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Is There a Class Divide in Somerville?

A proposed affordable-housing development in Union Square has sparked a debate about gentrification and the future of a neighborhood.

A lot of people had comments about the proposed in Union Square.

The conversation turned to deeper issues: gentrification, neighborhood transformation and the relative merits of subsidized housing, among other things.

A number of commenters were direct with their opinions:

Leslie Gildart wrote, "All you wealthy gentrified folks looking to keep out the working class: Why didn't you step up and buy the building yourselves?"

Joyce Junior commented, "[M]ost people in opposition to this project aren't from Somerville … [they] are a bunch of yuppies that moved into the neighborhood, and now the people around them are suddenly intolerable to live with."

The comments swung in the other direction, too. Matt C said, "Why do folks constantly deny the fact that Somerville is changing or declare that change is bad. Somerville is no longer a community of blue collar workers and day laborers … People who pay more want it to look like what they paid for it ... so say goodbye to the chain-link fences and Virgin Mary statues."

"I appreciate your logical argument," Joyce Junior responded, "but when you tell us to 'say goodbye to the chain-link fences and Virgin Mary statues,' it sounds incredibly condescending. I'm sure you meant nothing by it, most yuppies never recognize their own arrogance."

To which Matt C wrote back: "My condescending comment was meant to describe that people not from the city often see Somerville as a sea of triple-deckers surrounded by chain-link fences with a Virgin in the bathtub sitting on the paved 'lawn,' and that picture of Somerville is changing." He later added, "I like the change I have seen in the community and want to see more of it, fault me as you will."

Erica Schwarz, talking about the larger debate surrounding the proposed project, summed things up as she sees it by saying, "This is, in part, about the future of the city as a whole and who we want it to be and what we want it to look like."

Is the city divided?

It's not a new debate, but in a city that's changed as rapidly as Somerville has over the past 20 or 30 years, it's one that flares up from time to time.

We're interested in what you think. Is there too much gentrification in Somerville, or is "gentrification" another word for positive change? Does an affordable housing project like the one proposed help or hurt Union Square?

Editor's note: We edited comments slightly for length and to fix minor errors.

Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Matan: I think we understand that the economics behind the housing market isn't as simple as we've argued in our examples. Clearly, there are many factors that play a part in the housing prices and market. If it were straight-forward, we would have better ideas of how to fix the housing slump in today's economy. To your argument about those that can afford luxury items have more resources: this is a good point. But my argument compared 2 scenarios that, for the sake of comparison, kept demand the same. You seem to argue that if we introduce more luxury residential units, people may come from other places to fill those units thereby not alleviating high prices. In other words, demand may fill the supply. That /could/ happen, but generally just because you build it doesn't mean they will come. In other words, just because you build more luxury units doesn't mean people will flock to them. At any given moment, there is a certain level of demand to live in a region due to many factors. One of the big factors, like in the case of Somerville, is proximity to employment centers (e.g., Boston & Cambridge). There will not be more jobs at these employment centers just because a luxury condo building is built. Yes, it is likely that people that already work in Boston/Cambridge but live somewhere else might decide to live in Somerville if more luxury units are available. But that would happen ONLY if the price decreases. Otherwise, why wouldn't they live in Somerville now?
Leslie Gildart March 17, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Somerville's cultural and economic diversity are the main driving factors that make it such a great place to live. The food. The diverse peoples. The arts. The teachers. All of these aspects of the community are augmented by making sure there is affordable housing available to the people who provide them. If the wage and housing "markets" truly functioned as efficient and correct arbiters of pricing, workers would be earning enough at their jobs to be able to afford to live within the same community, but it doesn't, it hasn't and it never will. And even that begs the question of whether it is right to shrug off the effects of letting the haves decide the prices of those commodities that are also basic necessities of life, while also allowing them to decide the wages of the people who need them. So far, Somerville has been a community that actively mitigates those forces, with living wage requirements for new businesses and with a commitment to making sure that there is at least some affordable housing added in addition to all of the luxury condo projects. Those efforts contribute greatly to making Somerville a healthy and desirable place to live and to conduct business and a great place to raise a family. Somerville's "official" policies promote kindness and compassion and support families, knowing that doing so makes the community better, happier, more prosperous for everyone. I hope the community is strong enough to continue to stand up for those values.
Jeff Miller March 17, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Homes and homeownership - this is stuff that cuts close to the bone for all walks of life. Of course there's a divide – but that doesn't mean we have to behave in a divided way. Addressing the complexities of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-income neighborhood should be embraced as the lucky challenge it is. My problem with this whole issue is that the ideas seem so OLD...hasn't this dead horse been beaten over and over again? I don't know all of the people involved, but I'm willing to recognize the actual day to day efforts and contributions that people are making to address the needs of our evolving neighborhood. All the same we need to watch out for the same old community sand traps. If an issue divides a neighborhood so strongly, chances are there simply hasn't been enough thought put into a long-term vision.
cindy June 10, 2012 at 11:47 AM
amen!!! got priced out of Cambridge moved to medford in '09. Medford was a big shock to me at first but its helped me learn the meaning of FAMILY which I had lost living in Cambridge once all the families got priced out all i saw was young single people.
cindy June 15, 2012 at 12:25 AM
and yet we keep voting for liberals who say they are for the poor. sure their for the poor as long as they are not living next to them. somerville is going thru what cambridge went thru starting early 2000's. I should of bought my home in east somerville instead of medford few years back. because e.somerville is a dump now but in a few years it will look just like E.cambridge does today.

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