I am one of those people who loves living in the city. I also love the country. As far as I know, there is no word to describe such schizoid existence. We have all sorts of “bi” words: bicoastal, bisexual, bilateral, bimonthly, bipartisan, but nothing to describe the need for both the hustle and bustle of city life and the isolation of country life. Would biurban work?
Living in Cambridge allows me to indulge some of my city loves — walking to work, going to a neighborhood restaurant without driving a car, window shopping and book buying, not to mention getting my clothes dry cleaned and my shoes fixed, although there are a lot fewer cobblers around than there were 10 years ago.
It is therefore a bit alarming to begin seeing the decay of one of our more popular destination points, as the Office of Tourism would say: Harvard Square. Oh, the university is still here and quite a few restaurants, but Harvard Square is in deep trouble, and I’m concerned people aren’t paying attention, happy in their denial that Harvard University will deal with it. I thought the beginning of the decline was when the Tasty closed. Geez, I remember all those hearings at City Hall and still the place went kaput, only to be replaced by part of the block housing Finagle-a-Bagel. A bagel does not a hot dog make, and the existence of a high-end jewelry store doesn’t really help. Don’t get me started on the emergence of Four-Bank Corner; you can earn interest now but you can’t buy groceries — Sage’s is long gone, replaced as it was by a purveyor of cell phones that has since closed its doors.
It was bad enough that Wordsworth and HMV closed and nothing has replaced them, and more recently that Moto Photo in the Garage has become an empty storefront. But recently I heard there is a chance Casablanca may go and the Brattle Theatre isn’t long for life. These are major calamities that can’t be left to the university or the business community to fix. I appreciate that the city has spent a lot of time and money fixing up other areas of the city with resources for storefronts and traffic projects, but funky Harvard square has become the center for the banking industry as four, count them, four bank branches dominate the heart of Harvard square, including one that talks to you as you pass by. Hasn’t anyone called the License Commission to complain about the noise level of a talking automated teller beckoning depositors like a New Orleans French Quarter barker?
Okay, enough about the banks. But the charm of Harvard Square is going fast, and part of the reason is because rental rates are astronomical and don’t seem to be adjusting to any significant degree to the new reality of the square. A robust shopping area need shops, not just chain stores whose corporate headquarters can manage the upfront costs of the $90 per-square-foot rents sought for some of these storefronts. What made Cambridge funky — and is making Davis Square funky — are the small entrepreneurs who have an idea and burning desire to work a gabillion hours a week to bring their specially designed whatevers to the public.
Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing inherently objectionable about chain stores. I frequent them, but I really like to take my business when I can to local places such as Skenderian Apothecary (which is not in the square, but close enough to be an example) or Leo’s Place, where you can sit at the counter and watch them make your salad and be greeted with a “Hello, where have you been?”
Quite frankly, when I served on the City Council, I didn’t worry much about Harvard Square, mostly because I thought it would take care of itself and because there were larger problems with Central Square and East Cambridge and myriad other development issues across the city. But for my attendance at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, I probably wouldn’t have ventured to Harvard Square much and certainly didn’t, given that I lived in North Cambridge (where you could get your car fixed but not buy a book) and worked in East Cambridge (where you had easy access to the courts but couldn’t find a cappuccino within a block of them) and Central Square (where the business owners were constantly complaining to City Hall for improvements).
Unfortunately, the small-business owners in Harvard Square are not marching down to City Hall and don’t have a favorite councilor who will scream and shout about conditions like Ken Reeves did with Central Square. Nevertheless, it is time to pay attention, not simply because it is Harvard Square and the quintessential focal point of many visiting students; it is because Harvard Square is a quintessential focal point of the soul of this city, stemming in part from its role as one of the education capitals of the world. The vibrancy of the square is what informs the memories of so many people and keeps them coming back — to mingle, to drink, to spend money, to fall in love and to make their way to the river for one last walk along the Charles.
I’ve often thought Cambridge is as much a state of mind as well as a unique place. And consequently, all of our squares — comprising disparate businesses, universities and colleges, nonprofits, homes and the people who inhabit them — contribute to its soul and keep it alive. When core parts go, the rest will suffer.
Katherine Triantafillou is a family law attorney, international democracy consultant and former city councilor whose office is in Harvard Square.