State of the Union

Ask most people where Union Square is, and if they don't put on New York airs and say, “Broadway and 14th,” they'll probably shrug and mutter something like, “I get so lost in Somerville.”

Of course, getting lost in Somerville isn't exactly hard: The web of diagonal and one-way streets makes the city nearly impossible to navigate. And Union Square's tangle of crooked roads, mistimed lights, and double-parkers doesn't help matters any. It's no wonder that, for the most part, the only people who know the whereabouts of Somerville's oldest commercial center are the road-raging commuters who fight through this urban planner's nightmare on their way to other places.

But things are changing. In the past few years, the folks at Somerville City Hall have started planning the square's revitalization to include a new T stop, a station on the long-fabled Urban Ring, and the rerouting of several streets. But most of these proposals are still only sketches and bullet points in ring-bound packets and PDF files.

On the streets, the transformation is already under way. During the '90s, the population diversified as newcomers from Africa and the Caribbean joined the Brazilians, Portuguese, Indians, and Pakistanis in the neighborhood. Innovative restaurateurs have added a gourmet touch to the already global mix of burrito joints, curry houses, and Chinese restaurants. Artists, fleeing the ludicrous rents of Boston and Cambridge, are moving in, drawn by the city's artist-friendly approach. A few long-standing stores are thriving on their cool individuality. And the various renowned international food markets are getting even better. It's these face-to-face changes, more than City Hall's designs, that will make Union Square a place people will want to get lost in.

The American flag was raised for the first time on January 1, 1776, on top of Prospect Hill (then called Mount Pisgah), the smallish knoll that rises to the northeast of Union Square. A granite tower was built atop the hill in 1903 to commemorate this historical event; the tower still stands in what is now the quiet, lazy Prospect Hill Park.The square's historical treasures are part of the city's revitalization plan. Already undergoing restoration, the Bow Street Police Station, on the west side of the square, is a bullish hulk with a fa쳌ade of stone and brick as square-jawed and tight as the face of a grizzled cop.

For all the square's history, local shopkeepers and barkeeps — perhaps better positioned than the Census Bureau — report that the neighborhood's population is getting younger. Though there is still precious little foot traffic — a major concern of the revitalization project — the sidewalks now bear a wider range of colors and ages.

“There are more younger professionals who probably couldn't afford Cambridge,” speculates Albert Capone of Capone Foods, a fresh-pasta maker. “They're very sophisticated as far as food goes.”

As in other transformed neighborhoods, food and drink stand on the front lines of Union Square's future. A longtime favorite of Julia Child, Union Square's tastiest mainstay is Eat. The restaurant's dining room is as comfortable as a country house, with mismatched place settings and chef Pete Sueltenfuss's seasonally changing menu, including sea scallops, rib-eye steak, and a mind-swirling bourbon root beer float. And every Monday night, owner Charlie Robinson welcomes a guest chef from one of Boston's best restaurants. Just down the street, the newly arrived Independent is part Irish pub, part Parisian bistro. The French-inspired menu includes salmon rillettes and a super-tasty vegetable ragout, while the separate bar boasts 12 good beers on tap and a mixed crowd of highbrow artists and down-to-earth locals.

Not all the restaurants have the word “pan-seared” on their menu. The burritos at Taquería la Mexicana, especially the carnitas (pork), will transport you body and soul to a small pueblo in the Mexican hills. India Palace serves up some of the best lamb saag and mango ice cream this side of Punjab. The Neighborhood Restaurant — the “Nabe” — serves a standing-room-only weekend brunch that includes all the usual greasy-spoon staples.

To quench a mean thirst, the barkeeps at the award-winning Tir na nOg (Irish for “land of eternal youth”) readily oblige. The relaxed vibe of the “Nog” fits perfectly into the slower motion of Union Square — magnificent pints of Guinness, a soft dark-wood décor, and acoustic musicians pleasing the mix of fringe-trendsters and grad students. The PA Lounge, formerly the rather narrowly named Portuguese American Lounge, is a little divey, but has a nice friendly feel.

In July, Union Square's only coffee joint, S.A. Coffee House, opened for business after four months of wrangling with city inspectors. Even last month, although there were paintings by local artist Kate Ledogar on the walls, there were still no tables or chairs due to unresolved permit issues. But owner Nasir Bashir, a gentle-voiced Pakistani, has faith. “Every day, people come and ask when we will open fully,” he says. “I am learning step by step business things. But the neighborhood is very friendly.”

In a down economy, of course, eating out isn't always an option. Union Square's international food markets are unparalleled for variety and spice.

On a tour of Capone Foods, which provides pasta for local restaurants such as Ambrosia on Huntington and Dalí, Albert Capone shows off his glass-fronted refrigerator filled with a rainbow of fresh filled pasta. He has 24 flavors of fresh unfilled pasta, including red wine, saffron, and dill, which can be cut into four shapes. Capone's is also a retail store, where all the pastas are for sale, along with imported olive oils and teas, and where Capone's daughter Jennifer just might be the friendliest counterperson in greater Boston.

Down the street, Reliable Market seems to have the entire Far East stocked on its shelves. Here is everything you need to make sushi at home, from fish to wasabi. There are Szechuan spices with Chinese labels, oxtail and beef knuckles behind the butcher's glass, and enough sacks of rice to feed all of Beijing. Around the corner, hidden by tentacles of leafy branches, New Bombay Market is an Indian-food-lover's wonderland — basmati rice, masala, tandoori spices. Everything's imported, including the rental library of Bollywood films.

At first, Jim Herbert seems reserved and gruff. His raspy voice recalls his childhood in Everett, and his hunch betrays his years in the fuel-oil business. But once he gets talking, his eyes brighten and he starts rambling about how he quit the oil biz, lived in Europe, and now travels worldwide in search of pieces to sell at Londontowne Antiques, the shop he opened in 1980. (For good measure, he'll throw a couple of zingers at Dubya.) The store smells like your grandmother's attic and overflows with armoires and country tables that hold smaller pieces like German steins.

“We like to keep things messy,” Herbert explains. “American roll-top desk. English pine armoires. Grandfather clocks from Denmark. A French desk. It's a menagerie, no question about it.”

At the other end of the square, A1 Antique Plumbing and Radiators appears to be a grimy junkyard of bath fixtures and radiators. To some extent, that's true. But it's also much more. The collection of radiators resembles a metallic meadow of vertical slats. The upended bathtubs are a stand of porcelain stumps. Visually, A1 is so interesting, local filmmaker Errol Morris scouted it as a location for a television ad.

Manager Joel Minnich is a fish out of water, but happily so. Blond, good-looking, and overtly friendly, he belongs in a J. Crew catalog rather than crouched over a rusted pedestal sink. He holds out hope for the square's evolution, though with some hesitation: “It's still limited by traffic.”

And with that, Minnich touches on the biggest obstacle to Union Square's bid to be commercially viable: the traffic. The city's proposed master plan for Union Square includes reconfiguring both Washington Street and Somerville Avenue to ease jam-ups. The real problem, though, is attracting foot traffic. The fact that it doesn't have a T stop kills Union Square. The city is busy advocating for one as part of an extension of the Lechmere Green Line. But that's still years away.

More immediately, people like Matt Pearson are helping the situation. A photographer, Pearson two years ago moved back to Boston from Indonesia and couldn't find affordable studio space in Boston or Cambridge. Unwilling to move away from the action, to Lowell or Lynn, as many of his fellow artists have (“It takes an hour just to get back here”), he looked around and found a building in Union Square. With support from the ever-helpful Somerville Arts Council and artist-friendly tradesmen and professionals working on the cheap — sometimes for nothing — he's organized a revolving 10-year deal for the building, which allows for artists to be easily added or deleted from the lease. With space for 31 separate studios and plans for a gallery, he hopes to be up and running by the end of the year. “Artist exchanges with the community and the gallery would be excellent for a lot of people,” he says.

Pearson glances around at the square, his photographer's eye taking in a traffic jam on Washington Street, the empty, tree-lined sidewalk, and the new S.A. Coffee House. “Union Square is a little screwed up,” he says softly. “But we love it.”