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Somerville

The art of drawing neighbors together

A different kind of East side story, without gangs

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kristen Green
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2008

It's like introducing two people you knew would hit it off. Somerville has a vibrant, alive arts scene; East Somerville is a vibrant, alive neighborhood. But "the two do not know one another," said Christopher Poteet.

"We're just match-making," he said. "It's a blind date between the East Somerville predominantly immigrant community and the larger creative community."

To arrange the meeting, Poteet is producing a monthlong exhibition, "The Colors of the Americas." The community art walk is the first major project of East Somerville Main Streets, which was founded 16 months ago to be an engine of economic growth and revitalization in the neighborhood.

Eighteen artists, most of them immigrants, are displaying their works, which include paintings, photographs, and mixed media in 18 businesses along Broadway, including a shoe repair shop, coin laundry, and brake shop.

Poteet said he hopes the exhibition, which runs from Sullivan Square to McGrath Highway and will be up until the middle of next month, will be a vehicle for introductions. To facilitate conversations about the artwork, the East Somerville resident established a website, eastsomervilleartwalk.blogspot.com.

The theme of the art walk reflects on the diversity of the neighborhood, which is about one-third minorities, according to the 2000 Census. East Somerville Main Streets sent out its call to artists in Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to English, and artists from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Chile, among others, are displaying their work.

Executive director Carrie Dancy said business owners seemed surprised to be asked to display art in their windows. While some were initially skeptical that the art walk would happen or that it could be successful, Dancy said, they were mostly receptive when she told them it was a way they could contribute to their community and attract attention to their businesses.

Her only request was that the businesses not pull down metal grates over their windows - which the group discourages because they are unwelcoming - so that the art could be accessible 24 hours a day.

The art walk, she said, will show residents and business owners "that these types of community-building events can happen on East Broadway," an area of town that many believe has been neglected over the years.

"There's not some unwritten law that after you cross McGrath Highway you can't have some huge community event," she said.

Tony Morales, a pastor in nearby Winter Hill whose family owns six businesses in East Somerville, including the popular Taco Loco Mexican Grill, said resources have been hard to secure for the neighborhood for so long that it can be difficult to persuade business owners that a government project is worthwhile.

"People think and believe that nothing good might come out of City Hall," which funded East Somerville Main Streets, Morales said. "So even though this initiative is there, people might not take advantage of it."

But he thinks it will be good for businesses. "I'm hoping that this is going to be the tip of an iceberg of more things that may be coming to East Somerville," he said.

Paul Robichaud, who owns three buildings on the street, said friends regularly ask him about gang activity in the neighborhood. A rape that occurred in a business last September also contributed to inaccurate perceptions of the community, said Robichaud, adding, "I feel safer today than I ever have."

"Artwork draws people. It softens the neighborhood," he said. "If we can concentrate on the artwork instead of the gangs, people will give us a chance."

Robichaud, who has owned buildings on Broadway for 35 years, said he hopes the exhibition helps bridge the gap between longtime, white Somerville residents, who live in one part of the neighborhood, and the newer immigrants, who live in another. Connecting the two sides, he said, will be "a marathon."

Robichaud said he told Vera Arias, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who is having her first show in the window of his Joe's Liquors Inc., to "do whatever you want to do."

Arias created a statement about the immigrant experience using a 7-foot stack of handmade paper, "an insane amount of paper," she said, "which is a metaphor for all the money and paperwork you go through" to immigrate here. She said her parents became citizens only after she turned 21, and her sister is still working to get her citizenship.

Dancy, who said the new artworks seemed to be attracting onlookers last week, said the display is connecting business owners with artists as well. "It brings people together, and it really allows people to share their culture and share themselves with their neighbors," she said.

It could even attract folks from hip spots like Davis Square, Poteet hopes.

"East Somerville has the most life and blood and soul of any neighborhood in town. This is a way of saying, 'three-quarters of a mile away, there's a lot going on,' " he said. "We really see this as a starting point."

Kind of like a blind date with someone you wish you'd met years ago, if only your paths had crossed.

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