There was a time when one could find streetcars and train stations all over the city that connected the traveler by rail to the rest of the country.
Today, our only direct rail link is the Davis Square MBTA Station on the Red Line, which was opened 20 years ago in 1984 by the then mayor, Eugene C. Brune.
When Somerville became a city in 1872, Davis Square was already standing on its own as a commercial and retail center in West Somerville. It was fashioned out of farmland developed into one and two-family homes and the carriage trade.
Davis Square’s growth was further nourished by rail connections to Union Square by the Somerville Horse Railroad Company in 1863 and the extension of its Arlington and Lexington Line by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1871.
Until the 1950’s, Davis Square continued to bustle. But, like the rest of the city, the square was wracked by the socio-economic blows that hit Somerville in the 1960’s.
Davis Square, now a robust confluence of Elm, Day, Dover Streets and College and Highland Avenues, was a ghost town.
“Davis Square was dying a slow death. There were a lot of bar rooms, a few shoe stores, and a lot of empty stores – people were not shopping in Davis Square. During the 70s there were shopping malls sprouting up all over and what little business we did in Davis Square was now going to shopping malls,” said Brune, who is now the register of deeds of Southern Middlesex County.
“So at the time we really thought we needed a subway into Davis Square,” he said.
“It was quite a physical transformation. Long ago, Davis Square was just a huge mess,” said Gus Rancatore, the owner of Davis Square’s Someday Café and the founder of Toscanini’s Ice Cream.
Rancatore, who worked in Davis Square at the original Steve’s ice cream shop, said, “All the streets were two ways streets and it was a very busy shopping area and every once in a while, a train would just come through the middle of the square and screw everything up.”
“Before the big malls opened, I remember as a child having to walk on the street because Davis Square was so busy but that was many, many years ago,” said Danny P. Kallis, who was the President of the Davis Square Businessman Association and owner of what was then the Coronet Restaurant.
“When they started building the strip malls, the square declined and it was difficult for businesses to survive because there was no activity – it was a dead area,” he said.
Fighting for the T
“The discussion on the extension of the Red Line began in the 70s when I served as the Alderman in Ward 6 and Lester Ralph was Mayor,” Brune said.
“The talk was that the Red Line would be extended from Porter Square on to Arlington and on to Alewife. The strangest thing was that we were fighting for the stop in Davis Square and the citizens in Arlington did not want a stop at Arlington Center,” he said.
“We were the third highest payer for the MBTA deficit yet we weren’t getting good service at all. At that time we had a population of more than 90,000,” he said.
“I remember Lester Ralph calling me into his office and asking if I wanted to have a subway stop in Davis Square. I said, ‘Absolutely, Mayor –we need a subway stop’ and he said, ‘Well, you’d better fight for it because I know there’s going to be a lot of people against it,’ said Brune.
And fight was what Gene Brune did – from his time as Alderman throughout his ten years as the city’s mayor and Ralph’s eventual successor.
“The bulk of the people could see just by looking around the square that we needed a subway stop. They supported me and fought for it. But, it wasn’t an easy battle because at that time even the Chamber of Commerce didn’t want a subway stop in Davis Square,” he said.
“Their argument was that what little business we had left in Davis Square would be taken away by the subway because people would go elsewhere. The small store owners were also worried,” he said.
Kallis said he remembered working hard to convince the Chamber of Commerce that the train would be a great benefit to Davis Square.
“We proved to them in a survey that less than 5 percent of all Davis Square consumer dollars were being spent in Davis Square and that we needed to bring new life into Davis Square and give people a reason to come to the Square,” Brune said.
“There were people who told me that they would not vote for me again if I brought the subway to Davis Square and would blame me for the crime it would bring with it. There were very poor arguments. I argued that I would be doing a grave injustice to my constituents if I did not fight as hard as I could for this stop,” he said.
“I think Gene realized the potential at the time and maybe some of us didn’t have that vision of the future but I know with the advent of the T, there were a lot of benefits that went along with it,” said Paul R. Errico, owner of Davis Square’s Errico Studios.
“The construction of the T in Davis Square put Somerville on the map,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.
“It completely changed the neighborhood and helped revitalize the entire city. The determination and foresight of the Davis Square Task Force and Mayor Brune were instrumental in making the station a reality,” Curtatone said.
“There is a rich history to the extension of the Red Line and lots of other transit projects and how we transformed a sick and ailing MBTA into the best transit system in the nation,” said the then governor, Michael S. Dukakis.
“We had a titanic battle during the l960's and early l970's over something called the Master Highway Plan that would have essentially given Boston a California-style freeway system,” Dukakis said.
“A small band of us in the legislature, with allies in the neighborhoods of the inner metropolitan area, including Somerville, decided to fight it when it was practically a done deal,” he said.
“It took ten years, but we finally killed it, and then, thanks to Tip O'Neill and the congressional delegation, we were the first state in the country to be permitted to use its interstate highway money for mass transit,” he said.
“It was that crucial fight and the change in federal funding legislation which gave us the money to extend the Red Line to Belmont and south to Braintree; the Orange Line to Melrose and along the Southwest Corridor to Forest Hills; acquire the entire commuter rail system from the private railroads; and dramatically improve the service and facilities of the T,” he said.
Davis Square Task Force
In 1977, the Somerville Office of Planning and Community Development and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council produced the first urban design and business study.
Formed from the Ward 6 Civic Association, Davis Square Business Association and the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, the Davis Square Task Force was also created in 1977 to act as a citizen’s advisory committee regarding revitalization plans and policies for Davis Square.
In the planning stages, the four main concerns of residents were height restrictions, permit parking on residential streets, elimination of billboards and vetoing a parking garage, said Lee Austitz, a longtime member of the task force.
“The original MBTA plans called for the elimination of 65 homes and the construction of a large parking garage and it was assumed that there would be high rise office building,” he said.
“The citizen view of this was: No!” he said. “This would never become a Kendall Square, it would never become a substitute for a shopping mall,” he said.
“When you uplift an entire residential area you don’t start with the business planning. You serve the people and Somerville, being the most densely populated city in New England, was originally a street car suburb,” he said.
“Most of the houses don’t even have garages. Davis Square was not built for the automobile.” said Austitz.
“When they were building this subway they were projecting that 3,000 to 4,000 a day would use Davis Square and the current figure is 10,000 a day,” he said.
“Kendall Square, which is a big office building, is only 11,000, so this residential strategy has been an enormous success,” Austitz said.
“Citizens close to the construction of the subway were protected by property tax relief and noise and vibration standards. If exceeded, the citizens were then provided financial compensation or soundproofing of
their houses, he said.
“To protect the neighbors with housing along the area where would be a lot of underground blasting, pictures were taken of all the homes including the foundations and interior walls,” Brune said.
“They didn’t want to be sitting in their living room listening to the noise of the trains traveling past their homes so they asked us to fight for seamless rails. Rather than installing short runs of rails, they would weld very long runs of rail together so that there would be very few joints,” said Brune.
“Another way citizens were protected which was unusual was insurance settlements without having to hire lawyers. Davis Square in those days was a poor area with people’s incomes below the state average,” Austitz said.
“There was blasting going on underground and people’s cellars started caving in and other problems occurred so they put in claims,” he said.
“These would be rejected by Aetna on the grounds the contractor was operating within the specification so therefore no one was responsible. They would say: “This is our decision so sue us,’” he said.
“Meanwhile, these are people on your average making $10,000 a year. So, we worked out a system where a board was set up consisting of one representative from the city, one representative from the MBTA and one representative from the contractor to take complaints from citizens about construction damage and to make awards,” he said.
Austitz said, “If the citizen was not satisfied with the award, the citizen could sue but if the citizen accepted the award, the MBTA would pool these awards and sue Aetna. I believe over 100-150 cases were settled this way and there were only one or two people who weren’t satisfied and wanted lawsuits.”
Citizens were also active participants in planning decisions and design review of new buildings, he said.
“The Woodbridge Elderly Housing development was a counterintuitive or unconventional decision regarding development. Again the idea was ‘Well, there’s a space that’s open, let’s put a high rise office building there’ but our thought was that property values were going to increase and a lot of elderly were going to be driven out of their homes so this should be a place for an elderly center,” he said.
“The actual decision to put elderly housing there as opposed to office buildings was influenced by the citizens,” said Austitz.
Brune became mayor in January 1980, just as the groundbreaking began. “That was when our major work began,” Brune said.
“We had to set up committees and began to have what seemed like endless meetings. Jack Connolly became the alderman of Ward 6, and he was a great help to my administration in getting things done,” he said.
“Prior to the train opening, there was a good six or seven years of pre-planning that went into it. The city and the MBTA were working together to make sure that the train got built from Harvard Square all the
way out,” said Ward 6 Alderman John “Jack” M. Connolly, who owns Davis Square’s Wedgewood-Crane & Connolly Insurance Agency.
“First we had to take imminent domain of an entire block of stores and businesses to make way for new development and underground parking, which is now the location of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Building, a $13 million building with parking below ground,” Brune said.
The block we demolished had no real value – a barroom and many empty stores. We only had objection from a few owners which we settled with,” said Brune.
When the disgruntled property owners went to the aldermen asking that they vote against the order, Alderman Joseph Macaluso gave Brune the swing vote that he needed, said Brune.
“Revitalizing the square just seemed the right thing to do at the time. In my opinion, something had to be done for the development of Davis Square. It seemed like it worked in retrospect,” said Macaluso, now the executive director of the Somerville Housing Authority.
Opening the T
In December 1984, with Governor Dukakis as his guest, Mayor Brune cut the ribbon to open the Davis Square stop in front the city’s aldermen and a crowd of city residents.
“Once the T was built, we said, well, gee, let’s not stop here, let’s help develop the square now that the T is here, let’s make sure we attract the right kind of businesses and make use of the convenience of the T,” Connolly said.
“Within a couple of years, Davis Square really began to take off because people found that it’s great to live within a few blocks of Davis Square,” he said.
You can simply walk to the T and be in Boston at Park Street in 14 minutes and in South Station in 20 minutes and what a wonderful asset that is, ”said Connolly.
“We never had a complaint when the subway came, in reference to the rails, but then again we never had a complaint when the subway came in about anything down there,” Brune said.
We didn’t get the derelicts, we didn’t get the muggings, we didn’t get the drunks because we made sure that we had MBTA police down there so we stopped it before it even started,” said Brune.
Revitalizing the Square
With funds provided by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration’s Urban Systems Program, streetscape improvements were made including street reconstruction, the widening of sidewalks, new lighting, fences and plantings.
“At the same time the subway was going in I had promised the business people as well as the neighbors that I would renovate and regenerate the whole square,” Brune said.
“When I became mayor at my first inauguration I had promised the people two things – that I would improve the image of the city and change the face of the city. So, I started with the revitalization of Davis Square,” he said.
“Davis Square, as you see it today, is what we had built. We took out all the sidewalks and put in new wider brick sidewalks. We renovated all the streets so they were safer to cross and remodeled Davis Square, the parks near the subway and all the storefronts,”
“We built Kenny Park at the end of the square. We allowed every business in Davis Square to change their storefront, and we would pay a portion of the construction as well as give them architectural services for nothing and a lot of people took advantage of it,” he said.
By 1984, Somerville has already regained much of the employment lost between 1970 and 1980, as a result of the city’s efforts to attract new businesses and the improvement in the economy, Brune said.
Connolly said, “With the T coming to Davis Square, it breathed new life into the square and we began to see the existence of small merchants, coffee houses, small food vendors, places where people can hang out during the course of the day.
“They attracted a lot of pedestrian traffic. The Social Security Administration came to Davis Square because the T was here. We have just had a complete economic upsurge in activity from the T because it brings people to and from Davis Square so it made a huge impact and was a major improvement,” said Connolly.
Raymond Kerranovn, owner of Mike’s since 1979, said his business has tripled with the opening of the T. “There are so many more people in the area. The square boomed when the train opened to passengers.”
Carla M. DeLellis’s, who runs her family’s Davis Square hotspot, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Music Club, said her father, a Somerville cop, was eagerly awaiting the opening of the train station, but died two weeks before it opened.
DeLellis said with the opening of the T stop their clientele has changed from people who were born and raised in Somerville and the local area to people that now come from all over the state, as well as the world.
“If the T wasn’t here I don’t think I could support the type of music and business that we do now,” she said.
“I don’t know if we could have a band from Zambia, a band from Nassau, New Hampshire and a band from Texas. There were more musicians and artists living in the area and our music changed to appeal to this new crowd,” she said.
“There has been a huge economic upturn in the price of real estate simply because of the proximity to the T, the convenience and the proximity to the stores in Davis Square,” said Connolly.
“The increase in residential property values in Somerville is currently sustaining the tax base of the city. Eighty percent of the tax revenues in Somerville is coming from residents. I believe that in Cambridge 60 percent comes from businesses,” he said.
To reduce the number of bars coming into the city and encourage restaurants to come into the square, Brune said his administration made it so only establishments that served a full menu of food would be granted liquor licenses.
“There’s a dining destination in Somerville that was never the case in the 70s,” Connolly said.
“A hundred years ago, Davis Square was all retail – food, grain, supplies, hardware; now we’re 100 percent service-related – banking, insurance, health, entertainment, food – so it’s been a big change and the T has basically helped increase the opportunity for those services to reach more people,” he said.
A committee called Arts on the Line was established for public art projects for the park outside of the subway and inside the subway, including the tiles designed by neighborhood children that were installed in the station.
“I represented the Chamber of Commerce and we would meet at night and decide on what art would be used and who would be selected to provide the sculptures for this section of the Red Line,” said Errico.
“We would put out requests for proposals and looked at everybody’s art. It was a lot of planning instigated by Gene Brune – it was under his urging that a lot of us became involved with Arts on the Line,” he said.
“The old railroad tracks that used to run right through the middle of Davis Square are now a community walkway and bike path that has been basically lit by the city,” said Connolly.
“You can walk from Davis Square all the way up to the middle of the city and to a number of side streets. This allows people to walk directly and not have to cross many streets,” he said.
“People use it as a walkway, bike way, jogging area-it’s a tremendous asset to the city and people’s homes along the bike path have been remodeled,” he said.
“The bike path brings a lot of activity, so people fixed up their homes because there’s a lot of people walking by that see them and it’s a great opportunity to walk out your back door and be on the path and in Davis Square in a matter of minutes,” said Connolly.
“Another thing: from a security point of view is that Davis Square is one of the busiest places in the city of Somerville and amongst the safest because of the large number of people,” he said.
“The extension of the Red Line to Davis Square is a tremendous asset, connecting residents by public transit to employment and other opportunities, and making it easier for visitors to explore our city. As a result, Davis Square has become an increasingly attractive location for businesses, residents and tourists," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano, D-Somerville, who served as mayor after Brune from 1989 to 1999, when he was sworn into Congress.
“Extending the Red Line was one of our top priorities, and we were convinced that if we invested heavily in mass transit, we could transform neighborhoods and commercial centers. We were right, and Davis Square is a perfect example of that,” said Dukakis.
“Unfortunately, our progress in extending and deepening public transportation has slowed to a walk since I left office. I don't know where the project to create a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square is. It should be a priority,” he said.
“North and South Stations are still not connected, and they should have been a long time ago. I don't see much progress on the extension of Lechmere through Somerville to Medford. And there is no rail to Fall River, New Bedford and the Cape, something that is in my judgment critically important,” he said.
“But we do have the Red Line to Davis and beyond, and that's a very good thing,” said Dukakis.
“The strides that this city has made in the last 20 years demonstrate the importance of building an Orange Line station at Assembly Square and extending the Green Line through the City. Somerville is ripe for more rapid transit," said Curtatone.
“The subway was one of the best things I fought for in Ward 6. I am pleased with the way Davis Square turned out. Thank God that many of us had the vision to fight for what we thought was right for our city. Davis Square is the place to go, and many get there by the T,” said Brune.