In Central Square, the cultural center of Cambridge, Mass., arts organizations and small businesses that depend on it are just trying to hang on, waiting for audiences and shoppers to return. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, real estate values were climbing. Now, the virus has accelerated pressure on small property owners to sell.

The fear is that the pandemic will erase the last traces of what makes this area unique.

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Bob Perry, owner of Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge, Mass., poses for a photo outside his store on Aug. 27, 2020.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Businesses like iconic Cheapo Records, which has been open since 1977, have benefited from grants and loans, but it’s hard to make up for having been closed.

Owner Bob Perry said he loves what he does.

"I'm not trying to save the world," Perry said. "I'm just trying to have a cool store and make enough money to pay my mortgage."

At Teddy Shoes, hundreds of pairs of shoes line the walls and glittery dance dresses hang overhead.

Steven Adelson’s father started the business in 1957. But with dance studios mostly closed and theatres dark, Teddy Shoes sits quietly in the wings. Adelson says he’s down to “one or two sales a day.”

Steve Adelson, owner of Teddy Shoes in Central Square, poses for a photo inside his store in Central Square, Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 26, 2020. The arts keep Adelson's shop alive, but now, Adelson says, with dance and performance spaces mostly dark, there are few customers coming in for his specialty shoes.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

“What's kept Central special is that we have property owners whose fathers' fathers owned these buildings, and through that have kept this network of cool, funky, unique mom-and-pop stores,” said Michael Monestime, executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District. “There's a lot of folks who are weak prey out there, and the vultures are just circling the sky, waiting for their opportunity to move in, squeeze in and sort of change the landscape. And that's unfortunate.”