Somerville residents squawk about the state of infrastructure, deteriorating public art
Around Christmastime, a mirrored box the size of a telephone booth appeared on Davis Square’s Statue Plaza. People wondered what it was—a bathroom? A maintenance shed? A TARDIS? There was a wooden door on one side, though you wouldn’t see it if you approached the box from Elm Street, Highland Ave, or Holland Street. If you tried to open the door, you would find it pushed inward just a few inches, not enough to enter the structure, and a light inside turned on.
As it turns out, the box was an installation commissioned and funded by the Somerville Arts Council and designed by Lam Partners, an architectural lighting design consulting firm with offices in Cambridge and Pittsburgh. An artist’s statement in a plastic sleeve tacked to a nearby tree said it was meant to evoke the “warm inviting light of ‘home’” and urged people to share photos of their interactions with the piece on social media, with suggested hashtags.
The statement also said the piece was temporary, meant to stay up through the end of January. Soon after it was installed, though, blue masking tape appeared on corners of the box, as though holding it together. One silver panel fell off during an especially windy week, then another a few days later, exposing plywood and scabs of adhesive. There was no hardware holding the plastic panels in place. The light inside stopped working. The doorknob disappeared. As January stretched into February, it was still there, broken.
It was there the night of Feb 13, when concerned residents and business owners packed the Dilboy Post for a meeting hosted by Davis Now, a group advocating for better maintenance of Davis Square. There was no shortage of other items to be discussed, though, and the big silver box wasn’t on the agenda.
The room was buzzing even before the meeting began, with people trading stories about falls they’ve suffered or witnessed on the square’s undulating brick sidewalks and crosswalks that are pocked with potholes. During the presentation, someone noted that Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone himself once stumbled and fell on the uneven ground.
The brick sidewalks on the plaza were installed in the ’80s, when the city made major neighborhood investments in conjunction with the opening of the Davis Square T station. Over time, the base under the bricks has shifted, leading to bumps and valleys underfoot. The sidewalks have experienced wear and tear as well as the neighborhood has grown in popularity, but the city hasn’t always been so quick to fix bricks that were broken or missing. Chris Iwerks of Davis Now noted that Somerville DPW doesn’t have anybody on staff that does brickwork, which is why many spots have been patched with asphalt.
Last fall, Davis Now created a “punch list” of items that need attention, including more than 100 spots where sidewalk bricks are broken or missing, asphalt patches that look messy, places where granite curbs are cracked or misaligned, and decorative cobblestones that have come loose. Some of these were remedied when the brick sidewalk in front of 212 Elm St was torn up and replaced with concrete, but there are currently no plans to do this all throughout the area, and to do so might be controversial. At the meeting, debate ensued about the aesthetic and practical merits of brick vs concrete.
Nearby is Seven Hills Park, the area behind the Harvard Vanguard building. It runs from the back of the Holland Street T Station exit to the community bike path and is named for the original seven hills of Somerville, which are commemorated with sculptures perched high above on brick and metal posts. Installed in the ’80s, they have suffered with age; the sculptures are dirty and faded, some scratched by tree branches, while the enamel signs describing the landmarks have rust spots or are missing altogether. The ground is plagued with the same broken and uneven brick sidewalks as the rest of Davis Square. Areas meant to be lawns are patchy or just dirt. Trees are overgrown. Drainage issues lead have led to a semipermanent puddle Davis Now refers to at the Seasonal Pond and Mosquito Hatchery.
Seven Hills Park may be a victim of its own success. ArtBeat, HONK!, and other events use it throughout the year, and the grass gets trampled under thousands of feet. In an interview, Iwerks recounted a night that a HONK! band was playing in the pouring rain, and the band and audience stomped the muddy ground.
“The grass never recovered after that,” he says. At the meeting someone suggested relocating HONK! and other events, at least temporarily, to let the ground recover, but for now that is just an idea.
George Proakis, the city’s director of planning, was at the Davis Now meeting and touted another idea the city has tested to improve Seven Hills Park: moveable plastic chairs. They appeared one summer, and community reviews of this innovation were mixed. While the chairs were used, they also broke and disappeared over time. Iwerks dismissed the short-term measure: “I find it insulting to say that [plastic chairs] are some sincere effort to do something.”
The concerns of Davis Now and the local community don’t end with the sidewalks, crosswalks, or even Seven Hills Park. The punch list Davis Now created last fall includes 107 bent sign poles, 56 bent parking meter poles, “for rent” signs that have been in place for years, and traffic signal poles with peeling paint and exposed wiring. In addition to the pressing pedestrian safety concerns, some worried that an ongoing state of disrepair could lead to fewer businesses investing in Davis Square.
At the Davis Now meeting, City Councilor Lance Davis noted that Davis Square has experienced a lack of investment by the city for many years. As ambitious projects like SomerVision and Davis by Design have brought in parades of consultants who held community meetings to discuss long-term goals and grand visions, small issues like broken bricks have been ignored.
By the estimates of the DavisNow team, it would cost about $750,000 to fix all of the problems on their punch list—the sidewalks, the poles, the landscaping, and art repairs. For now, it appears the city may be listening. Representatives from the engineering department have met with representatives from Davis Now to discuss sidewalk and crosswalk issues, and there is a plan to attend to broken crosswalks and curb ramps. DPW hasn’t shared any plans with Davis Now but will reportedly look into things when the weather improves.
Interviewed a few days after the meeting, Iwerks was cautiously optimistic: “I think what we’re going to have to be vigilant about is half measures and inattention. We have their attention right now. In three months or four months, that could wane.”
Which brings us back to that big silver box on the plaza—on the morning of the Davis Now meeting, I sent an email to the Somerville Arts Council to ask for comment on the concept and maintenance of the piece. I didn’t get a reply, but the structure disappeared the next morning, about 24 hours after I sent the message.
It’s unclear what exactly happened to the box, but the life of the piece seems an apt metaphor. It was an interesting concept that fell apart due to poor planning and shoddy construction. Only half-hearted attempts were made to ameliorate the threat of damage, and nothing was done when it started to break. It was shiny, slick, and futuristic but claimed it wanted to be warm and nostalgic. It was made of plastic, never meant to last. It speaks of a city more concerned with buzz than craftsmanship, more concerned with what is Instagrammable than what is livable.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its initiative to cover Somerville. If you want to see more reporting like this, please consider donating at givetobinj.org.