Originally a marshy tidal basin along the Mystic River, Somerville’s Assembly Square has undergone as dramatic a transformation as any neighborhood in the Boston area over the centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until industrial development took hold in the early 20th century that it even earned its current moniker.
Before that time, the riverfront’s biggest claim to fame was as the spot where the state’s first oceangoing vessel, The Blessing of the Bay, was built and launched in 1631 under the orders of Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, who owned land nearby. Shipyards cropped up to take advantage of the now-defunct Middlesex Canal, an engineering marvel begun in the late 18th century, while nearby rail lines contributed to development in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The next big chapter began in 1926. A new highway nearby and rail access thanks to the Boston and Maine Railroad made the would-be neighborhood ripe for the addition of a new Ford Motor Company assembly plant (pictured) on filled-in marsh land, sowing the seeds for the locality’s eventual name. A large-scale grocery distribution center also moved in, making this relatively small spit of land one of the largest centers of employment in the region. A fatal decision by Ford, however, contributed to Assembly Square’s eventual decline. Somerville became one of the main manufacturers of the doomed Edsel, which was introduced in 1957 and discontinued officially in 1959. The plant, however, didn’t even last that long—it was shut down in 1958. The grocery business eventually moved into the old Ford facility, hanging on until 1976. Another factor in Assembly Square’s deterioration was the erecting of the elevated portion of Interstate 93 in the 1960s and ’70s, which cut it off from the rest of Somerville.
Although some small industrial businesses hung on, Assembly Square in the latter decades of the 20th century became known primarily as a retail destination due to the Assembly Square Mall—built on the site of the Ford plant in 1980—and other large stores. A grander plan for a mixed-use development, however, gradually took shape, and after many delays due to factors including poor planning, lawsuits, political infighting and outright corruption, Assembly Square is now one of the hottest addresses in Greater Boston. The mall was replaced by the Assembly Square Marketplace in 2006, and the still-expanding Assembly Row—which broke ground in 2012 and includes offices, housing, shops, restaurants, a cinema and the Legoland Discovery Center—as well as adjacent parks and an MBTA station have this area poised to be a major leisure-time playground for generations to come.