By Jordan Weinstein | Tuesday, April 10, 2012
April 10, 2012
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I arranged to meet Helen Bryant at the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, an independent business in a neighborhood that’s arguably one of the last traces of Cambridge’s less-prosperous past.
A tale of two cities ... in one neighborhood
Sandwiched between the Sublime Salon and the Hair Collage on Massachusetts Avenue, the coffee shop is just a few doorways away from Pill Hardware with its flaking and peeling red storefront. Rodney’s used bookstore, ABC Pizza and the divey Cantab Lounge are across the street. On the next block west toward upscale Harvard Square is City Hall, the Cambridge Senior Center and the central post office and Y. East about a block toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology you’ll run into Starbucks, a café that provoked outcry when it arrived in the mid-90s, and that now seems an early indicator of the changes on the way.
The 1369 Coffee House is crowded with students and neighborhood locals. Helen is an attorney in private practice, mostly children and family law. Over a cup of strong coffee, she tells me she was born in Cambridge like her three brothers and her father and, except for college, she’s lived here all her life.
“When I was growing up Central Square was just a square full of little shops that you walked through," Bryant said. She remembers Woolworth’s, and the Harvard Doughnut Shop where Starbucks is. "You knew who would be in these places. You knew who worked there. It was either your friends' parents worked there, or you knew who’d be sitting at the counter at the Harvard Doughnut Shop."
That was the story, Bryant said, until the 1990s. Then, "these little family-owned businesses started to disappear and were replaced not with another family-owned business but more likely a big chain.”
The downside of the old community
While the small shops and friendly neighbors made growing up here a pleasure, the Square of the past also had a dark side. Minka vanBeuzekom is a newly elected member of the Cambridge City Council.
“When I moved into Central Square in 1990 I was walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say ‘Get out of the way, lady,'“ she recalled. "I turned around and this guy was coming toward me with a gun drawn and there were three policemen chasing after him."
Over the 20 years she's lived in the neighborhood, she's had police in her backyard looking for weapons, and known of "shootings and stabbings and lots of not very nice things," she said. But "that activity’s really plummeted.”
For vanBeuzekom, the promise of Central Square renewal is long overdue. After all, the square is where the seat of city government lies. It’s a major transportation hub, not just for Cambridge but for the whole metro Boston area. And it’s an astonishing center of activity.
“Those are all the pluses," vanBeuzekom said. "And then, if you actually walk around and you see the condition of some of the buildings, the condition of the sidewalks, the condition of the public spaces, how some of the streetscape is being handled, how vital or not vital it is — that’s where the disconnect lies.”
A moment of change
Efforts to revitalize Central Square have gone on for decades — and failed. But for vanBeuzekom, the urban renewal stars are aligned as they’ve never been before, thanks to big pharma.
“There’s much more of an urgency because of what’s going on at the eastern end of Mass. Ave., closer to MIT where Novartis is expanding," vanBeuzekom said. "It’s going to be a breathtaking building but mind-boggling development that’s happening — especially when you couple that with Pfizer, which is just on the back side of almost that same block, which will be another large building. So I think there’s a new urgency to solve the Central Square problem.”
That urgency is being driven by massive new development projects already begun just blocks away. A quarter-mile east down Mass. Ave., Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has already broken ground on a Maya Lin–designed park and tower complex. And right across the street, the two blocks of small shops, restaurants and apartments will be replaced by a 240,000-square-foot MIT research facility.
City officials and other community interests see the resulting property tax revenues as a historic opportunity to accomplish what others have chronically failed to achieve in the past.
"The solutions that came out of the Red Ribbon Commission were middle-income housing, [a] day care center, public space that could be a year-round arts and crafts or farmers market," vanBeuzekom explained."There’s also an effort led by urban planners who helped with the East Cambridge planning team for Kendall Square. And then there’s a third effort going on simultaneously by Community Development, they’re calling that K2C2. So that’s why it seems like we’re going to solve it this time.”
But area residents and small shop owners who have already seen stores and neighbors pushed out by high-tech expansion don’t have much faith in the good will of institutional encroachers or city planners. They’ve formed coalitions and committees to make sure their interests are heard. And while most would like to see the neglect apparent in some parts of Central Square remedied, there’s deep concern that gentrification pressures will drive poor and middle-class residents out of a once affordable neighborhood.
Tim Love is associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture and a founder of a firm specializing in complex urban projects. “It’ll be interesting to see how those real estate pressures effect both the mix of people and the kinds of businesses that survive maybe as rents go up," he said. "That’s the big question.”
In an area as unique as Central Square, institutional neighbors, he told me, have a particular obligation. Universities have a different kind of responsibility when they’re building on a public street like Mass. Ave. As a positive example, he cited the MIT Broad Center, which has a gallery on the ground floor that mimics the typical Central Square scale.
"I think there are ways to mitigate between the needs of life science companies that need big buildings, and the need for those institutions, of companies, to make and contribute to a kind of healthy sidewalk life, which is what Central Square is about," Love said. "It’s one of the most vital, healthy, interesting, active, sidewalk kind of urban environments in the Boston area.”
Forces that keep organizations in the square
Beyond institutional goodwill and efforts to hold MIT and big pharma in check, vanBeuzekom believed the organizations that own property in Central Square, like the YMCA and YWCA, will likely moderate the worst of the gentrification pressures.
“The YWCA is just embarking on a big expansion project to increase the number of single residency occupant units. And the YMCA is also going to be improving the housing that they have right there," she said.
In addition, the Salvation Army has a shelter that provides services to a low-income population, and many social service organizations own their buildings and thus can't be pushed out by rent pressures. "So I think it’s going to be a very interesting juxtaposition of the eastern end of the Avenue that will have the highest high-tech that you can possibly imagine right next to these service industries that are helping the poor and the disenfranchised,” vanBeuzekom said.
A tale of two cities ... in harmony
Time will tell. But the promise of a uniquely Central Square solution that serves the needs of industry and the people is an enticing aspiration.
"We’re going to have the 99-cent McDonald’s and we’ll have the $5.99 carrot-beet juice with boosters from Life Alive. Both of those things will co-exist in Central Square," vanBeuzekom said, laughing.
By Jared Bowen | Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
By Phillip Martin | Sunday, March 4, 2012
Mar. 5, 2012
BOSTON -- In a sign of the times, your neighborhood café has become an office space. No longer just serving coffee, tea and pastries, coffee shops are a central community meeting place for business, job hunting and work. But this shift isn't without a new cultural tension.
> > What do you think of "laptop campers"? Do you love them, hate them ... are you one of them? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or by tweeting @wgbhnews.
I’m at a café and I've just fired up my computer to write this story. I’ve patronized coffeehouses for years. But I noticed that when the economy collapsed and thousands were thrown out of their jobs and work cubicles, it become harder to find an empty table. What traditionally had been a community center or public square of sorts has been replaced by individual spaces. The café has become the office.
What the customer wants
At a Starbucks in Brighton, Brendan Latrell and Stuart Powers are cranking out a project on two computers, side by side, like dueling pianists on keyboards. They have a small company called Moving Metrix that advertises on YouTube, and Starbucks is their office. "Because we’re a start-up company we don’t have an office yet, so we often use coffee shops as a place to meet and get work done together. There’s food, free internet, good atmosphere," Latrell said.
For Patty Jacobs, an independent public relations consultant, working alone can bring on the blues. "I find that by being in the café, I’m around a lot of other people, so I’m not so lonely, and I find having other people around me working helps me focus," she said. "And I like the fact that I can have my coffee whenever I want it and take a break if I want and come back."
Brian Epstein, a Tufts University philosopher who does most of his writing in, you guessed it, a coffee shop, said the office café has blurred the notion of public and private.
"There’s been this erasure of the distinction between work and home but it's penetrating outward also. It’s not just that work is coming home. It’s also that our entire lives are now mixing up the public and the private, so when I’m sitting in a café, am I working or am I at leisure? What’s happening is that there is a breaking down of boundaries."
In many ways. In a city where racial diversity in the workplace is in short supply, in the view of many, Lesley student Rachel Laine, researching at Bourbon Coffee in Cambridge, said this is an ideal setting. "Aesthetically this place is very gorgeous. And even the people here are really diverse and so it mirrors the diversity and the aesthetics," she said.
The downsides of "laptop camping"
Now, the two questions that complicate this story….
How much coffee does Laine purchase at Bourbon?
"I don’t purchase coffee here," she said — adding that she didn't feel guilty because she liked Bourbon's baked goods.
And there's also the issue of the customers who come to a café off the clock.
Mark Newall is a senior vice president at Keystone Associates, a large employment consulting firm in downtown Boston. "Sometimes, to be honest with you, I’m a little annoyed when I go into a cafe and I want to sit and read a book or relax and all of the spots seem to be taken up with folks who have iPads and laptops who are busily working away," he said. However, "I do recognize as a profession that it has become a place for people to congregate, a place for people to connect."
Which is why he advises his clients to find a seat at a café ... even if he can’t find one.
Newall said the café is a near-perfect venue for job networking. It’s a bit of wisdom that comes to him firsthand.
"One morning I was waiting in line at a Panera Bread — a café, right — and there was a guy in line who looked over at me and he said, ‘Hey Mark, how are you,' and I looked at him and he and I used to play basketball together," Newall said. "One thing led to another and I ended up working here. He made a job for me and it worked out tremendously."
He tells clients the story "because opportunity comes in the most random places and for me it was in a café."
Designing for the new café culture
Israel Fridman is constructing a brand-new café in Cambridge called Dwelltime, set to open in two weeks. The space is designed with individual tables that can be put together, to accommodate both singletons and groups. There will be free wireless internet … but with a design element to keep the office crowd contained.
"We’re going to have a communal table for all the laptop people and that’s the only electric outlet that you’re going to find here," Friedman said.
Friedman said for the most part he has no problem with customers using the café as an office:
"I think it’s fine as long as it’s done with some regard for the storeowner as well," he said. "I think if you come here and you have an office meeting with two or three other mates and you do nothing but conduct business and not consume, well, clearly, if carried to an extreme that will be detrimental to the business."
Dwelltime has enough space to accommodate "people coming here, doing some of their business and spending a number of hours perfectly comfortable," Friedman said. "So I don’t necessarily see the conflict."
The old school …
Oscar DeStefano, owner of Harvard Square's legendary Caffe Paradiso, did see a conflict. The Italian native had neither an internet connection nor electrical outlets in his café. He was hell-bent against the very idea of the coffee shop as an office.
"The coffee shop is an area where you mingle with people. Not just go there, take your computer and stick two things in your ears. If you want peace and quiet, go to the cemetery. But don’t come to the café," he said in an interview recorded in 2007, after the Harvard location closed and shortly before DeStefano's death.
One former customer, Tom Magliozzi of "Car Talk" fame, remembered DeStefano's struggle against the tide of change in café culture.
"The Paradiso, where we used to hang out, he was paying something like 12,000 bucks a month rent. You got to sell a lot of coffee. Now we’ve got no place to sit down anymore. This is the closest we’ve found, but it isn’t home," he said.
… goes new school
Still, Magliozzi, a coffee connoisseur, has found not one but two replacement cafés: the Algiers in Cambridge and the old Caffe Paradiso in Boston’s North End, run by Oscar's sister Adriana DeStefano-Federico.
She acknowledged that the North End’s changing demographics have turned this old-world café into a high-tech workspace: "You have a different crowd that’s coming in and so you have to accommodate, and we have free internet."
The café as DeStefano-Federico once knew it will likely never be the same again — and she can live with that. But, pointing to patrons sipping cappuccinos near the doorway, she said the Paradiso has also held on to some of the old ways that made Oscar proud.
"We have two or three people starting their own business. You know, the shoe business, and it’s a handshake. So the human contact, the human interaction is still there," she said.
Now the sounds of tradition — the grinding of coffee, arguments over politics and soccer, the clanging of cups and saucers — blend with the tapping sound of fingers on computer keyboards and the muted symphony of the iPad.
By WGBH News | Monday, February 27, 2012
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Feb. 23, 2012