What happened in Cambridge in 2017: High points, low points and otherwise
Most lists of positives and negatives are subjective, and that certainly includes this one looking at some events, trends and developments of the past 12 months. It’s certainly been colored by events outside this densely packed city of 105,162 people and from beyond its high-profile industries, clashing interests and significant class disparities – it’s been tainted by cynicism grown from a sense of increasing nationwide crisis; wishing that Cambridge was immune and above it all; and disappointed to find it is not. We have problems of government, politics, commerce and communication, and we can’t overcome them without looking at them, so there’s more negative than positive on this list. But it should be tempered by our hopes for a better 2018 and by the fact that our better points as a city can be very fine indeed.
Five high points for Cambridge in 2017
Cambridge mades its community values clear, defying the Trump presidential agenda and stepping up for immigrant aid and other issues. From the “State of the City” address held Jan. 2 to a School Committee statement on immigrant “Dreamers” in the fall, it was a year of rhetoric, rallies and policy-making that marked the city as welcoming to all (so long as they can afford to get here and stay). A liaison for immigrant affairs and permanent, funded immigrant issues coordinator became realities over the year – police and school officials acted on immigrant issues as well – and an immigrant legal defense fund was discussed. Cambridge responded too to events nationwide, rallying in support of victims of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., or about economic justice and climate change and respect for science as a whole, and raising money and gathering supplies to send to hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico. Another way the city put its riches to good use: the creation of a short-term housing aid fund for people facing a sudden money crunch that might leave them homeless. The best emblem for the city seen in 2017, though, was Isaiah Robinson, the teen who ran into his burning home during the devastating Wellington-Harrington fire late the previous year and alerted his family and neighbors to the danger. He got the key to the city at an emotional January ceremony and inspired people anew.
The city made progress on long-standing issues. This was the year the city adopted a 20 percent inclusionary housing law, raising the required affordable housing contribution from large developers after letting the figure stay stagnant and subject to manipulation since 1998. (It had been at an effective 11.5 percent.) The Foundry building in East Cambridge got a real, $30 million plan to be overseen by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, and all it took was starting over again completely after the failure of an earlier approach. And Central Square finally got zoning sought by its residents and businesses after seeing previous proposals disappear without action.
The school district made progress on long-standing issues. Considering the stubbornness of issues such as the achievement gap seen in standardized testing, it was good to see what the School Committee and Cambridge Public Schools addressed in the past year. The high school introduced Level Up to undo “tracking” of students, approved a student-inspired “action plan” to address sexual harassment and assault and acknowledged and vowed to correct weak support for some girls’ sports. Even the long-delayed, problematic promise of world language took a step forward, and an educators contract that includes an examination of the length of the school day and school year is cause for cautious optimism. A property tax increase and municipal aid in the form of a budget bump helped make the progress possible.
A couple of business decisions went in good directions. While rent increases and continuing construction loom as threats to businesses relying on foot traffic, there was good news in Harvard Square: The theater on Church Street, empty since 2012, saw a proposal from billionaire Harvard alum Gerald Chan to be redeveloped into a mixed-use building with two lower-level movie screens, street retail and five stories of office space. And The World’s Only Curious George Store reached an updated lease agreement allowing it to remain in or around its iconic location at JFK and Brattle streets despite Regency Centers construction.
The green line will go through after all. A low bid for completing the MBTA green line extension project approved in November means not just that the once-stalled project can go forward, but that its seven light-rail stations won’t be as bare-bones as feared, all great news for users of the soon-to-be-relocated Lechmere stop, its spur to Union Square and continuation elsewhere into Somerville and Medford. Cambridge had committed to paying $25 million – half coming from developers in the NorthPoint neighborhood – in an unprecedented move to keep the project alive. Somerville is projected to put in $50 million on its own.
Five low points for Cambridge in 2017
The License Commission reformed recklessly and rejected responsibility. The License Commission has been reforming its rules radically from past, illegal practices on such things as what licenses it issues and how they’re valued – but with little regard for the effects of its reforms and, in classic Cambridge fashion, with no actual admission of wrongdoing or sense of accountability. City staff consciously misled entrepreneurs trying to do business in Cambridge, and the ones who’ve suffered the most, including owners of shuttered businesses such as T.T. the Bear’s Place, River Gods and Emma’s Pizza, were effectively told via legal opinion this year that they’re on their own.
Bike lane rollout went poorly, sparking a “bikelash.” Bike lanes installed on Brattle Street in Harvard Square and on Cambridge Street drew resistance and complaints of lack of proper process, and bicyclists who didn’t obey the rules of the road drew fire as well (perplexing bicyclists when the two issues were conflated, as though misbehaving drivers also condemned the roads care travel on). A group (or two) of residents and business leaders have vowed to take over citywide transportation planning.
Racial equality continued to elude our public schools. Cambridge has good goals on hiring of teachers, but continues to fall short, and class structures can also divide races into hurtful tracks. What’s worse is that teachers of color and students of color in Cambridge Public Schools can still suffer thoughtlessness or outright hostility, even in this liberal bastion in 2017. A video by the revived Black Student Union recounting some of these incidents sparked conversation about race, but also drew controversy about how the message was delivered. The latest member of the School Committee was elected in November on an explicit platform of “creating equity within our city and dismantling the legacy of white supremacy and white privilege within Cambridge.”
The School Committee went on disappointing. In the second year of a two-year term, committee members could have shown up resolved to work better together and get more done, but that wasn’t the case. One member’s concerns about class size was twisted somehow into an insult to an entire program, as an example of dumb political shenanigans that do not serve the voters; and attendance by some members was desultory and subcommittee work was spotty. Renewed high hopes for the 2018-19 term, though.
Many business decisions went in bad directions. Harvard Square and its legacy businesses – Curious George aside – were hit hard in 2017, and Central Square wasn’t far behind. This year saw Cafe Algiers pushed out at Brattle Street after some 45 years to make room for an expansion of the Michael Scelfo empire (his Alden & Harlow is in the same building), and only shortly after generations of Algiers patrons were cheering that the restaurant had been rescued from closing. The Comedy Studio spent 21 years in Harvard Square, but rent increases helped send it all the way to Somerville’s Union Square. Keezer’s clothing lasted a full 122 years in Central Square before Gerald Chan bought its building, prompting a liquidation and the retirement of owner Leonard E. Goldstein. The Out of the Blue Art Gallery couldn’t pay its rising Central Square rents either, and had to leave a Massachusetts Avenue location to look for space potentially as far out as Malden. Especially dispiriting was the arrival of yet another bank to Harvard Square; especially terrible was the outright extortion by a property owners’ representative that if prime real estate at Brattle and Massachusetts Avenue couldn’t host his chosen pizza shop, it too would become a bank.
Some honorable mentions
Political endorsements by Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution group were criticized by letter writers who misrepresented how Our Revolution operates and presented a list of six other candidates that might have been considered … though three hadn’t even sought the group’s endorsement.
Harvard proved its critics right by uninviting Chelsea Manning and reformed felon and potential grad student Michelle Jones, while keeping its doors open for Trump toadies Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology shut down its century-old Senior House residence hall, a nurturing place for non-traditional students, based on dodgy data and specious arguments, retaliating against students who protested its earlier, slightly less worse plans.
Branville G. Bard Jr. was appointed Cambridge’s police commissioner in an unusually secretive process that ended with him as sole finalist giving a written speech and prepared answers to a few canned questions at a “forum” that didn’t deserve the title. It suggested that Cambridge’s big hires continue to be handled less than transparently, which will inevitably backfire if not corrected.
Corporate espionage, albeit incredibly clumsy corporate espionage, arrived in Cambridge in a suspicious Airbnb “citizens” petition signed by around 30 people but unsupported by any upon presentation – and opposed by even Airbnb users and operators.
Frustration was so high over the failure to write and enforce coherent outdoor-lighting laws that a city councillor suggested returning to the version written by a resident in 2013. Invasive light issues have been before the council and city planners for at least a decade.