Friday, July 19, 2024

The Cambridge Main Library, aglow at night, was paid for by the city’s wealth and provides free entertainment for the city’s poor. (Photo: EandJsFilmCrew)

Starting Monday, Cambridge Day became part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. This is the first entry, in which I answer how the Great Recession has affected me and Cambridge as a whole. A summary of my answer: Hard to tell.

Cambridge is a wealthy community with a liberal bias, and it spends a fair amount of money on services for the poor — housing and heat, and so on — while the middle class complains about being squeezed out. (The city took some jabs in 2006 when it declared itself a sanctuary community for undocumented immigrants fearing deportation. “I wasn’t sure where these folks were going to live, given that none of my friends with jobs can afford to live in Cambridge anymore,” went a typical reaction, this one from Harvard blogger Philip Greenspun.) So the Great Recession hasn’t had any really obvious effect here. The rich are still rich and the poor are still poor, and the middle class is still complaining.

The very nature of the city obscures recessionary behavior: It’s more or less grown up around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and Lesley universities, and for each high-profile professor earning possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, there are dozens or hundreds of students living cheaply to afford to learn from them. Add to this the people who make the environmental or political choice to live sustainably and you have effectively obliterated the most obvious signifiers of the newly poor.

Craigslist is huge here, and you can fill an apartment with furniture, cookware and other needs just from what departing residents put out at the curb at the end of semesters or leases. Even when employed, I find some of that stuff tempting. (Although the threat of bedbugs is a good temptation killer.)

You can also go to the CambridgeSide Galleria for clothes, but plenty of people go to Goodwill, whether there’s a recession or not. There’s plenty of cheap entertainment, starting with MIT’s free calendar of events and the fact Cambridge has roughly one library branch per each of its 6.4 square miles of land.

In Harvard Square, you can spend $30 on a lobster at Legal Sea Foods, or $5 on a turnip sandwich – no kidding – at Clover. My favorite coffee shop, Diesel, which is technically over the line in Somerville’s Davis Square, sells a Thai iced tea for $3.01, but also regularly puts out enormous bags of day-old bread or bagels for a penny less. Similarly, whatever bread isn’t used to make gourmet sandwiches is put outside daily on a bench by workers at The Oxford Spa.
I also bypass the Shaw’s and Star supermarkets within five minutes’ walk of my apartment in favor of a 20-minute trudge to the Market Basket in Somerville, and find the aisles crammed. Shopping here is a habit I picked up when I was unemployed, but I stick to it because the higher prices at the bigger chain stores simply anger me. I also have a significant amount of job paranoia that keeps me from switching back (or buying new furniture, for that matter). Others may have made the same choices.

In short, there are two Cambridges, and those affected by the recession simply ignore the Cambridge they can’t afford.