This is the fourth and final installment in our series highlighting local leaders in Somerville, which first appeared in our July/August issue. You can find part I here, part II here and part III here.
“It feels like the city changes whenever we ride through it. You can ride your regular bike through Somerville, but then if you ride your disco sparkly bike and groove through the streets, it’s totally different. It really has a huge impact on the the world when you change yourself.”
Skunk is the founder of SCUL, a bicycle gang that has been building and riding experimental bikes since 1996. SCUL used to be an acronym for Subversive Choppers Urban Legion, but they outgrew the acronym as SCUL evolved from hard to hip. “After a while, we didn’t really care about sounding tough,” Skunk recalls. “Instead of playing rock music, we started playing funk and disco and groove … We just kind of lightened up a lot.”
SCUL has built an imaginative science fiction culture; everything the gang does or builds has a sci-fi twist. Its members are called pilots, bikes are deemed spaceships and they ride on missions through star systems (cities), occasionally crossing galaxies (state borders).
This relationship between bicycles and science fiction started at an early age for Skunk. He was 7 years old when Star Wars came out, which happened to be right around the time that he started riding his bike. He would pretend the wind in his ears was rocket ship thrusters.
“When you first start riding you have that sense of freedom and exploration,” says Skunk. “And sci-fi brings out that same sense of adventure, for me.”
SCUL’s motto is “be a superhero version of yourself,” and Skunk believes that many of the gang’s pilots live up to this. He’s watched people develop as individuals, taking on challenges and having a lot of fun along the way. “It’s really for us,” he says. “We wind up having a really good time, and it feels really contagious wherever we go.”
“If you’re making money by helping people buy homes, you have to think about the people who don’t even have a home,” real estate agent Thalia Tringo says simply. That’s why she serves on the board of the Somerville Homeless Coalition—which honored her with a Davis Area Residents and Business Initiative award in 2012—and works with Community Cooks and a number of other local nonprofits. “I live in the community, and I feel like if you’re making money in the community, it’s kind of your responsibility to put money back into it.” Each time one of Tringo’s agents makes a real estate transaction, $250 from the sale goes to local advocacy organizations like the Charles River Conservancy, the Steppingstone Foundation and Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services.
“Real estate, in particular, is working with a lot of people who are lucky. They’re able to, and they have the resources to, buy homes,” she says. “Especially in the area that we live in, that’s a luxury.”
While Tringo is a huge believer in philanthropy, the idea behind this donation model goes beyond the financial. She asks her clients to choose the local nonprofit where they’d like the money to go, in the hopes that when they move to the area they’ll become engaged with one (or more) of those organizations as a volunteer or donor.
Nonprofit work is as important to Tringo as it is to her agents, three of whom work with Community Cooks themselves. It’s a commitment they take very seriously. Tringo recalls how one of her agents, Adaria Brooks, recently came into the office looking exhausted. Her Community Cooks recipe assignment was fried chicken, and when she didn’t think her first two batches were good enough, she stayed up until 3 a.m. to make a third.
“I thought, ‘I really hired a good person here,’” Tringo says. “I’m so lucky to have a bunch of people who share that philosophy.”
When it comes to empowering immigrant youth, adults and families in Somerville, The Welcome Project‘s executive director Ben Echevarria sees opportunities through community. “By strengthening our immigrant residents, we strengthen the city,” he explains.
The Welcome Project is a community-based organization that advocates for immigrant rights and offers programs for immigrant and lower-income families throughout Somerville. “We work with bicultural students to help them realize that knowing a second language is a great asset,” says Echevarria. “We teach them how to interpret. And we work with their parents to help them be involved.” To Echevarria, these are valuable resources that aren’t available in a lot of communities. He’s proud of a new program called English for Parents, which is dedicated to helping moms and dads stay engaged in their child’s education. The class gives non-English speaking adults tools to navigate the system, such as the ability to ask the right questions at parent-teacher meetings.
Echevarria has been on The Welcome Project’s board for the past nine years, having served as board president for most of that time. He recently accepted the position as executive director after the previous executive director, Warren Goldstein-Gelb, suffered a stroke.
Community Benefits Agreements are especially important to Echevarria, and The Welcome Project holds developers accountable to the needs of working class and immigrant communities. “Developers want to come in. Great—we welcome you!” says Echevarria. “But you’re coming here because you understand how lucrative the market is. And the reason why it’s lucrative is because of all the people who put in the hard work.” Whether it’s green spaces, improving community policing or improving schools, Echevarria wants developers to understand that they are signing up for a partnership not only with the city, but also with the diverse voices of the community.
For the staff of the Somerville Arts Council, encouraging and promoting the arts doesn’t just mean working with gallery spaces and museums. That’s a part of the job, of course, but what really interests this group is the way that art intersects with culture at large.
“It’s really exciting to me to bring a lot of different communities together,” says special events manager Nina Eichner, who grew up in Somerville and joined the arts council staff just over a year ago. “Even though there are so many communities living in Somerville, they don’t always overlap directly.”
Eichner is the first full-time staffer to take on this events-focused role. She, Executive Director Gregory Jenkins, Cultural Director Rachel Strutt, Office Manager Heather Balchunas and a whole host of volunteers are responsible for much-loved annual events like Porchfest and Artbeat, as well as recurring happenings like SomerStreets. And they’re looking to expand their live programming, connecting with new people and neighborhoods by helping locals bring offbeat ideas to life. (See: last year’s Pity Party and this year’s Tiny Tall Ships Festival.) Their reach is broad and getting broader, with new yearly happenings like Haiti in the ‘Ville and last year’s first-ever Evolution of Hip Hop Festival.
This small but mighty team wants to connect the city at the intersection of arts, athletics, food, music and fun. At last year’s SomerStreets festival on Highland Avenue, for example, Eichner recalls watching skateboarders from Maximum Hesh roll their boards through paint to create murals. They’re open to new perspectives; they want to try new things. They see the potential in a new, unexpected or unusual idea—and they’re willing to build off of their small successes.
“From the international market tours [in Union Square], we did the Nibble blog,” Heather Balchunas explains. “From the Nibble blog, we did the cookbook, and from the cookbook we did classes, and from the classes we did pop-ups and from the pop-ups we also did the Culinary Entrepreneurship Program.”
“Sometimes, it’s just these seeds,” she adds. “And they grow into other things.”
If you visit the Union Square Farmers Market this summer, or if you stopped by the winter market at the Armory in the colder months, you’ve been a direct beneficiary of the collaborative, community-minded work of Relish Management founders MaryCat Chaikin and Mimi Graney.
After a trial pop-up the previous year, the duo officially founded Relish in 2014. Their business provides project management services for creative and food-based happenings, like farmers markets, shared work spaces and public art projects. Graney and Chaikin’s specific focus is on hosting public events in public places with high accessibility for local communities. They want to create events that celebrate neighborhoods and engage people in underused spaces with a focus on art and food—two of our favorite things.
Both Chaikin and Graney are longtime Somerville residents and have deep experience with community events here. Chaikin’s background is in restaurants and markets, while Graney founded Union Square Main Streets in 2005. Now, they take on projects throughout the Greater Boston area together, including the Watertown Farmers Market and the state’s Gateway Cities initiative. But they’re not applying their Somerville model indiscriminately. “We’re not trying to change the flavor of the neighborhoods,” they say. Instead, “We want to appreciate what’s unique there.”
“When we first said, ‘Well, what about the Community Path? This should be built along with the Green Line [Extension],’ the first response from the state was, ‘Nope,’” Alan Moore recalls.
Moore and Lynn Weissman are spearheading the efforts to extend the Community Path along the future GLX by linking the Minuteman Bikeway and Charles River Path networks. “If the Community Path isn’t built now, especially that section, it probably won’t be built within our lifetime. We could be losing a great opportunity,” says Weissman, a self-proclaimed “extreme commuter-cyclist and bicycle-pedestrian advocate” who has been volunteering with the Friends of the Community Path since her partner Joel Bennet first came up with the idea for the group in 2001. “We’re not talking about just a little side path. It’s primary access to the Green Line, and this is the best, most efficient use of the transportation corridor.”
Extending the Community Path would link 11 Boston metro cities and towns, create safe and ADA-compliant routes to schools and work spaces and spark an estimated 3 million trips along its length per year, according to Weissman. But despite these advantages, Weissman and Moore have met significant roadblocks recently from the Green Line Extension Project. In April, the Green Line team proposed a plan that Weissman says will remove the Community Path from the project altogether.
Weissman and Moore don’t want to see that happen. They’re using Moore’s experience as an environmental and civil engineer—along with the hard work of other group members—for the Friends of the Community Path’s alternate design, which they’ve proposed to the GLX.
“There are plenty of ways the Green Line Project could save money and get the path done, as opposed to slicing and dicing the path,” says Weissman. “Our plan hasn’t gotten to yes on the state yet, but this is a crucial time, and we’re going to keep pushing.”
Mary Cassesso has held a range of jobs throughout her impressive career, but they share common threads: healthcare, affordable housing and education, all work done in the public interest.
As a child in Somerville, Cassesso saw her grandmother and mother as active members of the community who spoke up on issues that were important to them, like rent control and I-93. In Somerville, Cassesso says, there has always been “a community of people that are very active and want to make sure we have good government and good policies.” It’s clear that she’s carried that sense of public engagement with her.
Early in her career, Cassesso worked for the city’s Council on Aging and Health and the Human Services Department. She went on to work for Governor Dukakis in his office for affordable housing. That has remained a critical issue for Cassesso, who now serves on Somerville’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. “I think we’re at a challenging point,” Cassesso says, as “Somerville is now unaffordable for so many.”
Her current position at Cambridge Health Alliance comes after a long history of working in public health. As a co-op undergraduate student at Northeastern University—she was the first in her family to attend college—Cassesso worked for the East Somerville Health Center on lead paint poisoning. Later in her career, she took a position at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. During that time, she was on the board of the Cambridge Health Alliance, where she herself was—and still is—a patient.
But most powerful of all is Cassesso’s commitment to the public good. “Somerville has been so good to me,” she smiles, “and I hope I’ve been good for Somerville.”
Every day, Mayor Curtatone is working to fight crime, end drug abuse and improve overall livability in the city by looking at the little things—graffiti, potholes, complaints about rats. He and his staff are using “predictive analytics” to determine where the problems are and how to best address them, monitoring 311 outputs to determine how to best improve public safety and quality of life in Somerville.
“You have to manage the city in real time, and you have to build the services in real time, so you have to look at the data in real time,” Curtatone explains. “We’ve built up an analytical capacity in the city—which is one of the innovations that Somerville is lauded for worldwide—to understand how we use our resources better and how we reallocate, not just money, but human capital.”
Curtatone, who first introduced the city’s revolutionary 311 program, initially wanted to be a pilot. But he ran for alderman in 1995 because he thought, among other things, that the city had no foresight, no idea of where it wanted to be. Somerville’s mayor since 2004, he’s actualizing his vision for the city by collecting data, which is important—crucial, in fact—to actively building its future.
But while Curtatone is using statistics to answer big-picture questions like, “Are [residents] going to choose to send their kids to public school?” and “Do they have an authentic choice to buy a home?” he’s also concerned with the city’s well-being on a personal level. It’s why Somerville was the first municipality in the nation to measure people’s overall satisfaction and happiness and why Curtatone previously held a series of “backyard chats” to get to know his constituents.
“We should be opening the city up as a test lab for ideas that generate innovation and originality in the neighborhood,” Curtatone explains. “It’s about social progress—what is our role as leaders? Are we managers or leaders? If you need managers, you can hire accountants.”
“We can be the most progressive community in the United States,” he says, “and I believe we are.”
Mayor Emeritus Eugene Brune is bursting at the seams with stories about Somerville politics. “We can talk as long as you want,” he responds when we promise to keep the conversation brief.
Mayor Brune got his start in Somerville politics in 1969. He served on the Board of Health before becoming an alderman in 1972. But he’s best known for his term as the city’s mayor, a position he held from 1980-1989.
Brune’s early years as mayor were fraught. Three months into his first term, a Monsanto chemical spill at the trainyard displaced thousands of people and sent more than 400 residents and responders to the hospital. “It was a scene out of television,” Brune says now, still shaken. Not making things any easier was Proposition 2 1/2, which went into effect early into his tenure and meant that Brune had to cut taxes for three years even as outdated city infrastructure demanded upgrades and maintenance.
But Brune persevered, confident he would reach a point when he could afford to address some of the city’s pressing issues. “I always said this in politics: If you don’t lie to the people, they will stay with you,” Brune says. They did—he was reelected four times.
During his tenure as mayor, Brune cut the ribbon at the Davis Square Red Line T stop, an expansion he’d worked towards as an alderman. He fought for more restaurants, asking that liquor licenses be prioritized for food establishments over barrooms. Brune started Artbeat and worked to attract artists to the city, and he set up the fair housing commission. He replaced the elected assessors, responsible for the financial well-being of the city, with qualified, appointed assessors. His legacy endures today in Somerville’s thriving arts and food scene and in the city’s ongoing attention to affordable housing and responsible governance.
Mayor Brune eventually left office to serve as the register of deeds for Middlesex County Southern District, an elected position which he held for two decades, and from which he retired just a few years ago.
Today, Brune remains actively involved in city organizations and politics. He’s a trustee for the Somerville Museum and serves on a number of other boards, and he’s in close contact with local elected officials. Like many residents, he’s concerned about the high cost of living and the price tags of major capital projects; he’s also worried about Somerville’s transformation from a city of family neighborhoods to what could be a destination for transitory tenants. “When it comes time, are those people going to stay and raise their children here?” Brune asks.
But he worries because he cares. “I was born in this city, and I love this city,” Brune says. “So, that’s my story.”
At SCATV, Erica Jones is the Director of Membership and Outreach, a descriptor that, at other nonprofits, could stop at managing donor databases and sending out email newsletters. But Jones doesn’t treat her position that way. Instead, she spends a great deal of time fostering what she calls “strategic community partnerships.”
“I think, at the heart of everything, it’s about building community. Strength in numbers is key,” she explains. “Especially in an ever-evolving and growing city, where there’s a lot of change going on, I think it’s good to have anchored roots and foster those existing partnerships—but also have new blood coming in.”
Jones looks at the needs of SCATV and the needs of Somerville as a whole in developing programs like Cinema Somerville, a family-friendly, outdoor film series that comes to spaces like the Somerville Community Growing Center, and Rough Cut Media Screenings, where local filmmakers can showcase early drafts of their work at the Armory and get feedback. She’s helped kick off music events like the Duck Village Stage series at Aeronaut, where SCATV shoots high-quality live videos of local bands. But she isn’t only a supporter of SCATV’s programming—head to just about any community event in Somerville, and you’re likely to find her there.
In this way, Jones is a community connector, a one-woman hub who loves bringing together people who are doing similar or parallel work in the neighborhood so that they can collaborate.
“It’s nice to get out there,” she says. “We are the Somerville community media center. We need to get out of Union Square.”
That’s why the station collaborates with local businesses and nonprofits, and why, on SCATV’s YouTube page, you’ll find profiles on community institutions—OnStage Dance Company, Hub Comics, the Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery—that were filmed for free and which those business can then use to promote themselves.
“We can actually make media that reflects our own interests, our own communities, our own values,” Jones says simply. “Our goal is to do community service, essentially. We have the resources. That’s basically why we exist.”
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.