Today, the word Brickbottom is nearly synonymous with the bustling artist and residence complex located on Fitchburg Street; however, Brickbottom the neighborhood has a long and varied history, one that tells the story of America's urban and social history on a local scale.
Beginning in the second quarter of the 1800s, Brickbottom was an area of clay pits used for brick-making to build fashionable residences on Beacon Hill and in Charlestown. However, by the 1860s, the area was being transformed into a residential enclave of modest houses as people were drawn to Brickbottom due to its inexpensive rental housing and proximity to jobs. Many Brickbottom residents lived near their workplaces: coopers near barrel-making enterprises, meat packers near the meatpacking plants of Somerville and East Cambridge, restaurant workers and grocery clerks near their jobs on Linwood Street and Somerville Avenue.
Initially, Brickbottom was an overwhelmingly Irish residential enclave; however, as new waves of immigrants arrived, the mix of families in the area also hailed from Italy, Greece, Portugal, and other European countries. “Brickbottom was the first residence in the U.S. for many new immigrants. It was where the Italian, Irish, Greeks, Canadians and many other nationalities (including Portuguese, Jews and Armenians) were represented and intermingled without prejudice or fear of each other,” said former Brickbottom resident Kevin Crowley in a Somerville Journal article dated July 31, 1975.
The dense residential neighborhood was not to remain. In 1925, the Brickbottom neighborhood was bisected by the Northern Artery, which later became the McGrath/O’Brien Highway. The highway was originally envisioned in the early 1900s as a carriageway that would facilitate the escape of city dwellers to the western and northern countrysides. However, by the time the highway was completed in the mid-1920s, the automobile was becoming popular, and the artery became a much more ambitious project, with the later construction of an elevated segment that split the Brickbottom neighborhood. Almost an entire block of the neighborhood ("Central Square") was swept away during highway construction. The division created by this new transportation corridor hastened the transition of Brickbottom from a residential neighborhood to an area serving light industry and regional commercial businesses. Gradually, the neighborhood’s housing stock was replaced by garages, warehouses, and light industrial uses, most of which remain into the present day.
In 1988, there was renewed interest in Brickbottom as a place to call home. The former A&P supermarket bakery complex located at the southern end of the neighborhood was converted into a live-work cooperative targeting artists who were seeking light and airy spaces with high ceilings, large windows, and distance from nearby residences, so they could engage in their sometimes noisy artistic pursuits. Today, the Brickbottom lofts complex includes over 100 artists and is still one of the largest artists’ cooperatives in the United States. Adding to the neighborhood's arts focus was the opening of Joy Street Artists Studios, which offers 52 non-residential work studios to 60 artists.
More recently, the City of Somerville demolished a former waste transfer facility (and one-time incinerator) on Poplar Street as part of a longer term effort to transform the area into mixed-use, transit-oriented development. Under a grant from ArtPlace America, plans are moving forward to convert the site into a creative commons called ArtFarm for Social Innovation. Using facilities largely built from reused shipping containers, the Somerville Arts Council and its community partners will transform the site into a center for community and art-based social, economic and educational innovation. The project will co-locate multiple creative uses, including farm- and food-related activity, as well as create a welcoming open space that serves as a new gateway to the Brickbottom community.
Adapted in part from "From Bow Street to Brickbottom: Union Square and Its Early Industrial Preeminence and Immigration," a 2013 self-guided walking tour brochure produced by Brandon Wilson, Executive Director, and Kristi Chase, Preservation Planner, Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, in coordination with Edward W. Gordon, President, Victorian Society of America, New England Chapter.
Last Updated: 11/05/2015
Image: Brickbottom Lofts, 1 Fitchburg Street, Somerville.
Image: Brickbottom, circa 1925.
Image: Joy Street Studios
Image: Schematic design for ArtFarm.