking on as members of Somerville Overcoming Addiction (SOA) made posters memorializing those who had been lost to addiction on its surface.

“This is kind of beautiful,” Hildebrandt thought to himself as he watched SOA members cut, draw and paste on the table where his congregation communes on Sundays. “It’s the communion of life.”

hair by christine

During her first year in business on Highland Avenue, Hair by Christine & Co. owner Christine Andrade flew a rainbow flag outside of the salon during pride week—a decision that prompted a friend to ask if she was worried it would turn people away. Andrade realized that they might be right. “So I put a pride flag on every window,” she recalls.

Reaching out to LGBTQ individuals has always been a priority for Andrade, whose salon is a judgement-free, safe space. Hair by Christine & Co. stylists recently held a “Dress for Success” beauty tutorial day for the transgender community at Fenway Health, and Andrade always teaches those who are transitioning how to style their hair and makeup free of charge. When the #IllGoWithYou ally project to promote safety in gendered spaces like bathrooms launched earlier this year, she immediately ordered 500 of the pink, white and blue buttons, which she gives out for free.

hair by christine

Andrade laughs with a client who’s hair she’s been cutting and styling for more than a decade. Photo by Emily Cassel.

Andrade, who always wanted to have her own salon—in elementary school she was snagging her mom’s bleach to put streaks in her hair—is a firm believer in using beauty care for the greater good. Her stylists cut hair for homeless women at St. Francis House, and she recently hosted a cut-a-thon to benefit the Boston Children’s Hospital. A graduate of the cosmetology program at Somerville High School, she welcomes current students into her shop to learn the tricks of the trade. “I like to take people from where I was and build them up,” she says. “I think it’s really important to build people up in this business.”

“To me,” Andrade adds, “hairdressing is helping people.”

danielle mclean

For Danielle McLean, being a reporter—especially one working in the same city where she resides—is a big responsibility. She believes that free press is crucial to democracy and government functionality.

“You need to have that oversight,” says McLean. “There’s no government that’s perfect, there’s no politician that’s perfect and there’s nobody that can represent the voices of everybody. You need the media there to hold people accountable for decisions that may affect different groups of people.”

Most cities have their own issues, identities and problems, but McLean doesn’t think there are many that have as much complexity and as much at stake as Somerville. The cost of living skyrocketing and forcing low income and working families out of the city, while drawing in developers, is a story about changing demographics that McLean feels an obligation to tell. She wrote a story in February about the high cost of living in Somerville after a study revealed that the yearly income to afford the average monthly rent in the city, without being rent burdened—or paying more than a third of your salary on rent—is more than $95,000.

“That number has really stood out to me because it just shows how difficult it is to live in Somerville,” she explains. “And so there’s that huge push and pull, and I think it’s a very interesting time, a very complex time and a very important time to be in news media here in the city.”

It can be difficult for just a two-person staff to cover such a busy, ambitious city. McLean makes a great effort to address the important topics in the city, to share the stories of the marginalized members of the community and to give them a voice.

“When we’re able to tell a good story and we’re able to point out an important issue that nobody else has known, it’s great,” says McLean. ”It’s an amazing feeling. It’s why I do what I do. It makes you feel like you really are contributing to the community.”

michele biscoeWhen Michèle Biscoe adopted a dog in 2004, she was excited to explore Somerville with her new canine companion—until, that is, she realized that dogs were expressly forbidden in every public park. “Even the Community Path,” Biscoe recalls.

It’s hard to imagine now; in 2016, Somerville is a great place to own a dog. But throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, dog owners had a reputation as scofflaws—a reputation that endured in the mid-2000s. Legally, dogs weren’t allowed in parks and playgrounds, which meant someone had to convince the city that those laws should change.

Biscoe and other Somerville dog lovers were willing to do the work. With the guidance of the late Alderman Tom Taylor, a dog owner “and everything a community could hope for in an elected representative,” Biscoe says, she co-founded Som|Dog and kicked off a grassroots campaign to make the city more dog-friendly. Working with a host of advocates—School Committee Member Steve Roix and his wife, Julie, Justin Grunau, Lisa McFarren, Frank Cresta, Genevieve Jones, Shannon Pendleton, Ben Worthen, Tir na nOg owner Feargal O’Toole, Alice Napoleon and Bill Ritchotte, the eventual unofficial “mayor” of the Nunziato Field Dog Park—Biscoe started organizing park cleanups. The group wanted to get the word out that dog owners love and need parks—and that they would be willing to take care of them. After 18 months of advocacy, the city’s first dog park opened at Nunziato Field.

michele biscoe

Photo by Jess Benjamin.

These advocates weren’t only working on behalf of four-legged residents; they often attended meetings about public gardens or skate parks, promoting the importance of open space for all. In a dense city like Somerville, you might think that different groups that wanted open space for their own uses would have a “piece of the pie” mentality—that they’d work against each other to ensure their own needs were met.

“We didn’t see it that way,” Biscoe says, pointing out that the Zero New Washington Off-Leash Recreation Area is on a piece of land that was initially slated for development. “We saw that we could just, you know, bake more pie.”

greentown labs

As one of the Boston Globe’s 2016 Game Changers and with a profile in Forbes last year, Emily Reichert something of a Somerville celebrity. After a career in chemistry research and laboratory work—with an ever-increasing focus on green research—Reichert enrolled at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In 2013, she joined up with Greentown Labs, an incubator for green technology startups that offered the right combination of business and environmentally-minded science. She currently serves as Greentown’s CEO.

Reichert’s first decision was to move the company from South Boston to Somerville. Through a “fortuitous” connection, she was able to work collaboratively with Mayor Curtatone’s administration to bring Greentown to the city. “I think [the mayor] could see the potential of this organization, and he wanted it to be part of the landscape in Somerville,” she says now. The city assisted in helping Greentown make the move, and the business has been here ever since.

While Reichert doesn’t live in Somerville—“I have Somerville envy!”—she says the city was the perfect spot for the green-tech incubator. “Somerville is a place where entrepreneurs are and where entrepreneurs want to be,” she says. The city’s enthusiasm has been a significant component of her organization’s success. In fact, with additional support from the city and the state, Greentown is planning to expand its facilities here, having recently made an agreement with the owner of the Maaco building at 444 Somerville Ave. The expanded space will offer significantly more room for events and will triple the number of entrepreneurs Greentown can house while enabling the company to expand globally and attract clean technology startups from around the world.

joe lynch

“I love when the community gets involved
in what’s happening locally,” says Joe Lynch. “Your government starts locally, and I love covering hyperlocal politics.”

Regional government has always interested Lynch, who grew up here in the city talking Somerville politics with his family at the dining room table. Today, he puts that interest into practice with two SCATV programs: Greater Somerville, which he created in 2009, and Somerville Neighborhood News, for which he became a co-anchor last year.

But while you may recognize him from those SCATV productions, it’s Lynch’s slightly more behind-the-scenes work as a Magoun Square neighborhood leader that really showcases his keen interest in local affairs. As recently as the early 2000s, he recalls the square being a very different place than it is today—rundown buildings, empty storefronts, a few scattered bars. Noting that the city can only do so much, he and his neighbors drafted their own plans to redevelop the neighborhood and make it more attractive to businesses.

joe lynch

Joe Lynch

“We were ready, with a shovel-ready project, and that’s how the Magoun Square revitalization got into the front of the queue for all of that federal money,” Lynch explains. It was somewhat serendipitous, he admits—but they made their own luck.

Lynch says he still gets a few emails a week from concerned Magoun neighbors. But today, he credits the area’s continued growth to its business owners—people like On the Hill Tavern owner Robert Antonelli and Gregory Coughlin of Olde Magoun’s Saloon who have actually invested in the square and are guiding its future. It was Daddy Jones Bar’s Dimitra Tsourianis who rallied the region together for the first-ever Magoun Square Food and Dance Festival in May.

“You get four or five people together, and before you know it, you’ve got a movement,” Lynch says. “I’m glad to see it’s happening. I think Magoun Square is going nowhere but up.”

pat jehlen
Senator Pat Jehlen has served the city of Somerville for four decades. In her current role as Somerville’s State Senator, Jehlen fights for progressive values on issues ranging from elder affairs to criminal justice reform and public education, including ending high-stakes testing. The Green Line Extension “takes up enormous amounts of time, and energy, and anger, and frustration,” but she works to keep Somerville’s priorities front-of-mind on that project, advocating for job opportunities and training for Somerville workers on the GLX.

Jehlen, who also represents Medford and parts of Cambridge, originally became involved in Somerville politics as an educator during the city’s reform movement in the 1970s. She decided to run for Pat Jehlenschool committee, a position she held for 16 years, advocating for state funding and parental involvement. Jehlen then served as state representative from 1991 to 2005, during which time she led efforts on behalf of disabled residents and senior citizens, education reform and the legalization of gay marriage. After voting in favor of marriage equality in both the house and the senate, due to timing of the votes in relation to her senate swearing-in, “I got to officiate at three weddings, including some of my dearest friends who had been together for decades,” Jehlen recalls. Her powerful role in Massachusetts politics has rippled through the country—because then-Governor Bill Weld supported her medical marijuana bill, he was later denied an appointment as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

This year, Jehlen is running for reelection against Cambridge City Councilor Leland Chung. Though she’s more focused on serving her constituents than election-year politics, Jehlen did endorse Bernie Sanders in the Massachusetts primary and today reflects that “inequality is the biggest issue this country faces—inequality of money and power—and I think that’s where my focus has been.”

And, lest you forget: Jehlen founded the OPENAIR Circus, which her son currently oversees, and still teaches stiling at every opportunity.

someville museum

When lifelong Somerville resident Evelyn Battinelli’s daughter went off to kindergarten in 1973, Battinelli and another friend were determined to reconnect with the local community. Together, they began attending Somerville Historical Society lectures organized by their former teacher Isabel Cheney. Battinelli has been a member of the Somerville Historical Society ever since. Today, she serves as the Somerville Museum’s executive director.

The museum is owned and operated by the historical society. Along with exhibition director Michael O’Connor and many dedicated volunteers and board members, Battinelli has put together three decades of programs, events and exhibits. The Somerville Museum has an expansive collection of archives that are showcased in exhibits by local artists and historians.

somerville museum

Evelyn Battinelli, executive director of the Somerville Museum. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

One of Battinelli’s favorite exhibits was Lifting the Veil (1997), about the burning of the Ursuline convent. She also fondly recalls a year-long exhibition on the history of Somerville’s theaters that featured a memorable opening event with searchlights and Hollywood actress Frances Dee. “Each of these exhibitions touch on so much of our history,” Battinelli says.

She remains dedicated to the museum’s mission: “To keep alive the history and to bring alive the culture and art seen here in Somerville.”

“The museum is our treasure,” Battinelli emphasizes. “No other area locally has such a magnificent little building.”

stephanie hirsch

Over the past 12 years, Stephanie Hirsch has worked for both the municipal and the school divisions of city government, where she’s helped to make data a centerpiece for strategy in Somerville. On the municipal side, her work in the mayor’s office, including the launching of SomerStat—Mayor Curtatone’s tool for managing departments and initiatives using data—has made a difference in the lives of residents and in government transparency. When it comes to her educational work, she relies on data to ensure students have what they need to succeed, whether that’s extra enrichments or family services.

“You do see how it’s a whole system that has to work together to make sure children, families and individuals in Somerville have what they need to be happy, healthy, successful and able to contribute to the community,” says Hirsch.

In addition to her work in the mayor’s office and for the schools, Hirsch has been an advocate for families in Somerville. She volunteers her time organizing community groups such as Happy Hour, a social network for new moms, and she has coordinated affordable programs and camps for kids.

Hirsch, who has lived and worked in Somerville since 2004, believes we have a unique culture that can be a model of socioeconomic diversity for the country. But the relationship between this culture and the schools’ continued successes—which bring resources to the city for program investment—makes this a crucial time in history for the city.

“We can’t freeze time right now,” she says. “We know families are being priced out of the city and we will lose that economic diversity.” Her goal is to continue expanding resources while finding ways to stabilize households and preserve the diversity within Somerville. “How do we continue to be this very special place and hopefully provide an example for how you can preserve a strong middle class and strong working class and integration across socioeconomic backgrounds?” she asks. “That’s the question we work to answer.”

ken kelly

“I like to say that when I opened the Independent, I did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and did a bad job of doing it,” Ken Kelly joked when we spoke with him for the “Fierce Over 40” feature in our July/August 2015 edition. “It was a very bad move for a long time. It went from bad to worse for a while.”

Kelly passed away in December at age 44 after a long battle with cancer, but his willingness to take that risk with the Independent, and later, with Brass Union (formerly Precinct), Foundry on Elm, Saloon and River Bar, forever changed the dining scene in Somerville—and the fabric of the community as a whole.

Ken Kelly

Ken Kelly, photographed by Todd Danforth for “Fierce Over 40” (Scout Somerville, July/August 2015).

“Building the Independent really set the whole tone for the neighborhood … Ken came in and made a dramatic change to the building and made a significant investment when nobody else would,” former Union Square Main Streets Executive Director Mimi Graney told the Somerville Journal last year. “He had a sense of faith in the neighborhood before anybody else.” His contributions weren’t limited to Union Square; Foundry on Elm was the first eatery to bring high-end dining to Davis, setting the tone for the neighborhood and paving the way for the restaurants that have opened there in the years since.

The beloved restaurateur also had a sense of faith in a certain hyperlocal magazine; when Scout publisher Holli Banks was struggling to find funding to print the magazine’s first issue in 2009, Kelly generously purchased back cover ad space at the last minute, ensuring that the inaugural edition went to press. Scout would likely not exist today without him.

Kelly volunteered with Union Square Main Streets, the Somerville Little League and Groundwork Somerville. He also served on the board of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, from which he received a lifetime achievement award in 2014, as the chairperson of the Union Square Business Group. He contributed his time and financial resources to scores of nonprofits throughout the region. But when we spoke last year, he was quick to defer the credit for Somerville’s revitalization to people in the community who made his achievements possible—the other members of the Chamber of Commerce and the local Main Streets organizations, especially.

“Now, we’ve gotten to the stage where a business comes [to Somerville], and they do well right out of the gate,” he said, adding that while he had briefly looked for restaurant space in Cambridge and Newton, it was Somerville where he saw long-term potential. “And that’s a great thing to see.”

This story originally appeared in our July/August print edition, in which we profiled 40 local leaders who make Somerville great. The magazine is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

You can find the first ten profiles here. Check back next week for profiles 21-30!