Thursday, May 23, 2024

In lieu of roller coasters, tourists in Cambridge’s Harvard Yard touch the foot of a John Harvard statue for good luck. (Photo: Tim Sackton)

Cambridge doesn’t have amusement parks, of course, and there is none nearby. (There are rumors of a Six Flags in Western Massachusetts, and there’s always Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., which is mentioned so often but visited so little that it feels like mild eye damage — like something you keep sensing at the edge of your peripheral vision no matter how much you turn to look at it. The difference is that Canobie Lake Park is “Just for fun,” while eye damage has no slogan.) Our tourism experts tell us, though, that 2 million people a year visit Cambridge.

What the hell for?

Don’t get me wrong: I love this city, so much so that I can’t bring myself to save money by living all of several meters away over the line in Somerville. But I’ve always considered Cambridge a great place to live and a slightly weird place to visit. Sensible to stop in if you’re dropping your kid off at Harvard, of course, or watching some other hypothetical kid graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While in town for those purposes, or having been flown up to interview for a job at one of our biotech companies, Google or Microsoft, of course you can walk those rustic brick sidewalks, do some shopping, check out an old church, walk through Harvard Yard and sample some really great food. Especially if you’re contemplating a move here, a night at one of the city’s nightclubs would be rad.

Tourist mecca? Nerd nirvana

But somehow this doesn’t add up to a tourist mecca for me, and a read through the city’s most urgent attempts at seduction on its tourism office website doesn’t add anything truly compelling. (Or anything that wouldn’t be compelling to the big nerds for which this is already nirvana, bless them.)

Introduction to Central Square: “Located equidistant between the academic powerhouses of Harvard and MIT, Central Square is the seat of city government.” Hmm.

Inman Square: “Listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its many architecturally significant buildings, this square is also home to countless restaurants offering cuisine of unparalleled excellence and diversity.” Countless?

The Porter Square entry is particularly notable: “Offering a multitude of one-of-a-kind antique shops, boutiques and sidewalk cafes, Porter Square also boasts the region’s largest concentration of Japanese eateries and shops including a popular bookstore. The late Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, called this neighborhood home and his many good deeds proved that ‘all politics is local.’”

And it’s notable because tourism based on a long-dead speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives seems shaky at best and because Porter Square is not readily recognizable from this description. Saying there are antique shops in Porter is stretching the definition of “square” — into a radically elongated rectangle, at the very least — and our sidewalk cafe numbers are few and scattered enough that you can’t exactly say Porter is defined by its sidewalk cafe culture. And the Japanese bookstore? Gone. Since the summer of 2004.

Price of admission

To me, Cambridge really is one big amusement park, and I’m happy to keep paying the high price of admission (in the form of rent) to wander from ride to ride (admittedly escalators, mass transit and Zipcars) to The Middle East Upstairs for a show or Toscanini’s for ice cream. But it’s an amusement park I can’t imagine coming to if I didn’t already have the season pass, certainly not from across the country or even from the next state, just for the heck of it.

Which makes me wonder about our tourism office. Does Cambridge need it? (Or is it just a website last updated in early 2004?) Does Cambridge deserve it, when there’s an ad on the site for the World Flower Show coming this month — to Boston?

Cambridge does have its own flower show, of sorts. The “Boston Marriott Cambridge,” a name as irritating to me as “Manchester Boston Regional Airport” or the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,” has a special travel package for people who want to relax there “after spending the day at the Harvard Museum of Natural History viewing the Glass Flowers Exhibit.” In addition to tickets to peer at the 847 life-size glass flowers, you come away with a souvenir book about these antique marvels. This is undoubtedly well worth it for anyone who can stand to see still more glass flowers after traveling to Cambridge to stay in a $169-$419 hotel room to look at 847 of the things in real life, but I can assure you the experience palls for most after the first 423 glass flowers.

Welcome, nerds!