Union Square West
The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship has redefined the western side of Union Square in recent years, as creative industries, business incubators, and start-ups have flooded the neighborhood. The transformation began in 2010 following the sale and closure of the Ames Envelope Company with buildings located off Dane Street and Tyler Streets. Ames was once Somerville’s largest private employer with over 600 employees at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Within the span of just a few years after the company was sold, the production facilities have been repurposed into the Ames Business Park, which has quickly become the entrepreneurial epicenter of Somerville—home to such diverse enterprises as Aeronaut Brewery, Artisan's Asylum, Greentown Labs, Brooklyn Boulders, Somerville Chocolate, a coffee roaster, a t-shirt printer, artists, and bicycle hackers. Esh Circus Arts also opened on Park Street as a home for circus instruction and performance. Given all the entrepreneurial excitement and energy in the neighborhood, the City of Somerville has started referring to the area as Innovation Row.
Agriculture and Early Transportation
Commercial and industrial uses are not new to the neighborhood. The western side of Union Square has long been focused on commercial activity. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Somerville Avenue, then called “Milk Row,” was part of a transportation corridor that provided Middlesex County farmers with access to Charlestown and Boston markets. Milk Row had originally been laid out to avoid marshland associated with the now filled-in Miller’s River. In 1830, Milk Row was straightened, and the distinctive U-shaped path of a segment was renamed Bow Street, as it remains today.
By the mid-1830s, the Fitchburg Railroad ran parallel to Somerville Avenue. The rail lines encouraged the development of additional industry and related house construction on Prospect and Spring Hills, as well as worker housing bordering the cul-de-sacs that ran off of Somerville Avenue to the railroad tracks. Even before the rail lines were introduced to Somerville in the mid-1830s, industrial firms were popping up, as seen with the Middlesex Bleachery and Dye Works on Somerville Avenue opposite Central Street. The south side of this enterprise bordered the Miller’s River, which provided a source of water, as well as a natural outlet for the firm’s waste liquids.
The American Tube Works, located on the south side of Somerville Avenue and east of Dane Street, was incorporated in March of 1852 to manufacture seamless brass and copper tubes. The Tube Works produced boiler tubes for locomotive, marine and stationary engines, as well as tubes and piping for a variety of other purposes. The current American Tube Works buildings along Dane Street and Somerville Avenue represent a second incarnation of this complex. All of the previous Tube Works buildings built during the mid-19th century were demolished between 1890 and 1920 to accommodate newer, more modern factory buildings. In 1934, the Tube Works ceased operations in Somerville, and at least some of the buildings were used by the Whiting Milk Company, possibly up to the 1960s. Since then, the remaining five buildings have been occupied by a variety of commercial and industrial uses, including a metal fence manufacturer, paper retailer, boxing club, multiple auto repair shops, self- storage, a yoga studio, and other commercial offices. In October 2015, Greentown Labs announced an $11 million expansion plan into one of the old Tube Works buildings.
Industry attracted immigrant workers to Union Square and its environs. Irish workers associated with the Middlesex Bleachery settled along the residential cul-de-sacs on the south side of Somerville Avenue, and the less plentiful English immigrants applied their engineering talents at the American Tube Works. Then during the first quarter of the 20th century, Greek immigrants found employment in the meat packing concerns of Union Square, while Italian immigrants held jobs cleaning laboratory equipment at nearby M.I.T. and started small businesses, such as grocery stores and barber shops. Italian families tended to cluster in areas bordering Somerville Avenue and the lower slopes of Spring Hill, and they were regular patrons of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Anthony of Padua, once it was built at Somerville Avenue and Properzi Way. Prior to its construction, Italians were compelled to go into Boston to worship as they were unwelcome in the Irish Church of St. Joseph’s in Union Square.
The mix of commercial, industrial, and residential uses gives the western half of Union Square its distinctive character. Many of the homes and apartment buildings represent traditional Victorian-era design. Several of the more prominent structures include three large wooden buildings still standing in close proximity to each other at the western edge of Union Square. All three of the buildings, the Richmond, Bennett and Drouet, are characterized by multiple original and intact storefronts and ornate window trim.
Milk Row Cemetery
The neighborhood is also home to the historic Milk Row Cemetery. The first and only pre-20th century burial ground in Somerville, the Milk Row Cemetery was created in 1804 on land sold by Samuel Tufts to Timothy Tufts and others. A Civil War monument, reported to be the first in the nation, was erected by citizens in 1863 to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. Somerville’s first school stood at the eastern corner of the lot from 1796 until 1849.
Development pressures in the area, and in Somerville as a whole, have not gone unnoticed by existing residents and business owners. For example, a 2011 plan to redevelop 378 to 390 Somerville Avenue would have constructed 30 new condos and 6,500 square feet of retail space, while preserving the façade of the historic Bennett Block. While the plan was subsequently shelved, it did raise the prospect of displacement among existing residents and business owners, many of whom are more recent immigrants from places as diverse as Haiti, Brazil, El Salvador, and South Asia. The project illustrates some of the opportunities and challenges associated with new development efforts.
Adapted in part from, "Union Square: An Intermixing of Industry, Immigration and Innovation" a 2014 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: 10/30/2015
Image: In October 2015, Greentown Labs announced plans for an $11 million expansion into one of the old American Tube Works buildings at 444 Somerville Avenue.
Image: Students taking part in metal working class at Artisan's Asylum.
Image: Bennett Block, 380 Somerville Avenue. Home of Wellfoods Market, a South Asian local grocer.
Image: Protesters organized by the Somerville Community Corporation marched in front of the Aldermanic Chambers in 2011 regarding redevelopment of the Bennett Block. Photo courtesy of Tom Nash, Post Somerville.
Image: Boris the dog at Nunziato Dog Park on Summer Street.
Image: Aeronaut Brewery, Original Gravity Concert Series.
Image: Brooklyn Boulders, Somerville.