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Obama's old digs: how should Somerville commemorate its former resident?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 7, 2011 06:24 PM

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Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. John F. Kennedy had Hyannis.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, had the basement of 365 Broadway in Somerville, which the future president rented for $900 a month while attending Harvard Law School from 1988 to 1991.

As the Globe reported in a 2007 profile, Obama lived for all three years of law school in the building near Winter Hill, driving his 1984 Toyota Tercel to class (and picking up the occasional parking ticket).

After Obama's victory in 2008, Somerville alderman-at-large Dennis M. Sullivan proposed making the address an historic site and putting up a monument to its former resident. With the city's budget stretched thin nothing has happened yet, but a Somerville official says several possibilities have been discussed.

"We've had some discussion about maybe a commemorative bench out front," said Jackie Rossetti, the city's deputy director of communications. "This may be something we could put out to the arts community this year. We just haven't got to that point yet."

Obama was informed of the impending honor in 2009, when Sullivan's wife, Melissa Hurley Sullivan, traveled to Washington as a communications consultant for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association during the "beer summit" at the White House. In an interview today, she said she mentioned the plan to Obama — and that he was tickled by the idea.

"It was a light-hearted conversation. With the issue of the day, he probably had other things on his mind," she said.

The 1889 brick rowhouse, meanwhile, is privately owned, and Obama's former landlord, John K. Holmes, said he is also planning to put up a marker at some point.

"He was a very good tenant. He was no trouble. There were no girls or wild parties," Holmes said. "He was very industrious. He had an agenda. He wanted to be successful."

Holmes, who has owned the building since the mid-1970s, said he met Obama after the future president responded to a classified ad in the Globe.

The plaque was on the backburner at the moment, though, in part because he wanted to make sure that any marker said something insightful about the future president.

"It seems like it should be more than, 'Barack Obama lived here.' That's my dilemma," Holmes said. In particular, he wants it to capture the role of Obama's Somerville years in shaping his political outlook: "That he formulated his sense of right and wrong here, that he saw the people of Somerville as hardworking, that he lived in a basement."

Then, there is the issue that it's hard to put up a monument for someone whose legacy is still up for grabs. Holmes said he voted for Obama and approved of his performance, but was reluctant to carve his accomplishments in stone, so to speak.

"I'm kind of waiting for his legacy to take shape before I do something," Holmes said.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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