Dispute over Hudson Street mural causes neighborhood tension

Last summer, a community group came together to design and paint a Somerville Neighborway mural on Hudson Street, a quiet one-way that runs parallel to Highland Avenue between Cedar and Central streets, like other groups have done on Willoughby Street and similar roads near Hudson where there is light traffic and cars move below the speed limit.

But the Hudson Street mural is now a sore spot for a community that has spent almost a year engaged in back-and-forths about whether the on-street art is trash or treasure and whether notification of neighbors was enough for approval of a permanent addition to the street.

“This is hands down a communication issue,” said Chandler Philpott, who was involved with organizing the mural, in an email Sunday.

The street-wide conflict began shortly after the mural was painted on the pavement outside 137-141 Hudson St. early last September.

Alicia Amaral, whose house is adjacent to the mural, said she was never notified that the large, colorful mural would be painted, and that two or three fliers mentioning potlucks or block parties and, in smaller font, discussions or painting of a mural were insufficient notification of such a major change to the area directly in front of her home.

She believes better notification may have gone out via email — a fact that several people involved in the design and painting of the mural have verified — but said she’s not part of the Hudson St. email list.

“Apparently, there’s some kind of Listserv that’s Yahoo Groups, or something like that, that I’m not on,” Amaral said, clarifying that an old email address may be subscribed to the email list but that she no longer has access to the account.

Amaral, whose driveway leads directly to the spot — known as “the bend” — where the mural was painted, said she and at least three other residents of Hudson Street, including other direct abutters of the mural, are concerned that it encourages kids to play in the street, lowers property values and, with Amaral noting that “there’s no accounting for taste,” is simply an eyesore.

The mural is circular and features a labyrinth at its center, a layer of painted tulips and an outside ring of rabbits. Amaral describes it as being “Easter themed” — its colors are reminiscent of an Easter egg, with bright purples, blues, yellows and reds.

Mark Chase, a co-founder of Somerville Neighborways and lecturer in Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, and Adam Polinski, a transportation analyst for the city of Somerville, say that there’s no real risk to pedestrians standing inside the Hudson Street mural, because it’s almost entirely out of the flow of traffic.

“If a car wants to not hit other cars and go around that bend correctly, they’re going to almost completely avoid the mural,” Polinski said over the phone. “From our standpoint, the cars are going slow and they’re avoiding that mural if they’re driving in a manner that is conducive to their own safety.”

Polinski said that most of the cars on Hudson Street are traveling between 19 and 23 mph, below the 25 mph speed limit for the road. Chase said he found that at the bend, 85 percent of drivers are at speeds of less than 18 mph.

All of this adds up to a small number of car crashes in the last seven years — 18 on Hudson St. overall, since 2010, with only three happening on non-intersection stretches of the road, like the bend where the mural is, according to Polinski. Polinski said that none of those three crashes resulted in injuries or involved a pedestrian or a cyclist.

“As far as Somerville’s streets go, Hudson St. is very safe. The crash data backs that up, the speeds back that up,” Polinski said.

But Amaral said she and her neighbors are also concerned about backing their cars out of their driveways, which empty directly onto the mural, and potentially hitting someone playing on the mural whom they didn’t see.

Chase acknowledged that problems arising from blind spots while reversing out of a driveway are real, but Polinski said that these types of crashes are often avoidable and rarely result in serious injury because of low speeds.

“We want to believe that people will look and use appropriate action when backing out of their driveways and that everyone involved in the situation will take the necessary action to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen,” Polinski said.

Community leaders who chose the spot in the bend for the mural, like Melissa Dullea, another abutter of the mural, note that it has always been used as an area to gather and play.

“It’s a neighborhood focal point where we have our summer block party, potluck and Somerville Sunsetters concert,” Dullea said in an email.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Amaral and others on the street dislike the aesthetics of the mural and feel left out of the process of creating it.

“I would’ve loved to have gotten to know my neighbors and participated in the community and had something that I could be — that would be really cool there, or something that we could all enjoy. But, that’s the saddest part about it,” Amaral said.

Chase said that, since the issues on Hudson St. began to arise, a new process has been put in place requiring that all residents of homes directly next to proposed Neighborways sign off on mural designs because the goal of Somerville Neighborways is to bring neighbors together and build community.

“I would say that that’s the change that’s happened from Neighborways’ standpoint,” Chase said. “Now, as I’m moving forward, I’m like, ‘You’ve got to continually invite people to be involved, no matter how late in the process you are.’”

Paula Woolley, who helped to paint the mural and has lived on Hudson St. since 1996, said in an email that she hopes the group can find a solution that works for everyone on the street.

“I’m very sorry that the mural came to be a divisive issue on the street for a few people, and I hope we can all work together to design and paint a new one, after the gas work is finally finished on our street,” Woolley said.

As of now, Chase and Amaral say that the redesign process has stalled because of pushback from some of the other critics of the mural.

But Chase continues to work with other community groups in different parts of Somerville, and beyond, to design more murals. As he does, he tells project leaders the story of what’s happened — and is continuing to happen — on Hudson Street, as a way to drive home the point that communication with abutters of planned projects is key to the success of a Neighborway.

This article was originally published in The Somerville Times.

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