Magoun Square at a crossroads

On October 5, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 1:  The road thus far

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

In cities built before the automobile, neighborhoods developed around commercial centers.  So an urban dweller needed to walk no more that ten or fifteen minutes to purchase the necessities of daily living.

The pleasant, human-scaled environment nourished amiable encounters among neighbors, providing opportunities to maintain the bonds of community around food, drink, entertainment, worship and associations.

Looking at Magoun Square’s shuttered storefronts and transient enterprises, one might not guess that in past years it was one of Somerville’s most vibrant neighborhood centers.

The city has invested $2.5 million to provide an infrastructural foundation for reanimating the Square’s vitality. And neighborhood activists have worked toward that goal for 13 years.

Accurately diagnosing the tough challenges they face and crafting effective responses requires understanding what the Square was, and how it became what it is.

It’s name comes from the son of a Revolutionary War soldier who came here from New Hampshire in 1817 at the age of 24 and got into the dairy business. His farm ultimately extended between what is now Central and Lowell Streets, and Broadway and Vernon Street.

He wed Sarah Ann Adams, daughter of Joseph Adams and Sarah Tufts, and they spent their married life in the house that her parents had built in 1783. It still stands at 438 Broadway.

Active in civic life, Magoun served variously as Captain of the militia, Assessor, Justice of the Peace, School Committee member, and cofounder of the Unitarian Society.

Broadway was initially built to transport farm materials and products. In the early 19th Century, Medford Street was constructed because Broadway was too steep for horse teams to negotiate during icy winters.

Until about 1880, what is now the Square was just a dirt crossroads with a livery. And James Patrick Ryan, great grandfather of neighborhood activist Joe Lynch, had immigrated from Ireland in 1858, saved his money working in a Tufts-family brickyard, and had opened a hay and grain store there.

A seemingly bottomless well fed a watering trough near the Medford line and provided relief to thirsty horses that were driven by teamsters hauling cordwood and freight, or by farmers bringing their products to market. Three establishments served beer and liquor to thirsty two-legged travelers.

Meanwhile, real estate developers were building grand houses in East Somerville and on top of Winter Hill, marketing the area to affluent Bostonians as a leafy and genteel suburb. In the 1890s, the West End Street Railway built an electric trolley running from the beginning of Highland Avenue, along Medford Street, and ending at the Square.

Between 1882 and 1900, the national economy went through four recessions. Following a panic and banking collapse in 1893, and another panic in 1896, business activity dropped by 37% and 25% respectively.

The market for Somerville’s elegant manses disappeared. Scrambling to stay profitable, developers bought up agricultural land and subdivided into tiny lots, with modest houses. Their market was immigrants, whose first great wave had been Irish, fleeing the 1845-52 potato famine. The tide slowed somewhat during the Civil War, and then resumed afterward, with Canadians joining the Irish. Many immigrants worked in Somerville’s burgeoning industries, while the trolley enabled others to commute to Boston and work in service occupations.

Developers were making a killing. So much so that they began buying up the Winter Hill manses, razing them, and building brick apartment buildings.

The 1910s marked a high point of Italian immigration to the U.S., and it continued into the 1930s. By 1920, Magoun Square was a thriving commercial center, serving a neighborhood dominated by Irish, Canadians, and Italians, with pockets of Eastern European Jews and Portuguese.

Into the 1960s, there were two grocery stores, a tailor, jeweler, shoe store, hardware store, drugstore, dry cleaners, seamstress, bank, penny-candy emporium, variety stores, and various eateries. Every building was fully occupied.

Parents were comfortable with letting their kids roam free. The Square’s merchants were also residential neighbors, and they looked out for the young people.

Following World War II, economic forces began to transform cities throughout the U.S. The lure of the suburbs reduced Magoun Square’s population. The same growth in car ownership that enabled suburbs, also facilitated regional stores and shopping centers that offered a broader array of goods than did the Square’s merchants, and at lower prices.

When the trolley stopped running, people who had commuted on it were no longer in the Square twice every weekday. Somerville’s factories closed, and for many families, economic necessity dictated that both adults work. Their after-work companions became televisions rather than neighbors in the Square.

The decline began slowly. First National’s grocery store succumbed to competition from larger chains. The A&P followed. One by one, specialty stores closed as their market dropped below their threshold of viability.

Some were replaced with bars like Danny’s, Drake’s, Mahoney’s, Canty’s, and others. Winter Hill Gang members and hangers-on frequented the bars, which too often were scenes of assaults and murders. Parents kept their kids out of the Square. By the 1990s, it was a wasteland, with many storefronts empty, and others occupied by 6-to-12-month tenants.

In 1999, a group of neighbors—Sheila Ehrens, Margie Polster, David St. Denis, and Joe Lynch—formed the Magoun Square Revitalization Group. They recruited other neighbors, engaged merchants, and asked the city for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money for street improvements.

Then-mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay called on them when a developer wanted to buy five storefronts and replace them with a CVS drugstore. Three years of negotiating the footprint and design guidelines produced a CVS store that seemed to catalyze some new economic activity. Frank Privatera Jr. bought a block of storefronts and brought in some new businesses. A few new tenants moved in elsewhere.

In 2002, Mayor Gay submitted to the state a $540,000 CDBG proposal. Bay Side Engineering, working with local new-urbanism expert Anne Tate, prepared the design.

But in October 2005, the Revitalization Group learned that Mayor Joe Curtatone had withdrawn the CDBG proposal. He said he had done so because he wanted to submit a more comprehensive proposal that would include improvements to the Square’s traffic congestion.

Ward 5 Alderman Sean O’Donovan said that he hadn’t informed the neighbors because he was waiting for David Giagrande, the city’s design consultant, to finish the new plan.

In fact, the plan was not completed for another three years. But at that point, the recession had hit, and there were no funds to implement it.

The activists believe that the Square’s revitalization momentum ebbed during that period. Changes in merchants’ attitudes, storefront occupancy, and tenant mix support this contention.

The Square got a break in 2010 when Congress passed the President’s stimulus package. The city obtained $3.1 million and invested $2.5 million in road and streetscape improvements, supervised by MassDOT’s Highway Division.

But last year, neighbors realized that sewer drains were sinking, the roadway was buckling, and sidewalks weren’t compliant with disability guidelines. The project was redone. It is now complete.

Improved infrastructure is necessary, but by itself insufficient, to revitalize Magoun Square. And city government is only one stakeholder.

To breathe new life into the Square, all stakeholders must collaborate on formulating a revitalization plan, implementing its tactics, and maintaining commitment over the long term. In doing so, they can learn a lot from other communities that have been succeeded in such efforts.


25 Responses to “Magoun Square at a crossroads”

  1. j. connelly says:

    Yes the square back in the 60s-70s was very nice and very busy. I miss Roses Hardware, Cara Donna Bakery, and some of the other small shops in the square.

    In my younger years I drove a cab on weekends and would hang in Magoun Square. I was kept very busy by all the customers from the A&P. They came from all over to shop at the A&P. I drove people from there to other parts of Somerville, Arlington, Charlestown, Medford and even had one lady from Everett. I was surprised that some of them didnt take the “T” as there were plenty of buses going through….then again, I’d carry their shopping bag up to the 3rd floor, the “T” didn’t….lol

  2. Tim Taddia says:

    the big problem we have in magouan sq is parking regulations it is killing business,you can drive broadway from powdehouse sq. to sullivan sq. during the day it looks like a ghost town .people are not coming .Go to meford or arlington every sq is full with shoppers . Somerville needs help with parking .just look around it’s not working.

  3. Matt C says:

    Great write up on the history of the neighborhood! thank you!

  4. Charlie says:

    Tim, Magoun Square has similar parking regulations to many of the other squares in Somerville, including ones like Davis and Union which are much more active with customers and visitors. The big problem I see is a lack of destination restaurants or stores. I live near Porter Square and I always am looking for a reason to visit Magoun. Other than Old Magoun’s Saloon, what else is there to draw me in? I usually end up going to Davis, Union, or even Ball Square/Powderhouse Circle because there are many more places there I’d like to visit.

  5. MarketMan says:

    I agree with Tim. The parking rules are too strict for areas that don’t have much demand. There are many places where meters til 8pm makes no sense. Paid parking should be for areas that are seeing more demand than supply.

  6. Ron Newman says:

    The city should consider removing resident-parking restrictions on local streets within 3-4 blocks of Magoun, in order to attract more people to patronize businesses there.

  7. Mike O'Hara says:

    The article points out that Magoon was at it’s peak when there was a trolley car running through it. Now I’m pretty sure a subway stop in magoon won’t happen in my lifetime. But I think it stresses the overlying issue with Magoon’s revitalization; access.

    – Even if you repeal all the parking regulations, the square would never be able to handle the amount of cars required to allow a good number of businesses to thrive.

    – Although a number of buses run through the square, they aren’t conducive to shuttling in proper amounts of foot traffic.

    – Magoon is too far of a walk from other hubs of foot traffic (Tufts, Davis, Porter etc).

    So that leaves potential businesses dependent, almost entirely, on the foot traffic of the local area, which makes it a tough sell.

    I think, if you can figure out how to put in a parking garage where it is relatively cheap to park, you’ll see things turning around quickly.

  8. A Moore says:

    Having lived in the area since I was a kid it was a busy hectic place at one time. 2 hardware stores, 2 meat markets, 2 grocery stores, barbarshop, hobby shop music store and much more than I can remember. Down on Richardson Street we had 2 variety stores. Driving down Medford Street outside of the aquare I see some more stores have gone out of business in the last few weeks. Much as I hate the parking permit and parking meters in Somerville the square is not wide enough to do much with sad to say without doing something really major. With high rent and low volume and the cost of running a business and not enough parking it is unlikely we can revive them in this day and age. Too many people I know personally won’t go to the squares due to the parking and hassle plus not being able to physically walk too far. At least for some of the older generation and some of those with disabilities.

  9. j. connelly says:

    I dont know, when I drove a taxi 60’s-70’s, there were lots of vehicles as well as the buses in the area, especially on Saturdays. Plus all the vehicles for the games going on Saturday at Trum Field too.

    The cost of building parking garages is extremely high today. Haverhill downtown was similar with parking issues. They set and restricted delivery times/areas for delivery trucks. Also found that during the daytime a lot of store owners/employees were taking up the parking spaces right in front of their businesses. Finally with the Commuter Rail Line right in downtown Haverhill, they got the Regional Transit Authority to build a parking garage so those commuters would stop taking up street parking areas.

    This is where Somerville has failed in “T” projects in the city. The city should never have given away the Holland St. parking area, a true act of outright stupidity, another “Somerville Sweetheart Deal” screwing the taxpayers. The Ball Sq GLX stop will become a traffic jam at rush hour between buses & cars stopping to dropoff/pickup people. Likewise the GLX stations at Boston/College Aves & Route 16, similar scenarios.

    Eloquently stated by the writer above ref to businesses to “draw” in consumers are badly needed. Rose Hardware, Cara Donna Bakery, the Butcher Shop, A&P, etc. all drew in customers back then and the neighborhood group should make that their primary goal. If the mayor don’t like it, take one of those old rails by the bike path & give him a ride out of town.

  10. JJ says:

    Please add the historical info to the Magoun Square wikipedia site!

  11. Winter Hill Barney says:

    Talk about parking being the problem is truly absurd. Bill gets toward the heart of the issue in his excellent article: relatively few businesses can be successful these days in the kind of tiny storefronts that used to be such an important part of the economic activity in urban areas. What sustained them in the old days, and what would sustain them now, is high levels of neighborhood pedestrian traffic.

    One thing that would do wonders for Magoun Square is some good commercial office space full of workers who need to eat lunch. I don’t know if there’s even a possibility of such given the types of buildings that are in and around the area, unfortunately.

  12. Johnny says:

    Barney, you’re on the right track, but parking is at least part of the issue. Smart people will not open a business in an area that does not have adequate parking for customers. Also, who is going to open an office without parking for their employees?

  13. Ron Newman says:

    Union Square doesn’t have huge amounts of parking, nor is it (yet) on a T line, but plenty of people are running successful businesses there. Same for Ball Square, on a smaller scale.

  14. That’s a great point, Ron. What Ball and Union do have is an established and successful economy with businesses that meet the needs of the community & feed off of one another. Right now, there are only a few businesses in Magoun that do that, but not enough to prompt thoughtful business models and resident-friendly services.

  15. Courtney O'Keefe says:

    To further explain: Magoun Square is in a bad cycle…we have parking regulations that spook potential businesses (according to property owners) and we don’t have the visibility or a successful economy because we don’t have enough businesses.

    Other squares in Somerville had the advantage of established economies when the parking regulations were implemented. They suffered for a while, but are attractive enough for consumers and new business owners despite the new rules. Magoun was struggling before the new parking rules and it has really slowed our economic comeback despite a beautiful new streetscape improvement.

    We are, slowly, coming back. A new restaurant, market and beer & wine store are in the works (3 less empty storefronts). Focus from local organizations like Somerville Local First should begin to bridge the gap between residents and businesses, as well as, business to business. A recent successful biergarten hosted by Olde Magoun’s Saloon has given us leverage to have more festivals.

    Magoun has other factors to its economic state right now and parking is certainly one of them. A group of business owners, elected/city officials, and community members have been working diligently and increased the parking availability by over 20 spots. We included more bicycle parking & have more systems that will be piloted to further increase the amount of parking we have-considering the amount we lost when surrounding streets went to permit-only.

    I would like to see OSPCD, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, reach out to potential business owners to introduce Magoun and the availability of storefronts. Maybe include surrounding towns’ Chambers to see if potential businesses were turned away due to a lack of space. I would also like to see property owners made aware of the improvements to the square, potential funding for improvements to their buildings, and encouraged to reach out to the community to see what businesses residents would like to see there. Pop-up businesses for the holidays would increase pedestrian traffic too.

    At this point, Magoun is a dead zone throughout the day and our contribution to the city, financially, is minimal with very little revenue from parking meters or tickets. The economic state of the square has also impacted housing sales and storefront rents. Businesses come to Magoun becuase it’s cheap enough to try and fail. Condos on Trull Street recently sold for under $300K and even MaxWell’s Green boasts a closeness to Davis with no mention of Magoun at all in its advertising.

    It’s my hope that we can bring Magoun to a point where, if the Green Line ever comes, it will not be seen as a way to save the square, but an accent to an already thriving business district.

  16. MarketMan says:

    Well put Courtney.

  17. Charlie says:


    Is there any evidence that any squares in Somerville have “suffered” due to the parking regulation changes? Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any official data one way or another.

    Personally, I do not know a single person who has said they don’t visit one of the square because of the parking or that they visit less because of it. If anything, the new rules and regulations should have made parking easier, since in many squares, the parking was often totally full (the higher rates should encourage more turnover).

    On a side note, one thing many of the other squares have that Magoun does not is special events to draw people in. Davis has ArtBeat and recently Honk Fest and Octoberfest as well as regular farmers markets. Union has farmers markets as well, along with Fluff Fest, recent Wine and Cheese Night Markets, and others. I think some kind of special event to pull people into Magoun who may not think to visit may be a big boost. These types of events especially tend to be very popular with local residents, and with so many people within walking distance, it may be just the excuse people need to give Magoun another look.

  18. A Moore says:

    I think Ball Square and Union square probably do better because they attract more student business. I know working in those areas they have a lot of apartments rented to students which may account for the extra business they do. Magoun is just out of the way for that type of business. It certainly will be a tough square to add some life to. Maybe if gas goes to $10 a gallon the squares will make a comeback. I live nearby and can’t remember how long ago I was in a store in Magoun Square. Ball Square I stopped going to when they went back to parking meters.

  19. j. connelly says:

    Yes Magoun Square is not a big draw as the others like Teele, Powderhouse and Ball which lead into Davis for the college crowd which from there go to Porter & Harvard via the subway.

    Then I do not think Powderhouse does that well as Teele & Ball Sqs.

    Then if Maxwell Green had not happened, would the GLX really ever have been pursued? Until it is completely done & occupied will we ever know if its population enhances Magoun Square business. There will have to be several anchor facilities that will draw business into the area.

    If the economy was better but unfortunately one of the Bloomberg financial people said it will not improve. If Europe does not come out of it by 2013, it will hinder the economy badly in the U.S. as export sales will be badly hurt. So no matter what either Presidential candidate promises, it is not entirely in their hands because it is a world wide issue. There are checks & balances and unfortunately in this high speed super highway they are being bypassed.

  20. Charlie says:

    A Moore, do you live in Somerville? If so, and you have a resident parking permit, you can just park near whichever square you are visiting on a nearby residential street. This is actually better for everyone, since it leaves the metered spaces open for out-of-town visitors.

  21. Courtney O'Keefe says:


    Numbers for Olde Magoun’s Saloon, On The Hill Taver, and (the late) Lil’ Vinny’s decreased significantly once the regulations were put in place. Lil’ Vinny’s dropped over 40%. All of these were conveyed to the administration through subcommittee meetings hosted by Traffic & Parking, as well as, Housing and Community Development. I also attended these meetings, personally.

    There is no data to show to that Magoun, specifically, suffered because there was no study conducted before the parking regulations were implemented, therefore, you have no comparison for any study that was conducted after. I also don’t know of any other study that was conducted in any other square previous to the implementation either.

    As far as turnover-encouraging parking is concerned, that is only helpful when the establishment is operating at full capacity. If it’s not at full capacity, you are turning over only the tables/chairs that are occupied. What happens when a majority of the tables/chairs are NOT occupied. A solid study of each square would have resulted in a much better thoughtful and business-friendly parking plan. That did not happen. That will never happen.

    You are absolutely correct in your suggestion of having festivals. Recently, we did have one in the back part of the CVS parking lot and it was very successful, well attended. We hope to use this as leverage to have more.

    Thank you!

  22. Boston Kate says:

    So, you can’t cough up a little coin? How long is anyone planning on shopping, etc. in Magoun Square anyway? Having meters allows people to park closer to their destination. Also, the meters are spaced out to discourage people from parking in such way that would prevent the number of cars that could fit on a particular block, from fitting in. Then, there’s the issue of local residents tying up free spots for hours, thereby discouraging shoppers.

  23. Courtney O'Keefe says:

    Boston Kate,

    The City already tried that one on us, as well. Their argument was that residents were tying up the CVS parking lot and preventing non-residents from parking and patronizing, therefore, they should increase the price on the meters again to force residents to residential sidestreets. One month of counting by two Magoun Square business owners showed that the vast majority of cars in the lot were non-residents and that included Friday and Saturday nights.

    If Somerville residents know anything, it’s that we cannot take up free spots for hours due to the predatory ticketing method. It’s one of the main reasons why people won’t come to Magoun despite 2-hour parking on the top of Lowell Street, Broadway and Trum Field.

  24. j. connelly says:

    I try to keep the business local. If I go to Davis and cannot find a space the first time I do a “John Wayne” and circle the area. There have been times that after circling a couple of times I gave up and moved on as with the current gas prices it becomes unaffordable + being handicapped I cannot park too far away from where I am headed. If I have time and they have what I need I move on to one of the other squares. So if I cant find a space for the Dollar Store in Davis Sq, I head for the one on Somerville Ave. I stay away from Porter Square as it is a nightmare. I have found that it is better to go to one of the local tailors than using the mall stores. The locals do a better job and dont use that fishline type thread that comes apart.

  25. A Moore says:

    I live in Somerville, have done so for over 60 years. I will not pay to park on a public street I helped pay for. It is a public street. As for parking on a side street I don’t have the time or money to go searching for places to park, not at these gas prices. Many days I cannot do the walking part and there will be less of those days as each year passes.

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