Davis Square is known for its character. But how to define that, exactly? As new development looms, what are its fans so afraid of losing?
It’s partly about the public space and quirky art. Visiting Davis Square on a Saturday afternoon means emerging from the T station and bumping into a brass band wandering through. It’s lingering in the plaza — one of the best people-watching spots around — and accidentally mistaking, once again, that pair of statues for an actual elderly couple immersed in gossip. It’s stumbling upon the defunct phone booth-turned-urban canvas.
But perhaps even more, though, it’s the little shops and watering holes that make Davis Davis. As Somerville’s commercial center for two decades, Davis Square has defined itself as an oasis of independent businesses. There’s a tiny award-winning wine bar, a whiskey-stocked speakeasy, an always-busy scoop shop, and an oatmeal cafe. You can spend an afternoon visiting a comic book store, a market with hand-made pastas, and gift shops with quirky art prints, cocktail shakers, and “I’m only talking to my dog today” mugs.
“Character is a super vague word,” said Melissa Woods, a senior planner for the city of Somerville. “Really it comes down to the business mix, because that’s where the people meet.”
The Davis retail mix feels like something of a relic from an earlier era, one less moneyed, and more eclectic. Especially in comparison to nearby Harvard and Kendall squares.
“There’s this mindset that we haven’t sold out,” said Paul Christie, who has run Davis Squared gift shop with his wife, Melissa, for 13 years.
As he looks around Davis, he sees night life and a thriving counterculture. There are still some local businesses that cater to the less well-off, human-scale buildings and storefronts, and public space that feels pleasingly gritty.
As developers reconstruct neighborhoods across Greater Boston, they seem to keep re-creating the same streetscape: a sea of glass that’s shuttered after dusk. The fear, Christie said, is that through the city-planned rezoning, Davis could succumb to that future, too.
Doug Sherman, a bartender at the Sligo Pub, worries the city’s drive to bring in more office space could make Davis the next Kendall Square, dominated by office culture.
“Let’s talk about Kendall. It’s dead after 7 p.m.,” he said.
And the fate of Harvard Square, just two stops away on the Red Line, has been well-documented. As developers have carved up blocks to create new buildings, they’ve pushed out beloved longtime storefronts, leaving gaping holes in the streetscape and erasing what made it special.
The Davis Square neighborhood plan explicitly lays out that its goal is to ensure it does not meet that fate.
“The Davis Square community is adament[sic]: do not let Davis Square turn into Harvard Square,” the report states.
Yet local retailers say the plan would do little to protect them. Like many business owners facing development, they fear rising rents and the disruption construction will create. But they also worry about the spirit of Davis and whether the square’s independent streak will be rubbed out.
“The writing is on the wall. No matter how much we’re fighting this, our death notice is signed; we’re all going to have to move at some point,” said David Sakowski, owner of the Magpie gift shop, which is housed in a two-story building that could be rezoned for five stories in the proposed neighborhood plan. “There’s no stopping progress. It will all be brand new — we’ll all be gone.”
Small businesses have proposed that the city offer retailers temporary leases in nearby buildings so they can have a toehold during construction. They bemoan the lack of a master plan, like the one created for nearby Union Square. Without one, they say, the future will be in the hands of the highest bidders.
“It’s going to be the Wild West,” said Sakowski.
Woods said she understands the fears of local business owners and their passion for the neighborhood. She said the proposed zoning would require chains to apply for special permits. It also encourages small storefronts in new buildings and doesn’t require parking for businesses that occupy less than 5,000 square feet. The plan also suggests creating a Market Hall that could house small businesses.
She said there have been discussions about rent subsidies for independent shops, but added, “We haven’t solved for that yet.”
Still, many wonder: Will a reimagined Davis will still be a place where small independent business owners can get their start?
That’s what Jennifer Park and Tucker Lewis sought when they opened Diesel Cafe in the square 20 years ago. The duo had been scooping ice cream at Herrell’s in Harvard Square but were intimidated by the rents and chains there. They found Davis to be welcoming for first-time business owners, and they got early support from an alderman named Joe Curtatone.
“It felt like a very cozy place, most of the operators live locally, within a 1-mile radius,” Park said. Diesel Cafe thrived, despite the arrival of a Starbucks across the street six months later, and Park and Lewis later opened three other small businesses nearby.
But in recent years, Park has noticed the encroachment of other chains in Davis. And the cafe culture she’s cultivated in the square is shifting, as nearby college campuses pour money into their own new construction efforts.
“For groups of students, this was a cool getaway from campus or a place to hang out,” she said. “We don’t see as much of that anymore. Every school has a really cool campus center.”
So she’s all the more concerned that the developer Scape’s plans for a building down the street will disrupt the cadence of Diesel’s regulars, who stop in for their daily caffeine fix.
Some workers in Davis see an even starker threat, like Sherman, the bartender at the Sligo Pub, whose fate is uncertain in the developer’s current plans.
“What they don’t know is that this block is the fabric of Davis Square,” he said. “It’s six family-owned, independent businesses that are on the chopping block. These aren’t family businesses that are failing. People come to Davis Square for McKinnon’s. They come for Sligo.”
Whatever happens, Davis devotees warn, the development will have human consequences.
"People always talk about the changing face of Davis Square,” said Christie. “Without considering the faces that are going to be changing.”
An earlier version of this story referred to the Museum of Bad Art in Davis Square. The gallery has left its longtime space in the basement of the Somerville Theatre, and its leaders are looking for a new location in the Boston area.