Monday, February 15, 2010

The things you see when you're not in a car...

So I've become a little less of a car commuter this semester, by taking the train from Fitchburg to teach my Tufts class two days a week rather than driving all the way to the city from home. (It's still a 40-minute drive to get to the train, but that's how it goes here in car culture...)

In addition to various other benefits, including more time to read and less angst about traffic, I've been enjoying the walk from the train stop in Porter Square to the Tufts shuttle bus stop in Davis Square. It's hardly breaking news that driving through an urban landscape, or any landscape, is like speed-reading through a text, as opposed to the kind of in-depth encounter that can happen when you're on foot, and I wouldn't be devoting a blog post to it except that the very first thing that caught my attention the first day I was making the Porter-to-Davis hike was an art/history panel devoted to, of all things, Somerville's automotive heritage.

I guess I've driven past this many times, but it's not something that's legible from a car.  It's one of three panels about Somerville's history, this one focusing on the Ford Motors plant that once existed on the Mystic River waterfront, on the site of what is now Assembly Square Mall (and which, in fact, gave "Assembly Square" its name). Ford relocated the plant there from neighboring Cambridge in 1926, and it thrived before and during World War II, when it manufactured military vehicles. But it didn't survive the Edsel debacle, and closed in 1958.

This was of course the time period when the Interstate highway system was being built, and I 93, which transects Boston, rammed through East Somerville and isolated Assembly Square from the rest of the city--another piece of Somerville's automotive history that it's been trying to overcome in recent years. While the highway isn't going anywhere anytime soon, the city is in the midst of an ambitious partnership with private developers to remake the Assembly Square site as a mixed-use "urban village" that will include access to a cleaned-up riverfront, a new Orange Line subway stop, and a giant Ikea store.

It's nice to see that mass transit advocates seem to have been heard in the planning for this project. Call me cynical, though, but I have to say that nothing immediately jumps out at me from the marketing materials to suggest that this will be anything but another upscale, consumer-oriented, mall-like waterfront development, of the type that the main developer has already built in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. I find these kinds of spaces deeply unsettling, in large part because they're built on so many erasures of past uses of the site, and because their shiny new surfaces mask the gigantic amounts of money and effort spent re-tooling after the bottom has fallen out of yet another attempt to make a place economically viable. (The Ford plant was at Assembly Square for barely 30 years, and the first mall in this location, which opened in 1980, was all but dead 20 years later.)

And the Porter Square panel seems to be a good example of the kind of erasure-through-memorialization that is such a salient feature of places re-tooling themselves in a new economic climate. Like many such history-related displays, it works hard to create a sense of continuity with the past, in this case by making an oblique textual connection between the Ford plant and the former maritime industry that existed on the Mystic River.

But the art piece also works against a sense of historical connectedness. It’s coy on the subject of why Ford left Somerville, leaving viewers themselves to connect the dots between the decision to manufacture the Edsel here, the volatility of the car industry (by the time the Edsel rolled off the assembly lines in 1957, disgruntled American car-buyers were shifting to much smaller models like American Motors’ Rambler and the newly-imported VW Beetle), and fallout from deindustrialization in places like Somerville.

There are other potential connections to be made with the continuing extension of car-based mall culture, or with the fight to expand mass transit and the the accompanying gentrification around new subway stops in places like Porter and Davis Squares, which has meant that many of the working-class Somervillians who assembled cars at the Ford plant no longer live in these places. Tellingly, this panel is on the very opposite side of Somerville from Assembly Square. In fact, its back is up against a Cambridge wall, on the side of a small-scale mall that has flourished in large part because of a subway station added here in the 1980s. And it’s right next to what is surely one of the busiest parking lots in the area, which is always something of a hazard to cross on foot if I’m trying to take the shortest distance to the station while rushing to catch a commuter train. Even in progressive, transit-conscious Somerville and Cambridge, car culture still feels very dominant at those moments, with trains and subways only a partial, problematic response to what often feels like an insatiable shared need for mobility. And the pretty panel on the wall of the mall seems likely to create, at best, only a tiny blip in the collective consciousness about how we got to this state and how we might get out of it again.