The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
FRAMINGHAM — There’s a lot happening these days on Waverly Street in downtown Framingham.
Drive along the railroad tracks that have long defined this neighborhood, and you’ll pass a used-car lot next to a luxury apartment building next to a busy Brazilian buffet. Across the tracks is a long brick building, what’s left of the Dennison factory complex that once employed thousands of people making paper products. Today, it houses state social service agencies and a job training center. On one corner of Waverly and Bishop, there’s a family services center that supports newly arrived immigrants. On the other, a 285-unit apartment building is in the works, adjacent to a 15-acre park for which the city has big plans.
It’s an intersection, yes, but it’s also a metaphor for what Framingham is, and what it’s becoming. In its 322 years, the self-proclaimed “largest town in America,” (until residents in 2017 voted to become a city, with a mayor and all) has been a farm town, a factory town, a suburban boomtown, and now, a magnet for immigrants seeking a new hometown.
“Framingham is diverse now, Framingham has always been diverse,” said Stacen Goldman, curator of the Framingham History Center. “There’s something here for everyone.”
Halfway between Boston and Worcester, it was a natural way-station back when stage coaches were still de rigueur. It had farms then, and it still has farms today on the north side of the city. The arrival of railroads in the 1830s brought industry, and for over a century the city’s mills and shoe factories, followed by the Dennison and General Motors plants, supported a thriving downtown and drew waves of Italian and Jewish immigrants.
Then came the years after World War II, when Framingham really boomed.
Developers like the Campanelli Brothers erected subdivisions of ranch houses on the north side of town, for veterans looking for a little space in the suburbs. Shopper’s World — the first indoor mall east of the Rockies — opened on Route 9 in 1951. Six years later, the Massachusetts Turnpike opened. Framingham got two exits, and eventually big-name companies like Bose and TJX settled alongside them. Framingham’s population leapt from 23,000 in 1940 to 64,000 by 1970. (Today it is 71,000.) The population was so representative of America at large that in 1948 it was chosen as the location for a now-renowned multigenerational study of heart disease.
“It was considered a fairly diverse place at the time. Of course, diversity meant something very specific,” Goldman said. “It meant that there was a community of Italians and a community of Jews and a community of Catholics and a community of Protestants. It doesn’t mean the same thing as it does now.”
But all that suburban growth in the northern part of town — restaurants, theaters, the “Golden Mile” — sucked the life out of downtown, said town historian Fred Wallace. And by the ‘80s, when the GM plant and Dennison began to wither away, there wasn’t much left in the core of Framingham.
“Dennison, GM, and Cushing Hospital were all downtown and they all closed within a short period of time around 1990,” he said. “That was a shock to the economy.”
But even by then, the next wave that would reinvent downtown Framingham was starting to arrive.
Immigrants from Brazil had begun moving to town in the ‘80s, often to work housecleaning and construction jobs in communities closer to Boston. Over time, they bought houses, opened businesses, and revived churches, creating a community in neighborhoods that had increasingly been left behind. Estimates vary, but today at least 6,000 Brazilians live in Framingham, making it the largest Brazilian community in Massachusetts, and one of the largest in the United States.
You can see it in the Brazilian flags and signs on businesses downtown, in the bakeries and butcher shops, and in the lunchtime line at Terra Brasilis, a pay-by-the-pound buffet where contractors and landscapers fuel up on fried plantains and grilled meats sliced from a spit.
“In Framingham, you can just open a door and be in Brazil,” said Everton Vargas da Costa, who works in human resources in the Framingham Public Schools. “It’s incredible the way this city offers us a way to travel to our country, to our culture, just by opening the door of a bakery.”
Many of the Brazilian business owners who’ve opened downtown realize what they’ve meant to the city. They can remember when the storefronts weren’t all full, when there was more crime. To Istelmar Machado, who manages Padaria Brasil, her bakery isn’t just a place to buy pao de queijos and sweet rolls ― it’s also a gathering place.
“When the Brazilian community came in, we started to bring up the business,” she said. “We filled up all the stores and we brought a lot of people here.” Today she sees new arrivals from places such as Ecuador and Guatemala. “They are all like us, hard working people.”
There’s another wave of even newer arrivals in downtown Framingham.
A batch of big apartment buildings have opened in recent years, part of a plan to put more housing near downtown’s Commuter Rail station. The biggest — the 270-unit Modera building — sits next to Terra Brasilis on Waverly Street. Two-bedroom units start at $2,600 a month, a bargain compared with new buildings in Boston, but steep for this part of the region.
Rising rents have sparked worries that new construction isn’t for working-class residents so much as for well-heeled young professionals moving out from Boston. The new buildings — which together added nearly 1,000 units to downtown — also raised enough concerns about traffic and schools that in September 2020 the City Council voted, over the veto of then-Mayor Yvonne Spicer, for a one-year moratorium on new apartment buildings.
That vote spooked Sam Hendler, cofounder at Jack’s Abby Brewing. The craft brewer launched in 2011 in Framingham after realizing it couldn’t afford space in Cambridge or Somerville. Seven years ago, with a tax break from the city, Jack’s Abby opened a 67,000-square-foot brewing facility and tap room in a brick building that was once part of the Dennison plant. Over just the last decade, Hendler has watched downtown Framingham become more vibrant. And his business is counting on more residents moving in.
“You’re investing on a 15-to-20 year horizon, and you think the community is investing in that same exact vision,” he said. “Then you go from, ‘We actively want to bring people and developers in to build dense housing around our train station’ to ‘We are literally not willing to approve a single project for a year.’ That’s a very jarring shift for a business owner.”
The moratorium ended in September, quietly. There’s a new mayor now ― former city councilor Charlie Sisitsky defeated Spicer in Nov. 2021 ― and he’s pushing forward with plans for downtown. They include a bike trail, a $100 million regional courthouse, a park, and, yes, more housing.
Sisitsky said the variety of Framingham’s housing stock has always been one of its best assets. And downtown is a part of that.
“You can go up to the northwest quadrant and see farms and horses and cattle wandering around,” he said. “Then you move south you see suburban type ranch houses. Then you move closer to center of town [and it’s] older apartment buildings.”
Now it hopes to add even more, taking advantage of demand to be in a walkable downtown, near a Commuter Rail station. There are 1,200 more apartments in the pipeline, and planning director Sarkis Sarkisian said barely a week goes by that he doesn’t hear from a developer interested in building in Framingham.
“There’s just been so much interest in housing downtown,” he said.
The city, Sarkisian said, is pushing for more of the units in those buildings to be set aside at affordable rents; he’s floating 15 percent, up from the current requirement of 10 percent. It’s a response to worries from downtown employers that their workers can’t afford to live nearby, and to concerns about housing affordability. But it’s a balancing act, Sarkisian said. Require too much affordable housing and developers will go elsewhere.
It’s the sort of debate playing out in cities all over Greater Boston, even if it’s not heard much in this corner of the Metro West region, where, Wallace notes, the “sleepy suburbs” around Framingham seem content to stay that way. His city, though, has always been a place unafraid of change.
“That defines what kind of a community we are,” said Wallace. “And we’re trying very hard to become a multicultural, multilingual community today.”
Read more about Framingham and explore the full On the Street series.