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Many grumble East gets the least

Posted by Marcia Dick  January 28, 2011 09:57 AM

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Maria Salve

Before leaving for a Boston location, the Dutch Bike Company hosted a conference bike outside its Broadway headquarters in 2009.

Dan Sorger of the Dutch Bike Company is thrilled with his company's recent move to Boston's Financial District. Though the new workroom/storefront is a little smaller, "It's a much improved space. We used to be in a garage which was just horrible," he said. His rent went down. "We moved to a much nicer neighborhood, and… we're not dealing with the issues of East Somerville."

Boston's gain is East Somerville's loss. Sorger, who still lives in Winter Hill, has a long list of complaints, and they strike at the heart of an old debate. What is East Somerville, anyway: a community-oriented, immigrant-heavy, blue-collar place to live or the worst part of the city… or both?

Sorger's experience: Crummy snow removal. Overzealous parking ticketing and undermotivated bike safety enforcement. No attention from the mayor:"I could've lit the building on fire." The city's economic development specialist said he could get a rebate for a new sign, then reneged. When he complained about traffic, Sorger said, bike cops started flipping him the bird.

"I love the restaurants, I love the food, I love the people," Sorger said. "But the government treats it like leftovers from yesterday."

This month, "We didn't just move over one town … we moved a century forward."

east1.jpgNot surprisingly, East Somerville boosters begged to differ. "I'm sorry that's his impression," said mayor Joe Curtatone. "We loved having him here." As for Sorger's failed attempt to get city funding for a new sign, Curtatone said, "They were trying to make it work and it couldn't."

"I think at one time East Somerville was definitely an eyesore and the worst place in the city to live," said Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche, who moved there in 1972 from near the Somerville Hospital. But "We've come a long way in the last decade or so."

Sorger "has very strong opinions," said Carrie Dancy, executive director of East Somerville Main Streets. The organization gets the bulk of its funding from federal sources routed through city government. "I don't think that East Somerville is getting the short end of the stick."

As evidence, all pointed to an $8 million project to buff up east Broadway, the neighborhood's main drag. Improvements will include widening sidewalks to accommodate strolling crowds and café seating; reducing car travel to one lane each direction; and adding bike lanes and amenities such as benches. The first round of construction should start this year, said director of planning Monica Lamboy.

Funding sources include a federal earmark, community development block grants, the city capital improvement budget, and contributions from Stop & Shop and Ikea. A Jan. 26 community meeting on the topic got snowed out.

Roche pointed to subtler changes as well. "More people are fixing up their homes," he said. Harris Park is moving from an underused location near Route 93 to right behind the Cross Street senior center. A Newbury Street picture framer is in the process of purchasing the shuttered Melo-tone vending building, Roche said, with plans to turn the forbidding, armory-like front into retail spaces.

Several buildings have benefited from the signage/storefront improvement program that didn't work for Sorger, Lamboy said: Louie's ice cream and 133-137 Broadway.

"The line used to be … they thought the city ended at McGrath Highway," Roche said.

Now, whether a  company selling high-end bikes should have a shop on lower Broadway, where commercial rents are in fact not as low as outsiders think: "They're great people, they were awesome in the neighborhood, they were really welcoming," Dancy said, but they maybe weren't near their target market.

"Most people in the neighborhood really wondered what they were doing there," Roche said.

Dancy took a more global view of Sorger's opinions. It's the nature of business-owners anywhere to criticize the city, she thought. "You're constantly looking for better service because you're a business owner." And some concerns are near-universal: There is never enough parking.

Rather than characterize East Somerville as a failed Davis Square, Dancy saw Davis as an East Somerville that had rebounded thanks to well-planned transit improvements. Until the 1990s, she posited, the two neighborhoods looked almost exactly the same.

True, East Somerville has had subway access for decades via the Sullivan Square Orange Line stop, just over the Charlestown line. But the Davis Square T stop lets out in the middle of the square. Sullivan is so confusing and blocked off that when Dancy came for her job interview, she couldn't find Broadway for a good half-hour.

The night crew at Casey's Tavern on a recent night didn’t buy the hype. Bar owner Michael Philpot thought the neighborhood still got second-rate treatment.

"The perfect example, Robbie, is the snow removal," he said to Robbie Donnellan, 53, who grew up with him in Winter Hill. "The whole city's clean except for us."

"East Somerville's always been the worst part of Somerville," Donnellan said. "Benches aren't going to do anything."

"They're going to make it one lane and a bike path." Philpot said. Want to attract more people? Instead of sidewalks, "Put in parking!"

Still, the neighborhood has some beautiful houses. "You're 10 blocks from the Orange Line," Philpot said. "Why don't people come?"

"It seems like it's taken a while for this end of the city to turn around," Donnellan said.

"I don't know the answer," Philpot said. "I wish I did."

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