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The first phase has been introduced, with the intention of beautifying the area.

(Somerville Wire) – The Kensington Underpass, which connects East Somerville to Assembly Square, is an important walking corridor, but it remains an extremely hazardous area for pedestrians. To reach the other side of the underpass, people traversing the zone have to cross three high-speed lanes of traffic. However, local groups and the government are working to make this part of the neighborhood more inviting and cared for. On May 21, a partnership with Neighborways, East Somerville Main Streets, and the City of Somerville Public Space and Urban Forestry installed Phase 1 of the Kensington Connector Project. This project is intended to beautify the space and bring some artwork to the underpass.

State Representative Mike Connolly has been involved with the project ever since he entered conversations about the underpass in 2017. He described the condition of the site and emphasized that while the introduction of artwork will make the crossing more welcoming, it still remains a dangerous part of the city.

“[The Kensington Underpass] had been highlighted for a while. I-93 cuts East Somerville off from Assembly and from the Mystic River, and this Kensington Underpass is really the only way, practically, to get from East Somerville to Assembly,” said Connolly. “Not only is it a dangerous crossing, but it’s also been quite decrepit, with leaking fluids from the interstate above, puddles, darkness, salt piles, graffiti, trash, etc. … I was able to secure funding on the State level to really bring the State to the table for this project with the City of Somerville. Between myself and Senator Pat Jehlen, we secured close to $100,000 in State funds. That really helped kick off the project and get it going.” He added, “We decided that it would be rebranded. ‘Underpass’ sounds a little less than inspiring. It’s been rebranded as the ‘Kensington Connector.’ Really the idea is to create a more inviting and safer space for everyone who wants to go between East Somerville and Assembly.”

According to Cortney Kirk, senior planner from the City’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, the East Somerville has been advocating for improvements for several years, asking for artistic lighting, murals, and artwork. Currently, a number of art pieces have been installed. A fence scrim of “This is East” features portraits designed by Meagan O’Brien. There are also art canvases from WRAP’EM, a community art project from 2018 that has never been shown before. Finally, Liz LaManche has designed wayfinding art panels, including new design added to the west entrance and colorful painting on the columns and beams. O’Brien said that she depicted images of real community members who work in East Somerville daily, including Ellin Reisner, President of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, and JoJo LaRiccia, who is involved with East Somerville Main Streets and SCATV. She said that she wanted the portraits to celebrate joy and life in the community, representing the diversity of the neighborhood.

“I think it’s really great for people to see themselves reflected in the local community, to see them celebrated,” said O’Brien. She added, about her works, “They’re digital. I’m taking their photographs and doing my own tracing of them. … I’m deciding where things go geometrically and how they fit together, then just finding the right colors and patterns to show. They’re vibrant, geometric patterns and shapes. I feel like I usually work in bold graphics and colors. I think that’s a commonality between all of my artwork.”

LaManche said that the bright colors that she used in her artwork were intended to be cheerful and make “someone’s day a little bit better.”

“Everyone has wanted that place brightened up, just to make it safer and more inviting,” said LaManche. “I do this thing where I paint things in bright colors and shine color changing LEDs on them, so the light that you get reflected off of it changes colors, and it does this swapping, animated kind of effect, which is really fun.”

MassDOT has made some efforts to make safety improvements to the underpass, which Connolly says are both a step in the right direction while also not being enough. In the fall of 2019, they replaced the yield at McGrath and Mystic with a stop sign, and they also added paint to narrow and better define traffic lanes on Mystic Avenue. In addition, they added new high reflective signs to indicate the crosswalk to vehicular traffic.

“Anything we can do that has the ability to better define, better highlight, better warn, or better direct automobile traffic and control automobile traffic certainly can be useful. But we can’t make any mistake, that it’s not sufficient, it’s not enough. Those are the absolute least things that can be done,” said Connolly. “This has to be one of the most dangerous crossings in the state. We need truly significant changes. We need to raise that crosswalk up significantly, so for an automobile, they’re either going to slow down completely or damage their car. I think that has to be the level of intervention necessary to control this. There’s nothing like this. This is an interstate on-ramp with a crosswalk, and it’s really tough.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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