Somerville: rockin’ the Boston suburbs

How did a gritty city that was nicknamed ‘Slummer-ville’ turn into Boston’s hippest neighborhood? Travelers who visit the urban ‘burb of Somerville will discover a thriving art scene, a slew of trendsetting restaurants and breweries, a lively new shopping center and a calendar packed with unusual events.  Not to mention the city’s loudly touted and proudly celebrated (though sometimes disputed) historic claim to fame.

No matter how it started, it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Located three miles north of the Boston Common, Somerville is planning an overhaul of its oldest commercial center, Union Square, while the MBTA is expanding the subway lines in the area. Rents and restaurant prices are skyrocketing. But Somerville residents are keeping it real, staying cool and quirky, arguably sophisticated – but not at all stuffy. Welcome to the ‘Ville.

Prospect Hill Tower in Somerville with a view of the Boston skyline © Eric Kilby / CC BY-SA 2.0

America’s first flag

It wouldn’t be Boston if there wasn’t a little piece of revolutionary history that happened here. After the defeat at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the colonists retreated to present-day Somerville, specifically to Prospect Hill, a strategic spot that afforded views of Boston and the British fleet. The hilltop was nicknamed the Citadel, as it was the rebels’ strongest fortification. It was here, on January 1, 1776, that these troops first raised the Grand Union – the original flag representing the united American colonies. (Apparently two other locations also claim the first flag, but we won’t talk about that.)

Nowadays, the event is re-enacted every New Years Day, with the Mayor of Somerville playing the part of General Washington. Year-round, the Grand Union waves from the Prospect Hill Monument, which still offers inspiring and expansive views of Boston and beyond.

Quirky cultural events

Super active and highly creative, the Somerville Arts Council (somervilleartscouncil.org) can take much of the credit for the city’s ‘hipster’ status. All year long, the council organizes funny and funky events celebrating what makes this city special.

All of Somerville becomes a concert venue during PorchFest. Image courtesy of Somerville Arts Council

In spring, PorchFest brings out musicians of all abilities, who sit on their porches and play for passers-by. Summertime sees art markets, poetry slams, dance parties, music festivals and puppet shows held in local parks and squares. In September, the local favorite Fluff Festival (flufffestival.com) celebrates Somerville as the place where Marshmallow Fluff was invented. (No, that’s not the historic claim to fame.) October brings the city’s biggest event, a festival of socially conscious music-making known as Honk! (honkfest.org). And finally, Somerville gets in the holiday spirit with the Illumination Tour, a trolley ride around the city's most outrageous Christmas light displays.

Film, art & irony

Speaking of kultchah, Somerville is also a main host for the Independent Film Festival of Boston, a weeklong event that is widely recognized as B-town’s premier film festival. Despite the name, none of the films are screened in Boston proper. Instead, much of the action goes down at the Somerville Theatre, a century-old movie house in Davis Square. With gilded interiors and up-to-date technology, it’s a gem of a place to catch a flick (or a live performance, for that matter).

As further proof that Somerville does not take itself too seriously, the basement of the historic theater houses the controversial Museum of Bad Art (museumofbadart.org), purportedly the world’s only such museum. The artwork on display – all created in complete earnestness – is accompanied by hilariously snarky descriptive blurbs. It’s a perfect way to pass the time while waiting for your movie to start.

The Somerville Theatre at night © Steven Isaacson / CC BY-SA 2.0

If good art is more your thing, Somerville has that too (thankfully). The venues are small-scale and grassroots – mostly operated by local cooperatives such as Brickbottom Artists Association (brickbottomartists.com) and Washington Street (washingtonst.org). The annual city-wide Open Studios event (somervilleopenstudios.org) reveals just how artistic this city is. Even residents are surprised at how many industrial-looking warehouses are actually art studios in disguise.

Inventive eats & drinks

The most telling evidence that this working-class city has made it big? The stars from Boston are all making appearances, with recent restaurant openings by Tim Weichmann, Tony Maws and Ana Sortun. The city’s most innovative meals might happen at Tasting Counter (tastingcounter.com), a Somerville newcomer which was named 2015 ‘restaurant of the year’ by the Boston Globe. The menu is hyper local and the place is nearly carbon neutral. But the brilliance of this 20-seater is its intimate, interactive dining experience, which means that customers get to chat up the chef-de-cuisine and watch his team work. (Also, it’s delicious.)

Food as art: a plate of bay sea scallop, sea urchin, preserved vegetables, and black olive oil from the Tasting Counter © Peter Ungár

Many Somerville residents – underemployed hipsters and artists – cannot afford to eat at these top-notch restaurants. Fortunately, they can still afford a drink in this town, thanks largely to the burgeoning brewing industry. Aeronaut Brewery (http://aeronautbrewing.com) is a bold experiment in beer, founded by a couple of MIT grads with a passion for local ingredients and scientific methods. Down a dark alley and tucked inside a courtyard, the hidden facility is usually filled with hipsters and high-tech types, quaffing the seasonal creations and playing Jenga. Across town, a slightly more refined crowd is sipping another local favorite, Slumbrew (http://slumbrew.com), at the American Fresh Brewery & Taproom or at the same-named beer garden at Assembly Row.

Assembly Row in Somerville at twilight © Arturo Velasquez

Assembly Row

Which brings us to the biggest news in ‘new’ Somerville. Assembly Row (http://assemblyrow.com) is a long-awaited, highly touted, mixed-use development on the Mystic River. Where once there was an abandoned Ford Motor plant, now there are upscale shopping outlets, bustling restaurants, a state-of-the-art cinema and a Legoland Discovery Center (legolanddiscoverycenter.com). With the exception of the beer garden, Assembly Row is not exactly a unique Somerville experience. But it is an indication of how far this hard-working city has come.