Paying It Forward

Fundraiser by trade, networker by nature: Here’s how this enthusiastic Somervillean is…


Paying It Forward

By Jason Rabin
Photos by Kelly MacDonald

1. The house therapist

“It’s mostly that real estate – it fits kind of a weird skill set that I have,” says Thalia Tringo, surveying Chandler St from her back porch with a computer in her lap and a phone close to her hand.

After years of working for agencies, she started Thalia Tringo Real Estate earlier this year with the goal of spending more time with fewer clients – and doing things her way. Previously, she worked as a fundraiser in the nonprofit world. She now serves as a board member for multiple nonprofits and donates a portion of every sale her company makes.

It’s just one of the ways she digs deeply into the community. She thinks of herself as a “house therapist,” coaching clients through the arduous process of finding a home. “I tend to romanticize property,” she says. “I always make the analogy that it’s like trying to find your soul mate.”

2. A giant college

It was Tringo’s soul mate, her husband Andrew, who first brought her to the area in 1987. He lived in Cambridge. Tringo felt Cambridge had changed from the city she remembered visiting in the 70s, when she was a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She decided to live in Somerville.

After working for four years as a fundraiser, Tringo got laid off in 1991. She began tinkering with beads as a hobby. Before long, she was making earrings and necklaces – and selling them. At one point she had accounts with 24 stores and she was doing “tons” of crafts fairs. She even had a cart in Kendall Square. The experience taught her a thing or two about entrepreneurship, as did her worn copy of Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. “I kept obsessive charts on spreadsheets of what types of things sold in different weather and to whom so that I could change my displays based on the forecast,” she recalls. Later, she learned to make her own glass beads and rented space at a glass studio.

Andrew, for his part, is also an artist. He is a photographer who produces media for businesses as a profession. It’s one reason they take pride in supporting local artists. For their most recent (10th)anniversary, they commissioned portraits from Somerville painter Kelly Carmody. “We try to find creative ways to incorporate art into everyday life,” she says. “That’s a lot of the vibe in Somerville.”

Thalia and Andrew still thrive off the local engagement vibe. They barely use their Prius, shopping for groceries at McKinnon’s (239 Elm St) and Pemberton Market (2225 Mass Ave in Cambridge). They like working on their porch with their laptops and cell phones, chatting with neighbors and passersby. “There was a kid who came by the other day,” Tringo recalls. “He wasn’t from the area, and he said, ‘What can you tell me about [this area]?’ Andrew and I started going on and on and on: You know, you’ve got the ArtBeat Festival in a couple of weeks and you’ve got to go to the Taza factory (561 Windsor St) and you gotta sign up for the Somerville Arts Council listserv. He was probably about 25 and he just said, ‘This is like living in a giant college!’

“We started laughing but it kind of is. I’m enormously proud to be part of a city that just really tries to do so much for so many different kinds of people. And the city doesn’t have tremendous resources, but they have phenomenal human resources and they use them all the time.”

3. The connector

Tringo is a major supporter of those resources. She lends her fundraising and networking skills to the boards of the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC, 59 Cross St), East Somerville Main Streets (ESMS, 114 Broadway) and the Davis Area Resident and Business Initiative (DARBI).

“She’s really stepped up to take on certain tasks,” says SHC executive director Marc Allston-Follansbee. “We have an annual dinner every April and she just runs the silent auction herself so we don’t have to worry about it. But at the same time she’s also thinking about what other things we need to work on, what we need to improve.”

“Thalia’s a connector,” adds Carrie Dancy, ESMS executive director. “She’s always looking at how she can bring new resources to the organization.”

It’s not just organizations benefiting from her resources. Tringo stays in close contact with past clients. Hot water not working? Noises in the woodwork? Their first call is to the house therapist, who diagnoses the problem and tells them who in town can solve it.

“She’s always focused on the human side of the transaction,” says Todd Zinn, a Winter Hill resident who is one of Tringo’s two employees. “Her clients become her friends and continue to rely on her knowledge long after the transaction is complete.” Zinn would know – he is a former client.

4. Pro bono mentality

Tringo’s $250 charitable donation on every sale her company makes is integral to her life philosophy. “I’m not a religious person, but I like to tithe a portion of my income. Just for my belief that if you’re lucky enough to have disposable income you have to share it with people who aren’t – or organizations that support things that you think contribute to the quality of life in the community or the world.” To determine which charity receives the $250, she talks to the buyer and seller and tries to learn which causes motivate them. “I’m trying to link the client to some part of the community that they may contribute either time or money to,” she says.

While Tringo was attracted to working in real estate, at first she felt some apprehension. “My dad taught stuff that had to do with special ed and rehabilitation and my mom taught nursery school and elementary school. I have a lot of people in my family who are nurses, cops – you know, people who do public service oriented kind of work. I just found that I always felt guilty about liking real estate because real estate is a business about money.” She laughs.

5. The advocate

Part of what Tringo finds in the job is a call to advocacy – something that’s always interested her. After college, she began master’s work in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence. She eventually abandoned it. “I owed $500 a month in student loans and needed to find a job that paid my bills,” she recalls. Still, she applied for a law degree, a master’s in public management, Ph.D. programs in women’s studies and holocaust studies. She wound up deferring her acceptances. She didn’t want to take out more loans without a strong possibility of return on her investment.

But she never lost her interest in “how much change can be accomplished by a very dedicated minority.” That may sound like political rhetoric, but it’s not when it’s voiced by Tringo, who is keenly interested in local politics. With ease and fluency, she can run through the structure, legislative processes and relative merits of the governments of Cambridge and Somerville. She raves about her alderman and the aldermen-at-large.

It’s not surprising, then, that she finds her most rewarding clients to be the ones for whom she has to advocate. She thinks back fondly on working with Martha Ziegler, founder of the Federation for Children with Special Needs. Ziegler was desperate to sell a triple-decker she had (unknowingly) purchased with a subprime loan. She had no one to turn to – until she found Tringo. “She had this total understanding of the situation,” recalls Ziegler.

6. Bilingual, in business

Ziegler isn’t the only former client praising Tringo’s mastery of market nuance. “She spoke the many different languages that were so new to me,” says Sheila Connolly, a Spring Hill resident. “The language that the banks speak, the language that the contractor will speak. It’s a long way, making a deal, for anybody, but it’s a lot more daunting for a first-time homebuyer.”

Connolly is a potter at Mudflat (81 Broadway, see page 14), which recently renovated East Somerville’s Broadway Theatre. “We needed a notary in a hurry. Thalia dropped everything to help. I asked, ‘Do you know anyone?’ She said, ‘Here I am!’ That’s a community-person kind of moment.”

Houses like this one, on Mt. Vernon St, are a big reason why Tringo calls East Somerville “an amazing area” with “some of the most beautiful architecture in Somerville.”

7. What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood?

East Somerville, an important part of Tringo’s business, is likewise a subject of her advocacy. “You know East Somerville is always the hardest part of Somerville for me to get people to look at,” she says. “And it’s an amazing area. I know people who have lived there for ages and there are some wonderful neighborhoods. There are some really interesting stores. And fabulous food!”

Tringo feels East Somerville has earned an unfair reputation. So when clients ask her not to show them anything in the area, she asks them simply to explore it. “Some of the most beautiful architecture in Somerville is in those neighborhoods,” she says.

Her latest plan is to let East Somerville – and the city’s other neighborhoods – speak for themselves. She’s working on a series of videos with Andrew, which will air on her web site and YouTube. Their purpose is to give residents a chance to wax enthusiastic about their own neighborhoods.

Of all her ideas, this one seems to encompass the best of Tringo: her advocacy, her creative sensibility and her desire to connect people. “We’re going to say to residents, ‘Just tell me how much you love your neighborhood,’” she explains. “It will be people just saying why they love Winter Hill. ‘I love this pizza and this park.’ What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood?” She pauses. “You know, just living in a place that looks attractive doesn’t make it a community. I think what most people are looking for is some sense of community.”

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