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History of the Hub: Davis Square T Station

Off Campus | November 3, 2014

The Davis T station is a space that many of us, as Tufts students, use frequently. However, its function as a transitory space also means we hardly pay attention to what’s in the station beyond the sign that tells us when the next train is coming.

One day, while waiting for a friend to add money to his CharlieCard, I became curious about the painted tiles on the wall of the mezzanine level. Spurred by that curiosity, I researched the public art.

The tiles are nestled between bricks in the Davis T station. (photo by Alison Graham)
The tiles are nestled between bricks in the Davis T station. (photo by Alison Graham)

It turns out that the 249 tiles have adorned the station’s walls since it opened in 1984. Students at the Powderhouse Community School painted the tiles during the 1978-79 school year. The painters were all between the ages of 5-11 at that time, and they were allowed to draw whatever they wanted—with the exception of cartoon characters or war-themed pictures. The result: volcanoes, tree houses, balloons, electric guitars, and more. They’re grouped according to type on the station’s brick walls, and each tile is labeled with the artist’s name.

This installation was part of a larger MBTA project called ‘Arts on the Line’ that incorporated art into public transportation stations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The painted tiles, the life-sized human statues in Davis Square, and the large, colorful abstract sculpture on the station wall were all part of this same program. An artist named James Tyler, for instance, created the human statues in the 1980s based on people who lived in the area at that time.

Artist James Tyler created the human statues in Davis Square as a part of the "Arts on the Line" project. (photo by Alison Graham)
Artist James Tyler created the human statues in Davis Square as a part of the “Arts on the Line” project. (photo by Alison Graham)

But I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered about the origin of the tiles in Davis. In 2009, The Action Mill and the Think Tank that has yet to be named came together for the Davis Square Tiles Project, aiming to locate the painters of the 249 tiles. The directors of the project, Nick Jehlen and Katie Hargrave—both residents of Somerville—believed that collecting the personal stories of the painters would provide a lens to better understand the impact of the Red Line Extension on the Somerville community.

As part of the project, the painters of the tiles were asked a series of questions, including their earliest memory of the city, how they would describe Somerville in the 1980s, and how they thought the city had changed since then. The participants’ answers seem to suggest that the city has undergone profound change since they painted the tiles. Many of the painters commented on the influx of young professionals, the increase in property prices, the increase in commercial spaces and the diversity of the city.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Somerville was a city undergoing urban decline, with a shrinking population and a changing commercial character, as traditional manufacturing and automobile firms were leaving the area for the suburbs.

Kristen Colton, for example, described Somerville in the 1980s as “blue collar working class, lots of families. More diners, less restaurants.” Similarly, Sean Paige described Somerville as a “blue collar town, pretty diverse but with large populations of Irish and Italian. More than one generation commonly lived in a house.


These tiles depict cars and taxi cabs. For other categories of subjects, see the Davis Square Tiles Project's website. (photo by Alison Graham)
These tiles depict cars and taxi cabs. For other categories of subjects, see the Davis Square Tiles Project’s website. (photo by Alison Graham)

The 1984 extension of the Red Line into Somerville has largely been seen as a catalyst for change in Davis Square. It has led to commercial developments in the Square as well as making Somerville more accessible to Cambridge and Boston, therefore attracting professionals to live in the Davis Square neighborhood. But it’s important to consider Davis Square’s history, before today’s cafes, bars, quirky stores, and active nightlife scene.

In recent years, many residents have shifted their worries about gentrification to the Green Line Extension. By 2019, the MBTA hopes to have trains running beyond Lechmere to College Avenue near Tufts. Extensive work has been done to document the possible impact of this transit development on the various communities. Still, many are asking, like Paul McMorrow of the Boston Globe, whether “the Green Line serves as a tool for growth, or just for runaway gentrification.”

2014 marks the 30th year of the completion of the Davis T Station, and the Somerville community around Davis Square has undoubtedly changed in many ways because of it. The blue-collared character of the neighborhood has been replaced by an influx of young professionals and students. These developments, however, have also simultaneously displaced existing residents who were pushed out of their existing homes due to increasing rents.

The Green Line Extension has the potential to impact the communities it passes through in similar ways. For now, we can see one account of those effects through the painted tiles in the Davis T station. Next time you pass through the station on your way into Boston, look to the tiles as an instructive lesson on how transit developments can significantly alter neighborhoods in the long-term.