Oak Grove

Two weeks ago, assorted circumstances brought me out to Oak Grove. It wasn’t my first time – I had used it right after I moved – but this time gives a chance to do a review which goes a bit off-topic.

As part-time work barely pays the bills, I’ve been looking for work and took a chance on a temp-to-perm assignment just north of Oak Grove and the Malden/Melrose line. Coming off the train, I saw the current state of chaos of the platform which has reduced the station to a one-track operation as the other side is being refurbished. While this was long overdue, the original mid 1970s platform was starting to break off and rot away, it does create some aggravation in the station. In terms of overall design, it’s the end of the Haymarket North extension and can be described best as “Malden Center in a depression” – the two have an identical setup but Oak Grove’s sunken while Malden has more of an “end of the line” feeling than Oak Grove ever will which might double its depression.

Heading upstairs, there are two ways to go: Turn left and you’ll be at Oak Grove’s parking lot, a busway for the 131, 136, and 137 buses, and its very rarely used Commuter Rail platform which only is in use when the Orange Line is down or in emergencies and Winter Street. Turn right from there and walk across the town line you end up with the growing community of apartments near outer stations wooing people with rents which are high for the area but low versus the core of Boston. For people headed north, there is a very long tangent which ends up becoming Banks Place in Melrose, meeting Main Street next to Hunt’s Photo & Video and continuing into the picture-perfect experience which is Melrose. However, this job wasn’t at Hunts.

Turn right and you end up on Washington Street where there is a street stop for the 132 bound for Melrose’s west side and Stoneham. It’s a mix of residential and industrial and on the right side of the street you can see the operations of Oak Grove Yard and see the wearing-apart roofs of the 01200’s while in the station. We’ll walk, we’ll go in for an interview, we’ll ace the interview then walk back and smell the obvious smell of hot dogs from the vendor just past fare control.

Flash forward a few days. Do the actual job. Realize that there’s nothing near there to get lunch but that’s more than okay. Finish the work only to find that this was a test, you failed because you didn’t think of doing it their way (which they knew you were rusty on), walk down Washington Street. Once you get within sight of the platforms, get a call.

“The client just didn’t see you as a fit and is ending the assignment.”

Before I finish this review: I know I’m an outsider. I know I’m male and applying for fields that are female-heavy (administrative, HR, and nonprofit). But how is it that someone with a Masters can’t even get a viable chance in this town is aggravating. I need full-time work and the money but I think the fact that my resume shows I’m not from here is hurting me. If anyone wants to help, please drop me a line because I can really use a job or support or whatever since though we’re in a recession, my circle of friends (almost all not here) sure as heck aren’t feeling it.

Get back to Oak Grove and get my old job back. Then wait 45 minutes for a 136/137 to come with a huge crowd waiting for it. Though they had one of the loaner RTS’s they got from Charlestown, I don’t get why these problems happen out of Fellsway more than others, it was awkward and shows that a) commuter rail fares may be too high or b) Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading could use better bus service rather than the current setup of one bus every 30 minutes combined in rush. Great towns but they can use a bit more in the means of transit. You then realize that unless you’re headed into town and Wellington won’t do, who knows when you’ll next be back to Oak Grove.

Station: Oak Grove
Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: A good mix of demographics and by modes coming in. The lot is always largely full though not congested by Alewife or Quincy Adams standards and like the former there is enough bicycle ridership that it recently gained a bike cage. The four bus routes serving the station get healthy ridership and there is a decent amount of pedestrian ridership as well especially since new apartments (and soon condominiums) have been built across the town line to take advantage of both Oak Grove and of Melrose’s schools.

Pros: For an end of the line station, it’s tranquil. Not overblown like Alewife, not an out-of-town magnet like Riverside or Braintree, no traffic nightmares like how Wonderland and Forest Hills can get (though the beach gives Wonderland the edge there. In contrast to Ashmont, it’s more suburban and of course there are no PCC’s.

Cons: Outside of the current renovation, here’s a big deal: Neither Malden or Melrose has road signs on Main Street at Winter or Banks pointing to people that in fact a train station exists here. The first time I actually used Oak Grove, my wife and I got lost and ended up at Malden Center because of the lack of signage and were only saved by my then-phone’s GPS. Maybe they seriously want it to be tranquil.

An Idea: Make Oak Grove commuter rail an actual station. Put it in Zone 1, make it pickup-only outbound/dropoff-only inbound. Maybe set up a flat fare for ridership heading between Wyoming Hill and Reading. This would provide a good alternative for often spotty 136/137 service and if priced at even $2.50 one-way would be with transfer a bit cheaper than the status quo.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Yes, there are much more accessible Hunt’s at Kenmore Square and Harvard Square. But this one is bigger than both of those combined so for the serious photographer, this is here. Seriously, this is all I’ve got since otherwise people go here to go home.

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Alewife

To start this review, here’s a little logic problem to kick things off:

  • You have tickets to a weeknight Red Sox game
  • Your significant works northwest of Boston
  • You don’t want to deal with rush hour traffic or near-usurious Fenway parking rates
  • What do you do?

If the answer to this isn’t Alewife, I and tons of people in the Northwest suburbs would love to hear it.

I had been up to Alewife once before as a part of a ultimate ride and hadn’t gotten beyond the bus bay which on a rainy Sunday was deserted as only one route (the 350 to Burlington Mall) runs. This time on a nice day during rush hour, it was a lot busier to the part of being welcoming. Between commuters heading home and fellow Red Sox fans heading out, it was busy and the throngs of riders made the massive size of the station seem warranted. And Alewife is massive as under one roof it also includes direct access to all four levels of its huge parking garage, retail including the requisite Dunkin’ Donuts and newsstand, and the aforementioned busway. Away from the tracks, the atrium of the station has a huge skylight that bathes the otherwise underground station in natural light. The existence of Alewife also helped turn an area that was previously an industrial district of North Cambridge into one of the first successful transit-oriented mixed-use developments. It even has the largest bicycle facility in the MBTA system with a cage holding 500 bikes. Sprinkle in a good amount of public art and it’s a great combination, however…

At the same time, while there I wonder what could’ve been. Had the Arlington of the 1970s had not fought extending the Red Line past Alewife – putting a terminal in Lexington, Bedford, or Burlington – would Alewife be this massive or be more like its Northwest Extension sisters? What if the Route 2 expressway had been built straight to Boston and ending it at Alewife wasn’t an option? What if the former Lexington Branch of the Boston & Maine hadn’t been neglected and never stopped running? And more recently, what if Alewife had less office buildings and more residences? Would Alewife exist as it is – or at all – if even one little thing happened differently?

MBTA Butterfly Effect aside, Alewife does its job as a hub for the northwest suburbs well. With direct highway access, bus access including express bus service to New York and more, it does its job well. It even has cows!

Station: Alewife. Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: A good assortment of people driving in from the Route 2 corridor, local bus commuters, and tons of bikers utilizing the nearby trail network. There are also some reverse peak commuters – the MBTA 351 to the office parks of Burlington and Bedford and the 128 Business Council’s shuttles to Waltham – serve the station during rush hour.

Pros: Tons of space, natural light, a functional design, lots of public art, plus one of the earliest TOD successes. Toss in some mult-imodal connections and you have a great combination, however there’s one big problem…

Cons: The problem of weekend bus service, as mentioned only one route on Sundays with the joined 62/76 to Lexington and Bedford running on Saturdays; had the proposed Doomsday cuts had gone through Alewife would’ve had no bus service at all. Also, the dated early 80’s brutalism in some regards hasn’t aged well though it’s in far better shape than many of its peers in systems such as the Washington Metro.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Alewife is a hub of trails with the Fitchburg Cutoff Path to Belmont, the Alewife Linear Park that runs on top of the Red Line to Davis Square and the Minuteman Bikeway which replaced the aforementioned Lexington Branch. There are also nearby two parks in Russell Field and the Alewife Brook Reservation. The weather’s nice, get out there and ride or hike!

If food and burning some money are more your style, the flagship location of Summer Shack is right outside the station on Alewife Brook Parkway.