The Fitchburg Line Industrial Corridor
Boston is a very post-industrial city. East Cambridge and
Somerville especially were big industrial districts around the turn of
the last century, but the industrial jobs drained away in the 50s, 60s
and 70s, a little ahead of the national trend towards
deindustrialization. Research, finance, and the
giants of Harvard and MIT, as well as a host of lesser schools, are the
base of Boston's economy these days. For years, I wondered if
there were any
that hadn't been converted into office and lab space for IT companies
and biotech startups. But then I moved to Somerville and found an
agglomeration of industrial buildings that were still Making
Stuff, most of them huddled up against a railway track running south of
Somerville Ave. This track was part of the Fitchburg
, which was leased by the B&M
railroad, and then bought by the MBTA
the 1970s; now it's the Fitchburg
of the MBTA's commuter rail service.
There are at least four large businesses that I know of occupying this
little cluster of industry: Ames Safety Envelope
which occupies a dwindling share of a huge complex of buildings divided
by Dane Street; the Peter
Forg Manufacturing Co
., which does metal stamping and
fabricating right across the track from Ames; L.
Bornstein Flooring, which operates a large and ugly structure
north of Washington Street; and the H.D. Chasen
which sells industrial supplies out of a small complex on Lake Street.
There's also a
of smaller industrial businesses or former businesses operating
from smaller buildings. I've collected some
information on the history of the locations on this page from the Sanborn maps
available through the Somerville Public Library.
I had been meaning to photograph this area for some time, but
ultimately it was an internet friend's comment that "you are near a
METALWORKING plant and I haven't seen pictures?!?!" that spurred me to
action. So, beginning on a beautiful day in May, I went on a series of
expeditions to explore and
document some of the last working factories in Somerville.
(The lighting conditions weren't always great, so I've done a
fair amount of quick and
dirty enhancement in Photoshop to create the final images.)
To give an idea of the geography of the area, I've created a Google
showing the locations of the buildings I've photographed.
The Ames Complex
The Ames company has been in existence since 1919; it started off
making envelopes (hence "Ames Safety Envelope Company", still the
business' official name of the company), and branched out into packing
materials, office supplies, on-demand printing, and probably some other
stuff that I didn't notice from skimming their website. The company was
started by a John Fitzgerald, so I'm guessing that
bought the shop somewhere along the line, or
wasn't a name you wanted attached to a business back then.
the decades, the Ames company amassed a large (by Boston
standards) package of
industrial buildings along the north side of the commuter rail tracks.
To the east of Dane Street, they built over or took residence
a number of buildings that had once been the American
one of the earliest heavy industrial plants in Somerville, a maker
of brass tubing for steam heat systems. In
the last few
years, though, they've either shut down or
moved some of their production facilities, and most of their Somerville
facility has been rented out for other uses, or is standing empty.
Looking south on Park Street at the western wing of the Ames complex.
recently -- a few months ago, I think -- the Ames company used
this part of the complex as a factory; I used to walk by and look in
the windows, and see people at a production line. I think they made
file folders here. Since then, at least part of it has been
rented out for other uses.
the street. On the far right you can just see the railway crossing.
There is still Stuff being Made in this very functional
Just on a less industrial basis.
First Act Studios
the current resident of this part of the complex, makes musical
instruments. Not just any old musical instruments either. They seem to
focus on electric guitars and tube amps.
A quick snapshot through the
window. I did a lot of
enhancing here to
brighten up the interior; it was quite dark compared to the sunny day
Passing by on another day, I saw a group of First Act employees and/or
their friends hanging out by the building, taking a break from their
labors. Moments after I snapped this photo, they started playing hacky
building, further along to the south. This part of the building still
seems to be Ames property; the loading dock is in active use, with
trucks moving in and out. Unfortunately the artifact in the
center top is almost
certainly some of my hair blowing around.
Just to the
right of the loading dock, another building in the sprawling Ames
complex. I'm pretty sure Ames is still using this one. You can see the
other side of this building a little later on. The beautiful
mural makes an interesting contrast with the Spartan quality of the
An interesting detail on the mural building.
Here's an enlargement of the sign on the door. I'm guessing
some part of the building was actually a substation operated by the
local electric utility. This sign shows a fair bit of history. Are or
were there really 624 other "vaults" in the Ames complex? Or just in
Boston, or Somerville? Also, utility companies can't spell.
itself. The lighting was rather bad on the first day, so this
image is from a subsequent trip. I took this shot from the
parking lot of a small
printing company right across the street. There are a few such
businesses nearby. Ames is apparently heavy into printing as well as
manufacturing office supplies, so I wonder exactly what economic niche
these outfits occupy, and what kind of competition is going on, or
whether Ames farms out some of its printing work. Anyway, this here is
your basic multi-ethnic civic pride mural. The hills in the background
represent Somerville's seven hills. Apparently there's some disagreement
on what the "seven hills of Somerville" are, because there are more
than seven hills in Somerville.
south, Park Street crosses the commuter rail tracks. This
surface-level crossing is very convenient for taggers, as are
the blank walls that face on the tracks. (Also very convenient for
people who want to take
their work.) On the left is the Ames mural building, and on the right,
a corner of one of the Peter Forg buildings. Down the tracks is the
Dane Street bridge.
north through a chain link fence in a small parking lot off
Village Street. Across the tracks is
east end of the Ames mural building. The empty field belongs to the
Forg company, whose buildings are out of frame to the left. I
what the loading docks facing on the tracks were for. This rail line
has a long history, and definitely carried freight well into
the 19th century.
bridge on Dane Street, looking north. We've traveled east along Village
Street and turned north onto Dane. On the far left, mostly obscured, is
of the same Ames complex seen earlier. The structures on the
right are the former site of the American Tube Works, upon which was
built the eastern part of the Ames complex. This bridge was
originally made of wood and opened in the late 19th century.
Peggy took this great picture of the bridge's dedication.
eastern Ames building, seen from the middle of the bridge.
You can just see the parking lot on top of this structure,
to the far left, the awning over a door, painted Ames' corporate
red. However, as you'll see in a moment, Ames doesn't seem to
anything in this picture these days. In the distance on the
right, the large brick building is part of H.D. Chasen.
Looking west at the other half of the Ames complex. The railroad
company had a small plot of land on this site, approximately where
the setback part of the building is now, possibly for coal sheds.
Later, Middlesex Coal Co. used the same land to store coal, wood and
hay. Park Street can be seen on the
far left, where a car is passing.
I had thought that all these buildings might have been built by Ames,
but it seems that instead they all belonged to American Tube. The
building in the foreground started life as a boiler house.
moved to Somerville, it seemed to be owned by some
kind of educational supply company. Now, along with all the Ames stuff
east of Dane Street, it's in the hands of SecondWind
a company that makes sensors and electronics for wind farms. The
building on the left was a drawing mill, one of four in this block, and
then a garage for a milk distributor.
A beautiful doorway.
Looking east off Dane Street. This alley was once called
Avenue, but lost its identity at some point in the last century.
Nonetheless, people walk or drive through here fairly often; I
sometimes use it to get to the supermarket, whose side is the brick
wall seen in the distance, past the blue semi truck. The large
white-and-brick building on
the right is the other side of the building in picture 11
Opposite that on the left, past the self-storage business,
is another of American Tube's former drawing mills. Now it's home to
an auto body
shop and a judo club. Where the supermarket is now,
Tube had its shipping room, proving department, and yet another drawing
down the alley. You can just barely see that the trailer to the right
houses one of SecondWind's "sonic wind profilers". How
strange to live in a time when that process has serious industrial
applications. More on these in a moment. American
had several smaller buildings where this building now stands,
after its departure, a number of businesses operated in them; see the
Google map for more details.
Peggy at the door on the back side of 24 Dane Street. It
took me a disgraceful amount of time to work out that "Dan Tree" was
"Dane Street" with some letters taken out. I suspect a Mr.
Handman, aka dan-at-secondwind-dot-com, of peeling off the letters and
drawing the corporate logo on the door.
the parking lot. There was a guy smoking a cigarette out of
the left, who watched impassively as we walked up the ramp and wandered
around taking photos. There were signs about video
apparently nobody in Security Control could be bothered to notice or
care sufficiently to chase us away.
Frim the parking lot, looking south across the tracks. Cambridge
and Somerville don't have many high-rises, so the office towers of
Boston's financial district are readily visible. The white
"horns" is the Federal Reserve. The dingy pink wall in the
is part of the L. Bornstein flooring company warehouse. More on that
down from the
parking lot. The gray things are indeed "TRITON Sonic Wind
Profilers". These are apparently SODAR
devices for tracking air flows. I
love that they're solar powered. I wonder if they're left out
little courtyard for weather testing.
I took another shot of one of the TRITON units from the alley, using
zoom. These are very modern, information-age industrial
smart, self-contained, stuffed with chips and advanced sensors,
networked, shipping with their own software, and nestled in a sleek,
consumer-product-y shell. They're "blogjects". They're
And they emerge from a factory that used to make color file
. Back on
the alley that was Frost. This is
to the more modern section of the building, with a few hints of
internal structure past the reflections on the glass.
still see Ames signage
and propaganda in the window. Ames seems like a pretty fun,
free-wheeling kinda company to work for.
Looking along the north side of the alley.
You can just see the top of this door in the previous image. The
building seems to house two or three auto-related businesses.
Further down the alley, looking north between the two former drawing
At the end of the alley, looking west, back to where we came from.
On the right is the Paper and Provisions Warehouse, built by
American Tube to house a machine shop and smithy. Later it housed a
metal fencing manufacturer
and the paper manufacturer that gave it its name. Currently
houses the Somerville Boxing Club and an
organ repair company. In the center left there's an Ames
I think they may still be moving equipment or goods out of this
Looking northwest at the Paper Warehouse, seen from the supermarket
East side of the Paper Warehouse.
Looking south from Somerville Ave. To the right is part of Milk Row
Looking southwest across the Milk Row cemetery from Somerville Ave.
On the left is the Paper Warehouse, in the center is one of
old drawing mills, and the building on the right is another American
Further west on Somerville Ave, looking south. This building originally
held offices for American Tube, and then a small printing business.
Now it's the Tree of Life tai chi center -- you can see the
in the window on the upper right.
Continuing west on Somerville Ave, and looking backward.
Down the alley between the Maaco and the tai chi center. The Ames
building and the Paper Warehouse are visible at the end of the alley.
Further down the alley, panning 180 degrees from the previous image; looking
north onto Somerville Ave.
Panning right from the previous image. I have no idea what
the machinery stuck to the back of the building is. I'd like to
speculate that it's some kind of leftover industrial equipment, but it
looks a bit modern. It may just be part of the HVAC system.
Also, someone loves that ancient Volvo.
The top of a doorway in the side of the tai chi center. Still looks very industrial in there.
down Tyler Street from Dane. From the previous image,
we've walked west along the former Frost Ave and emerged onto Dane Street. This is
western part of the Ames complex; everything you can see belongs to
them. I can't really tell if the blue lines are some kind of
ultra-minimalist decoration or serve some unimaginable practical
On Tyler Street. Further down, the brutish industrial block turns
into a slick, modern building. This is Ames' corporate headquarters .
23. The employee entrance (color-file division).
A quick snap through the glass. I can't tell if this is
actually a factory or just a warehouse.
24. The sleek, modern, boring corporate headquarters
entrance. Turning this corner, Tyler Street becomes Properzi
Way. On current maps, Properzi seems
to exist as two block-long little stubs of street interrupted by the
Ames building and the tracks. Thus, there are actually two "Properzi
Ways" in Somerville, nearly but not quite contiguous, and even more
confusingly, the southern one was called Vine Street on earlier maps.
This is part of why it's so difficult to navigate in Boston, although
the intermittently helpful mass transit and non-Euclidean street layout
don't help either.
Looking west. The wall at the end of the alley is the opposite side of
the building in photos 3 to 5, and, of course, you can see the shiny
skin of the headquarters to the left.
Looking south along Properzi, back towards the headquarters. The nearer
building to the right is the opposite side of the one in photo 1.
This seems to have been the first building that Ames
occupied, and it was still their territory as of a few years ago, but
it's been rented out. It's hard to read the printing on the door, but
the business on the right is Hemlock
a subculture-friendly t-shirt and poster printing company.
Hemlock Ink, First Act and SecondWind seem like archetypal
more benign aspects of postmodern capitalism - sustainable energy,
electric guitars, and t-shirts all within a three-block radius.
It all looks good as long as you don't ask where the
raw materials come from.
Hemlock Ink seems to allow themselves a bit more quirkiness than Ames
Safety Envelope, or so the skeleton leaning out their window suggests.
The Peter Forg Mfg. Co.
The Forg company is older than Ames; their web site says that they were
founded in 1881 as a woodworking company serving the furniture
industry, and then moved into metal stamping. They made car
and bicycle parts, and, during the First World War, military equipment.
They have an exhaustive list
on their site of all the machine tools at their disposal, as well as a
couple of interesting images
of their factory floor. They seem to have occupied the same
building since their founding, but have expanded into newer structures
over the last century. Sanborn maps from the 1930s show a
called O'Connell and
Lee Manufacturing, another woodworking company, where Forg's newer
structures are now; I can't find any information about this company,
but Forg thorougly digested their land.
Forg occupies two buildings on the south side of the tracks, directly
across from the western wing of the Ames complex. One
a fairly simple metal-frame deal from the middle of the
think) and the other a brick and masonry agglomeration that seems to
have been added to and expanded over time.
is wedged oddly into the local street pattern, bordered on the
west by Park Street, on the south by houses on Eliot Street,
on the east by Properzi Way. I walk by the Forg buildings
frequently on my way to work, and for
months I never saw any sign of activity, but recently there have been
signs of life: rhythmic industrial crunching and grinding noises,
trucks at the loading dock. I always wonder what they're
making and for who.
Looking southwest on Park Street at the rail crossing. This
of course, the newer metal-frame structure, with a little of the older
building to the right. Out of frame to the left is the Ames "mural
A closer shot of the north wall.
Down the tracks, shooting through the chain link fence. On
right is the east side of the metal frame building. Okto, T.Saly and a
number of other writers don't seem to have had any trouble
T.Saly even had time to do a proper full-color piece. Pretty
Back to Park Street, looking east. I have no idea what "special events"
might take place on Forg's premises, or indeed anywhere
Looking northwest across the yard, later in the week. That
must be pretty old, because to the right of the utility pole, there's a
fragment of a tree that once grew around the wire.
Further down Park Street, still looking east. I'd love to
know how old the various pieces of this building are.
I really like these letter forms. Also, you know you're in
when you need elaborate directions to get to the other side of a
On Eliot Street, looking northwest, Forg Mfg. Co. lurks behind the
houses. I wonder if the noise of punch presses and CNC mills
keeps these people awake.
Looking north on Properzi Way. Out of frame to the right is the
company's loading dock.
Accidental prettiness in one of the windows.
Further north on Properzi Way. I think it's not impossible
this door was here in 1881, perhaps loading wooden furniture frames
onto horsecarts. The newer section of the building is to the right.
The loading dock. I don't know what to make of the metal
above the doors. They don't look like they ever held up an awning or
anything simple and obvious like that. Maybe they were part
some cargo-handling system.
I also don't know what these things are. Structural
A different perspective on the building. Looking south along Properzi.
Next to Forg building, on
there's a little strip of
industrial and ex-industrial buildings. This is 27 Village.
one point this building housed a forge and a machine shop.
now it seems to house an
artist's studio and a nonprofit circus.
Detail of the mural.
Front of 27 Village. The building seems to have seen a lot of
retrofitting during its life. I'm guessing that this started out as a
door and became a window. Did the red wooden things to either
side hold shutters?
The building is a lot larger than its street presence would suggest.
This photo is of the rear and side of the building, from across the
commuter rail tracks. Notice the curved roof on the far right
the frame; that's the part that faces onto Village Street.
Next door to 27 Village.
apparently does traditional letterpress printing, but they moved to
Braintree in 2006, leaving only their name. I'm not sure who, if
anyone, is in this
building now. Decades ago, it was home to the Somerville
17 Village Street is occupied by the Bancroft Barrel Company.
Apparently barrel companies arise spontaneously whenever two
three other factories get set up in an area. This business has been
around since 1970 and is still kicking; I'm not sure what they do with
the barrels; buy them, sell them, recycle them? A few days ago I saw a
truck delivering a large number of blue plastic barrels to this place,
so possibly some combination of the above.
Establishing brand identity does not seem to be a major
priority for these guys.
& Company Flooring
I can't find very much information about L. Bornstein. I don't even
know if they make or simply distribute flooring. They don't
to have a web site, very weird in these times for a business of their
apparent size. A sign on their building advertises "Wholesale
Flooring", but I have no idea if they make flooring or simply
distribute it. What they do have is a huge, ugly,
disjointed building that faces onto Dane Avenue, with a large loading
dock off Washington Street. On its long edge -- the one
the railroad track -- this structure is at least 500 feet long.
The Bornstein building has been around for awhile, in some form. Early
in the last century, the Metropolitan Ice Co. made and sold ice within
its walls; ice and cold drinks were distributed via trucks and the rail
line. (An old Sanborn map shows a space about the size of a
small garage, frankly marked "beer storage".) Home freezers
killed the ice companies, and the place was acquired by the Cott soft
drink company. I have no idea when Bornstein bought the
place, or why Cott left; they still do business in the eastern
US, but don't have any holdings in Massachusetts. The
building has been expanded and heavily modified in the last 50
years, with a modern loading dock having been added, and some
outbuildings sold off.
We start looking east down Dane Ave. Village Street becomes Dane Avenue
crosses Dane Street; again, classic Boston street naming. The
building totally dominates the street, running at least half the length
of the block. At some point, somebody must have decided to
a little warmth to this totally dehumanized industrial box by painting
it pink. That must have been decades ago, and the paint job
hasn't been maintained much.
If you live on Dane Ave, this is the first thing you see when you walk
out the door in the morning. This huge rectangle of
is a perfect invitation to graffiti, but notice that any
tagging is swiftly and crudely painted over -- this is the only time
the wall gets new paint. I can see why, you wouldn't want
dirty kids to ruin something so life-enriching.
One writer seems to have tagged the wall and then sprayed over his tag,
as if in ironic commentary. That was apparently good enough
Bornstein company. This picture reveals how scabrously nasty the wall
looks from close up.
A tiny sign of life on a plane of blocks. We
bird climb into the crack and out of sight. It seems to have
a nest in the wall.
Dane Ave turns south, and the building follows the turn, maximizing
usable space on the parcel of land the company bought long ago.
It's weird how the pink seems to come and go when you look at
this thing from different angles; some of that is poor photography on
my part, but not all. Some bits of the building seem to be
the paint better than others.
Detail of the sign, which dates from Cott's ownership of the
building. I think it'd be a challenge to make these
walls much uglier than they already are.
I'm guessing this was once a loading dock. Now it's a hole in
wall. I caught the worker's silhouette by pure chance.
There was a fair bit of activity inside, people walking back
forth, forklifts, but I didn't feel like getting close enough to take a
shot through the chain-link.
Looking south down Dane Ave, and another section of the building.
This brick structure formerly housed Metropolitan Ice's
Looking north from Washington street. The south face of the Bornstein
building is set back from Washington and mostly hidden by housing, but
this parking lot exposes a segment.
Closer up. Since I was in someone's front yard, I took this
picture and left quickly.
Half a block east on Washington, and looking north again. The
light gray building on the right was an office for the Metropolitan Ice
Co; now it's the Washington Street Art Center. The
brick building across the tracks is owned by the H.D. Chasen
The Bornstein loading dock. The man in the Red Sox shirt had
watching me take photos for a minute or two. As I took this picture, he
was walking down the ramp to inform us that we couldn't take photos
there, or indeed bet here at all. We apologized and left, and
came back a few days later to get more shots of the Chasen buildings
across the track. By that point I'd captured as much as I
needed to of L. Bornstein and his works.
H.D Chasen is an industrial supply company that, if you believe their
online catalog, seems to stock an amazing variety of stuff at their one
small location. According to the "about us" page on their
the company was started up in 1946 by the eponymous Henry Chasen.
I don't know how long they've been at this location.
Sanborn maps say that there was a small parking garage and a laundry on
the site in the 1930s, and then at some point a local dairy, H.P Hood
and Son moved in and built new structures to house their "egg
department". The map doesn't allude to any henhouses, but
show a large room labeled "Egg Testing".
Hood is still around, as you'll see; it's a billion dollar corporation
and its brand is very well known in New England. There's a
Hood milk bottle in front of the Children's Museum in downtown Boston,
and the Hood airship
is often seen flying over sporting events. (It crashed
in 2006 but is flying again.)
Looking south. The Chasen buildings and the parking lot seen from the
intersection of Church and Lake.
Parking lot. The grim wall across the tracks is L. Bornstein's building.
Blowup of the sign. At H.D. Chasen Supply, safety, pride, and
anthropomorphic tools are your guarantees of safety, pride
um, anthropomorphic pipe wrenches.
Looking west on Lake. The north face of the building is a blank brick
wall. At the end of the street is the side of the supermarket.
Panning left from the previous image, the wall ends and opens onto a
Looking west from the Washington street bridge.
I love this building. Were there eggs rolling down that metal chute
There's Okto again, and the back of the sign seen previously.
Behind the supermarket, more graffiti, a train signal, and a Hood
truck, still delivering milk.