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Hometown U.S.A.: Belmont, Mass.

Romney can't escape the economic divide

He spent much of his adult life in this Boston suburb, up on the hill with the pricey homes and boutiques. Down below it's more working-class.

October 14, 2012|By Alana Semuels
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive at il Casale in Belmont, Mass., for dinner.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)

The sleepy Boston suburb that Mitt Romney has called home for much of his adult life has much to offer a family. It features excellent schools, big homes, and so little excitement that a local newspaper once called it the most boring town in the region.

But there's a division in Belmont too, that may, or may not, have been present as far back as when the painter Winslow Homer built a summer home here in the 1850s. It's a divide between the rich and everyone else.

Before he sold his house and moved into a condo, Romney and his family lived on Belmont Hill, where the residences are large and the yards spacious. The private Belmont Hill School, which Romney's five sons attended, is here, along with a Mormon temple that draws visitors from around New England.

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But travel down the hill through a series of stop lights — past blocks of single-family homes — and another neighborhood emerges, one of two-family homes and convenience stories. It feels like a different town altogether.

"They're snobs up in Belmont Hill. This is supposedly the ghetto," said Joe Venuti, 74, who has lived in the Waverly Square neighborhood of Belmont his whole life. A retired

town firefighter, Venuti lives in a two-family home across from a Dunkin' Donuts, where he and a handful of other old-timers convene a daily coffee klatch.

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"This is a real working-class neighborhood," said Bob Dally, 60, a 911 dispatcher who lives in the same apartment above a drugstore that he did when he got married 33 years ago.

Across the street, buses from Cambridge unload passengers of all races as cars speed by. This area of town has a bicycle shop, a Vietnamese restaurant and a few empty storefronts. Belmont Center, the gateway to the Belmont Hill neighborhood, has a number of expensive boutiques, a high-end Italian restaurant, and both a craft beer and a wine store, which holds tastings on the weekends.

The divide is evident in census data, which shows that the Belmont Hill area has hundreds of homes with household incomes above $200,000. The usual income range in the Waverly Square area is $60,000 to $75,000. There are also more than 100 households making $10,000 to $15,000 in Waverly Square, the largest area of Belmont with such low incomes.

"They're rich up there. We're not," said Don Kelleher, who works at a bank.

To be sure, all cities and towns have areas of varying income levels. But the perception of Belmont is usually one of wealth: After all, this is the place that is home to Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society (who also invented the Sugar Daddy candy); author Tom Perrotta; and too many Harvard and MIT professors to name.

Many residents say there's little difference between the hill and the people down below. They include Julia Weeks, a Belmont Hill resident who has lived in the town for 23 years and whose two children went to private school.

"It's pretty homogeneous," she said.

The town can't be accused of being unwelcoming: It has the longest-running celebration of gay marriage in the state, the Freedom to Marry Ice Cream Social, which has been held every May since Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004.

But some say there is tension between the haves and the have-nots.

"This part of town with two-family homes — the town wanted to give it away," said Arthur Venezia, 91, who has lived in the town since 1945.

Some folks here insist the town government is more attentive to the needs of the hill than to the neighborhood below.

"They're unresponsive to the concerns of the lower echelons of the town. No doubt about it," said John Kupellian, who lives near Waverly Square and struggled to get the town to ban truck engine braking on the street that runs by his house. "Money speaks."

Whether the upper elevations really get more attention is hard to say, but perceptions are formed, in part, by the reality of housing in this town of about 24,000.

There are 4,517 single-family homes, 1,638 two-family homes, 143 three-family homes and a handful of apartment buildings in Belmont, according to the town assessor.

Their quality varies: A duplex condo in Waverly Square is on sale for $279,000; a single-family home on the street where Romney lived is listed for $3.2 million.

A few years ago, Romney sold his six-bedroom home on Belmont Hill and bought a condo off the hill. It was a move not lost on the locals. "He lives down with us now," said Dally, the dispatcher. "The only difference is that he has a million dollars."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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