The Port neighborhood’s sense of community began in the Caribbean, before The Port existed
One thing you need to know about The Port is that the neighborhood has historically had a strong community.
“The Port’s greatest strength has always been in the ability of its families and institutions to work together to nurture their children and help them become good citizens, caring neighbors and successful in their chosen careers,” Sarah Boyer, former oral historian for the City of Cambridge, said in her “We Are the Port.”
To understand why The Port has this reputation, we need to talk about why immigrants began coming to this neighborhood from the Caribbean. And to understand this history, we need to talk about Brattle Street in West Cambridge. Many of the Loyalists – people loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution – on Brattle Street made their fortunes from family-owned plantations, often worked by enslaved people, in the Caribbean.
Established trade routes are a big reason Caribbean immigrants came to The Port; those well-established routes between the Caribbean, New York, Boston and Nova Scotia later became migratory routes.
But why did people leave their homes in the Caribbean? The simple answer: economics. The Caribbean economy was based mostly on the sugar industry, and between 1840 and 1900 sugar prices plummeted as cane sugar from Brazil and Cuba flooded the market and beet sugar from Europe combined to drive prices down. On the islands where the sugar industry survived, it was only because of the oppressiveness of colonial rule, which affected the working and middle classes. Limited upward mobility, fewer chances for a good education and plummeting sugar prices drove many Caribbean people to choose immigration as an option.
But how does all of this explain why The Port has historically had such a strong community? Caribbean immigrants knew just how important community was to economic and social mobility, especially for future generations. They knew the church was important, not only for religious and spiritual purposes, but for networking and community service. Work and education were very important to the Caribbean community as well. And the fact that many people could work in the same neighborhood in which they lived allowed them to emphasize the importance of education to their children. It gave them the flexibility to make sure their kids got to school on time.
You can see these important institutions from the past, present and future in the neighborhood today – they’ve inspired a self-guided walking tour that takes you to places of worship, education, outreach and community engagement, and places of work.
Take your own walking tour of The Port with this resource from the Cambridge Historical Society website.
About the Cambridge Historical Society
We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.
Marian Darlington-Hope and Joe Galusha are authors of ”Caribbean Community in The Port,“ a self-guided walking tour prepared for the Cambridge Historical Society.