Some may complacently believe the culture wars are being waged in distant states — plane rides away from deep blue Massachusetts. But there’s a culture war brewing in Newton. The cause? People are angry — over alleged peril to Santa Claus and other neighborhood traditions.
During five days in February, a newly formed political action committee in Newton raised more than $20,000. “Friends, Nonantum needs you. . . . ‘the Lake’ is under attack by a group of politician’s [sic] who want to stop our traditions and end our culture,” read the appeal from the group, referring to Nonantum, or “the Lake,” as locals call it, the traditionally Italian American neighborhood in North Newton. “They want an end to all the Italian colors and flags in our neighborhood. . . . If we allow them to continue they will end our festival, our procession of saints in our streets, and even put an end to our Santa!”
And thus, as a special election for two vacant council seats nears in Newton, an alleged conspiracy is afoot to terminate Santa. There were no identifiable public incidents or specific comments made by any of the candidates singling out the annual Santa Claus display or the St. Mary of Carmen Society Italian Festival, which has taken place each summer since 1935, for elimination, at least none that Save Nonantum PAC could name.
Still, the knives are out. But this might be more about housing than Santa.
The March 16 special election is to fill the Ward 2 at-large council seat formerly occupied by US Representative Jake Auchincloss and the Ward 1 at-large post, which includes Nonantum, left open by the unexpected death of Jay Ciccone in November. John Oliver and Madeline Ranalli are running for the Ward 1 seat, while Bryan Barash, Tarik Lucas, and David Micley are competing for the Ward 2 seat. Oliver and Lucas have been endorsed by Save Nonantum.
Barash, who works as general counsel for state Senator Harriette Chandler, and Ranalli, a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard who grew up in Nonantum, are considered the more progressive voices. Both have been the target of negative ads paid for by Save Nonantum, including one that features the father of the deceased councilor claiming his son told him Barash couldn’t be trusted. Ranalli said she received a death threat in January and was harassed by right-wing extremists and Trump supporters. (She declined to be interviewed by the Globe at the time. Ranalli is the daughter of a former Globe reporter.)
Both Barash and Ranalli said in an interview that they have been asked by residents why they want to get rid of Santa and other Nonantum traditions, and both categorically deny they do. So where is the falsehood coming from? Some city observers point to a city council vote a few months ago as the genesis of the discontent in the neighborhood.
In November, the City Council passed a resolution calling for Columbus Day, the holiday named for the Italian explorer, to be renamed Indigenous People’s Day and to create a separate holiday to recognize Italian American heritage. Newton joined a growing national movement and other cities in the Commonwealth to honor Indigenous people. It became a cultural flashpoint in Newton, and some Italian American residents felt deeply offended. “This is a vote to denigrate every Italian American who lives in Newton,” a local resident told the Globe in September.
But the Nonantum controversy is also shaping up to be a proxy battle in the city’s ongoing war over whether to allow more housing, which generally pits progressive reformers like Barash and Ranalli against neighborhood opponents of greater density. For the past decade, the city has been engaged in an effort to change its zoning rules in order to correct the legacy of single-family-only zoning, which has historically been linked to income inequality and racial segregation. The approval of new zoning rules is still in process. But Newton is not alone: This is a major reckoning that other cities are also experiencing. Opposition from existing residents to more development is often characterized as thinly-veiled racism, or NIMBYism — sometimes correctly.
”Our zoning laws perpetuate racism. People have a hard time facing that history,” said Ranalli. “Changing our housing landscape is going to require everyone to give a little. . . . We just have to get comfortable with our community looking a little different.”
Meanwhile, Save Nonantum intends to keep raising money to fight candidates who turn “to global issues and not those real hard city issues that the local politicians should be focused on,” said Francis Yerardi, one of the founders of Save Nonantum, via e-mail. The PAC endorsed Lucas and Oliver because they’re not focusing on “radical zoning overhaul that will decimate neighborhoods across the city,” Yerardi said.
There’s nothing unrespectable about the desire to retain a political voice, though the tactics being deployed by Save Nonantum seem sleazy. Sure, all is fair in love, war, and political campaigns. But voters shouldn’t be fooled by the war-on-Santa scaremongering. What’s really at stake March 16 are the ideals of housing inclusion and equity that the city says it cares about.