THE BEST WARD IN THE CITY – Courtney O’Keefe

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It’s hard not to know Courtney if you live in Ward 5—she seems to be everywhere. I first learned about her tireless work in community improvement from her immensely popular Ward 5 Online, and emailed her multiple times when she served as my alderman for most of the brief, wonderful time I lived in that ward. Like any self-respecting blogger, she is a master of selfies (see above with her niece Shannon). We sat down at Daddy Jones over cocktails so I could learn more about her work in Somerville.

To start, I was hoping you could tell me how you ended up in Somerville. I understand you were born and raised here? Do you know how your family got settled here?

My father is the youngest of twelve kids, and his family lived in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment right over here on Dexter Street. So although it’s technically in Medford, it was right on the Magoun Square border. It wasn’t so much of the Somerville scene I was drawn to as it was the Magoun Square scene.

This bar [Daddy Jones] used to be Danny’s Bar. My father was a patron and knew the owners. My mother came in on a date with someone else and met my dad, who she thought looked like Paul Newman. The rest, as they say, is history.

My mother was living in the Clarendon Hills apartments at the time. Eventually they moved onto Richardson Terrace, a teeny tiny street, got married, and had my brother Conor and I—we are only thirteen months apart. My dad was doing work for somebody who told him, “Listen, I know about this house that caught fire and the owners are looking to sell it.” And that’s the house that we all live in now.

I know that your typical one-line bio is that you started Ward 5 Online and that you served as an alderman for ten months, but I also know there are a lot of other aspects to your engagement, both formal and informal. Can you tell me in your words what the scope of that is?

For me, it’s really about keeping my ear to the ground and staying engaged. It doesn’t always have to be something I’m going to write about for my website. In fact, what drew me to city meetings had nothing to do with the website, it was a matter of wanting to know what was happening and watching how things moved through the process.

Eventually, I was blessed enough to gain really great relationships with some of the aldermen and department heads at City Hall, and it ‘s actually enabled my activism to be much more fruitful. It’s not such a head-butting thing as it was in the beginning, and I’ve learned that we can all work together to maintain Somerville as a place we’re all proud of.

So the website is more secondary. When it really came down to it, I just wanted a nice place to live, a nice square to walk up to. For a little while, Magoun kind of struggled—we had a lot of empty storefronts. I’d say to my friends, “Hey, let’s go to Magoun Square,” and they’d ask “Why?” Now, you’re seeing the fruits of our labors—not just mine, it’s a lot of people, a lot of people wanting this square and the city to be awesome.

I have also served on boards throughout Somerville including Somerville Local First and the Zoning Advisory Committee.

When did that light for civic engagement turn on for you? Was that something you always had growing up here?

A little bit. Growing up I remember being in high school and getting invited to my very first political fundraiser at the Sons of Italy. I remember being an avid reader of the city paper… I always just liked knowing what was going on in the city. After college in 2002 I came home and I really just wanted to know what was going on.

A couple years after that my Dad started having medical issue after medical issue. I knew as I went with him on that journey that I wasn’t going to be buying a condo in Arlington and moving away, that wasn’t in the plans for me.

Do you think that this engagement you have for the local politics, do you think that’s more inherent to you or is it something Somerville specifically inspires?

I think it’s a little bit of both. The city, between its communications and ResiStat meetings and the fact that aldermen are so accessible, is planting the seeds. In some people those seeds grow, and in some they don’t. Some people are very dedicated to their life, they may stop every now and then to read a newspaper article or go to a meeting about something that directly affects them, and that’s fine.

For me, between having a degree in political science, having a passion to want to be involved and informed, and wanting to inform other people. That’s really the mixture—[she points to the cocktails we are drinking] the Courtney O’Keefe, the cocktail that is me. I’ll also admit that I have a minor in writing, I took a ton of writing courses and so that desire to write has also always been a part of me since elementary school. And the website has been criticized a lot—but it is what it is, I’m not claiming to be the know-all, the insider. I’m claiming to be that one girl who goes to meetings and then I blog about it. Sometimes it’s on point, sometimes it’s not. But I’ll admit it and try to fix it when it’s not.

That’s one of the things I was wondering about. When I look through your body of work, it just baffles me the amount of time management that must go into that. But I guess part of that is helped by the fact that it comes from passions that have been in your life from the start. When you’re sitting and writing an article about something, it probably doesn’t feel like the exercise it would to me. Do you have ways that your prioritize which meetings you go to? Or how to juggle this with your other priorities?

Absolutely. Now that I am no longer on the Board of Aldermen, I’ve actually taken a leave of absence of sorts. But I go to meetings that do impact Ward 5. Other than that, I am starting to rely on other sources of information. Other newspaper articles, other bloggers, other people who Tweet or who have Facebook. Once you get used to the routine of it, you don’t necessarily have to go to every aldermen meeting. I can catch up with it a few days later when they publish the minutes.

But, I know that when I walk down Willow Street or I go out for my morning walks or my nightly runs, that someone’s going to stop me, someone’s going to ask me a question. There’s really nothing more fulfilling than not only answering somebody’s question, but maybe letting them know that their preconceived notions are wrong. There are a lot of preconceived notions about government, about the City of Somerville, and there is really nothing more satisfying then saying, “No, I was there. I sat at that meeting, and that’s not true.”

And we can all go to meetings together, it doesn’t have to be so solitary. And it’s not solitary. I know a lot of people who read Ward 5 Online and probably think, look at this one girl–she must be nuts, going to all these meetings. No, it’s not actually that solitary.

How do you think we could get others more involved in what happens in their local government?

You know, I think it’s about coming down to the issues. And really asking people what their fears are, what their hopes and dreams are. What they want to see in their city. And maybe asking them, “Why are you here? What brought you here?”

What keeps me here is that I can walk to the end of Richardson Street, and I can take a right and go to an artist community or I can take a left and go to a business district. Or I can go in the other direction and go to a huge open space. Or I can take that right on to Lowell street and, in November, get right on the Community Path Extension.

So you really want to hone in on what people’s passions are. Is their passions local businesses? Is that what keeps them here? Are they passionate about the events that we have here? I think as Somerville become increasingly more expensive, you’re finding even the renters are coming to meetings. Renters are going to their local businesses and they are looking around. I wouldn’t just put the emphasis on property owners, and I wouldn’t just put the emphasis on business owners—we really are a community. Some people are more financially invested than others, but at the end of the day we really are all a community. You don’t have to own to vote. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that.

Can you tell me a little bit about your stint as Alderman?

A lot of people didn’t like the appointment process and a lot of people associated that process with me, personally, so I became a punching bag for it. The Board of Aldermen chose to change the City Charter after they conducted a public interview with me and unanimously approved me to represent Ward 5.

I supported that Charter change based on the fact that I knew it needed to change, but also based on the fact that I didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I’m a tough girl, I grew up around here, I fist-fought boys when I was younger. So I could take that Somerville Journal columnist screaming, screaming at me…in my face, right in the middle of City Hall and I could take the snarky “dwarf lesbian” comment made by another Ward 5 resident. Bring it on…I can handle it…I’ll take it, so no one else has to.

I can tell you that I don’t regret a single minute of serving the residents of Ward 5. I know my people were very passionate and worked very hard on my campaign and who were very supportive of me and really stuck up for me. I don’t regret that at all. It’s definitely one of the best wards in the city—but I may be biased.

I was going to ask you that! What reasons make Ward 5 better than all the other wards?

We have a really great amount of open space—between Trum Field and the Community Path and Junction Park and Hoyt-Sullivan—and we have great businesses. Our arts—we have the Arts at the Armory here and Vernon Street Studios—we have another sprinkling of little artists by Bartlett Street. I always felt as though it was one of the most engaged wards, at least based on the attendance at ResiStat meetings. It is one of those really great parts of the city, it feels like a secret you don’t want to get out.

Well it’s funny, because when I think about it, when I think about which part of the city is the “urbanist ideal,” I think of Magoun rather than something like Davis. It just feels more walkable to me. There’s a greater diversity of businesses and people, there’s more families. It’s just the perfect mix, here. This is where it is.

In January, Curbed Boston said that Magoun was the Somerville to Davis’s Cambridge. Curbed was on to something because this section has many of our original property owners and/or their children. Walking these streets, it seems like time stood still while everywhere else was changing.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how Magoun Square has evolved since you’ve been here? I know the traffic intersection is a lot safer with new lights and things like that, there’s a historic revitalization project. How did that all affect you living near here?

There were aspects of Magoun Square that I wanted to see change; I definitely wanted to see new businesses come into those empty storefronts. But in the same sense, there’s also a character you want to maintain.

You have your little Irish pub, you have your little trendy cocktail bar, you have your sports bar, you have your really great sandwich place and a great Brazilian bakery… and then you have what people call the Old Somerville: White Sport, K2 market, your liquor stores on either end. To have that mixture of the new and the old was definitely something that I wanted to see kept.

And expanded! You look around now, and [points] he’s Greek, he’s Irish, K2 market is Indian-owned. It’s the way business should be. That’s the type of stuff I wanted to see maintained. This square was always diverse even back in the day when I was walking up at eight or nine years old, buying my brother’s birthday cakes at Cara Donna’s.

It’s really hard to create policy that encourages that. How do you think it happened that you were able to keep this diversity here?

I think it’s the planning department and the zoning department and the administration being ready and realizing that this was a place where people wanted to come and open a business. A great example is Mike Dulock, who is on Highland Avenue. He was in Concord, left Concord, and came to Somerville with the dream of continuing to be a craft butcher-here. He could have gone to Medford. He could have gone to Lexington. He could have stayed in Concord. But he wanted to come to a place that has really positioned itself to be an incubator of great entrepreneurial opportunities. Everyone can find assistance and a network here, whether it is through the Chamber of Commerce or Somerville Local First.

Anything else you want to add?

I will always be an activist. The politics really come secondary to that.

I would like to see a little less combativeness, especially when it comes to the media. It’s getting a little out of hand, a little out of control. Challenge when something needs to be challenged, but give credit where credit is due.

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