Malden Square loosely refers to the area near the Malden Center train station on the north end of the MBTA Orange Line in Malden, Massachusetts

The Square seems ideally suitable to be a downtown area bustling with people and activity. To get there from the train station, you have to cross the street from the elevated patform, come upon the giant red brick building that houses City Hall, and walk up its lengthy staircase to reach a small plaza. The plaza's location at the top of the building allows you to see the trains entering the station and hear the steady beat that sounds like someone is hammering iron to a rhythm. To the left of the plaza stands an imposing gray concrete structure that forces you to tilt your head upwards until you can encompass its whole height within your view. It is a senior citizen apartment complex whose residents occasionally come out and sit on the benches on breezy, quiet days. They often bring their grandchildren who run around while they themselves sit and read newspapers, occasionally looking across the street to see the row of attached train cars pull away with their glimmering orange stripes. The trains make a high-pitch neighing sound of a horse as they pull away, except for the more gentle and whimsical ringing sound of the commuter rail that is reminiscent of tinkling church bells.

Away from the train station and down the street is the Pleasant Street Mall, housing several hair salons, Irish pubs, and discount "dollar stores" (where everything is sold pretty much for under five dollars.) There are also several restaurants, a croissant, coffee, and sandwich place, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a newly opened Haitian one. Walking by and glancing through these eateries' transparent glass facades, your eyes have to roam around before they find a person inside. Sometimes, you''ll spot a young couple sitting at a table furthest away from the door, other times the whole interior space is darkened and you realize that the eatery is only open in the mid-afternoon for the lunch hour. If you look through the facades of the hair salons, it much the same. You'll notice the hair stylists walking around and tidying up the place, moving some objects, cleaning the floor or the furniture. Yes, once in a while you can see one or two clients leaning back in their chairs and getting their hair sheared by scissors. But that is a rare occurence.

There is one time this plaza comes alive and that's the Friday before Halloween weekend. Parents walk along with their costumed kids and accost the owners of the little shops. These proprietors hand out candy to the children while sitting on a chair right on the sidewalk space in front of their stores. Others stand inside the store, by the front door or next to the cash register, where they reach into a large glass jar to hand each incoming trick-a-treater a handful of colorful, wrapped sweets. On that day, the street mall is so bustling with activity that you have to weave your way through crowded groupings of pedestrians to make your way through.

On other days though, you'll most likely see only two or three people, perhaps a suit and tie wearing worker along with a white lab-coat medical staffperson, both of whom are making their way hurriedly past the shops as they rush to reach the T station. This place may have its moments a bustling downtown center of activity and shopping, but most of the time it serves merely as a pedestrian walkway for commuters to Boston. It wasn't always like that. The street mall was once home to Jordan Marsh, an upscale clothing department store... so there must been quite a few shoppers in the area back then. The retailer ended up relocating in the 1970s and took its shoppers with it to its brand new location in a nearby town. The current clothing stores, bargain-oriented Sparks and some inexpensive shoe stores, aren't trendy enough to draw in as many customers.

The local government is not indifferent and does plan to do something about this lackluster street mall. They hope to make it a more central place in the life of the town. Already,they have contracted with an architect to bring down the red brick City Hall building so that commuters who use the train station will be more motivated to walk over to the mall because they won't have to climb that long long stairway.. And besides, the theory goes that the height of buiding itself blocks the view of the mall from the station so that people are less aware of it. The government also hopes to move an outpatient clinic to the location and build graduate student housing for students of universities located in Boston.

These are all worthy steps in making the downtown a more vibrant place of activity, but the place has been stagnant for so many years, that it's honestly hard to believe that these "improvements" can make a difference. It remains to be seen if either the newly arriving graduate students or visitors to the outpatient clinic will warm up to the local merchants.
Malden Square is formed by the intersection of Main, Salem, and Ferry Streets (the town's three major arteries), but the term is loosely applied to a strip running from the square itself to the T station and widened to include a three-block area that encompasses Malden Government Center as well. Follow Main Street north to get to Melrose, or south to Everett Square. Ferry Street runs southeast through Faulkner and Everett before it ends at the Revere Beach Parkway. Salem Street heads east through Maplewood and Linden before the Northeast Expressway kills it.

The square is a definite reminder of a time when Malden was a bustling, independent city, rather than a town that primarily caters to commuters. Some of the buildings still show painted advertisements from the forties and fifties, if you know where to look, but now they're overshadowed by the McDonalds Express and the dollar stores. In winter, the Christmas decorations are ridiculously nice. Do yourself a favor and go for a walk.

The Orange Line takes 14 minutes to shuttle you from the station to Boston, but nobody comes up to Malden Square from the city. Malden fails to attract the sort of tourism that Cambridge and Brookline are so good at pulling in. Why? There's two pretty well-established reasons. One of them is the reputation of the Orange Line, which runs through Roxbury, Charlestown, Everett, and Malden. The first three communities (less so Charlestown) don't have the best reputations. The Orange Line was the only T line to see a murder in 2004. The line IS safe, though. I commute on it daily, and the worst thing to ever happen to me was to have an older man loudly sing at me and a few other passengers for about twenty minutes.

The second reason is a little more insidious and dates back to the 1980s, when the Orange Line was relocated from its elevated alignment through the central part of Charlestown. The T was upgrading three transit corridors at the time: the Red Line past Harvard, the Orange Line down the newly cleared Southwest Corridor, and the Orange Line north to Malden and Melrose. At one point, the line was expected to continue up to Greenwood Station, in Stoneham, but the T did its thing and started cutting corners. The T ends at Oak Grove and runs on a surface alignment, so Malden Station is a massive, neighborhood-destroying concrete behemoth that squashes pedestrian traffic like a bug. Arlington lost itself a subway by insisting that the entire line be built underground, but they were probably right in the long term.

One of the more interesting parts of the square is the location of the old Malden Square Station (the new T station is officially "Malden Center"), a stop on the now-defunct Saugus Branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad. What was once the depot is now a parking lot, but some remnants of the development remain on the lower blocks of Main Street. At Main and Charles is the BOWLADROME, a 50's-style bowling alley with a dying neon sign. Across the street is an unimpressive diner. The jersey barriers and barbed wire fences down here block off what was once the commercial center of the city. Traffic has since shifted north, above Route 60.

It's Malden, though. It's a fascinating town where there's very little crime and zero racism, and lots of interesting people. The view from Mount Hood is possibly the best in Boston, and there's a whole lot of good pizza. It was my hometown all year; I'll miss it terribly.

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