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An interesting take on city limits

Posted by Marcia Dick  April 29, 2011 10:06 AM

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Aram Boghosian/for the Globe

Dan Bennett of Cambridge didn't seem to care where he was when he visited the Diesel Cafe in Somerville's Davis Square.

By now you've probably heard about the squabble started by Cambridge City Councilor Ken Reeves and taken up by Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Reeves may have doomed his cause by word choice regarding Somerville: he suggested it's not "interesting." Because everyone knows it's universally acknowledged that on most measures the world counts, Cambridge is better than Somerville.

Cambridge has a bigger city budget and a higher MCAS rank and big, beautiful homes. Cambridge has two of the world's top universities; Somerville has half a university that is well-respected but not as esteemed as Harvard or MIT. Cambridge has five subway stations to Somerville's one and a waterfront you reach without braving the potholes of a derelict former car assembly plant. Somerville boasts about a one-night performance by U2: now, that's just embarrassing.

If Somervillians have come to their city's defense more strongly, perhaps it is because they feel defensive.

I originally viewed Somerville as Cambridge Extension myself. One summer afternoon in 1996, my Cambridge-raised boyfriend and I went for a walk down Prospect Street. Over a rail bridge there was a square. I remember a martial arts academy sign, a convenience store and deep, dusty silence.

"People should live here," I said. "It's right next to Cambridge!"

Three years later, I realized if I wanted to live in Cambridge, I should've bought property on my first birthday. Somerville it was — the runner-up, the alternate, the fake. 

Now I say I've lived in Somerville about 12 years; when being honest, I say "… except for about 22 months two blocks into Cambridge," which is accurate and ridiculous.

However, Reeves didn't say "better." He said "interesting."

Granted, anywhere one lives is interesting (I hope). Two blocks into Cambridge I marveled over the cranky, highly educated ex-pat who ran the obviously doomed liquor store; gawked at Juliana Hatfield brunching with her very young boyfriend; pitched stories about the shopkeeper who was getting his master's in engineering and always sent me home with Swedish Fish. (He was so nice I couldn't bear to tell him I don't like Swedish Fish.)

However, speaking as a professional observer, Cambridge pales in comparison to modern-day Somerville, which has only become more interesting as cultures clash.

Many of the fights that make Somerville run were resolved in Cambridge 20 years ago, before time and income smoothed out the variation in Area 4 and Cambridgeport. It takes all kinds to make a city, but in Cambridge seems to have fewer kinds than before.

In Somerville, the different communities are strong, vivid, and unmistakable. Cross the street and you can enter an entirely new circle.

The hair salons in Union Square where falamos only Português; the grad students who queue up for the #85; the moms on their way home who order two edges and a corner at Leone's pizza; the townies at Casey's in East Cambridge versus the yuppies at Highland Kitchen; the polyamorous meetup every Tuesday at the Diesel Café; the men who agitated for a mural at Lexington Park to remember their friends who died young.

But paradoxically, the mayor-à-mano debate comes when there is less of a difference between the cities than ever before. Somerville is becoming more and more like Cambridge.

If you cut the Census stats differently, the two cities don't look so different. Median household incomes, travel time to work, percentage foreign-born, families below poverty level: in 2009, Cambridge had only the slightest edge.

There are fewer and fewer clamshell Madonnas. Nonprofit staffers and middle-aged pols say they could never afford to buy their houses now. When community input goes on too long at a meeting, someone is bound to shake his or her head and mutter “What is this, Cambridge?”

Some welcome this, some fear it; some don't know what to think.

I think if the balance tips too much in any direction — if people are priced or skeeved out — Somerville would get a lot less interesting. The combination and even opposition of the city's communities adds salt to the (colcannon, feijoada, bouyon, organic veggie) stew.

Perhaps Somerville needs its own version of a Keep Austin Weird campaign, celebrating the bats in our belfries.

This Memorial Day, I suggest a trip to Tony's Foodland to choose between the dueling Latin- and Brazilian-style grill cuts; a schmancy-sandwich picnic at the hard-to-find Draw 7 Park next to the amateur fishermen; and a parade of beat-up old Hondas and clamshell Madonnas.

Contact Danielle at and follow her on Twitter.

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