Five high points for Cambridge in 2012

Cantabrigians love their city. The year’s Citizens Survey showed 94 percent of respondents rating the overall quality of life here as good or excellent, and it helps that canny fiscal management keeps the city’s services steady and capital projects flowing while other communities are forced into painful austerity measures. Even when bad stuff happens – and a look at five low points for the year is coming up – there is plenty to celebrate, approve of or enjoy about Cambridge.

Here are five of those moments from 2012, mainly chosen for what they might say about the nature of the city historically and in the long term rather than simply being specific moments that are meaningful only fleetingly.

Let’s look back while looking forward:

Cambridge gets (even more of) its groove back

In October, Central Square was named a state-designated cultural district, was confirmed as the site of the May 13-19 Together electronic music and technology festival and, as part of it, announced the return of the massive, outdoor Central Square World’s Fair, which was last held in 2005. It was a validation of Together’s run in the city in early April, which drew some 20,000 people to what is recognized as a new mecca of electronic dance music, and further proof Cambridge really knows how to party.

As proof, it’s redundant. There are not many cities that could sustain a City Dance Party with the vigor and joy of Cambridge, but this annual free event has closed Massachusetts Avenue to cars every year since 1996 to make room for thousands of dancers young and old. This year’s 5,000-person event, held June 29, was no exception. Harvard Square events such as Oktoberfest also regularly draw swarms eager to eat, hear live music and shop for crafts, but the annual Cambridge Carnival International Festival and Parade proves the city can even shine in the sterile tech innovation district of Kendall Square. The Caribbean/African-themed carnival, featuring a parade with dazzling handmade costumes, has become one of the largest outdoor multicultural festivals in New England since its modest beginnings in 1992, with some 100,000 estimated to come to the Sept. 9 event.

The green line extension breaks ground

Even as trains run by the debt-ridden Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority break down systemwide and risk making Cambridge’s rampant development into disaster, the long-promised extension of the green line from Lechmere into Somerville and Medford got an official groundbreaking Dec. 11.

The $1.3 billion project will add six Green Line stations – moving Lechmere to the NorthPoint side of Monsignor O’Brien Highway; adding a one-stop spur to a redeveloped Union Square in Somerville; and going to Brickbottom, Gilman Square, Lowell Street, Ball Square, College Avenue and finally to Route 16 – with all but the outermost stop said to be possible by October 2015. It’ll bring more people into Cambridge from each direction and give Cantabrigians more access to the north.

Phase I tears down an MBTA building in East Cambridge and reconstructs the Harvard Street railroad bridge in Medford and Medford Street railroad bridge in Somerville to accommodate tracks. That could cost close to $20 million, state Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey told the Somerville Patch, while $350 million has been secured to complete phase two.

Forest City offers signs of hope for the political process

For anyone who thinks the forces of development are too powerful for the little guy to hold back, Forest City’s misadventures from May to August offers a hint of hope. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s developer for the area first asked for zoning to expand its University Park that included putting apartments and a restaurant atop most of a small park – the only green space pedestrians on the avenue come across in the roughly two-thirds of a mile between City Hall and the MIT campus. But it backed off from that part of the plan in June, and was pushed to another compromise in August that would keep 168 units of affordable housing and add 20 nearby. Ultimately the City Council let the company’s zoning petition expire, surprising many. “We have made a great deal of progress in the discussions on this proposal over these past many months, but it’s also apparent we need to continue this dialogue,” councillor David Maher said.

The Forest City proposal returned this month, but with the housing in place and after councillors  have at least paid lip service to an increased political awareness of the plight of the middle class in Cambridge. With chatter about the November municipal elections already begun in earnest, the current crop of councillors might be inspired to find a wise way to walk the line between development and the concerns of residents who fear its impact on their quality of life.

A fire on Columbia Street turns out to be kind of heartwarming

A three-alarm fire on Columbia Street early Aug. 23 left a dozen artists and performers homeless, but the heroic and sensitive response by firefighters and rush to help by the creative community was inspiring. Here’s how guitarist Brendan Burns, who had been a resident of a building once called “Columbia House” or “The Danger Zone,” described the initial response:

We watched the Cambridge and Somerville fire departments approach and attack the blaze with skill and determination … The Cambridge Fire Department has an amazing emergency management service that helped us through the evening with blankets, water and information. The Red Cross made hotel arrangements for us, gave us some money to buy clothes and supplied us with toiletries. We were being updated constantly about the state of the firefight and what was to happen after the fire was fully extinguished … We were asked if anyone had any glasses or medication that needed to be retrieved and were told to make a “treasure map” of anything that we wanted from our rooms – the firemen would take this map and rescue what they could … the firemen started bringing out our instruments. They told us that as the fire was burning, they had lifted our instruments to higher ground (as to not sit in the water). They came out with my roommates’ upright basses, banjos, saxophones and then they came out with three of my guitars. I was so overwhelmed.

“They saved our instruments while battling a fire,” said Burns, who gave the firefighters tickets to his TimeStamp show in November. “That is an extraordinary thing, and something they didn’t have to do.”

Meanwhile, friends, fellow artists and even strangers offered places to stay and replacements for goods lost in the fire, coordinated through emergency websites, and the displaced people have been resettled – although many are now in Somerville rather than back in Central Square.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority asserts some of its authority

It was the Google connector project – taking 42 percent of a public rooftop garden permanently from public use – that alerted the city there was no active board of directors for the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, which has been focused mainly on shaping Kendall Square for 56 years. At least the authority had a steadying hand in Joseph Tulimieri, who had served as executive director since July 1978, right?

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what that hand was doing for at least 32 months starting Sept. 17, 2009, and resident sleuths puzzling over public documents think the period without full board oversight might have gone back more than a decade before City Manager Robert W. Healy rapidly filled four seats so the five-member board could convene May 21. The state filled its seat on the board back in 2009, but Tulimieri had never called member Barry Zevin to come for a meeting or told him of the agency’s doings.

However long Tulimieri was acting on his own, he wasn’t just approving projects. He was also deciding his own salary; a Dec. 31, 2010, retirement package; and ongoing part-time pay – intending, he said, for a board to affirm the amounts later.

The authority board has been disappointing in its failure to acknowledge that the projects Tulimieri shepherded during the time without a board are no more valid than his solo salary decisions. In other ways, too, its members have indulged in that classic Cambridge response of shrugging as though helpless when they tell people not to do things and they do them anyway. (When Tulimieri allowed Microsoft to install a sign even after being forbidden, members literally laughed at the “misunderstanding.”) Members were meek when developer Boston Properties listened to their design concerns and bluntly said it was disregarding them. And they wasted time and needlessly alarmed citizens by allowing legal counsel Foley Hoag to report on the time there was no board when, in a clear conflict of interest, Foley Hoag was legal counsel during that time.

But board members also went on to appoint independent counsel for a more in-depth look at that time, which should include Foley Hoag’s actions. They have been commendably transparent and fast in terms of posting documents and willing to allow public comment and even some limited give and take between board members and members of the public. They are leading a process to decide the future of the authority itself, including whether it should go on as an independent agency. And they asked for the resignation of Tulimieri.

Residents who attend agency meetings and follow its work are wary but hopeful, rather than cynical – and the same cannot be said of all Cambridge boards.

Honorable mentions: The November elections were huge, with 50,749 ballots cast, and the 26th Middlesex District was a significant part of that. It was a three-way race in which Democrat Tim Toomey defended his seat, Somerville Republican Thomas Vasconcelos drove debate and Mike “No Money” Connolly showed the city a new way to run a campaign. His zero-dollar donations (while allowing in-kind contributions such as sign printing) should set an example for other municipal candidates, and his 23 percent of East Cambridge votes in a district Toomey has held since 1993 bodes well for future races.

Also, Cambridge had its own flashmob marriage proposal in October, and it was incredibly cute; and an MIT “Gangnam Style” parody that got 4.6 million hits on YouTube and was predictably brilliant. They don’t say much about the city’s history or future, but they’re cute.

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