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Winter 2005
photos by Rose Lincoln  
Hip to be Davis Square

The Someday Café on a Saturday afternoon is a
perfect picture of student bohemia. Surly baristas sporting tats and piercings dispense fair-trade coffee and espresso. Fans whir under a bright blue ceiling of painted Victorian moulding. On the wall, giant photos depict clashes between students and police at the political conventions last summer. And sprawled beneath them, teens and twenty-somethings lounge on couches with notebooks—both regular and electronic—propped on their knees.

Many of them, of course, are Tufts students, who hopped on the “Joey” shuttle bus from campus, or ambled down College Ave. to Davis Square for a few hours away from cramped dorm rooms and library carrels. “Studying isn’t as much of a task here,” says Alan Manos, a sophomore, between sips of herbal tea. Like many students, he appreciates the Davis Square neighborhood as a closer alternative to the urban edge of Boston. “Davis is a quiet, offbeat, sort of faux city,” says Manos, whose parents worked at Tufts when he was growing up. “It’s a more relaxed day-to-day place.”

Sitting at the table with him is Miriam Marx, a biotech engineering major with bright eyes and dreadlocks who also lives in his dorm. But the two of them only met just now as they struck up a conversation at the café. “I feel like you don’t come in here unless you are friendly and want to socialize,” says Marx, who compares the atmosphere in the café favorably to her native Berkeley, California. “In Berkeley, everyone wants to be your friend and chat. I haven’t found that much on the East Coast. But in here, I feel like I’m back home.”

Here in Massachusetts, we’re not into café culture. A cuppa Joe and a Boston creme donut is more our style—preferably to go. Leave it to Seattle and Paris to linger over a steaming cappuccino. We’re mostly too busy getting to the next appointment, cell phone cocked, while we swerve to avoid the bike messenger running that yellow. So for a neighborhood to have more than one coffee shop is a rarity here.

Davis Square has no fewer than five. And on this Saturday afternoon, all of them are overflowing with action. Across from the Someday, the Diesel Café is a more polished version of hipness, with artsy black-and-white photographs framed on brightly colored walls. Down the street, Dunkin’ Donuts and Carberry’s Bakery draw a local breakfast crowd, while a cavernous Starbucks has a laptop at every table. (Even the local branch of Wainwright Bank touts itself as a “cybercafé,” complete with a lounge area with coffee, newspapers, and a flat-screen TV.)

Such a thriving scene would have been inconceivable to alumni who attended Tufts 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, Davis was a gritty backwater of dollar stores and banks. But something has changed over the years. Most people quickly credit the extension of the Red Line in the mid-1980s, and the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure it encouraged. The loss of rent control in Cambridge, which caused a migration into Somerville during the dot-com–fueled economy of the 1990s, helped further drive the transformation—to the point where in 1997 the Utne Reader dubbed it one of the ten up-and-coming hippest neighborhoods in the country. (The Somerville Theatre’s attempt to tag it with the moniker “Paris of the ’90s,” however, was probably a bit much of a stretch.)

Since then the neighborhood has up and come around several times over. Meridith Levy, J91, has seen the neighborhood take off. “It was thriving when I graduated, but now it’s got all the cool coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.” Levy, who works on community development issues in the city, commends the architecture for creating a dense, urban feel. “It’s a great model for smart growth,” she says. “The scale is just right, it’s a really walkable part of the city.”

Like many, however, she worries the square might become a victim of its own success, with high rents driving out many of the original residents. “Some landlords are really driving up prices,” says Levy. “On the flip side, it’s nice to have an active body of students who drive the local economy and volunteer.”

Students, in turn, are drawn by the close proximity of the square’s bustling blend of activity and culture. “When we survey kids to find what fueled their interest in Tufts, location always comes up as our biggest strength,” says dean of undergraduate admissions Lee Coffin. “In general I would interpret that as meaning Boston, but when we say you can walk right down the hill and there are coffee shops and Indian restaurants, that is appealing to students.”

One student who says Davis factored into her decision to come to Tufts is Laura Manoogian, J06, who takes the “Joey” down to the square once a week to hit a restaurant with friends. Growing up in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, she visited the square while she was still in high school and was impressed by its urban feel. “I thought it was pretty nice to have something close to us with a ‘city feel,’” she says, “even if we’re not a city school.”

The future for Davis Square didn’t always look so bright. “Davis Square was a place you went through, not to,” remembers Bobbi Clarke, J70, a psych major who is now a professor in healthcare management at Boston University. “It didn’t do anything to try to attract students.” Traffic, she says, was a free-for-all. “You would close your eyes and put your foot on the gas. It was like driving in a third-world country.”

The first time Clarke remembers students actually spending time in the square was her junior year, when the original Steve’s Ice Cream opened up in Davis in 1968 or 1969. Legendary ice cream pioneer Steve Herrell made full use of the cheap student labor, hiring dozens of students to paint in exchange for limitless ice cream. “I’ve had some great days in my life,” says Clarke, “but that was one of the better ones.”

For the next decade or so, Davis saw sporadic development, but it wasn’t until the Red Line opened in 1984 that it really started to shake the sand out of its eyes. Alumna Barbara Clarke, J88 [no relation to Bobbi], remembers taking the bus to Lechmere to get the Green Line when she wanted to visit her boyfriend in Boston. “It was long and cold and unpleasant, and probably the demise of that relationship,” she says. By the time she graduated, however, she was taking the subway to Harvard Square on the weekends, and frequenting new businesses like Redbones, the Cajun barbecue and hipster bar that opened in 1988 and is still thriving.

The transformation was no accident, says former Somerville mayor Gene Brune, who lobbied hard to get the T to Davis, and made the renovation of Davis a goal of his administration. “My vision was to make the square pleasing to the eye, safe and friendly to be in at night, and attractive to people from outside the city,” says Brune, mayor from 1980 to 1989 and now Register of Deeds for Middlesex County. During the 1980s, he oversaw the changing of the traffic patterns and installation of brick sidewalks and parks. “I also made it very clear to the liquor commission that as barrooms went out of business, I wanted the licenses to go to restaurants that served food,” says Brune.

In the mid-’80s, larger cultural changes were in the works, too. Brune was approached by studio artists attracted to the city’s affordable warehouse/factory space. He helped support the transformation of a warehouse not too far from Davis Square known as the Brickbottom Building into a community of 150 live-in/work studios, the largest colony of its kind in Massachusetts and one of the largest artist-developed spaces in the country. Close to that same time, he was approached by Cicely Miller, who wanted to celebrate Somerville’s growing arts community by launching an arts festival. “I thought it would be great for the square,” says Brune, who gave her a desk and a small stipend to get the idea off the ground. The project, ArtBeat, went on to become an annual art and music festival that continues to bring life to the square.

By the time Barbara Clarke moved back in 1995 to buy a house in Davis, the neighborhood was already “a destination point,” she says, full of bars and restaurants bursting with foot traffic.

One of the most popular is the Burren, an Irish pub that is now shoulder to shoulder on weekends with young professionals and students swilling Guinness and eating fish and chips, or dancing to live bands in the backroom. Owner and Irish musician Tommy McCarthy opened the bar with his wife Louise in 1996, after coming to Davis for years to see music performances at the Somerville Theatre. “I always thought that there should be a good pub across from a theater,” he says. Tufts, of course, is his “bread and butter.” McCarthy just began a new “Tufts Night” on Wednesdays, with $2 draft beers and local acts.

His is not the only bar in the area that courts the student crowd. The swanky new eatery Sauce Bar & Grill offers a menu of small plates that are easier on a student’s budget. The restaurant’s inclusion of such items as butternut risotto and salmon carpaccio, however, signals a new gentrification of the square—as does the arrival of another new bar, Diva Lounge, opening next door to the namesake Indian eatery. Featuring frosted shower-glass windows, clear, round glass tables, and futuristic bar chairs, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in Boston’s Back Bay, not Somerville.

That swankiness has some local businesspeople, like McCarthy, worried that Davis will go the way of Harvard Square. “My fear is that the rents will keep going up and the only people who will be able to afford them are corporate chains.” So far, at least, that hasn’t happened. Even in the midst of the trendy bars and boutiques, local businesses like McKinnon’s Meat Market occupy the same place they have for decades. And even the newer spots like Sauce and Diva Lounge are owned by local businessmen, not chains from out of state.

Another “local boy made good” who recently came to the square is Jimmy Tingle, the nationally known comedian who grew up in Cambridge and in 2003 opened up Jimmy Tingle’s Off-Broadway Theater. “I wasn’t looking for a theater to open, I was looking for a place to do my show,” Tingle laughs. But after taking over the lease, he’s been thrilled with how welcoming audiences and community members in Davis have been. “It’s the coolest little place. A woman I was talking to recently said, ‘I wish I could take my house and move it to your neighborhood because you really have everything there.’ And it’s true.” The space, meanwhile, has increased the cultural offerings of the square, featuring not only the biggest names in comedy but also children’s programs, offbeat cabaret, and music performances. Tufts students get a special break: Two-for-one tickets.

Lucy Warsh, a spokeswoman for current Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone, notes that Davis Square does have “a wonderful combination of music and culture and commerce. With the right combination of hard work and expertise, the mayor is going to maintain that special community feeling that is in Davis Square now!”

The city is taking further initiative with an economic development summit, which is scheduled to be held at Tufts this spring. Already the city has been discussing ways that it might work together with the college to develop the square on a manageable scale. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there were more collaborative efforts by the city and the university in the square in coming years,” says Warsh.

From Tufts’ side, the University College of Citizenship and Public Service has been working with students to develop long-term strategies to help the local community beyond simply volunteering with arts and community groups. Programs like these will no doubt ensure that Davis stays Davis, no matter how many coffee shops open there.

“It’s great to have so many young people in the neighborhood,” says Warsh. “The student community really keeps the place vibrant and alive.”
Michael Blanding is a freelance magazine writer who has taught magazine
writing at Tufts’ Experimental College.