Letter to the Somerville Board of Aldermen re: 11 Fiske Ave

To the Board of Aldermen:
The Somerville Board of Aldermen must balance the big picture needs of our city, our region, and our planet on the one hand, and the minutiae of individual neighborhoods on the other. At the biggest macro level, we have a climate crisis that we should respond to by encouraging transit-oriented, rather than car-oriented, living patterns. We have a regional housing crisis demanding more housing, especially near transit nodes. And we have a city that needs taxpaying residents and workers to continue to fund its ongoing operations.
Last night, at a community meeting about a small project, I saw a small group of neighbors standing up to oppose all of those things. “You people,” said one of them, pointing at the only person of color in the room, a man representing a business based in Somerville, “come into our city, and build things that look like projects, and ruin what we have.” The “we” in this statement was about twelve white property owners over the age of sixty. “This neighborhood has never changed,” she continued. “It has always been like this. And I don’t like the changes that are happening in my city.”
“Not in my yard,” said another, demanding that detailed professional snow removal plans be written into the building’s condominium documents, and asking for a third-party specialist to determine whether shadows would cause structural damage to his walls.
The participants imagined that workers would vandalize their homes in retaliation for parking tickets; they imagined that pickup trucks would be too large to fit down their narrow street; they imagined that the residents of their street who were minorities agreed with them even though they were not present and hadn’t been asked; they imagined that a slight change in lighting would cause mold which would destroy their siding. They could not imagine a neighbor who did not own a car.
When I spoke up to note that transit oriented development is better for the world and for our community, I was told “go back to Prospect Hill.” Living as I do just a five minute bike ride away, I was deemed an outsider with no stake in the matter, trying to apply out-of-touch abstract principles to support greedy developers.
I go to a lot of these community meetings. At most of them, I see older, whiter, wealthier residents opposing all kinds of changes for all kinds of reasons. But this meeting was the most explicitly racist one I’ve been to. I am ashamed that I did not push back harder against the racism and xenophobia I witnessed last night.
I hope that the board will acknowledge that the concerns of the dozen or so opponents of the project are based entirely on irrational fear of change, and that they will allow a totally normal, entirely reasonable project to move forward.
Aaron Weber

Boston Property Brothers

HGTV is more popular than CNN these days, which got me thinking that we don’t have a really good Boston-focused shelter show. And that’s weird, because Boston’s huge in the entertainment biz these days. You can’t have a reality TV show without a Boston contestant, and you can’t go to the movies without tripping over some gritty Boston whatever.

We’ve got Wahlburgers and we’ve got The Town and (ugh) Patriot’s Day. We should have a show like Property Brothers or Fixer Upper, but, you know, Boston-ified.

Like, a couple goes apartment shopping. Their goal is a 2 bed, 2 bath place near transit with room for their dog. They get a room in an illegal boarding house, no pets allowed except bedbugs. It’s “near transit” in that the commuter rail goes right by the back door, but it’s a 2-mile walk to the station.

A couple starts a renovation. The Casey Affleck character from that Dunkin Donuts sketch is the contractor. He doesn’t pull permits, starts demolition, and then disappears.

The inspector’s mother once had an affair with the contractor’s father. The inspector retaliates by nickel and diming every permit until the project is six months behind schedule and $70,000 dollars over budget.

In a Very Special Episode, the tile guy overdoses in a newly finished bathroom.

Someone wants to spend $500,000 on a light-filled condo with Beacon Hill charm. They get a basement studio in Brighton for just under $750,000. It looks good at inspection but turns out to require structural reinforcement and asbestos mitigation. Ultimately the only cosmetic improvement they can afford is buying an unframed movie poster. For The Town. At a yard sale.

Them Days Is Gone, Mickey

Last weekend we went down to Hartford to visit Megan’s family for a day, and Uncle Pete, now in his 80s and recovering from gall-bladder surgery, sat and talked with us a while about the old days. He met my father-in-law’s oldest sister when he was just back from the war in Korea. He was 21 or 22, working at a gas station, and she was 7 years younger, skipping high school to smoke cigarettes. When he met her parents, they were thrilled, because he had a job and wasn’t a drunk. They were married after her high school graduation, and he supported the family on wages from Gerber Scientific and so on.

Several times during the conversation, Pete shook his head and told my father-in-law “them days is gone, Mickey.” (Nobody else calls him Mickey.) Days when a fifteen-year-old girl could bring home a twenty-two-year-old boyfriend to meet the approval of her parents. Days when a man with a high school education and a bronze star could support a family on a single working-class wage. Days when Hartford was a manufacturing center and not just America’s filing cabinet.

Pete’s nostalgic, but he’s not trying to bring it back. Them days, he knows, is gone, and although we lost some good things it was mostly an upgrade.

And that’s why it annoys me to see much younger people like Mike Pecci so convinced that the good old days can be saved. Them days is gone, Mickey. Boston’s not a gritty scene anymore, Allston’s not a good place for underground punk shows, and you can’t make beer money printing zines.

Complaining about how things aren’t what they used to be is a grand tradition of course. In Boston it goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin complaining that pubs weren’t as cool as when he and the boys were plotting the revolution at the Green Dragon or the Bell-In-Hand. 0

But you can’t stop time. Places change and grow or fossilize and die.

Them days is gone, Mickey. Live in these days.

Construction Setbacks

Electrical was roughed in and some drywall was about to go up when we realized we needed better insulation on the exterior portions of the roof, and better sound insulation between our unit and the other half of the building. So, we’re holding off on putting walls up to put up better insulation. It’ll be a little extra, but not cripplingly expensive. And it’ll be worth it to have pipes not freeze and have some soundproofing between us and the neighbors.

Meanwhile, the structural engineer reported that one of the beams was sagging on the flat portion of the roof, so that needs to be reinforced. Fortunately that’s not going to be too expensive either.

The old water heater was suspect, and we got confirmation from the plumber this week that it’s as bad as it looked and needed to be replaced. This also isn’t going to be too expensive.

Of course, all the “not too much here, not too much there” is going to add up.

But I did find ceiling fans that look just as nice as the ones we had initially planned on, are still highly rated, and cost about $75 less each. So, that’s a nice savings.

Plus on our last site visit the contractor was joined by a friend of his who is a Buddhist monk, and he gave us his blessing. Apparently they know each other from back when our contractor was a monk for a few years. The stories from this house should be a novel.

The good kind of shingles

We found some exciting new leaks in the last rain storm, but the crew has fixed them very promptly. A guy came by in the rain on Sunday to put extra tarps down and stop the leaking, and they patched them more permanently once the weather cleared. We’ll have to replace that section of roof later anyway, but the patches should hold for now.

Shingles are starting to go in on the roof, and the two missing windows in the basement have been replaced with actual windows.

Today when I came by the house to meet with our plumber/HVAC guy, a neighbor out walking her dog stopped us to say they were very impressed with the work the crew had done so far, and also with how they’d been careful not to get construction debris on anyone else’s driveway/yard/street/etc. Tibet Construction: Your Neighbors Won’t Hate You.

The roof, the roof, the roof is actually in pretty good shape

So, we got some good news: The crew from Tibet Construction started on the roof, and the plywood under-layer is in great shape and doesn’t need to be replaced. Some of the joists are damaged and to have support sistered in, but not all of them, so that’s non-awful news.


We also began planning the basement repairs. It looks like we’ll need to dig up some concrete in the basement to get better drainage, but at that point we can apply waterproofing on everything and have a dry basement. We hope.

Kitchen planning is almost done. There are an innumerable number of fiddly little decisions, and also some big decisions. One of them is that there’s a closet/wall type thing we don’t much like. However, since we’re opening up so much of the space, we have to be careful to preserve some amount of lateral walls or the building will go all floppy. Basically, we have a loadbearing closet we want to shrink, and need to get a structural engineer to sign off on shortening it by about 18 inches. If we can do that, though, we can have a gloriously huge kitchen island.

Status Update: Permits and Planning

Priority one on the Summit House is fixing the exterior before winter comes. After a few hassles and delays, we now have a permit and construction should begin any day now. We’re going with a light gray CertainTeed Carriage House shingle on the mansard roof, and white trim. We’ll worry about painting the exterior in the spring.

Meanwhile, the planning on the interior is moving along. We’re still flip-flopping on a few things but the designs are approaching completion and we have a list of Completed Decisions. One of those decisions was to use a 30″ range rather than a 36″ cooktop and wall ovens. Even as much as we love cooking, the giant cooktop isn’t that helpful. And if we find we’re short a burner once or twice a year we can always go for a portable one that plugs in.

Dating The Building

Tomorrow I’m going to try to get over to the city archives but in the mean time I’ve found some interesting details. The house was described in the listing documents as built in 1900. But that’s a suspicious date – that’s what you put when it’s “at least 100 years old but we don’t know and can’t be bothered to get over to the archives to check.”

Also, my sister-in-law saw the place and she says it is absolutely built before 1900 just looking at it. And she’d know these sorts of things.

And sure enough, the building appears in roughly its present shape on this 1895 map, so we know it’s pre-1900 already. This is simultaneously one of the best and most frustrating things about knowing my sister-in-law: She’s so frequently right, and I want to be the one who’s right all the time.

This map from 1874 shows a building in the same location, although it looks like only half the duplex was built at that time. Also interesting to note that Summit Ave didn’t go all the way through from Walnut Ave to Vinal Ave.

Looking back a little further, in 1852, neither Vinal Ave nor Summit Ave existed at all.

So my guess for now is that the first half of the building was built in the 1860s or so, and that it was expanded into a duplex some time in the 1880s.

House Status: Step 1

We’ve moved some things into the house on Summit but we don’t want to put too much there yet – anything moved in will have to be moved around as we renovate, and it’ll get filthy.

But this morning I met with the architect for detailed measurements, and the contractor for a phase 1 estimate. He’s going to get us samples of the material he recommends for the roof, and a permit, and an estimate for the exterior work, and contact his plumbing guy about getting the gas line turned back on. In the mean time I can use an electric heater to keep the pipes from freezing.

To the Summit!

I haven’t written this up yet because I didn’t want to jinx it, but Megan and I just bought a new house, in Union Square, Somerville. It’s a great location and it’s structurally sound, but it needs a lot of work.

What we know of the history reflects the development of Somerville as a whole. It was constructed some time around 1900, probably earlier, but we aren’t sure yet. It may have been at one time a home for unwed mothers, or a boarding house, or just one of those Prospect Hill duplexes.

By 1970 it was a dilapidated 4-family, and some people who met during a consciousness-raising workshop in the summer of ’69 bought it to turn into a collective living space. They added on to the back and converted it into a single-family home for about 12-14 hippies, all of whom kept day jobs – they turned on and tuned in, but didn’t drop out. In May 1971 they were profiled in the Boston Sunday Globe.

The commune turned it into a single-family home with one kitchen and two bathrooms, each with triple sinks. Membership changed over the years, and we’re a little vague for a couple decades. Eventually the building was owned by a couple who ran it as a collective rooming house. That arrangement ended when the couple broke up. One person stayed and one left, prompting a condo conversion in the 1990s.

The sold condo was purchased by James Welborn, who left a tech job at Akamai to open Hub Comics, just down the hill. He died in 2011 after what appears to have been a struggle with mental illness.

The condo was unoccupied from then until the time that we bought it. The commune’s mouldering triple-sink single bathroom is still there, along with a depressing kitchen, bannisters that appear to have been gnawed by dogs, and a fridge with magnets holding both a child’s artwork and a divorce-related court order.

Thanks to the work of Banco Santander and Century 21 Real Estate of Fall River, it was more than 3 months from the time we signed the Purchase and Sale agreement to the time we were able to close. That means we’ve got a tight timeline to get the building weatherproofed before winter sets in.

The list of tasks that must be completed in the next 30-ish days includes but is not limited to:

  • Replace roof and fix holes in siding
  • Replace back door
  • Replace front door locks
  • Reconnect gas service
  • Replace furnace
  • Restore rotted window sills
  • Clean & sanitize basement, install dehumidifier
  • Sage-smoke building to remove any and all ghosts

Once that’s done, we can begin the renovation proper.