Monday, May 27, 2024

Area IV — home of David Fichter’s “Area 4 Story” mural at Hampshire Street and Broadway and the Squirrel Brand Community Garden — was the partial focus of a Thursday candidates forum. (Photo: Wally Gobetz, top; Elisha Marshall, bottom)

In a biblical moment, a clap of thunder roused the audience of 45 just as City Council challenger Larry Ward grappled with a question about the future of the city manager and Cambridge’s recently settled $11 million Malvina Monteiro lawsuit. Less dramatic but telling were exchanges between veteran councillor Ken Reeves and upstart James Williamson at the Area IV forum Thursday in the Pisani Center.

Area IV, identified as being roughly between Central Square, Inman Square and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has the most blacks and fewest whites of any part of the city, and as a result the night’s debate included more focus on race than other forums of this election season leading up to Nov. 8 voting. It followed on a forum Tuesday that looked mainly at issues of affordable housing and economic security.

The forum, which included 14 of the 18 council candidates, also brought a bit of news: Reeves said he had filed an order to take the undeveloped 10,000-square-foot parcel at 161 Harvard St. by eminent domain, saying the neighborhood group overseeing the land since 1998, and failing to do anything with it, “stole the future of the kids from Area IV.”

With snow falling, the answers to tough questions about development and economic fairness delivered by attorney Dennis Benzan were marked by exchanges between Reeves and Williamson referring to race.

In discussing the Cambridge Main Library, Reeves said, “That’s not something the white people figured out” and pointed to himself in taking some credit for “the most beautiful building in Boston in 10 years.” But Williamson responded: “My feelings were hurt when I heard councillor Reeves say white people had nothing to do with the library” and, in remarking on the realities of race and class, hoped that others seeing him “as white doesn’t disqualify me as a candidate.”

Referring to Williamson, Reeves said his earlier comments were mischaracterized and explained in more detail his role in the 16-month process aiming to reshape Central Square.

When it was his turn, Williamson provided the history of the Central Square controversy involving Emily Rose, a 60-year-old dress shop that shut down in the mid-2000s, replaced by high-priced apartments. He said he wanted to see affordable housing as well as locally owned neighborhood businesses there, but “we didn’t get any of that. So ask, ‘Who were the people on the City Council at the time?’ … If they didn’t make it happen then, how likely are they to make it happen now?”

Further, he said “there is a big, glaring gap in that commission. There is no way the residents of Central Square have been integrated into this process.” Despite the wealth of creativity among city residents, he said later in a more general comment, “people are systematically excluded.” He gave as an example when a teacher of negotiation at MIT had approached the city offered his services after the Emily Rose issue, and he was told they weren’t interested.

Reeves’ last words for Williamson: “There are people in this community who shoot at everything and never produce anything of value.”

To that, the challenger recalled marching with the Black Panthers, and he sang one of their chants, “Take from the greedy, give it to the needy.” He said that spirit has been revived in Occupy Wall Street, protests that he said are aimed at being productive. “I’m sorry the evening has disintegrated into personal attacks,” he said.

With food from Merengue, a Dominican restaurant in Roxbury, spicing palates, all candidates responded to three questions and selected hopefuls answered five. Here are some of them:

What kind of economic development should Central Square have?

For councillor Leland Cheung, improving Central Square means having a reason to go, wanting to go and going there safely, but councillor Henrietta Davis found there was already “Lots of excitement there … and we need more.” That includes more housing and the development of shops on side streets; a winter farmers market already on the way; and recognizing the area’s art.

Councillor Marjorie Decker, who grew up in the area, called the square the “heart of the city.” She urged more family-oriented stores.

Challenger Minka vanBeuzekom, who lives in the square, noted she loves the period lampposts and asked, “Where do I buy my knickers?”

Tim Toomey said he thought the square had been redesigned at least four times while has been on the council. He drew a laugh when he said he’d most like to see a return of Fannie Farmer.

“My grandmother worked at Fannie Farmer,” challenger Gary Mello said, but injected a serious note in looking at the area’s emphasis on nightclubs — and Reeves’ recent efforts to ease an aged law requiring clubs to have front doors on Massachusetts Avenue, potentially growing the number of clubs and accompanying liquor licenses — by asking: “Should alcohol be the driver” of this effort?

Councillor Sam Seidel called for more mixed housing in the square. Challenger Matt Nelson said he saw Inman Square, with its ground-floor shops with housing above, as a likely model for Central.

Councillor Denise Simmons pointed to Buy Cambridge, an initiative she spearheaded.

Challenger Charles Marquardt, noting he had attended a MassInc forum on transportation, emphasized that boosting Central Square means getting the red line to operate properly. (Challenger Tom Stohlman pointed out the need to extend the MBTA green line, which he said could relieve Central Square traffic, and Ward had a busing suggestion: “Put a bus stop between MIT and Walgreens.”)

Reeves announced a report about proposed changes to Central Square will be made public Nov. 14.

How will you hold developers accountable for job training, the impact of projects and retaining some open space?

Deals with developers should yield more internships and affordable housing, Nelson said, and Ward picked up the theme of internships by suggesting an extension of the mayor’s program to get internships from large companies could boost employment numbers. “Thousands need jobs,” he said to applause.

Marquardt said the School Committee should be as responsible for increasing internships as the council, and Davis also focused on education. “Say to companies, ‘You have to be our partners,’” she said.

Decker noted an early childhood initiative on which she works and suggested “an annual fund into which companies pay,” while vanBeuzekom went in an even more practical direction, suggesting agreements to open company garages and parking lots after winter storms to expand parking for the neighborhoods.

But vanBeuzekom also saw partnership and education opportunities, saying “We are not a mining town … or a fishing town. We are a high-tech town. We need to instill in our kids a desire to work in high tech” — the kind of partnership Nelson has proposed repeatedly and that Toomey noted was in place with Akamai, a partner with the Boys & Girls Club that supports a program in robotics for young people.

“Every time a company comes before us, we have to reconnect,” Seidel said, adding that Cambridge Works is a program that has shown results.

Before you can have such program, projects have to get built, though, and that with development comes rats. The pests generated several ideas from council candidates. Ward wanted the city to invest in trash cans with uniform, rodent-proof lids. Cheung mentioned composting as a possible way to address rats, but Mello balked.

“You can’t have compost piles in the city,” he said, referring to them as 24-hour meals for rats. He urged council to get deals with companies before they break ground.

In view of Cambridge’s diversity, how can councillors help close the gap between haves and have-nots?

Speakers had trouble with this broad, difficult issue, which reflects a declining middle class. Many called for jobs, training and education, but Decker’s response took a different tack. While growing up in public housing, she said, “I never thought I had nothing.”

Stohlman agreed with her. “It’s not always about money,” she said.

Five questions from the audience questions were directed to three candidates each:

What is the process for hiring a new city manager? Will there be hearings?

Simmons, who had served on the School Committee, said the process would be similar to hiring a superintendent and include community involvement and a national search firm. Decker agreed there would be a community process with focus groups, but could not predict when the process would come. Healy’s contract expires Sept. 30, but the city and Healy are to indicate months earlier if a renewal is wanted, then begin negotiations.

Cheung said Healy has done “good stuff,” but, like anyone has “blind spots.” The time for someone new could be coming, he said, reminding the crowd that it was his legislation that will get the city manager’s proposed contract posted before the council votes on it.

In view of city manager retaliation in a number of court cases, will you review these issues?

As Ward tried to express an answer, thunder cracked, and a gasp and laughs went up from the audience. “I would not penalize anyone based on one case,” he said, apparently grouping the five original complaints and three settlements into one. The three years-old lawsuits charged the city with discrimination based on race and sex, then retaliation for the complaints, with one plaintiff getting $8.3 million in September and two cases settled out of court Oct. 13.

“I like to play in thunderstorms,” Stohlman said, adding, “I will not vote to automatically renew the city manager’s contract in March 2012.”

Mello said he is on record opposing renewal.

Why not return the empty lot at 131 Harvard St. given to a private group to open space?

Williamson cited the case of Neighbors for a Better Community, in which $1.6 million and plans for land development seem to have gone astray and used for individual enrichment, as an “example of the way deal are made” in Cambridge.

“The city can do more,” agreed Marquardt, suggesting suing or taking the land back by eminent domain.

It was then Reeves announced he’d filed an order to do just that.

Among the closing statements, Mello said there could be $250,000 in campaign contributions “floating around,” urging voters to follow the money.

Williamson referred to the evening as “an occasional slugfest.” Decker rolled eyes and looked at Reeves.

“Bring 10 friends to the polls,” Marquardt said, urging larger turnout Nov. 8. “I know you have 10 friends.” His joke drew some laughter.

The hosts for the evening were the Area IV Coalition, Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, Area IV for Peace, Port Action Group, and the Washington Elms/Newtowne Court Tenants Council.

Absent were Mayor David Maher, Councillor Craig Kelley and challengers Gregg Moree and Jamake Pascual.

Marc Levy contributed to this report.