Union Square at Work

Documenting the oldest commercial district in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Union Square at Work presents photographs, stories, and music from people who work in Union Square—the oldest commercial district in Somerville, Massachusetts. Located outside of Boston, Somerville is the most densely populated city in New England and a three-time winner of the National Civic League’s All-America City award. Union Square is home to mechanics, restaurants, salvage yards, non-profits, markets, plumbers, salons, artists, printers, bars and many other businesses. There is a tattoo studio and a clean technology incubator. An American Legion Post and a used record store. A glass services company and a puppet artist. Some businesses have been open for 20, 30, even 100 years or more, often run by the same family. Other businesses just opened last month. There are shops that specialize in Guatemalan, Brazilian, Korean, Bangladeshi, Haitian, and Indian goods. There are also artists and musicians who create, write, record, and perform in the Square (listen to the project’s Union Square Somerville Playlist). Union Square is anchored by the ever-busy Market Basket grocery store. Far from representing all of the many Union Square businesses and non-profits, this project represents a small sample of working life in the Square along with information about major employers in years past.

This project was started as a way to explore the meaning of work and local business, not as a response to Union Square’s upcoming redevelopment. However, Union Square is on the cusp of a major change. An MBTA Green Line transit station is expected to open. In addition, infrastructure improvements and over 2 million square feet of new development are planned in the city’s $1 billion Union Square Revitalization Plan. Understandably, there is both excitement and concern about the changes to come—who will gain, and what will be lost? What new opportunities will arrive and which will disappear? Already, a number of shops have moved, closed, or been knocked down to make way for the future. As we move into that future, we might pause and see Union Square as it stands today.

Union Square at Work included over 25 concerts, talks and events around the city. See a description of these events here. Special thanks to Massachusetts Historical Society Program Director Gavin Kleespies for serving as Project Adviser for the 2017 “Economic History of Somerville” event series.

Union Square at Work was supported by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the Club Passim Iguana Fund, The Somerville Arts Council/Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the members of the Somerville Museum. The project was exhibited at the Somerville Museum and the Massachusetts State House, and awarded a 2017 Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

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Union Square at Work: Portraits

Union Square at Work: Places

Massachusetts State House Exhibit Invitation

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