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Portrait with many faces

Watertown residents gathered to attend a candlelight vigil at Victory Park on April 20.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Watertown residents gathered to attend a candlelight vigil at Victory Park on April 20.

As Watertown was thrust into the national spotlight because of a violent gunfight and a daylong manhunt in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, members of the news media and analysts unfamiliar with the area searched for a way to describe the town that shares borders with both Boston and Cambridge.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The Armenian Library and Museum represents a significant local legacy.

Some called the town “sleepy,” and others described it as a bedroom community for commuters who flock to big cities nearby for work. Those who live in Greater Boston might know Watertown for its popular big-box stores such as Target and Best Buy, the retail shops in the Arsenal Mall, or its Registry of Motor Vehicles office.

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But people who live there know there is plenty more to Watertown.

It is a close-knit community of 32,000 sharing just 4 square miles, bounded by the Charles River for much of its southern edge, with strong working-class neighborhoods, reasonable housing costs, a large Armenian population, and a well-established cultural scene of restaurants, shops, and the arts.

It is a place where families often stay for generations but newcomers add to a varied mix, where politics is steeped in New England skepticism, and people are quick to demand value for their tax dollars.

“Over the years, there are so many meetings where the first thing people say when they get up to speak is, ‘I’m a lifelong resident,’ or ‘I’ve been here 40 or 60 years,’ ” said Mark

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Arsenal Center for the Arts hosts a mix of music and theater events.

Sideris, the Town Council president. “People take pride in how long they’ve been in Watertown. People raise their families here, and now their children live in Watertown.”

‘We’re a very popular destination for start-ups that had some success but have trouble adding space because of rents in Cambridge.’

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The median household income is about $77,000, according to recent census data, about two-thirds of the figures for neighboring Belmont and Newton. And the median price for a house is $409,000, or about 60 percent of the figures for those two adjacent communities.

In Watertown Square, a bus terminus offers connections to the regional public transit network. The streets branching off from a small green are lined with a diverse collection of restaurants, from American-style diners that have lines out the door during weekend breakfast hours to a vegetarian spot that serves vegan beer and wine. Those craving a boost of culture often buy tickets to the latest eclectic jazz show or theatrical production at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

Watertown residents root for the Red Sox, of course, but also for their kids playing Little League or for the Watertown High School Raiders at Victory Field. Last year, the girls’ field hockey team won its fourth state championship.

As kudos flowed in for the job Watertown police did in tracking down the suspects in the April 15 bombings, Police Chief Edward Deveau was quick to point out someone from the New England Patriots requested a department sweatshirt for coach Bill Belichick to wear at the NFL draft.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The restaurant scene ranges from breakfast diners to late-night haute cuisine.

“That’s no joke,” the chief said after a recent Town Council meeting, a few days before the coach wore the hoodie at the podium on draft night.

Watertown was cast into the spotlight following the bombings that killed three Marathon bystanders and injured more than 260. The two suspects — 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar — confronted police in the Laurel Street neighborhood of Watertown early on April 19. A gun battle ensued and Tamerlan was killed. His brother managed to escape, but was captured that evening in a nearby backyard where he was found hiding in a boat.

Authorities aren’t sure why the Tsarnaev brothers ended up in Watertown, after they allegedly killed MIT police officer Sean A. Collier in Cambridge, and hijacked a Mercedes SUV in Boston. Law enforcement officials said investigators are looking into any links to the brothers in Watertown.

The shoot-out and subsequent manhunt were not the first time that Watertown surfaced in the investigation of a terrorist incident.

Essdras M suarez/globe staff

The rejuvenated Charles River is central to many outdoor activities.

In May 2010, two Pakistani men living in Watertown were taken into custody by authorities investigating a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square that had been attempted by Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad. One of the men pleaded guilty to unlicensed money transmitting, after Shahzad’s part in the off-the-books system drew the attention of police. Both men were cleared by federal officials of having any role in Shahzad’s terror plot.

Like many New England towns, Watertown was once a mecca for manufacturing, but it is now home to white-collar businesses such as Tufts Health Plan, as well as entrepreneurial start-ups, and engineering and architectural firms.

According to state labor officials, Watertown’s employers represented a combined job market of 19,000 positions as of last September. With data showing 18,600 residents are employed, in town or elsewhere, the near balance undercuts its reputation as a bedroom community.

“We’re a very popular destination for start-ups that had some success but have trouble adding space because of rents in Cambridge,” said Steve Magoon, the town’s economic development director. “We’ve been getting a lot of those companies who have found some success in Watertown.”

The town is also going through something of an upsurge in housing. In recent years, Planning Board officials approved a total of 650 new apartment and condominium units along a 1.2-mile stretch of Pleasant Street, which hugs the Charles River.

Even with the new development, residents actively prefer to keep their town’s New England legacy intact — and regularly succeed. Spirited crowds recently loudly opposed a Walmart coming to town, with the result that the chain abandoned its plans for the store. And neighborhood resistance to a complex adding 14 condominiums along Pleasant Street helped kill the proposal.

Census figures show Watertown is home to a wide variety of ethnicities, including residents of Irish, Italian, French, English, German, Greek, Russian, Polish, Portugese, Arab, and African heritage.

But the most prominent group are Armenians. The US Census Bureau says there are between 1,700 and 3,000 Armenians in Watertown, but local Armenians think the population is larger. Their community’s identification with Watertown is strong, bolstered by the presence of the Armenian Library and Museum of America and several Armenian churches.

Many Armenians emigrated to America in the 20th century looking to escape persecution in their native land, and many settled in the Watertown area because jobs were often available at Hood Rubber Co., on the east side of town. The factory, founded in 1896, served as a major local employer for nearly 75 years, hiring as many as 10,000 laborers at its peak.

Now, a cluster of Armenian restaurants and shops near Coolidge Square is known as “Little Armenia,” while headquarters for national Armenian newspapers and organizations are located throughout town.

“They want to be able to walk down the street and hear their native language spoken, and also be able to walk to church and other places around town,” said Gary Lind-Sinanian, curator of the Armenian Library and Museum on Main Street. “There’s only one community that fits that profile, and that’s Watertown. It’s small and safe and people can walk to places, and it just has that feeling.”

Susan Pattie, the museum’s executive director, said although she moved to Watertown only six months ago, she sees a deep passion among residents for their hometown.

“It’s very touching to see generations of people so attached to Watertown,” Pattie said. “It’s a place where Armenians have settled and become American, and carry on their heritage from the past, but are also living in the present and creating this Armenian-American culture.”

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.
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