|Donald Norton/Managing Editor of The Somerville Times|
With Doug Holder
Donald Norton has lived in Somerville all of his 68 years. And if there is one thing that most people can agree on about this important figure in our city, it is that he has an unabashed love for Somerville. Norton, once the owner of The Somerville Times, is now the managing editor. The ownership of the paper is now in the hands of his longtime friend Ross Blouin. I met with Norton at my usual spot at the Bloc 11 Café in Union Square. Norton is a fount of information about the “Paris of New England,” and he had a plethora of anecdotes about the old city, and his view of things to come.
Doug Holder: Donald in back of us is an old church. I think it houses condos now. Union Square has changed—the city has changed—you have experienced this change in your years here.
Donald Norton: I am 68 years old—so I can go back to the late 50s. At that time there were a lot of stores in Union Square. Any type of shopping you wanted to do; you would come to Union Square. The streets and sidewalks were very busy with people. The Square was laid out very differently back then. There was a different traffic pattern. Somerville Community Access TV was a fire station. The city changed very rapidly in the early 60s. One of the reasons was that there was a massive flight from the city of Boston. If people remember the Boston Redevelopment Authority was tearing down the West End of Boston. A lot of the folks from the West End were moving into Somerville. The predominate ethnic group in Somerville at the time was the White Anglo Saxon Protestant. A lot of the churches were emptied and people moved out to places like Stoneham, as more Catholics were coming into the city. The vibrancy in Union square lasted till the early 60s, until the malls came into play.
DH: I heard there were slaughterhouses in Somerville?
DN: I remember “Squires” which was located where Target is today. Squires was a slaughterhouse. Back in the day there were a number of slaughterhouses in that part of the city, on the outskirts of Union Square. My parents told me that the cows from the farms outside the city were marched down College Ave., through Davis Square, down Elm Street, and down Somerville Ave. to Squires. There was a fire at Squires that lasted a week. As kids we would go down every day to watch it burn. It was a really good smell, well, like a barbecue of sorts. After Squires a lot of big stores like Bradlees’s, and Stop and Shop moved in.
DH: With all this change, what do you see as the future of the city?
DN: I don’t know. I think it is challenging. Of course it depends on the economy. I see young couples that come into my office that are pre-approved for an $800,000 home and make $200,000 a year. But it is hard for people to sell in Somerville. The whole area is hot, and getting another home is just as expensive. People have to go farther and farther out. Anyway, as I said, the city changed in the early 60s, and by the 70s there was an influx of Portuguese. My mother once told me that at one time Somerville was a huge Republican city-of course that has changed also.
Somerville is not on the right track as far as a pricewise city. As far as keeping the city diverse…well a lot of people are going to move out because they can’t afford to live here. But what younger folks don’t realize is what goes up, must come down. So the million dollar home and the high paying job you have today can be gone. Your home can be greatly devalued. I have been in real estate since 1977, and I have seen many booms and busts. The generation of people in their 20s hasn’t really experienced this as adults. People should keep this in mind.
DH: Can you talk about the term “Slummerville” that has thrown around a lot over the years.
DN: This originated from people on the outside, because of the perception of Somerville as a hotbed of criminal activity. I never thought of Somerville this way. I was never insulted by the name, “Slummerville.” People who used this word obviously didn’t know anything about the city. Over the years I have worked in organizations that have contributed to the welfare of the city. And how things have changed! For instance I run into people who have not been back to Somerville since the 60s and were once embarrassed to be from it, and now they wish that they never moved. They read all the press about the city, so now they wear Somerville proudly on their puffed- out chests.
DH: Can you talk about the history of The Somerville Times?
DN: It was started in the 60s by an attorney who was running for mayor. It started out named “The Somerville Times,” later it became “The Somerville News” and now it is known as “The Somerville Times” again. The Times was started as a counterpoint to The Somerville Journal. The Journal was locally owned, unlike now. The Journal had a huge staff. It is now relegated to a shoebox space just off Highland Ave. When Bob Publicover took the Times over, he changed the name to “The Somerville News.” It was monthly paper. It was a hands on operation. Bob had a popular column titled “Bluntly Speaking” where he announced he had AIDS. That was a big deal back then. In 2002, when his health declined, he sold me the newspaper. At that time my real estate company was very successful. I put a lot of money into the paper—and we never made much from publishing it. For a while we had a partner, but he left. Two years ago I sold it to Ross Blouin, an old friend of mine. I am now in the role of managing editor. The Somerville Times is going to be around a long time. We are the number 1 paper in Somerville. We get between 14,000 and 17,000 readers ( online and print) a week. We have 160 boxes across the city and we are putting in more. We plan to put 4 or 5 boxes in Assembly Square Mall. Recently Tufts University Journalism students studied us, and gave us many recommendations to improve the paper, some of which we will implement. I glad that we have a diversity of writers with different viewpoints.
DH: On a final note, what about the story we broke about Obama’s unpaid parking tickets he got in Somerville when he lived here while attending Harvard Law School? Give me the inside dope.
DN: Well we had some inside information about that from a source that I can’t reveal. Hillary Clinton’s people called us about the story during her campaign. The story got so many hits it almost crashed the website.