Tuesday, July 16, 2024


A well-used workstation at the 24-hour FedEx Office Print & Ship Center in Harvard Square. (Photo: Nick Sherman)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about work habits.


Americans have always been pretty mobile, and I suspect that more so than ever we get to choose where we want to be. I choose to be in Cambridge in part because it’s a rush to be in the middle of where the future is being made. It’s the birthplace of the Zipcar and the cradle of a thousand pills and medical treatments, and significant numbers of our coming politicians, business leaders, engineers and designers are swabbing away at their acne in the dorms of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And it’s a good bet few of these people are preparing to change the world by clocking in at 9 and out at 5 to head off for a night of television.

This is why Tim Rowe, of the Cambridge Innovation Center business incubator, has been driving so doggedly toward a Venture Cafe “open early ’til very late, that is specifically designed to get members of the innovation and entrepreneurship communities collaborating” in Kendall Square, the intensely pounding square-mile heart of the city’s technological innovation.

It’s why the architect behind what is probably Cambridge’s most controversial (and most beautiful) house is touting a “reinvention of traditional worker housing for the new ‘creative class,’” that encapsulates every absurdly true Cambridge cliche in a single reworking of the classic triple-decker building on Bellis Circle:

“If a community is to survive and thrive it must draw in a creative and educated class of worker. An architect was one of the first occupants. Two computer programmers were attracted from the Portland, Ore., area. A director of a ‘sustainable building investment’ firm, along with his wife, kids and big black dog now live here.”

It’s why Chestnut Hill Realty tried to sell its basement-apartments concept as “worker housing,” raising faint echoes of city councillor Leland Cheung talking about dormlike accommodations for younger scientists and entrepreneurs, and why the talk of councillors shaping Central and Kendall squares for the next decades also somehow includes talk about how to raise the population of Cambridge. Not just back to the 1950 high of 120,740, but beyond — a hike of more than 15 percent of the current population, which is already up 4 percent from a decade ago.

The move is to get more and more housing, for seniors and families, yes, and for lower-end workers as well — in the context of keeping the innovators at work for those high salaries of theirs. (Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But that’s the reality as presented by the city’s consultant on redevelopment, Goody Clancy.) That implicitly puts the scientists and policy wonks at the nexus of what matters to the city, tumbling into bed in tall towers only blocks from where they work long hours broken up by 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. meetings at the Venture Cafe.

It’s a sign of the intensity with which Cambridge sees work as a mission that the idea of running the T later in the night was raised recently without a scoff or a snicker. Cambridge has no control whatsoever over the region’s public transit, which is still run by rules devised by the Pilgrims shortly after setting foot on Plymouth Rock, and thus stops running at about 12:45 a.m. (Before the bars close!)

Work, work, work

I support all of this drive toward a 24/7 Cambridge. I’ve made my share of 2 a.m. runs to Kinkos and choose to live within stumbling distance of the city’s only accumulation of 24-hour grocery store, pharmacy and eatery — and, until recently, 24-hour doughnut shop — and tend to stay at Diesel working among other coffee shop squatters until they kick me out at 11 p.m. Occupancy trails off toward the end, but walk in at the right time and the place looks like a modern office where the cubicles have been torn down in favor of “creative workspaces” and a significant portion of the light comes from Apple logos gleaming from laptop screens.

On many days I do eight hours at the day job, switch to my own work (such as attending municipal meetings), log in remotely for another couple hours to ensure everything is set for the day job by the time anyone will care, log off and return to my own work again, then start it all over the next day. Both sets of work carry over into the weekends.

And that would seem strange if not for the knowledge that it’s pretty much what’s going on in the college dorms, the coffee shops, the startup offices and the labs and lofts and libraries everywhere throughout the city.

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Cambridge is the city that sleeps only because the coffee shops kick us out, the Venture Cafe isn’t yet open and the T stops running.

And it’s where I choose to be.