The Changing Face of Somerville
On paper, Somerville’s population is more diverse.
What does it mean in reality?
BY CARMEN RUSSELL
Somerville’s population is dropping but its diversity is on the rise. According to 2010 census data, the population dropped 2.23 percent – an aggregate loss of 1,724 people. Considering the white population decreased by 3,641 while the non-white population grew nearly 11 percent, it seems Somerville is becoming more diverse.
Where is the diversity coming from? While the African-American total increased by 2.5 percent (from 5,035 to 5,161) and the Hispanic total grew by more than 18 percent (and now comprises 18.14 percent), the Asian population grew the most – by about 32 percent. What’s the explanation? Given the Asian representation at MIT (26 percent of the undergrad population), Harvard (17 percent) and Tufts (13 percent), is it feasible to attribute the newfound diversity to the city’s proximity to those universities? Maybe, maybe not. For one thing, this city has always been a college town. For another, the Asian population boomed throughout the state as well, growing by 111,644 (46.88 percent). Moreover, the term “Asian” is so overarching that it reveals precious little about which of the numerous Asian sub-populations has grown.
Regardless, one bottom line of the 2010 census is that Somerville’s population is now almost one-third non-white. What are the challenges of this increased diversity, and is Somerville ready to address them? “The diversity means that there are new needs and you want to look at the services government provides, are they efficient and effective in meeting these new needs,” says James Jennings, a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts. “How are we planning and delivering human services to a changing population?”
To get some answers to these questions, we made a few calls to the city. Initially, we were told the mayor wanted to speak with us directly, but the return phone call didn’t come. We then talked to Somerville spokesperson Michael Meehan who told us they couldn’t comment specifically yet, because “We’re launching a formal appeal of those numbers.”
However, he did offer that the city may prove even more diverse than the census numbers suggest. And that could be because certain people just aren’t home often enough to be counted. “For example, if you have people who were working multiple jobs, they are less likely to be home when you knock,” he says. “And they don’t have home phones, they have cell phones. Between our young population and our immigrant population you have two groups that are harder to find.” He argued that the census methodology doesn’t work in Somerville for the very reason that Somerville is diverse. “The system is built for the standard and used in the standard way and we’re not standard,” he says.
If the numbers do end up changing based on the appeal, Meehan expresses confidence that the official number of immigrants in the city will rise.
Jennings, for his part, believes Somerville is heading in the right direction, since “a number of organizations that deal with diversity issues” have sprung up in recent years. For all the nonprofit activity, however, the city still boasts an all-white Board of Aldermen. That speaks to the notion of civic participation, according to Jennings. “How does Somerville handle civic participation so that bridges are built between new residents and old residents?” he says.
Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz believes Somerville is open to changes, noting that some of the onus falls on the residents. “One of the great things about Somerville is its diversity,” she says. “People should feel empowered to get involved in their government.”