There’s no suspense to naming the worst thing to happen to Cambridge this year: It’s the coronavirus, just as it is anywhere in the country. Any other contender trails far behind, especially since the coronavirus colored everything that happened this year since mid-March. Indeed, many of the runner-ups are just subsets of, or reactions to, the pandemic that disrupted our lives and culture so thoroughly. That might be obvious as we look at the biggest disappointments and frustrations of 2020, in a subjective list shaped this time around with input from community members. 

Want to see some of the best of Cambridge in 2020? Click here.

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Bukowski Tavern closed after decades on Cambridge Street in Inman Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The coronavirus destroys businesses and other institutions …

When coronavirus landed here – with a huge boost from a Biogen conference Feb. 26-27 that may have led to more than 300,000 infections – many may have thought we were quarantining for a few weeks. Cut to nine months later, with inoculations trickling out and shrinking expectations of a rapid return to normal. In that time, businesses had to shut their doors or at least grapple with far lower capacities, and some of our most treasured but financially borderline bricks-and-mortar businesses haven’t been able to return at all. No surprise that there have been so many permanent closings, including of Abigail’s Restaurant, Harvard Square’s Ann Taylor, The Automatic, the Kendall Square Barismo, Bergamot, Bo Concept, Brit Bakery, Bukowski Tavern, Bull McCabe’s Pub, Cafe Pamplona, The Cantab Lounge, Cuchi Cuchi, David’s Tea, Dickson Bros. True Value hardware, Emack & Bolio’s ice cream in Porter Square, The Field, Flat Top Johnny’s, The Friendly Toast, a GNC, Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, Harding House, a Harvard Square Hempest, a Hertz car rental, Inman Oasis, ImprovBoston’s theatre, Joie De Vivre, the Harvard Square Legal Sea Foods, Lush, Once Somerville, Parsnip, Pavement Coffeehouse, Restaurant Dante, The Squeaky Beaker Cafe, Somerville Brewing, Studio@550, Thunder Road, The Table at Season to Taste, the Wellbridge Athletic Club and Wit’s End. For reader Kristen Wainwright, “the most marked loss is The Mount Auburn Athletic Club, which was the center of numerous new and long-term communities – initially born from athletic classes and games, but deepened and broadened by mutual support and friendship. And all the more painful without ceremony or advance notice.” 

With so many intertwined cultural and restaurant locations bring brought down and the local $175 million arts economy degrading daily, it was maddening to see the fate of arts nonprofits being toyed with. The municipal aid activated March 19 to help “individuals and families [and] artists and others in the arts community” nonsensically excluded the nonprofits, and when they were specifically targeted for help in July, city councillor E. Denise Simmons blocked consideration until September. It was for “a few … questions and concerns” that there was no sign she tried to answer without risking financial ruin for the city’s creative organizations. 

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Masks meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus became impulse items at Target stores in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

… While city staff muddle their response

A pandemic seems like a good time for everyone to pull together and work as one. City staff have responded brilliantly in several ways, yet also spent much of the past several months working against our elected leaders for reasons that seem, at best, obscure. Like all unpredictability, it’s unnerving and confidence-shaking, especially since the city manager’s willful and unreasoned yearslong opposition to studying whether a city-owned broadband network is feasible – finally ended this year by a City Council budget protest – makes every bit of contrariness that follows look suspicious. The city manager went on encouraging such cynicism anyway with bizarre resistance and clumsy attempts at sabotage to everything from producing notes from the city’s Covid-19 Expert Advisory Panel to opening Riverbend Park for socially distanced exercise. Whether councillors were calling for shared streets or mask rules based on science, city staff went their own way while giving bland assurances of cooperation that smack of delay tactics. The council as a whole hardly covered itself in glory in holding staff accountable, neither seeming very alarmed at the disconnect between the experts’ advice and official actions, nor at a welter of arbitrary rules that undermined faith in government. One of the most astonishing moments came after weeks of resident distress because Covid-19 test slots seemed nearly impossible to secure, when health officials admitted they’d been allowing people to just walk up without an appointment, essentially rewarding people for not following the city’s own system.

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City Manager Louis A. DePasquale. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

City councillors botch the city manager contract renewal

The most powerful position in city government and highest-paid municipal official in the state, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, got a contract renewal and raise with no evaluation and little discussion in September – for no particular reason. That is, under the terms of DePasquale’s expiring contract, the council had only to advise him they wanted to renew and discuss terms at leisure. It’s the process councillors confirmed at a committee meeting. Yet Simmons went in and negotiated the entire extension, then introduced it to the council with claims of urgency at the end of an eight-plus hour meeting, saying that if the council paid attention to the terms of the city manager’s own contract, “I don’t think he’ll accept it. I think we’ll lose him.” When councillor Patty Nolan later filed reconsideration on the foggy vote, it was rejected 6-3 even though the council held an hourlong debate on the details anyway. It was the council at its most bumbling, reminiscent of the giveaway of the Kendall Square rooftop garden in 2012, acting in haste after the suggestion Google would leave unless it got the space. Hmm, a pattern emerges.

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The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Middle East is put up for sale

As a restaurant, nightclub and neighbor, The Middle East has been part of the fabric of Cambridge for more than five decades, and it was painful to hear in January that the complex’s collective 23,388 square feet was for sale, especially marketed for use as a high-rise lab building. It was all the more worrying amid the city’s overall arts crisis and with a deal to save Green Street Studios collapsing just days earlier; the coronavirus lockdown arrived soon afterward, with news that the nearby Cantab Lounge was itself unlikely to see another performance. The Sater family declared that not only would its Middle East remain running and open as usual during the sale process, but that the business “is here to stay and will be a part of any development at 472-480 Mass Ave.” – begging the questions of how, and why. The legendary clubs, which have seen and played a role in so much rock history, would be forced to close for a lengthy period of construction and rebuilding; facing a low-key boycott since sexual misconduct allegations in mid-2018 that some say went inadequately addressed, it’s legitimate to wonder if the family has the incentive or the will.

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A portion of the city charter addresses the City Council’s right on matters of personnel.

The city’s Law Department makes the argument against itself

If it’s true the city solicitor and her department serve the City Council on an equal basis with the rest of the municipal government, the work of the past year was a strange way to show it. In May, solicitor Nancy Glowa told councillors they weren’t allowed to know anything about an errant police officer’s discipline, even behind closed doors, despite a plain-English reading of the city’s charter. In September, her department produced Covid-19 Expert Advisory Panel notes councillors had been requesting for months – not because councillors asked, but in response to a citizen’s public records request. In the first case, the council was lumped in with the public in the citation of laws against “public disclosure” of police discipline; in the second, the council was demoted in importance to lower than the public. While the Law Department has set itself priorities such as attacking small businesses with fake laws or helping the city’s police commissioner weaken the First Amendment, it failed to find the time to follow four council orders dating back to Feb. 26, 2016, to draft a real estate transfer fee home rule petition; that arguably will cost the the city as much as $68 million that would have gone to build or maintain affordable housing. The department often acts without clear regard for council wishes, and when it does respond to them, describes actions as impossible despite the evidence of other communities forging ahead. That suggests the department wants to be less like legal counsel and more like the judge that decides the winner of a case. (“I think we all on the council have been at the point where the solicitor weighs in on something and it’s not an answer that makes a lot of sense,” councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said Sept 14.) During a kerfuffle over the city manager’s prematurely approved contract, Glowa told councillors that as their attorney, she could have advised them it was the sole circumstance in which they could and should have hired their own independent counsel. Why didn’t she? “I was never told that the council wished to,” she said, sounding exactly like the kind of legal adviser it’s most dangerous and worthless to have on your side.


This post was updated Jan. 4, 2021, to ensure the accuracy of the list of businesses closed as a result of the pandemic.

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