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by Stephen G. Surette
An appreciation of “the old days” is programmed into me, as it was for my French Canadian father who immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at age 10 in 1913. He brought with him stories much older than himself. These anecdotes and tales from his own youth stirred my imagination as I grew up in North Cambridge.
A residential neighborhood in the northwestern corner of Cambridge occupying .85 square mile,North Cambridge is roughly bounded by the city of Somerville to the north, the town of Arlington and the Alewife Brook Reservation to the west, the Fitchburg railroad tracks to the south, and Porter Square to the east. The main thoroughfare through North Cambridge is Massachusetts Avenue, which runs through Porter Square to the Arlington town line. The 2010 population was 11,908. Throughout its history,North Cambridge has been known as a stable neighborhood with a wide range of ethnic and household income groups. Historically, generations of French Canadian, Irish, and Italian families lived there.
For many years, I shared stories with friends, including a teaching colleague, Leslie Oliver. Because we both were raised in North Cambridge, we enjoyed trading stories from our youth. In 2004, we were two like-minded souls about to retire, so enjoying these stories that we had to ask ourselves, “Why not write them down?” Perhaps you can sense what was about to evolve: a journal called Growing up in North Cambridge.
high school student newspaper at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School for many years. And Leslie and I had what had become a compelling mission. We had no advertising money, but the title we chose was self-explanatory and seemed a perfect fit. Thus, a magazine was born. In 2006, our first issue began with thirty-six pages of stories and a few ads from the community to help support the venture. It was a surprising success.Copies were sent to the authors of that first issue and the word spread from there. There was a bit of a clamor to publish one more issue. The rest is history.
Our inaugural volume stated that we were sharing our stories because living in the old neighborhood had been a wonderful experience for us as children. I hoped that “this nostalgic journey will please the readers and encourage them to relate a few of their own tales of going to school, playing in the parks, traveling the streets and avenues, and simply doing the things that kids did — in other words, growing up in North Cambridge, Massachusetts.” We were confident that we would hear from at least a few volunteers. Joanne Basteri Jadul was the first to reply to my invitation. I have quoted her many times. “I loved growing up in North Cambridge,” she wrote. “For me it was a very special place to live.” Reading her words, I knew I was on the right track.
And then the submissions began arriving. Father Russell Nickerson, OMA, recalled how he had lived next to Russell Field in the 1930s, when a tall wooden fence had been installed by the city to keep nonpaying spectators out of the athletic field. (This field attracted thousands of fans on game days when teams such as the old North Cambridge Red Sox played.)Young Russ’s solution to the dilemma was simple. He dug a hole under the fence so that neighborhood kids could watch for free! This was the kind of story and sentiment I was seeking, and more and even more people began to send in their stories.
John Vernon, a professor at SUNY–Binghamton and an accomplished novelist, wrote, “When you’re a child you see things that adults don’t see; you see hiding places under porches, empty lots behind houses, and climbable trees.” David Delaney reminded us that “kids could go to the Porter Theater and see world news,cartoons, Buck Rogers serials, and two movies, and on Saturday night, [take home] give-away dishes, for less than a quarter.”
Rev. Holly Antolini, pastor of St. James Episcopal Church, calls the journal “a ministry.” Stories often move people emotionally — and even spiritually. Dick Briand told us of leaving church with other kids after Vespers in December 1941. People were yelling that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. His response to a friend was, “Pearl Harbor — where’s that?” He added,“We soon found out.” Paul Boudreau recalled his six older brothers signing up and serving together in the war and his mother writing to one of them each night,Monday through Saturday, while they were overseas.On Sundays she rested her mind and heart.
I also received many light-hearted stories such as one told by Father Ernie Passero, S.J., about walking to his Scout meetings in the late 1940s, following a certain route so as to join friends and visit a corner store for a snack as they headed for Dewey & Almy Chemical Co.’s cafeteria — Troop 44’s meeting place.Al Lefebvre told of joining Troop 73 in the 1950s at the V.F.W. on Mass. Ave., a former Cambridge police station that still had remnants of old cells and a Civil War Gatling gun — what excitement for a boy in those days! And Louise McNair of Walker St., at age 105 our oldest contributor to date, spoke of being one of the first Camp Fire Girls in the nation (circa 1912)and sitting in a circle “Indian style” with the other girls at meetings.
Some storytellers are willing to admit to embarrassing moments. Maureen O’Connell Palmer described an annual march to the North Cambridge cemetery on Memorial Day, in about 1949. She was a drum majorette for the St. John’s Band. “I thought I was leading the entire procession back to school. However,I jumped the gun and was high-stepping all by myself down Rindge Ave.”
In June 2007, the City of Cambridge and MIT honored our project — and four others — with the Cambridge First Award, citing the magazine’s creativity and service to the community. Growing Up in North Cambridge received high praise from City Manager Bob Healy and a financial award in order to help with its continuance. Subsequent volumes have lent credence to their confidence in us. The congratulatory letters poured in, and people’s willingness to write their own stories increased, ending any nervousness that the stories might dry up. Perhaps, as reader Anne Trant Sirois concluded,“The sentimental parts of our souls like to believe that no one will ever have it as good as we did,” thus prompting a desire to tell our stories.
More than 300 authors have penned stories since we began. Several write for us somewhat regularly, while others submit a single story. Some write two, three,or four pages while some will jot down just a paragraph or two, or a caption for a photo. Most of the stories are drawn from the writers’ own experiences.Many authors write down stories told by their parents,and some tell stories that reach much further back in time. For instance, we have published stories on Camp Cameron, a Civil War barracks that straddled North Cambridge and Somerville.
Occasionally, we have published special editions.Our first, devoted to the Cambridge Rindge& Latin School and its history, contained 56 pages,due to the amount of material.The year 2012 marked the centennial of the birth of Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., one of North Cambridge’s favorite sons.Devoting an issue to someone who so relished his years here was very rewarding.
Twenty-three issues and seven years later, Growing Up in North Cambridge, now a quarterly publication,reaches subscribers in thirty-six states and six countries. We print 1,000 copies of each forty-eight-page issue. About half are sent by mail, as North Cambridge people have moved everywhere. (Two men from North Cambridge living in the Solomon Islands love the magazine.) Once people hear that a new issue has arrived, copies fly off the shelves of local stores. Two bookstores, Porter Square Books in North Cambridge and The Book Rack in neighboring Arlington, carry it. And many local businesses that carry no other books or magazines — a liquor store, barber shops, restaurants, and an insurance agency — all sell the magazine.
This so-called business of mine is really a hobby; I am having too much fun to call it a job. I put in about forty hours a week over seven days, even if only for an hour on Sunday, but I often devote entire days to the project. I have rediscovered many old friends, and I have met many new people. Last fall we had our fifth annual Growing Up in North Cambridge luncheon at Frank’s Steakhouse on Mass. Ave. I’ve also attended reunions,luncheons, and small gatherings sponsored by others.One of my favorites is the annual Rindge Alumni Association reunion and dinner, with 300 people. I also get to sit in the kitchens of many wonderful people and enjoy a cup of coffee while hearing new stories.
I am a regular at my local post office, where even the postal clerk has written for me. He told of riding his bike from East Cambridge to the Fresh Pond Open Air Theatre on Alewife Brook Parkway one hot summer evening, a distance of about four miles. He and some friends jumped the fence, drew a speaker closer to them, climbed back over the fence, and sat on their bikes viewing and listening to the movie for free. Now, I am not saying I ever did that, but I sure enjoyed sitting at home on a cold winter night reading about it.
1City of Cambridge Neighborhood Planning website www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/planud/neighplan/neighs/11.aspx, and the North Cambridge Neighborhood Study, 1990,available on the website. For more information on North Cambridge, see Arthur J. Krim, Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge, Report Five: Northwest Cambridge (Cambridge Historical Commission, 1977).↩
Stephen G. Surette taught at the Rindge Technical School and the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School for thirty-six years. Actively involved with family history and genealogy, he is the author of Tusket Wedge, a history of the Acadian village of Wedgeport, Nova Scotia. After retirement, he founded Growing Up in North Cambridge and is its editor and publisher.The journal’s website is www.growingupinnorthcambridge.com.