From ‘Slummerville’ to Somerville

For more than a decade, Mayor Joe Curtatone has worked with Harvard Kennedy School students to reshape the city.

The terms “sketchy,” “shady,” and the “armpit of New England” are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the city of Somerville in the past—at least, that’s according to people who have both lived and worked in the Greater Boston community.

But that’s no longer the case.

Pulling from the “shadows” of Cambridge and Boston, with new neighborhoods like Assembly Row cropping up, and the redevelopment of Union Square on the horizon, Somerville has transformed from “a troubled urban landscape, into one of the most livable cities.” And at least part of that success can be attributed to students from the Harvard Kennedy School.

In a new video called “Somerville Resurgent,” which was created by Kennedy School staff and posted to YouTube this week, Mayor Joe Curtatone and Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer Linda Bilmes talk about a decade-long partnership between the university and the municipality that has brought about significant changes in how the government interacts with its citizens.

“We started building this with the school and the city, and to think about all the great things we have accomplished together is fantastic,” said Curtatone, who’s a graduate of the Kennedy School. “Watching this video was very moving and emotional for me.”

The relationship between Somerville officials and the Kennedy School first started in 2003, when Curtatone was just elected to the position of mayor. Before he was even sworn into office, he met with Bilmes and they began discussing ways to reshape municipal operations with little-to-no-budget to work with. The result of their conversation was a program that turned City Hall into an “experimental classroom,” and gave the students at Harvard an opportunity to work “in the real world” with elected leaders.

“I saw that opportunity, and I saw where there was value for the city in leveraging one of the best universities right here in our backyard, and to let them use Somerville as its lab,” said Curtatone. “We were able to collaborate creativity between the two institutions and the community, and it has become a model for cities around the country who are lining up to do the same.”

Some of the projects that were born from the partnership include a more transparent budget process, fixes to parking, and changes to capital projects and needs.

In the video, produced by Matt Cadwallader, a digital media manager at the school, Bilmes and others talk about how Somerville went from a place “nobody wanted to be,” with its gritty former ties to mob activity and lack of public transportation accessibility, into a place that “every 29-year-old is desperate” to want to move to.

While some haven’t adapted to the city’s resurgence quite like the younger generations flooding into the various neighborhoods, Curtatone isn’t slowing down on trying to make Somerville one of the most recognized places outside of Boston, and looks forward to welcoming more students to his office to come up with ways to more efficiently tap into, and connect with, his constituency.

“It continues,” said Curtatone. “We know the value of that relationship [with Harvard], and we have delivered the results of it. We will continue to work on projects together, and pitch ideas for new projects.”