Winter Hill Brewing Company is almost ready to open. The taps have been installed, the signage is up and the espresso machine—yes, they’ll also be serving coffee— has arrived. But the brewery was only midway through its buildout when, in late September, the team welcomed the Winter Hill community into its skeleton space at 328 Broadway to talk about revitalizing their neighborhood.
“Everything was a little bit of a nightmare, and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” laughs co-founder and head brewer Jeff Rowe. “We helped the only way we could, which was to offer the space and clean it out for a quick second.” Dozens of their soon-to-be neighbors, unperturbed by the unfinished building, met in the brewery to snack, drink, play games—and talk tactical urbanism.
The evening was facilitated by The Better Block, a nonprofit that encourages and empowers citizens to take a hand in shaping their communities for the better. Better Block’s Andrew Howard says that the organization wants to reach residents who haven’t previously been engaged. “Maybe they wouldn’t go to the school meeting or the town hall meeting,” Howard explains, “but they’ll go [to an event] right in their neighborhood and express what they want and put the time into building it.”
The idea is also to get community members to think big, to imagine, “What if?” At the Winter Hill Better Block Festival in December, residents made temporary changes like setting up a parklet—literally, a tiny park—and painting a colorful rainbow crosswalk. The hope is that these inexpensive, short-term initiatives can help set the stage for long-term growth and revitalization. “A lot of us live our day to day and just sort of accept what’s around us and don’t think a lot about it,” says Melissa Woods from the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning. “To sort of disrupt that status quo—especially in the fun way that we did—is, I think, really eye-opening to people.”
Winter Hill residents already know this region as one of the city’s hidden gems, an off-the-beaten-path place to get some of the best pizza in Greater Boston (Leone’s) a stone’s throw from some of the region’s best Middle Eastern fare (Sarma). And the brewery is just the latest in a long line of local businesses—Winter Hill Bakery, Winter Hill Bank, Winter Hill Liquor Mart, Winter Hill Veterinary Clinic—to claim the neighborhood as its namesake.
It’s also one of a number of new eateries that have opened or will soon open in the area. Falafel Place came to Main Street a little over a year ago; Nick Robertson just opened the doors at Somerville Bread Company on Medford Street in February. Soon, Tipping Cow will serve gourmet ice cream a few doors down from Robertson’s shop.
In some ways, Woods says that this marks a return to Winter Hill’s roots. Lifelong residents will remember the kind of thoroughfare that Broadway once was, lined with shops and restaurants, with the Broadway Theater just down the road in East Somerville.
The challenge, of course, as any neighborhood morphs from a residential district to a drinking and dining destination, is in keeping the neighborhood’s integrity intact—and in keeping rents affordable for the people who currently live there. How do we encourage development without contributing to skyrocketing rents? Can we make this a nicer place for the people who are already here without pushing those same people out?
Finding a way to strike that balance is “the thesis of about a third of all graduate students across the U.S.,” says Woods. It’s something that’s at the front of her mind and the minds of her coworkers at City Hall, and she says that, honestly, they don’t have a simple answer.
What they do know is that they want to keep citizens as involved in the process as possible. Better Block’s Monica Diodati says that her organization tries to get residents and people from the private sector talking, to show people that it’s not as hard as they think to make improvements on their own. Which is why, on February 18, about 30 people got together at the Winter Hill Community School for a follow-up discussion about the Better Block Festival. “We really hadn’t planned on doing this kind of meeting,” says Max MacCarthy, who works in the Economic Development Department at City Hall. But, he says, residents wanted a way to stay involved moving forward. At the meeting, attendees discussed the report Better Block compiled after the festival and tried to set up local, community-based leadership that will guide Winter Hill’s future. There was talk of establishing a neighborhood institution that could set small-scale priorities, whether that means planning events, encouraging advocacy or something else entirely. Winter Hill has its longstanding institutions, but there’s no cohesive organization— formal or informal—for guiding the neighborhood’s future like East Somerville Main Streets and Union Square Main Streets do in their respective communities.
The guys behind Winter Hill Brewing are here to help in whatever way they can. Rowe and business partners Bert Holdredge and David Bailey are still putting the finishing touches on their space—on the late February afternoon when we met, Bailey was building the bar—but they have lots of thoughts about using their brewery in offbeat ways once it’s ready. Rowe says they’d consider scheduling farmers markets during the summer, or maybe holding bicycle races out front. They’re envisioning a future where Winter Hill is a destination, a place where people from Somerville and beyond can converge and connect.
“Somerville is small as it is,” says Holdredge, glancing up from his work on the bar. “We’re just trying to make it smaller.”