Davis Square was officially designated as a square in 1883. It was named for Person Davis (1819-1894), a grain dealer who moved to the area in 1850 and built his estate near the intersection of Elm, Grove and Morrison Streets. Davis Square came into existence largely because of the widening of Elm Street (1860s) and the construction of Holland Street (1870).
Public transportation stimulated residential development in Davis Square beginning in the 1850s with the arrival of horse-pulled trains running down Massachusetts Avenue to Arlington. Another boost came with the introduction of the Lexington & Arlington branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1871. Over time, Davis Square also became an active commercial center.
By the 1930s, the trains that had brought so many people to Somerville and Davis Square were closed down. This decision contributed to Davis Square’s decline in the middle part of the 20th century. Factories shut, businesses failed and residents began to move out to the suburbs. According to a planning study completed in 1980, Davis Square suffered from “a lack of competitiveness among merchants, traffic congestion, inadequate parking and an increasingly deteriorated physical environment.”
Things in Davis Square began to turn around in the late 1970s thanks largely to two entities: the Somerville Office of Planning and Community Development, and the Davis Square Task Force. Their efforts culminated in the Davis Square Action Plan, which was adopted in 1982.
The overarching goal of the Action Plan was to use the arrival of the Davis Square Red Line subway station to spur business without destroying the area’s scale and character. The plan promoted proposals including:
- The creation of a new bicycle path along the old railway line
- The introduction of a number of small, well-distributed parking lots
- The designation of Davis Square as a Commercial Area Revitalization District, which qualified investors for state funding
In 1984 the Davis Square subway station opened, beginning the transformation of the area into the popular and vibrant neighborhood it is today.
The Somerville Historic Preservation Commission has more information about the city’s history.