Friday, February 27, 2009

Somerville Maple Syrup Project

The Somerville Growing Center is sponsoring a Maple Syrup Project, which involves collecting sap from local maple trees and boiling it down to syrup. The sap was collected earlier this month. Blogger darry at boston localvores wrote a great description of the sap collection experience.

Even if you missed the sap collection stage, you can still make the Boil Down at the Growing Center, Friday, March 13 and Saturday, March 14, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Growing Center is located at 22 Vinal Ave., near Union Square. For more info, call Aviva at 617-628-9988 or email

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Tom Champion Remix

Who doesn't love Tom Champion, right? The friendly voice of the Somerville Snow Emergency phone call to remind us to park on the odd side of the street before the plows come. A certain Cosmo A. Catalano, the self-proclaimed "World's Toughest Writer," remixed the message a la Stephen Colbert. Wouldn't it be much more pleasant to hear the remixed version when the phone rings at an hour generally reserved for vampire activity? I vote YEA.

WBUR did a little spot on the remix for Here and Now.

Anyone who lives in Somerville can sign up to be notified of reminders and emergency info at the City of Somerville Constituent Services page.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cafe Lola, a Somerville success story

It's a pleasure to be able to report that ownership of the cafe formerly known as Cafe Rossini, at 278 Highland Avenue, has been awarded to Lola, one of the former co-owners. No need to go into the details of the transfer, but suffice it to say that Lola, a fabulous baker who makes all the cakes, pastries, and muffins right there in the shop, is likely to make a success of the business as the sole proprietor. With the opening of the Armory (a few blocks up the street), I think there will be a real appreciation of Cafe Lola's low-key and friendly atmosphere, its excellent food and coffee, and art-adorned walls. In a addition to baking and barrista skills, Lola is a talented painter and letterer. She did all the art and signage in the cafe herself. At this point, the patrons include plenty of Italian-Americans who hang out inside in the cold weather, and outside at tables under the shady awning on the nice days, as well as a sprinkling of creative types. Stop by for a latte and a coconut macaroon (especially if they just came out of the oven), and give Lola a high-five and a "congratulations". She deserves it.

Somerville's Cafe Culture (Somerville Journal)

Brociner: Somerville’s cafe culture
By Ken Brociner
Thu Feb 26, 2009, 12:40 PM EST

Somerville - Somerville has so many cafes/coffeehouses that many people living in our city probably haven’t even heard of half of them — which is too bad because practically all of them have their own unique style and flavor.

I really only started to hang out at cafes about 10 years ago when I became a daily regular at Carberry’s, which was located just outside of Davis Square in the same building where Green Tomato is today. A wonderful little subculture developed at Carberry’s in those days. The same people usually showed up at the same time each day. And even if it only involved a friendly smile or wave of the hand, most of the regulars acknowledged each other with a warm familiarity. Of course, many people went beyond that and developed lasting friendships. To this day, I still miss the little world that existed inside that oddly shaped building with all of those windows looking out onto Elm Street.

The history of cafes and the different roles they have played in society varies far and wide. Going back hundreds of years, cafes in both the Middle East and in Europe were known for their literary clientele. One image that comes to mind is that of the great writer hunched over his papers with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a steaming cup of coffee lying next to his manuscript in-the-making. Another common image of cafes is that of a group of intellectuals sitting around a table and passionately discussing the great issues of the day.

Here in the U.S., cafes mostly go back to the 19th century when they first became popular as pastry-centered coffee houses run by Italian immigrants. In the 1950s, coffee houses were especially popular with beatniks, poets and folk singers in such places as Greenwich Village and Berkeley. Then in the ’60s, countercultural youth and activists in the movement against the war in Vietnam embraced cafes as places to come together and build a sense of community.

Over the last 20 years or so, the Starbucks chain has come to dominate the coffee house culture in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in other countries as well. But here in Somerville, while we do have a couple of Starbucks (and I will confess that I spend a lot of time at the one in Davis Square), we also have many excellent independently owned cafes.

But the Starbucks phenomenon is no longer the dominant trend in contemporary café culture. An altogether different factor has rather abruptly entered coffee houses from Seattle to San Francisco to Somerville. The laptop. I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to predict that if you could somehow peer into every coffee house in America at any given time of the day or evening, somewhere in the neighborhood of half the people sitting there with a cup of coffee would also be intently pounding away on a laptop.

Maybe it’s because I don’t even own one, but when I walk into Starbucks, the Diesel or Common Grounds (in Ball Square) and I see one person after another sitting alone and glued to their laptops, I find it slightly alienating. I guess that’s because I get the feeling that along with their laptops, many people also have put up invisible bubbles around themselves with captions that read “hard at work, please leave me alone.”

Perhaps it’s just a generational thing. For better and for worse, I have never felt nearly as comfortable with electronics as most young people do these days (and it’s mostly young people who populate Somerville’s café culture). While I realize that an objective observer could see that same “leave me alone bubble” hovering over someone deeply engrossed in a book or newspaper, I can’t help feeling that a laptop acts as more of a “privatizer” than a book might.

Of course, there really isn’t anything wrong with going to a coffee house and wanting some time to sit alone and work, read, or just plain reflect on one’s life or the state of the universe. I would heartily agree that the right to do so and to be left alone while you are enjoying your private space is one of the most important attractions of cafes to begin with. And in all honesty, this is what I personally find so appealing about hanging out in a coffee house.

However, cafes are better places when you get the feeling that people in them leave the doors to their little worlds at least slightly ajar for a brief conversation or a quick remark. From time to time, I have taken a bit of a risk and have politely asked someone sitting nearby questions like, “Excuse me, but do you mind telling me what you are working on?” Or simply, “Is it a good book”? Invariably, I find that people greet such interruptions in a friendly way — especially if they know you aren’t trying to engage them in a long conversation — although sometimes, when both parties are obviously interested in keeping such interactions going, lengthy conversations do occur.

Being more open to meeting “strangers” in cafes is a wonderful way to build more of a sense of community here in Somerville. It’s also a way for people to come together and try to make sense of an all too bewildering world. So the next time you visit your favorite café, try putting that laptop or book aside for a few moments and ask your neighbor a friendly question. You may very well be surprised by how much you can learn from the person sitting right next to you.

Ken Brociner is a regular columnist with the Somerville Journal.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tufts Daily reports Somerville to consider citywide Wi-Fi

Katherine Sawyer, Tufts Daily
Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Somerville residents could potentially one day enjoy free wireless Internet, care of the city government, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone recently announced.

The city issued on Dec. 30 a document designed to gauge companies' interest in providing wireless broadband installation and management services. The municipality has since begun receiving responses and reviewing potential options.

Many cities around the country already provide wireless access to their residents free of charge. In Somerville, the service will most likely be low-bandwidth.

"We would like to see models that include open access hotspots in key business districts, as well as a way to help low-income households gain at least some access to the Internet via a portal supported by advertising or some other revenue flow," Curtatone said in a press release. "This wouldn't necessarily be high-speed, broadband access, but it would give users, including local students, a no-cost way to check email or run text-based searches."

The City of Somerville has approached the project with an eye toward providing access to the entire community.

"We're looking for the best benefit to our residents in terms of services and costs. City of Somerville spokesperson Jaclyn Rossetti told the Daily. "We want to make sure that everything is going through a fair process, transparent to the public so that we all know what's going on."

To that end, the government has reached out to companies and asked for proposals.

"We're looking for a company that would provide speedy, no-cost service that would help us bridge the Internet divide and allow us to make basic Internet for research purposes available to those who don't have it," Tom Champion, another city spokesperson, told the Daily.

The City is also exploring the possibility that Somerville's density and Congress' recent passage of a federal stimulus package may help with costs.

"Unlike larger cities that run into road bocks, we have some advantages in the market because we are a dense community, and that makes it less expensive," City of Somerville spokesperson Tom Champion told the Daily.

If all goes well and the city can find a provider, officials hope to receive some federal support for the project. Champion believes that federal stimulus funding could cover the some of the costs of building the wireless network, making set-up costs lower for prospective companies.

The project meets the requirements for federal stimulus funding because it is "shovel-ready" in that it could begin immediately, would be leveraging public or private investment, would create short- and long-term job opportunities, and would stimulate economic development, according to Champion.

City officials expressed hope about potential responses to their request for company interest because of the open nature of the project. Ideally, Champion said, the service will be open to a variety of providers.

"What we'd like is to have a private company come in and act as a wholesaler, make bandwidth available to a number of providers, and create a no-cost portal to public," he said.

At this point, the city remains in the process of gauging what types of business models exist for establishing Wi-Fi services. According to Curtatone's press release, the next step could involve requesting additional information from interested companies, pursuing the project with one particular firm or waiting for economic conditions to improve and then asking again.

City officials hope that Somerville's natural advantages for the creation of a wireless network will attract prospective Wi-Fi companies.

"This is a rapidly-changing field, and we don't want to tie ourselves to any one approach," Curtatone said in the press release. "In times likes these, we don't have the money to deploy Wi-Fi on our own, but we can offer a good network of fiber access points and access to city buildings and light poles for relay points."

Champion stressed the preliminary nature of the undertaking.

"We're just trying to find out, given our city's options and advantages," he said, "if is there any interest in establishing a private market that could serve the entire city."

Begin at the beginning

I moved to Somerville in 1993, after growing up in Arlington, and then living in Los Angeles for 12 years. After spending that long in resource-poor, smog-laden, shadeless L.A., I was ready to live someplace with trees again. My father found me an apartment in Somerville and there began my romance with this town.

My first apartment in Somerville was on Highland Ave., right down the street from Davis Square. The Someday Cafe had just opened and it became my home away from home. I was used to cafe society in Los Angeles, having frequented The Onyx and Cafe Tropical in the Silverlake/Echo Park area. It was a relief to me that someone had picked up on what was going on cafe-wise in the rest of the country, because Au Bon Pain just didn't have the right ambience for re-acclimating to New England, drinking well-made lattes, and writing in my journal.

As the years have gone by (over 15 now), my love for this town has continued to increase. I've seen beloved businesses (like The Someday, Disc Diggers, and La Contessa Bakery) close, but I've also seen a renewed commitment to the support of independent local businesses. It's a town that strives to be green, provides hundreds of opportunities for artists to work, live, and show their work, and includes a diverse community of people of all ages, races, genders, sexual preferences, and occupations, living harmoniously. Of course we have crime here, but for the most part, it's a place one can walk without fear.

Negatives about Somerville? Overzealous meter maids, insane parking restrictions, sometimes an oversaturation of Tufts students, and Zoots dry cleaners, which is expensive and does a crappy job, with bad service, to boot. That's about all I can think of right now on the con side.

Anyway, enough about me! From here on out, it's all about Somerville.

Thanks for stopping by!