Spend enough time in West Medford and you’ll run into Ruth Youngblood. The chatty, active senior with a deep, distinctive laugh is something of a fixture in the community, a historically black neighborhood nestled up against the Mystic River. West Medford, like much of Greater Boston, is experiencing demographic and other shifts as the region’s economic engine simultaneously pulls in new workers and squeezes out residents who can’t keep up with rising property values (and rents). Amid all this change, the omnipresent Ruth serves as conservator of the neighborhood’s past and the stories that breathe life into that past.
“I’ve lived here in West Medford for 77 years except for one year in Boston,” Ruth points out as we gathered together for Sunday brunch in West Medford Square, “but that year doesn’t count.” Over her lifetime, the close-knit African-American community in West Medford, otherwise known as “The Ville” has experienced some pretty big changes. According to Ruth, “it used to have it’s own flavor because everyone knew each other.” Nowadays with its close proximity to both Downtown Boston and nearby green space, West Medford has become a highly desirable (and therefore expensive) destination for families moving to the region. These new arrivals have changed much of “The Ville’s” flavor, according to Ruth. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” she points out, “it’s just not the same. I used to look at my street and it was a black street, but now it’s not. And, that’s okay.” Over the leisurely course of our meal, Ruth described in detail the unsung men and women whose labor built West Medford and whose lives gave “The Ville” its unique flavor.
Thinking back on her childhood between french fries, Ruth recounts neighborhood-wide games playing out on the streets until the “lights came on.” Playmates included the daughters of singer, Nat King Cole, who, along with their famous father, regularly visited their Medford relative, Ruth’s landlady. Music permeated “The Ville” with regular dances hosted by the West Medford Community Center, then located in an old army barracks. There was also the “Doo Wop Corner” where teens would gather to show off their acapella harmonies. Nicknamed “Cherry” by her father, Ruth smiles as she recalls boys singing “Cherry, Oh Cherry” to her as she walked home to her house on Arlington St.
During the hot summer months, Ruth and her friends hung out at Sandy Beach and along the Mystic Lakes. She remembers fish so plentiful, catching them barehanded as they careened over the lake’s dam. But, standing on the edge of the water was as close as a young Ruth would ever get because, as she says with a chuckle, “I didn’t swim a lick!”
Everyone watched out for one another back then. Decades before Facebook and Nextdoor, Ruth described an older, more timeless social network platform: small town gossip. If anyone acted up or did something wrong, their parents “would know before you got home.” If anyone needed help, neighbors would know and lend a hand. And, if anyone had good news, the whole community celebrated.
When pressed about the differences between “The Ville” today and back then, Ruth, who’s almost universally positive, lamented that “the new folks struggle to say ‘Hello’ on the street.” In historically African-American West Medford, everyone knew everyone else. What’s more, with multiple generations living either together in one home or side-by-side on the same street, residents of “The Ville” were much more likely to be related to one another. Social connections were therefore both broad (across the neighborhood) and deep (across time).
Today, West Medford is a more diverse place. Immigrants from all over the United States and the world are moving here, bringing their own various “flavors” along. Without a foundation of common connections and shared customs, rekindling the close-knit, neighborhood feel of “The Ville” is harder, requiring deliberate effort. “Diversity,” insists Ruth, “is the key to everything.” But embracing diversity should not mean forgetting West Medford’s history as an African-American community. That’s why community events like the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration where CNR first met Ruth are so important. These traditions resurrect and renew a community’s history, allowing new neighbors to experience a taste of that shared past while adding their own unique flavor.
When asked why she volunteered to help CNR feed the 200 or so community members who attended the MLK Day celebration, Ruth quickly answered, “I could have sat down, let someone else do it. But, I don’t know, that’s not me. I don’t need the recognition or whatever; I like doing stuff like that. I just do.”
Well, Ruth, I hope this blog post gives you a tiny bit of the recognition you don’t want, but definitely deserve.
Marketing Director, The Chicken & Rice Guys
Manager, The Chicken & Rice Guys Foundation