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.
Subscribe to WGBH News Emails