Friday, May 24, 2024

A contributed reflection on Cambridge during Covid-19, presented by the Cambridge Historical Society via Instagram. (Photo: Adnan Onart)

Our thoughts and experiences about the pandemic are populating our beloved places in Cambridge, even if we can’t.

As the historical society for Cambridge, it is our mission to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. In “normal” times, the society provides public programs that bring together members of the community to discuss an issue Cambridge faces today. We regularly showcase the voices of local nonprofits, civic leaders and professional and amateur historians to find wisdom in the past that we can apply to today. We pride ourselves on the atmosphere we create in a room when people from across the city are brought together in one place. How do we do that in this time of social distancing? How can we continue to create understanding through history?

When the Covid-19 pandemic reached Cambridge in March, we knew we had to stop what we were doing and find out what Cambridge needed now in this time of community upheaval. It was clear that this would become a momentous time in our history that we would need to document for future generations. To that end, we started to collect stories from all across our city about how our lives have been changed by the virus. (If you haven’t yet added your story, please consider doing so here when you are ready.)

Responses have been poetic, thoughtful, hopeful and so much more. You can view some of them here.

It isn’t enough, however, to only document this history unfolding. Cambridge has a robust cultural and civic life, nourished by the many opportunities for residents to gather at events and to mix with each other in our dense, walkable neighborhoods. With ordinary civic life now unavailable, we are exploring ways to nurture and strengthen the social fabric of our city so that, in accordance with our mission, we can help shape a better future for Cambridge. We believe that engagement also needs to take physical forms, to reach those with limited digital access and to remind us that we still share the physical space of the city.

To that end, in April we launched our Storefront Project to help Cantabrigians hear each other, despite confinement. Businesses across the city are collaborating with us by putting up posters in their quiet store windows. This not only puts civic life and social connection back on the streets, but draws attention to these once-vibrant but now shuttered local businesses. We are displaying excerpts from our “Cambridge & Covid-19” collection to unite Cantabrigians in their feelings of grief and loss, and to build empathy in our community. We hope to work with owners to rotate the posters regularly, transforming these spaces into springboards for connection and conversation.

A passerby reads Cambridge Historical Society posters from residents in the window of The Door Store. (Photo: The Door Store)

The small-business organization Cambridge Local First is a partner in the effort to bring the voices of Cambridge residents into these spaces, for explained elegantly by Theodora Skeadas, the group’s executive director: “Locally owned and independent businesses are the lifeblood of Cambridge. They build community, strengthen our local economy, shape our character, create a healthier environment, enhance jobs and opportunities, give back to our community and promote upward economic mobility.”

We know the pressure to return to “normal” is real, but it is clear that normal isn’t coming for a while. We are in this situation of social distancing, uncertainty and disorientation for the long haul. Cantabrigians will be mourning losses, processing the experience and learning from the pandemic for years. We want you to know that your local historical society is committed to collecting your stories, sharing them, and using them to create a better future. Above all, we want you to know we are listening.

Please join us however you can. Read the responses as you walk our streets. Take photos of the signs and tag us on social media. And if you want to display some signs in your home or business, reach out. We’re all in this together, and we want your voice to be heard.

Marieke Van Damme is executive director of the Cambridge Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected].