In 1999 my classrooms in Somerville, Massachusetts– a culturally diverse city bordering Boston– were mosaics of colors and cultures, with students from as far away as Tibet to students whose families had lived in town since the Revolutionary War. Today in Somerville, hipsters are the name and gentrification is the game.
In ’99, my neighborhood Union Square was a working class mecca: A tire store up the street, a Market Basket supermarket with low prices, The Girl From Ipanema where my mom got her hair straightened for important events, and a Korean stationary store where I bought the best stickers ever. Around 2005, Somerville residents born in Somerville started calling themselves “Villens.” It felt right to have a name that finally described the people in our town.
I’ve had a hard time seeing this insidious gentrification of Somerville occur over the past five years, but two recent festivals have really topped it off for me: Somerville’s Fluff Festival (one of my favorite festivals in Somerville which celebrates the invention of Marshmallow Fluff) and HONK! (a festival of activist street bands that perform throughout Somerville and Cambridge). During these festivals, an area still belonging to minority races and classes as much as anyone was suddenly engulfed in ersatz-Bohemian whiteness while the working class and non-whites I saw were selling food in food stands to aloof festival-goers. When I went to HONK!, silly dancing whites filled the streets while their counterparts, who were poorer or people of color, waited for buses to get home from a Saturday work day. Worse, some looked on with horror. I realized this is a race and class divide that’s always loomed over Somerville, but now will surely worsen.
I saw a Somerville with no Villens.
I don’t even want to talk about all the whitewashed beer gardens, all the homogeneous music festivals playing funk, all the doughnut shops and coffee houses that might as well have signs saying, “This is for non-Villens or at least people who behave as if they aren’t originally from here.”
Can’t we do something to stop this? Can the sons and daughters of Somerville really rent and live here only if their parents don’t sell during these exciting real estate rises, only if they find themselves with secure finances and careers? What happens when Union Square is all coffee shops and bars, and English is no one’s second language? What happens to the Somerville of Brazilian hair salons, Portuguese sweet rolls, meat markets, our community access channel SCATV, and artistic endeavors like HONK! and the Fluff Festival once their current attendees white out those who fertilized the city’s perfect conditions, not looking back even once as they bite into our fruits?