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Funky town

For diversity, affordability, and doughnuts, there's no place like Medford

So did the Dalai Lama come to your city to bless a Buddhist temple?

Do you have one of Zagat's top-rated bistros in your neck of the woods?

Did Krispy Kreme choose your town to launch its statewide invasion?

The answer is yes if you happen to live in the new spiritual, culinary, and trendsetting capital of Massachusetts.

Medford.

Yes, the city that once was called nothing but Meffa (because of some of the natives' difficulties with hard consonants) and that I have called home for the past 14 years (because of my difficulties affording to buy anywhere else at the time) may not have the elan of Cambridge, the buzz of Somerville, or the landscaping of Winchester. On the other hand, it isn't the theme park that Cambridge has become, nor does it have the studied hipness of Somerville or the suburban mind-set of Winchester.

Medford on the Mystic. I have to admit it was originally just a place to hang a hat. Fifteen minutes to the Globe (if 93 is clear) or Harvard Square. Affordable. A great place to raise a dog because of all the open space along the Mystic River and Spot Pond or in the Middlesex Fells.

Now it's hard to imagine living anywhere else. Well, that might be exaggerating, particularly if you were thinking of leaving me that house in the Berkshires. But that place to hang a baseball cap has become a helluva town, to quote "On the Town."

It wasn't always this way. In the 1970s and '80s its police force was so corrupt it was featured on "60 Minutes" and was the focus of a book called "The Cops Are Robbers." In the 1950s the beautiful Victorian library was torn down because it was too small, and a nondescript slab favored by urban architects of that era was erected in its place. Going further back, Medford was home to some significant slave trading.

On the other hand, it also had its noted abolitionists like Lydia Maria Child, famous for her poem, "Thanksgiving Day," which you probably know as "Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Go." And, because you don't live in Medford, you're wrong.

We who live in the city -- whose name derives from a ford in the meadow -- know that the verse is "Over the river and through the wood to Grandfather's house we go." Grandma got ownership of the house, or at least star billing, and "the wood" became "the woods" in the song that came later. The house, a handsome example of Greek revival architecture, is still standing, and it is literally over the Mystic River from Route 16.

The problems of corruption and overly utilitarian urban planning seem to have ended and, while it would be naive to say that there are no vestiges of racism remaining, the city has become something of a model for diversity.

We're not just talking some Cantabrigian think-tank model of diversity. The city began as a shipbuilder's paradise and with the rise of public transportation started to lure people from Boston, along with European immigrants from Ireland and Italy in particular.

Today, its relatively affordable housing -- compared with rent-decontrolled Cambridge, anyway -- has made it a magnet for all kinds of people. The street that I live on, to paraphrase Sinatra, has doctors and USO entertainers, whites and blacks, Jews and Arabs, WASPs and Catholics, African-Americans and Haitian-Americans, people whose families have owned their houses for generations and those who've owned them for a month. Some people wear do-rags, others turbans. If there isn't a great sense of community in terms of shared values and common activities, there is a sense of easy amiability and neighborhood pride.

That hasn't always been the case. When I first moved into the neighborhood there was a different kind of diversity. A drug dealer and his girlfriend were nicknamed Jeff and Tonya after the figure skater and her sleazy boyfriend. An unsavory-looking young man who moved barrels from one beat-up van to another was dubbed Jeffrey Dahmer. (Ah, the good old days.)

But both Jeffs are long gone. Now the biggest points of contention seem to be over parking spaces and noise. Or trying to get into Krispy Kreme. Actually, it's gotten to the point that they don't need a police officer to direct traffic into the Wellington Circle lot anymore, but Krispy Kreme seems to be the sugar hit of choice these days.

Krispy Kreme doughnuts are to Medford what coffee and tobacco were to the New World in 1492. Ambassadors come from all over to bring samples back to work. The guy in front of me Wednesday ordered six dozen. To be honest, I prefer the more subtle cholesterol-pumping ingredients you get at Dunkin' Donuts or Demet's, an independent doughnut destination on Mystic Avenue opposite another fine emporium, Atlas Liquors.

But you don't have to be Homer Simpson to love Medford. The more interesting part of Medford lies in Medford Square, where James Pierpoint wrote "Jingle Bells" in a pub on Salem Street. The pub is gone, and Medford Square now reflects both the old and new Medford. Much of the square still caters to native, working-class Medfordians, and mom-and-pop stores struggle against getting squeezed out by chains. But there are also newer places that collectively represent generations of immigration -- from Italy, Syria, Brazil, and Korea.

One place where you can see the new and old Medford coming together in real harmony is Springstep, a building that opened this month across from City Hall. It was originally conceived as a center for dance instruction and performance but has expanded into a multicultural arts center for musicians and painters as well.

Deborah Hawkins, the founder of Springstep, recalled how members of the local dance community were forever looking for a stable home after getting kicked out of one place or another. One saw a "for sale" sign on a lot in the square, which is right off Routes 93 and 16, and the site was more affordable than Boston, Cambridge, or Somerville.

Today, Hawkins is the board chairwoman and Jari Poulin is the chief executive officer. "It started as a place for dance to exist," says Poulin, "and then the vision and mandate grew for Springstep becoming a multicultural arts center, a place where traditional art meets contemporary art. So it's not exclusive to dance anymore. There are music courses, things like quilt making, Mexican arts and crafts. We offer 60 classes in eight-week segments, and we've already filled 24 of them. We're seeing everyone from soccer moms to professional singles to a man in his 90s coming for ballroom dancing." Both credit Mayor Michael J. McGlynn for helping them cut through red tape and introducing them to people from senior citizens groups, ethnic organizations, and particularly the schools.

You also find a great mix of people in Bestsellers Cafe, a couple of blocks from Springstep. A bookstore where everybody knows your name is a rarity in itself, but I've seen owner Rob Dilman greet customers with a "Mary, I know just the book you want to read next." Dilman migrated to Medford in much the same way Hawkins did. He saw a place up for sale with a good amount of space, liked the view and the potential, and found it affordable.

A handful of tables in the rear cafe, adorned by work from local artists, look out onto the Mystic River. Granted, Medford on the Mystic isn't Stratford-on-Avon, but the cafe is the type of homey place where an artist might be drawing at one table and a pair of friends who've just had their nails done might be sharing child-rearing woes at another.

The sandwiches are terrific, and if the book selection isn't Barnes & Noble, you can order most anything in a week. That might not be good enough for many in these days of instant gratification, but more's the pity. Community-centered places like this make it obvious that it's worth waiting a week.

At the other end of High Street is West Medford Square, a stop on the commuter rail. On one side of the railroad are the chains -- Dunkin' Donuts and Brooks Pharmacy. On the other is a charming little village square with antique stores, an independent pharmacy, a breakfast place, coffee shop, and one of the finest restaurants in the Boston area: Bistro 5. (Zagat rates Aujourd'hui a 27, Bistro 5 a 26.)

The cozy northern Italian restaurant with Venetian masks on the wall used to be a BYOB because Medford was incredibly restrictive about liquor licenses. The theory was that alcohol consumption in public places would lead to rowdy behavior, drunk drivers, and the like. But Medford, like Arlington before it, wised up to the fact that the restrictions just led to pizza-place sprawl while liquor licenses led to good restaurants and an improved tax base.

I've never had anything less than a magnificent meal there. The atmosphere is romantic in the two small rooms and festive in the large main room. The chef and owner is Vittorio Ettore, who is part Italian and part Venezuelan and spent about 10 years in each country before coming here. The mellifluous Italian and Spanish accents come through in both his dishes and his and his sister's conversations with customers.

Bistro 5, not Krispy Kreme, is the culinary pride of Medford. But then there's a lot of pride in Medford these days. The Brooks Estate, a Victorian summer retreat built in the 1880s, is being restored for public use, as is the Royall House, former slave quarters that have been turned into a museum. Tufts University has been working with Friends of the River and other groups to spruce up the increasingly clean Mystic. (You should still make sure you're up on your tetanus shots if you fall in.) And Springstep has put a spring in the step of Medford Square.

So go on. You say, "Meffa." I just say, "Eat your heart out."

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com. Or somewhere along the Mystic River walking his dog.

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