Posted on April 5th

What makes a neighborhood great?

By Maria F. Martinez

An urban planner may say a neighborhood’s walkable street design or its efficient public transportation makes it so; others may credit a place’s architecture, commercial options, or sustainable practices as the key to greatness. But I believe a neighborhood’s people, the individuals who live and work there, are the source of its character. People who care about their community create a sense of place that allows greatness to grow.

Meat Department, Reliable Market, Somerville, MA

Meat Department at Reliable Market, a Korean Market located in 45 Union Square, Somerville, MA.

Since 2014, Somerville resident Charan Devereaux has photographed the faces of the people who have made Union Square, Somerville just such a great place. In her exhibit “Union Square at Work,” she highlights the role workers play in the development of the neighborhood’s personality. From auto mechanics and markets owners, to nonprofit directors and independent artists, Devereaux’s photos communicate how such diverse personalities have contributed to making Union Square a great neighborhood. Although “one image is worth a thousand words”, Devereaux’s work pairs the photographs with perfectly matched life stories about entrepreneurship, creativity, and hard work.

“Union Square at Work”

“Union Square at Work” debuted at the Somerville Museum in October 2015 and closed in March 2016. The project features over 80 photographs, music from 20 Union Square artists, and information about major employers from years past. A portion of “Union Square at Work” will be exhibited at the Massachusetts State House in May.

“This project was started as a way to explore the meaning of work and local businesses, not as a response to Union Square’s upcoming redevelopment,” explains Devereaux in her project statement, “However, Union Square is on the cusp of a major change. An MBTA Green Line transit station is expected to open . . . and over 2 million square feet of new development are planned in the city’s $1 billion Union Square Revitalization Plan.” Yet even though Devereaux’s work is not an explicit reaction to Union Square’s redevelopment, the increased development pressures and real estate prices connected to the redevelopment are reshaping the local business landscape. Since 2014, a number of businesses representatives of Somerville’s multicultural diversity have closed. Immigrant owned businesses such as Living Well, a Haitian market, Casa de Carnes, a Brazilian butcher shop, and WellFood Plus, a Bengali grocery have all closed in the last two years.

Food businesses are a mirror of diversity

Meat Department, WellFoods, Somerville, MA

Jose Romero, WellFoods Plus employee, a Halal Market that used to be located in 380 Somerville Avenue, Somerville, MA

In the absence of those establishments, we are left with questions. Where did they go? What happened to the immigrant population that worked and shopped in these stores? Where will their customers find the same cultural variety of products? Food establishments are one of the most resilient businesses in Union Square and a mirror of the neighborhood diversity. New eateries will always be welcome. But if we continue to lose small ethnic markets, we are at risk of losing the long tradition of gastronomic and multiethnic character of Union Square.

Not surprisingly, “Union Square at Work” includes images of employees and owners of establishments that have moved or closed. An example is the photograph of Jose Romero, a former employee of Well Food Plus located at 380 Somerville Ave open since 2006, which closed his doors a few months ago. Well Foods Plus specialized in supplying Halal meats, as well as products from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Where are Romero and the Kamals, the family which owned Well Foods , now? What does Union Square look like without them?

Union Square today

“Understandably, there is both excitement and concern about the changes to come,” Devereaux explains in her project statement. “. . . As we move into that future, we might pause and see Union Square as it stands today.” And that was exactly what I did. As part of the Arts Council Nibble team, it was rewarding to learn more about the stories of the food related business that we are promoting and aim to preserve in the Square. Sheila Borges, from Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery, Rosy Cerna from Macchu Picchu Restaurant, and Ashley Capone from Capone Foods are a few of our partners who we hope will remain in Union Square, whatever other changes may come (see below photographs).

All the photographs included in this article are part of “Union Square at Work”. The Nibble team is honored to feature a small sample of Devereaux’s work showing some workers and owners of restaurants and markets in the Square. Don’t miss a bite of “Union Square at Work” that will be exhibited at the Massachusetts State House in May!

Please note, this post reflects the views of the author, not necessarily those of Charan Devereaux or “Union Square at Work.”

The Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery, Somerville, MA

Sheila Borges, the Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery owner, a Portuguese Restaurant located in 25 Bow Street since 1983

Machu Picchu Restaurante Turistico, Somerville, MA

Rosy Cerna, Machu Picchu Restaurante Turistico owner, a Peruvian Restaurant located in 25 Union Square since 2006

Capone Foods, Somerville, MA

Ashley Capone, Capone Foods Market located in 14 Bow Street since 1985

Reliable Market, Somerville, MA

Reliable Market, a Korean Market located in 45 Union Square since 1982.