Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Walking Tour of Historic Saxonville

While driving through McGrath Square in Saxonville, where Concord Street and Central Street intersect, you've no doubt glanced over at the looming red brick mill buildings that once housed the Roxbury Carpet Company. Perhaps you've wondered about the history of the mill and the surrounding buildings with their ornate architectural features. Or maybe you even know a bit about the history of the village, which is the oldest settled area in Framingham, and still retains many of the vestiges of its boom times as a classic 19th century New England mill village.

But it's probably a sure bet there's still a lot you don't know about the history of the village, and that unless you live in the neighborhood, you have not explored it on foot. The view from the sidewalk at two miles an hour is dramatically different than the one you get through your car's windshield at thirty miles per hour.

The Friends of Saxonville offers guided walking tours of the village once or twice a year (usually conducted by yours truly), typically in June or September, as part of their annual Discover Saxonville event.

But now you can easily take the tour on your own, with the new brochure in hand that Friends of Saxonville has published. It contains a map, photos, and descriptions of the village's historic buildings and sites, and is being distributed at various points around town, including the McAuliffe Library branch on Nicholas Road in Saxonville. You can also download a copy at or request that a printed copy be mailed to you.

So the next nice day that you've got a spare hour or two, or perhaps some out of town guests who want something to do, forget Boston, forget the Freedom Trail, take a look at what your town has to offer in terms of walkable history!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Autumn Fun at Hanson's Farm

The rural country roads in northwest Framingham are one of my favorite places in town to bring visitors, particularly those who think of Framingham only in terms of the asphalt sprawlscape of Route 9.

In my opinion there's no better time than autumn to enjoy the scenic vistas in this undeveloped corner of town, as the changing leaves offer a painter's palette of colors, and the air is crisp and cool after the heat of summer has passed.

While Hanson's Farm and and its popular farm stand, at 20 Nixon Road, is a pleasant destination in the summer months for pick-your-own berries and fresh produce and flowers, autumn is when things really get fun. In addition to picking your own pumpkin out of the fields, you can go for a weekend hayride, or get lost in the Amazing Maize Maze. And every Friday and Saturday night in October, the Haunted Hayride is very popular as well.

In these days when family farms are becoming a rarity, the century-old Hanson's has wisely diversified to make their beautiful property a welcome destination for much of the year, for those who want a taste of the town's agrarian past.

Support your local farmer!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Ice Cream Stands of Summer

Is there a summer pleasure more sublime than eating ice cream outside on a warm evening? Of standing in line in shorts and sandals, pondering the plethora of flavors listed while you wait your turn at the counter?

Framingham is lucky to have several seasonal ice cream stands where you can indulge and sit outside in the warm months.

Mad Willie's on Route 9 in Framingham Centre is a favorite during the school year for students from Framingham State, right across the street, and attendees at the popular Friday night summer concerts on the town green, just a short stroll away.

Mad Willie's has 20+ flavors, plus other food, including a raved-about lobster roll. There are tables and chairs out front for al fresco enjoyment, although the parking lot and Route 9 beyond are not exactly a quiet and picturesque setting.

Sunshine Farm is technically just across the border from the Ham by a couple of hundred feet, in Sherborn at 41 Kendall Street, but is frequented by many Hamsters, since it's located near the Beaver Street area of the South Side, a short walk from this beautifully located vegetable/fruit/ice cream stand and its adjoining farm.

A third generation family business set on 100 acres, this is by far the most rural setting you'll find to lick a cone around Framingham. Sunshine Farm offers about 30 flavors, including some exotic fruity ones like Pomegranate Chip and Orange Pineapple. Sunshine Farm has picnic tables for outside seating, and offers peach, strawberry, and raspberry toppings made from fruit grown on the farm, which also can be obtained at the farm stand or by picking your own in season.

Gerard Farm on Water Street, midway between North Framingham's villages of Saxonville and Nobscot, has a charmingly rustic ice cream stand that adjoins the take-out food store of this former turkey farm. With more than 30 flavors you're sure to find a favorite. Chocolate Raspberry Truffle was a hit on a recent Hamster research mission.

While turkeys are no longer raised here, you can get roasted-daily turkeys and ducks and other hearty fare to enjoy at home. With ample outdoor seating and a pavilion where you can wait out any passing rain showers, Gerard's also offers a Thursday evening outdoor chicken and ribs barbecue special that attracts plenty of locals.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Framingham Makes Newsweek List of Top U.S. Public High Schools

Now Newsweek's readers know what many people in the Ham have long believed: Framingham High School offers a high quality education to its students. In the shadow of the more affluent towns around it, Framingham's reputation sometimes suffers, unfairly, because of the diversity of its residents. But as Newsweek notes in its recent article Framingham High is 1,038 on its 2008 list of the top 1,300 public high schools in the U.S., ahead of its neighbors Holliston (1,293) and Ashland (1,050) and even the pricy town of Winchester (1,368).

Massachusetts as a whole appears to offer some of the best high schools in the country, with 34 schools from the Bay State making the Newsweek list. Interestingly, some of our other neighbors, including Natick, whose schools are sometimes seen as being better than Framingham's, did not even make the list. Most of the schools on the list are the usual suspects--the very affluent and exclusive towns that are renowned for their schools, such as Weston, Wellesley, and Newton, where the price of entry--if you want to own a home in the town--is exceeding high, and beyond the reach of many in the middle class.

That Framingham is in such company is good news for the vast majority of people who do not have incomes in the demographic top 5-10% for the country. The ideal of the American public school system has been that everyone's children should have access to a free, high quality education, an ideal that sadly has become less common in the past few decades. So once again, Framingham, the frequent underdog of MetroWest, has becoming a shining example of a town that can offer both a reasonable cost of living and high quality education. More proof of the veracity of the Boston Magazine article where Framingham is listed as being one of the metropolitan area's biggest bangs for the buck.

Newsweek's formula for determining the top schools admittedly is limited -- a ratio of the number of Advanced Placement, Intl. Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school in 2007 divided by the number of graduating seniors. This calculation is used to create a list of what Newsweek says is the top 5% of public high schools in the country. While some may rightly argue that there are many other measures of excellence, the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes and tests is often seen as a good indicator of future success in college. In a nutshell, taking the academically rigorous AP classes is important preparation for the degree of difficulty found in college courses.

Framingham High has long had a policy of offering numerous Advanced Placement classes, and allowing a wide variety of students to take them, unlike some schools that limit access to only the top echelon of students.

Principal Michael Welch, and all of the excellent teachers at Framingham High, take a well-deserved bow!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Framingham's Most Walkable Neighborhoods

I am a big fan of walking instead of driving whenever possible. When I think back over all of the places I've lived, and visited, the ones I enjoyed most were places where everyday life was not ruled by getting in a car to go someplace. Unfortunately, suburban America has made a car a necessity for leaving your home in many communities.

Framingham, as it is in so many things, goes from one end of the spectrum to the other when it comes to being a walkable town. My fellow Framingham blogger Sharon Machlis Gartenberg has been writing about this for years on her excellent Planning Livable Communities blog.

From the pedestrian nightmare that is the Golden Mile stretch of Route 9, to the pedestrian friendly streets of downtown, Framingham has a little of everything for those traveling on foot.

Some of the principles of walkability include safety for pedestrians, attractiveness of the streetscape, and proximity to desirable destinations. In general, the south side of town is far superior to the north side in terms of walkability, if we use Route 9 as the dividing line.

Downtown Framingham, whatever its faults may be, has a lot of good streetscape; plenty of sidewalks, many street-level businesses for visual interest, and lots of key destinations within close proximity, including town hall, the library, commuter rail, the Danforth Museum, restaurants, entertainment venues, and shops. And hundreds of residences within easy walking distance.

But the north side has its highly walkable areas as well. The villages of both Nobscot and Saxonville offer stores, restaurants, banks, schools, churches, parks, a branch library (in Saxonville), and other services and amenities within easy walking distance of hundreds of homes. In Saxonville, for the eight years I lived there, and now in Nobscot, where I moved last year, I can accomplish many everyday tasks on foot. I can drop my car off for repairs, get a haircut, go to the bank, get a cup of coffee or something to eat, pick up a pharmacy prescription, and enjoy countless other small pleasures in the community.

What are the enemies of walkability? Lack of sidewalks. Distance from key destinations. Or, even when sidewalks are present and desirable destinations nearby, unappealing streetscapes, due to traffic, esposure to the elements, or just plain bad design. Just think of Route 30. Not exactly the kind of place you'd venture down for an afternoon stroll.

Some parts of town that are considered very beautiful and prestigious are terrible in terms of walkability. Miles from anything but other houses or major roadways. Situated on streets without sidewalks that you would be risking your life to walk down, particularly in bad weather or after dark. I daresay even many long-time residents have probably never ventured beyond their driveway unless they were in a car. Or met many of their neighbors. Is this what we truly want, or what we've been conditioned to believe we want?

Could it be that the Natick Collection and Shoppers World are so crowded because people just want to be able to stroll idly, look in store windows, interact with other people, and do the kind of everyday things other generations did in the walkable neighborhoods of years past?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Good Drama Lives in Unexpected Local Places

Despite all of the portable digital, and at-home visual entertainment options, from iPods to DVDs to cable and satellite offerings on demand, live theater still continues to attract audiences. The intimacy of a live performance, the audience reactions, the excitement as the lights dim and the curtain rises, and perhaps a multitude of other reasons, make live theater the entertainment of choice for many people.

But if you don't want to travel to Boston, pay outrageously high ticket prices, and need binoculars to see the facial expressions of the actors, consider your drama options right here in the Ham.

Community theater, with its often amateur casts and limited budgets sometimes gets a bad rap, but there are sometimes gems to be found right in your proverbial back yard.

The Amazing Theater Company puts on several plays a year at the Amazing Things Arts Center. A recent production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie garnered rave reviews. The troupe will be staging Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club in April.

Framingham Community Theater makes its home at the Framingham Civic League building next to town hall downtown. This theater company has been around about three years. It produces a variety of types of plays, from A.R. Guerney's classic Love Letters last year, to a 2006 production of Nunsense, to a murder mystery dinner theater in 2005.

The Performing Arts Center of Metrowest, located in the same building as the Danforth Museum on Union Ave., has a lively children's theater company that produces several plays a year.

They also offer a summer musical theater program for kids. This is the place to be for young thespians who can't get enough of the drama bug acting in their school productions.

Speaking of school-based theater, the Framingham High School Drama Company puts on great productions that far exceed the quality of the average high school play.

And it's not just their parents who think so. Framingham High won the state-wide high school drama competition in 2006, and has advanced to the semi-finals this year. Go FHS Drama!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Alternatives to the Cineplex for Film Buffs

Are you dispirited to look at the listings for the only movie theatre in town, to discover there's absolutely nothing you want to see on any of the sixteen screens?

Sure, there's always Netflix, the library's excellent DVD collection, or the local movie rental store, but some people still pine for the get-out-of-the-house, communal feeling of sitting in a dark room with a lot of other people and watching a movie on a big screen.

There are alternatives in The Ham, if you know where to look.

Framingham State College offers an international film series, with several screenings during the academic year in the College Center. Next up is the Danish film After the Wedding, on March 27. Check out the FSC events schedule for more information.

The Framingham Public Library has a frequent and varied schedule of free films screened at the main library downtown. On March 6 the award-winning American independent film Sweet Land is scheduled. Check the library events schedule for more information.

Amazing Things Arts Center has a very cool Indie Film Night on the third Wednesday of every month. This series features local, independent film makers, who both introduce their works and answer audience questions afterward. If you've never had this opportunity, it can open up a whole new aspect of the cinematic experience for you. And popcorn is included in the admission price!

So next time you're in the mood for a good film and the cineplex offerings don't cut it, plan ahead a little and have an alternative cinema experience in The Ham!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Wednesday Acoustic Open Mike Night at Firefly's

As promised, here's another review of one of The Ham's live music venues. This time, we're visiting Firefly's, the self-proclaimed "Bodacious Bar-B-Que" at the Stop and Shop plaza on Old Connecticut Path.

Wednesday nights from 8-11 p.m., regional blues legend Bruce Marshall hosts an acoustic open mike sure to get your toes a' tappin'. Bruce opens with a 45-minute set of his own, and then opens the mike up to anyone brave enough to scrawl their name on the sign-up sheet resting on a clipboard next to the small stage area in the restaurant's bar. After about a year and a half, the open mike has built up a steady following, and the sign-up list often has fifteen or more names waiting for their time in the spotlight.

Ostensibly begun as an acoustic blues open mike, in reality a number of other music styles are frequently represented, including folk, rock, and jazz. There's a heavy presence of singer-songwriters playing acoustic guitar, but if you just want to sing or play another instrument, Bruce is ready and willing to support you with his guitar, as well as lead or backing vocals. With over thirty years as a professional musician, the man is a walking jukebox, and if he doesn't know the song you want, he can probably wing the guitar part pretty well if you tell him the general style and key.

And there's no cover, so feel free to stay for just a song or two or the entire evening. Many people come for dinner and then linger over a few drinks enjoying the music, supporting musician friends, or maybe belting out a few tunes of their own. The talent ranges from pros dropping in to practice new material, to amateur musicians eager to get some experience playing before a live audience. A two-song maximum per person keeps things moving nicely, from perhaps a Delta blues to a Bruce Springsteen cover, to an original folk song.

And of course there's also an occasional surprise guest who sits in for Bruce's set, and maybe with some of the open mikers as well. A recent standing-room only crowd cheered and clapped wildly when reknowned blues harmonica player and singer James Montgomery played an hour-long set with Bruce Marshall, then graciously played harmonica for a few of the open mike participants that followed.

So if you think Wednesday is just another boring middle of the week night, come on down to Firefly's for some barbeque and equally hot local music!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Our Diverse Art Scene

For a suburban town, we've got a pretty healthy art scene. All of the components are present: gallery space to show the work, and of course, a strong community of working artists to actually create the art work. Having an acclaimed art museum, which also offers classes, additionally gives legitimacy, strength and diversity to the local art community.

The Danforth Museum of Art, with its eye-catching metal sculptures on its front lawn facing Union Avenue downtown, is a high-visibility icon of the role visual arts play in the community. Its exhibitions have featured artists with national and international reputations as well as regional and local practitioners.

Its permanent collection focuses on 19th and 20th century American and European artists, including household names like Whistler, Picasso, and Matisse. Its museum school offers over a hundred classes and workshops and includes fifty working artists on its faculty.

The Framingham Artists' Guild is, after over fifty years of existence, the town's oldest artist organization. To some people in town, the most visible evidence of the group's work is at the exhibits they offer during the band concerts on the town green in Framingham Centre every summer.

Saxonville Studios, a group of artists with loft studios in the old mill complex on Concord Street in Saxonville, is widely-known for its annual spring open studios, which brings a little bit of Soho or the South End to the village every year. In existence for sixteen years, the fifteen artists represent a wide diversity of styles and media.

Fountain Street Studios, in the historic Bancroft Building in South Framingham, is both the new kid on the block, founded in 1996, and the largest collection of artist spaces in town, with over fifty working artists represented. Fountain Street also opens its doors for an open studios weekend each spring.

So where else in town is original art being exhibited, and often available for purchase? The Mazimanian Art Gallery at Framingham State College features student, faculty, and professional artists in exhibits that change nearly every month during the academic year.

The Tower Gallery at Framed In Time, a frame shop on Central Street in the Saxonville mill, offers numerous exhibits throughout the year.

Amazing Things Arts Center exhibits art work in its Saxonville location on Nicholas Road, as well as its "satellite gallery" at the Starbucks coffee shop on the corner of Route 9 and Prospect Street. Looks for Amazing Things to bring more visual art to downtown Framingham as it completes its transition to its new location at the fire house on Hollis Street this year.

Espresso Paulo, the coffee shop/bookstore in Nobscot Shopping Center on Water Street, has regular art exhibits, as does the lobby of the main branch of the Framingham Public Library downtown on Pearl Street.

So with all this great art to see all over town, it's not hard to find if you know where to look. And while you're at it, consider buying a piece from a local artist, and give them the support and motivation to keep creating!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Winter, We Live in Ski Country

This winter, for the first time in recent memory, we've had snow cover for about six weeks straight now. That's right, most of us have not seen our lawns since about mid-December. I wake up some days and think I'm in Vermont, not Framingham.

If you loathe the snow and cold this winter must seem endless. If you enjoy cross-country skiing, like me, you're in paradise. I've been out more times this winter than most, and we still have quite a ways to go until spring.

With conditions like this there's no reason to head up into northern New England, or to the tame and polished expanses of the Weston ski track.

Many local skiers who can handle narrow trails and some hills head for Callahan State Park on Millwood Street. It has a variety of terrain and enough skier and foot traffic to pack many of the main trails down even by the day after a heavy snow.

Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation on Edgell Road, featured here in a previous posting, is a roller-coaster ride of hills, guaranteed to get your heart going on both the climb up and the speed runs down. There's some flat trails, but this is not the destination for beginners. There's not nearly as much foot or ski traffic here, so you may find yourself breaking trail after new snow has fallen.

The proposed Bruce Freeman Rail Trail (featured in the above photo), aka the Nobscot Trail, is the abandoned railroad bed that runs through Framingham from Route 9 to Route 20 in Sudbury. The rail line actually runs all the way to Chelmsford, where trail construction has begun. The most popular section is the unbroken stretch of trail between Water Street and Route 20, that passes through woods, wetlands, and fields, with no street crossings. Straight and flat, this is a perfect place for beginners to practice their skills, and more advanced skiers to really crank out some quick miles. And because the terrain is pretty predictable, it's an ideal place for a night ski under a full moon, or with a head lamp. A great experience if you've never tried it!

So rather than look out the window gloomily waiting for spring, strap on some skis and enjoy the snow!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Live Music Capital of MetroWest

Who said you have to go to Boston or Worcester to hear good live music? Perhaps, if your tastes run toward sitting in a cavernous building watching a famous band who charges way too much for tickets. But if you're like me and enjoy seeing local, regional, and the occasional national act in an intimate setting, you need never leave the Ham.

Most suburban towns have a dearth of places that feature live music. Not the Ham, since we're a big town with lots of city feel. Downtown, in fact, has plenty of happening places all within walking distance of each other.

One of the most well-known is The Chicken Bone on Waverly Street. If your last impression of "The Bone" was a parking lot full of motorcycles and blues blasting out the door, things have changed. Under new ownership, The Chicken Bone has a renovated interior and now features, in addition to blues, rock, funk, groove, hip hop, classic rock, and jazz, five nights a week. And don't worry about the crowd - it's a very laid-back atmosphere that attracts a wide demographic, and the staff is super-friendly.

Just a block west on Waverly Street is The Happy Swallow. How weird is it that there are two bars with birds in their names so close together? What is it they say about birds of a feather? The Swallow's live music schedule is not as full, generally just weekends, but they get some top-notch bands, mostly blues, to liven up the room. The Happy Swallow is a classic old-style bar with some colorful characters among its regulars, but they're harmless and the staff does a good job keeping order. Probably the cheapest beer you'll find in the Ham!

Another interesting development in the downtown music scene is the rock concert series being presented at the Framingham Civic League on Concord Street, near town hall, by Natick's own Allen Adrien Events promotional agency. Featuring up-and-coming bands with a national reputation, this is a great way for the underage crowd to see acts that would often be playing nightclubs.

Arguably the best news for the downtown music scene is the opening of the Amazing Things Arts Center at the old fire house on Hollis Street. Amazing Things has built a strong reputation and a loyal audience at its original Saxonville storefront location by offering a wide variety of musical and other cultural events, including theatre and spoken word. From Tuvan throat singers to jazz, to folk, rock, blues, world music and classical, the schedule at Amazing Things has something for every kind of music fan. If you have not yet attended an Amazing Things event, well, you'll be amazed. Better yet, become a member, to support the organization and get a discount on all events you attend.

Well, there are plenty of other live music venues in town, including Brazzille, The Rat Pack Cafe, Bruburger's, Firefly's, Nobscot Cafe, and Pepperoncini's, but that's enough for now. Look for more reviews in upcoming posts. And if you have a favorite place that's not mentioned, leave a comment and maybe it can be featured in a future post. Happy listening!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nobscot's Treasured Open Space

With a prominent sign just as Edgell Road crosses the town line and becomes Nobscot Road in Sudbury, Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation is hardly an off the beaten path secret. With over 400 acres of forested trails over rolling hills straddling both Framingham and Sudbury, with the summit of 602 foot Nobscot Hill looming in the background, the reservation is an oasis of open space and natural beauty.

Sure, there's also the largest public open space in town, Callahan State Park, but if you're looking for more solitude to walk in, and prefer not to be outnumbered by dogs and their sometimes incautious owners, Nobscot is a good bet. On some visits you won't encounter another soul the entire time you're there.

Nobscot is an ideal place for hiking year-round, and during a snowy winter like this one, a perfect spot to hone your snowshoe and cross-country skiing skills without even leaving town. Keep in mind however, that you're a guest visiting private property, and be sure to obey the rules, which are prominently posted on a sign in the main parking lot. Dogs must be leashed at all times, and no mountain biking is permitted.

Ten minutes into the woods, you'll find it hard to believe you're still in Framingham, and not a remote corner of northern New England, were it not for the whisper of traffic from Edgell Road to the east or Route 20 to the north. The only traces of civilization are the old stone walls from long-ago farms, and the cabins and lean-tos that the scouts use for their camping excursions here.

The steep ascent to the summit of Nobscot Hill, a hike of about a half hour or so from the parking lot, has the ultimate reward of a sweeping view to the east, with both the Blue Hills and the Boston skyline visible in the distance. Pause for a rest and enjoy the view before descending. And be thankful for this oasis in an increasingly-developed and densely-populated town, and the generosity of the Knox Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America to allow the public access to it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Coffee Shop Talk

Framingham has plenty of chain coffee shops -- Dunkin' Donuts, Honey Dew Donuts, and of course, that symbol of 1990s gentrification, Starbucks. Depending on your viewpoint, they can be either comfortably consistent, or bland and boring. But what about the charm and intimacy of a single location, locally-owned and operated coffee shop?

Framingham's Nobscot village has the privilege of having just such a place, in the form of Espresso Paulo/Annie's Book Stop, at 774 Water Street in the Nobscot Shopping Plaza. Owner Paul Ashton transformed what was originally an ordinary used book shop into a vibrant community gathering place with top-notch coffee (from Hopkinton's Red Barn Coffee Roasters) teas, and baked goods.

The walls are hung with art from local artists, and jewelry is on display from area artisans. The shop also holds receptions for the artists, as well as appearances and book signings by local authors. How's that for a community orientation?

Espresso Paulo is open at 7 a.m. to cater to the work-bound commuter crowd, and stays open until 6 p.m. So bring your caffeine habit to the local guy, and let the big operators fend for themselves!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Buddhist Monks of Saxonville

Framingham has long been known as a town of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. But did you know it's now home to a Buddhist temple with resident monks?

The New England Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center has been located in an ordinary-looking 19th century house on a quiet street in Saxonville for over a year. Staffed by resident monks from Sri Lanka, the center primarily ministers to Sri Lankans living in the New England region, but also has a small following of Americans of other backgrounds who meditate and study Buddhism with the monks on Wednesday evenings.

The three resident monks, led by Bhante Dhammajothi, practice and teach Theravadan Buddhism, which is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and throughout Southeast Asia. While the monks live an ascetic lifestyle at the temple, they are also integrating themselves into the community, take English lessons at a Saxonville church, and are seen walking around Saxonville in their distinctive rust-colored robes. So if you see any of them in your travels around town, say hello and give a hearty welcome to the Buddhist monks of Saxonville.