Photo by Brynne Quinlan
The enduring stories of the statues that inhabit Davis Square
I’ve been hung up on these statues for most of my life.
I grew up in Davis Square. I have brief, early memories of the giant holes that became subway stations, as viewed from a stroller.
The statues were installed just before my sixth birthday, in September 1983. When spray paint appeared on one of them the following fall, I wrote a letter to then-mayor Gene Brune asking him to fix it.
Even at that young age, I was sensitive to my home city’s bad reputation. Somerville was known to be a rough place, full of organized crime and delinquency. I didn’t understand that the new subway would eventually change the neighborhood; I was just excited by the art.
A few years ago, I was walking through the square and heard a couple discussing the statues.
“This must be Mr. and Mrs. Davis,” the man said to his companion.
I muttered some obscenities about tourists to myself and walked past them. It’s an understandable assumption, though; after all, there are no plaques telling anything about people who the statues are actually modeled after.
BILL AND ALICE
The old couple on the plaza are not Mr. and Mrs. Davis.
The man is Bill Mosho, and the woman is his wife, Alice. Some neighborhood old-timers knew the harmonious couple as simply Romeo and Juliet.
They ran the Davis Square Fish Market, which was located at 27 Holland St. The small shop carried a variety of fish, sold raw or cooked to order, and did a brisk business in the largely Catholic community that ate fish on Fridays.
Bill Mosho was born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1917. He grew up in Lynn, Mass, and went to Bates College after graduating from high school, but interrupted his studies in 1942 to enlist in the Army. Bill and Alice met in Paris at the end of World War II. After the war, Bill returned to the United States, and he and Alice continued their romance through letters. Alice traveled to New York on a freighter in 1947 or 1948, and the couple was married soon after.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Bill ran a sandwich shop with his brother in downtown Boston. After that business was sold, he found retirement boring, and he and Alice opened the Fish Market. Their daughter Martine remembers how her father enjoyed the endless conversations “about subjects from philosophy to ancient history to worldly travel” that he had with Tufts students who frequented the restaurant.
Sculptor James Tyler met the couple as a customer of the Fish Market. “It was a great little local seafood place,” he said, adding, “When they started [building] the subway, they essentially drove them out of business. The construction shut them off from the square.”
Bill and Alice retired in 1979. The Fish Market passed through a few other owners before closing for good, and the space became the kitchen of Johnny D’s. The Moshos spent their retirement living on Plum Island with their dog and parrot. Bill passed away in 1996, and Alice in 2010.
THE FLOWER GUY
Bill and Alice used to have some company in another character from the same series, who can now be found across the street just outside the Holland Street T entrance. He’s younger, bearded, and frozen in mid-speech; he has a canister of flowers at his feet and holds a bouquet in his hands.
His T-shirt reads, “I AM NOT.” It originally read, “I AM NOT A MOONIE,” referencing the followers of controversial flower-peddling movement leader Sun Sun Myung Moon, but the last two words were plastered over sometime in the ’80s, when it was no longer politically correct. James Tyler, the artist, said this figure was based on someone he knew in Somerville, an “itinerant musician” who sometimes picked up odd jobs like flower-selling. Reached by the Dig, Tyler confirmed that his friend really did have the Moonie T-shirt, but says that he finds the revised “I AM NOT” more intriguing.
Tyler was in his mid-20s when he was commissioned to create the installation, which is named Ten Figures. The Indiana native was living near Davis Square on Morrison Avenue at the time. He remembers the city being “a little rough around the edges.” As subway construction began in the mid-’70s, Arts on the Line, a program that advocated for art on public transit, put out a call for proposals for art to fill the plaza between the two Davis Square subway entrances.
“The concept was simply to have people in the park all the time,” Tyler said. He chose life-size figures modeled after neighborhood characters, he says so that “it wasn’t just some large and beautiful abstract piece they (locals) didn’t understand … that a community that wasn’t used to art, contemporary art, would find accessible.”
When the Davis Square station and plaza were finally built, the light shaft over the tunnel was covered by a 6.5-foot plexiglass bubble. Businesses behind the plaza were blocked from view, and the plexiglass soon clouded to a dull gray. The plaza was renovated in 1999, and the plexiglass bubble was replaced with a network of concrete and glass blocks. The statues were moved to accommodate the construction and to address pedestrian foot traffic patterns that had evolved around the plaza. Tyler says he wasn’t initially thrilled with the decision to break up the series but came to feel the changes suited the evolving neighborhood.
THE DAVIS FAMILY
On the edge of Ten Hills Park, behind the Harvard Vanguard building, in a damp and shady clump of bushes, four more figures are hidden. A woman sits on a bench with a child on her lap. She talks to a man, who holds a child on his hip. They are the Davis family.
Avi Davis and Joan Schwartz were a husband-and-wife team who ran the Loon and Heron Children’s Theater, which worked out of several spaces in Boston. Like James Tyler, they were part of a growing community of artists who lived and worked in what were affordable working-class neighborhoods in and around Boston. They lived with their sons, Seth and Dan, in Jamaica Plain. James Tyler wanted to include a family in his installation, and when he met the Davises through a mutual friend, they seemed the perfect fit.
The boy sitting on Joan’s lap is her son, Seth. I met Seth in 1996, when we were freshmen at MassArt. We lived in the same dorm and bonded over nightly viewings of Cartoon Planet. I forget when I learned that he was one of the models for the statues, but I recently sent him a picture of an anarchist symbol that someone had drawn on his back. “I don’t mind,” he texted back. His younger brother, Dan, remembers being put off by other tagging. “Someone had painted 666 onto my father’s forehead and stuck a cigarette butt in his mouth with chewing gum. I was taken aback because my father had never smoked a cigarette in his life because his father had died of smoking-related illness. … Though it’s a statue, it’s intense.”
JOHN, MARY, AND THE MIME
Three more figures are behind the Holland Street station entrance. At the mouth of Ten Hills Park, a woman and a man stand in front of a kneeling mime. The man watches the mime, but the woman is looking at him. The mime is the only figure in the series not based on a real person. The man is John Kenney, a Somerville native who died fighting in Vietnam, and the woman is his mother, Mary. They were both deceased at the time the statues were created. John Kenney was the only candidate the city’s planning panel suggested Tyler include. “I wanted a connection with his life,” Tyler explained in a 1983 article. “I wanted to connect his neighborhood with the sorrow of his not being there.”
Former Alderman-at-Large Jack Connolly feels this sorrow acutely. Connolly and Kenney grew up a short walk from Davis Square, on Pearson Road and Bromfield Road, respectively. They were childhood friends and both attended Saint Clement High School. Connolly remembers the day Kenney’s death was announced over the school’s loudspeaker.
“February of ’69, my senior year,” Connolly said. “He graduated in May of ’68. He signed up for the Marines, went to basic training, and went to Vietnam for a short period of time. He was killed on patrol.”
Connolly recalled the cultural turbulence surrounding the Vietnam conflict. “The country was coming apart at the seams,” he said. The former alderman himself was exempt from service due to an earlier surgery, but he knew many who served, as well as many who were conflicted. Connolly’s father, a World War II veteran, told him that for Vietnam, the government was “only drafting city guys, urban kids.”
Kenney was “kind of a tough guy, very opinionated,” Connolly said. He chuckled when I asked if Kenney would have liked watching a mime in Davis Square. “He was more familiar with the wiseguys and the characters from Winter Hill and Ball Square. … None of us were strangers to the fact that there were loan sharks and bookies.”
For the past several years, Connolly has been advocating to have this group of three statues moved to a park dedicated to Kenney, a few blocks down Highland Ave. He feels the park and the statue go together and hopes to bring art to the park to honor his friend’s memory.
One of the reasons I was interested in learning more about the statues is their preservation. Over the years I have continued to spot and report vandalism. Last October, someone stuck a home-printed sticker on Mr. Mosho’s back and I removed it with a credit card. As I did, I noticed cracks and holes in the cement.
Tyler remembers an elected official warning him about vandalism when the statues were installed. “You don’t know our kids in Davis Square,” he remembers the official saying. “They won’t last a month. They’ll be beat up.”
The statues are cast in fondu cement, a strong material that Tyler once boasted was “fracture-proof.” Nevertheless, they have weathered damage through the years. The original cast-cement faces were damaged and were replaced by cast-bronze “masks” in 1996. The new faces look out of place to many, and some in online forums and around town have disparagingly dubbed them “death masks” or “black face.” A few years ago, the mime was cracked down to the aluminum armature inside, and the city asked Tyler to fix it (Tyler said he thought the damage was due to a snowblower or other snow removal vehicle; also, it’s worth noting the mime is the most climbable figure, and I have seen people standing on it in a way that would stress concrete in the area that sustained damage). People have marked on the statues with chalk, paint, stickers. Usually the vandalism can be removed, but some marks remain.
I got in touch with former Mayor Brune to ask about the statues. He had been concerned about longevity and preservation but was told they were temporary. “Not to the extent that they were going to take them down,” he recalled, “[but] they weren’t going to last a lifetime.”
The original call for artwork specified that the art had to last 100 years. In 1983, Tyler said he would be happy if they lasted just 20. Despite that run so far, Brune isn’t very optimistic about relevant preservation: “When they get in disrepair, some mayor’s gonna take them down, because they won’t even know who they are. … They’re only cast concrete, and they’re only people, they’re not notables.”
The building where the Fish Market once stood has been torn down, and now the neighborhood laments the loss of Johnny D’s. The Moshos are frozen in place, walking away from the business.
Change is inevitable. Even things cast in cement weren’t meant to last forever.