With Checkered Past, Somerville Celebrates Its New Identity

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Two blocks from Union Square in Somerville, an Eastern European-style band plays on a violin, accordion and electric guitar. This act is only one of the performances in Porchfest, an eclectic mix of instruments in a city that has, over the past 20 years, become an eclectic mix of residents.

"It was a local scene. It was local," says 58-year-old Jimmy Del Ponte, a lifelong Somerville resident. "All Somerville people."

Del Ponte says in 1984, many residents were hesitant about what the new Red Line stop would mean for their city.

"You know, people around here were afraid of the Red Line coming in. They thought it was going to bring in riff-raff. That didn't happen."

More Young People, More Immigrants

What happened was an influx of students and young professionals. The percentage of immigrants more than doubled, from 15 percent in 1975 to more than one in three city residents in 2010.

Frank Bakey was a city alderman in the '70s and '80s. Bakey says he saw the changes while running for office.

"I would ring doorbells and [meet] the people who worked at Harvard [and] were the janitors and the groundskeepers, and so forth; now the last time I ran in 2002, I was meeting doctors and heads of departments, and that's the type of people who are in Somerville now," he says.

Higher Cost Of Living, Less Crime

Years after the Red Line expansion, crime rates in Somerville have dropped.

"I say kiddingly, we don't have the crime rate that we probably had years ago or in other communities, because the troublemakers can't afford to live here anymore."

Frank Bakey

"I say kiddingly, we don't have the crime rate that we probably had years ago or in other communities, because the troublemakers can't afford to live here anymore," Bakey says. "I mean, there was a time when people in Somerville would say 'Hey, I made a few bucks, I'm going to move to Arlington,' now it's the other way around!"

Discussions of crime in Somerville invariably turn to the Winter Hill Gang, which was based in East Somerville through the '60s and '70s, before "Whitey" Bulger moved its base of operations to South Boston.

The city developed an ugly reputation after a brutal gang war in the '60s left as many as 60 people dead in and around Somerville.

Moving Past A Violent History

But Ralph Ranalli, a former reporter for the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, who wrote a book on the Winter Hill Gang, says that reputation did not reflect the reality Winter Hill life.

"Everyone knew who they were," Ranalli says. "You knew not to mess with them, but you couldn't say that they really controlled Winter Hill in the way that the mob down in Providence controlled Providence. These were not guys who had sort of come up through the ranks and through the neighborhood. They were sort of a fixture of the neighborhood, without really dominating it."

Ranalli says even though the Winter Hill Gang did not consist of only Somerville natives, the name, and the damage to Somerville's reputation, stuck. But he says those days are now becoming just a memory.

"If someone told you that Somerville was once notorious for organized crime and you spent an evening hanging out in Davis Square, it would be very, very difficult to put those two things together."

Ranalli credits the city's mayor, Joe Curtatone, a lifelong Somerville resident, for changing the city's identity.

And Mayor Curtatone says part of that involves creating new memories, through events like this weekend's Porchfest.

"We speak 52 languages, we're proud of our diversity and our creativity, but if we don't come together and celebrate, we just become another place where people pass through. And even though we're an urban community, there's no reason we can't have a small town feel."

This program aired on May 21, 2012.


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