By Blake Maddux
Susan Ostrander is a Professor of Sociology at Tufts University. Among the classes that she teaches are “Wealth, Poverty and Inequality” and “Making Social Change Happen: Roots, Activism & Community Organizing.” She is also the author of several books, the most recent of which is this year’s Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City, Somerville, MA (Temple University Press).
On one hand, the book is a work of admirable academic research and dedicated scholarship. However, Ostrander’s interviews with numerous Somervillians of various classes, races, and ethnicities – as well as her discussions of familiar locations – make the book enjoyable and instructive to all who are interested in the past, present, and future of this two-time All-American City Award winner.
Professor Ostrander kindly agreed to answer some questions about her new book via email.
Q: You write on page 20, “Between 1850 and 1860, immigrants from Ireland grew to one-fifth of the city’s population, the same proportion of residents with Irish origins today.” In 1929, an Irishman was elected the city’s first Democratic mayor, thereby ending the “ruling elite of Yankee businessmen.” Is the Irish experience instructive in predicting an eventual rise to political and social prominence by one of Somerville’s many other immigrant groups? Considering the political influence that the Irish eventually amassed, should the current lack of such influence among other immigrant groups not be of so great a concern for the time being?
Ostrander: It took Somerville Irish some 70 years to achieve representation. That was too long then and far too long for today’s newer immigrants to gain a meaningful hold in a city that prides itself on welcoming immigrants. Also, as virtually all of the 45 actively involved residents that I interviewed for my book told me – including those from Irish background – today’s immigrants face even greater barriers. Many do not speak English as their first language, and many are not racially white. That means that if they have to follow the same long path as the Irish did, it will surely take them even longer. Neither they nor the city can afford that.
Q: What are the chances that Union Square, with the addition of the new Green Line stop, might become another Davis Square, which you describe as “hip and lively”, but “the least racially diverse” and “the most costly place in the city to live”?
Ostrander: There certainly is a chance this could happen. It will require constant vigilance and collective action by both community and city to make sure it doesn’t. What I learned from talking with active residents, reading city and community documents and local newspapers, and attending multiple city and community meetings is that many forces are hard at work to try to preserve the features of Union Square that make it such a lively urban space. Examples are efforts to keep a larger than required portion of new housing affordable, preserve the intercultural presence of Union Square restaurants and businesses, and support the expression of artists from a wide range of backgrounds.
Q: You quote an elderly lifelong Somerville resident as saying that as children, she and her friends of different ethnic and national backgrounds could relate well to one another because they were all poor. Is class still strong enough as a uniting force that it can overpower ethnic and national differences among Somervillians?
Ostrander: Working class residents I talked with from both the city’s white ethnic population and from newer immigrant groups who are of color do recognize in-common issues like affordable housing and good jobs for working people. Grassroots community groups like Save Our Somerville are trying to make that connection more explicit, but it’s a huge challenge as other studies in other cities have shown. If Somerville could find more ways to build that kind of solidarity and harness if for positive change, it would be truly innovative.
Q: A woman of Brazilian heritage told you, “I think immigrants feel safer in a Somerville” than in other nearby towns. Is this generally sense of security a necessary first step toward active community involvement that you call “social citizenship”?
Ostrander: Social citizenship refers to a sense of belonging and acceptance that goes beyond legal citizenship alone. My book argues that social citizenship is a necessary foundation for a kind of democracy I call shared governance by both governmental and non-governmental actors. An in-common feeling of safety and security is part of being accepted, and it’s an important step toward being able to move into the public realm, to becoming actively involved in community life. A number of people I talked with said that, while there are local threats to the safety and security of newer immigrants in Somerville from sources like federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, compared to some other local cities, newer immigrants feel relatively safe in Somerville.
Q: Is the effectiveness of what you term “shared governance” undermined by the lack of immigrant/minority representation on the Board of Aldermen?
Ostrander: The long term absence of representation on the Board of Aldermen of the city’s large Brazilian, El Salvadoran, Haitian and similar racial-ethnic communities not only weakens local democracy, it weakens the city’s capacity to most effectively address important public issues and concerns. Why? Because it means that critically important voices, experiences, and points of view of thousands of members of the Somerville community are missing from public discussion and debate. As many of the actively involved residents from different backgrounds told me, statements about newer immigrants “eventually” and “just naturally” assuming their rightful place in the city’s elected government just as the earlier Irish and Italians did are not sufficient for today’s intercultural city and intercultural world. Examples of recommended actions include simultaneous language translation at all community meetings including Board of Aldermen and School Committee; more free and low-cost readily accessible classes for learning English; and active outreach to new citizens to register to vote, to vote, and then to run for office. Some of these steps have been taken to some degree but none are yet regularized and established as a matter of course.
Q: Is it possible that Are the 20/30-something, college-educated, politically-progressive individuals with ample income who would theoretically oppose the negative effects of gentrification are among those contributing to it?
Ostrander: Keeping in mind that the people I interviewed are perhaps atypical of residents who are not active in public life, the younger college educated progressives I talked to live in Somerville in part because of the city’s economic diversity as well as its racial-ethnic diversity. What they said they want for the future of the city is actually, and somewhat surprisingly, quite similar to that of the other two main groups in my study, that is, of older white ethics and newer immigrants mainly of color. People across the board appreciated the benefits of gentrification at the same time as they saw its dangers, and some of the newer more affluent residents were well aware that they were both contributing to some extent to the dangers and well as wanting to make more positive contributions to their chosen home city.
Q: You quote a 2009 article which read that the revitalization of Davis Square has helped “banish the epithet ‘Slumerville’ forever. Is the end of Slumerville at least partially thanks to gentrification?
Ostrander: The despised and extremely derogatory term “Slumerville” referred not only to previously deteriorating neighborhoods with empty storefronts and poorly kept homes. It referred also to corrupt city administrations and associations with organized crime. Those days are gone not just because more middle and upper middle class people have moved into Somerville, but because long time Somerville residents both in and out of city government worked hard to transform a city in decline to one that is today celebrated for reform and revitalization.
Here are some links with more information about Professor Ostrander and her new book:
Temple University Press: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2265_reg.html
Tufts University: http://ase.tufts.edu/sociology/facultyOstrander.asp