Why this pit kid is not going to ‘Pit-A-Palooza’
I am quite upset as I write this. Certain episodes in one’s life have a great power over one’s emotions even after the passage of decades. And dredging up painful old memories is never fun.
In this case, said memories involve my months as a homeless and quasi-homeless “pit kid” in the Harvard Square of the summer and fall of 1987 at ages 20 and 21 – a time that was all the more crazy for me because I was living a double life as a left-wing political activist, working on an ultimately failed attempt to restart the Students for a Democratic Society organization (1960-1974) with many kids from rich families who had no idea where I was going at night after our meetings or rallies were over. They knew just that I had been expelled from Boston University for my role in the campus anti-apartheid movement the previous year and had just beat a federal rap in the “Northampton 15” trial in the spring after being arrested for protesting CIA recruitment at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That made relations with my hardworking middle-class family in the Boston ’burbs rocky, to say the least.
I resonated with Cambridge as early as 1980 because it was cool. Every teenager in the Boston area who did not want their lives to be the usual round of “Work Rest Play Die,” as the song by the U.K. anarchist hardcore band Subhumans put it, made their way to the “pit” area of the square – a multilevel brick-and-stone assemblage just outside the main entrance to the Harvard Square T … better suited to a suburban mall in the 1970s when it had first presumably been on some architect’s drawing board. Yet it was what it was. Ugly and uncomfortable or not, every artistic and political subculture of the period was represented there. Kids from every race, ethnic, gender and class background passed through. And many hung out in The Pit for periods ranging from a few days to a few years.
Cambridge was cool because cool people could afford to live in Cambridge in the era of rent control, cool people being the ones who typically play a key role in creating new and interesting culture – enlivening and improving what would otherwise be a mundane existence for humankind as they go.
Many of those simultaneously charming and difficult creatives, not at all coincidentally, hail from working- and middle-class backgrounds. That makes them exactly the kind of people who have been driven from Cambridge by the actions of some of the organizers of a “Pit-A-Palooza” event this weekend honoring the people they call “Pit Rats” (an appellation I don’t recall anyone I knew in The Pit in my day ever using; my friends and I called ourselves pit kids) and even going so far as to get the City of Cambridge to declare June 25 “Pit Rat Day.”
Notably, Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson and city councillor (and former mayor) Marc McGovern. Both have been involved not just in current plans to physically destroy The Pit by turning it into a plaza – a move I can actually understand, if not entirely sympathize with, on accessibility grounds alone – but in quite literally destroying the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg of culture in Harvard Square between at least the 1960s and 1980s, depending on how one slices it. It turned Cambridge into a place I have taken to calling “a simulacrum of a city,” a locale with no more uniqueness and spirit than Disney World at 2 on a Monday morning.
How? In Jillson’s case, she was one of the main shills working to help the real estate industry destroy rent control in not just Cambridge, where it actually existed and was wildly popular with everyone but landlords and capitalist ideologues, but throughout Massachusetts (in the vast majority of cities and towns where it didn’t exist) by heavily outspending renter advocates in a binding 1994 statewide referendum vote. She continues to inveigh against the reform to this day. In McGovern’s case, I have described him as “an archetypal neoliberal municipal politician,” when writing about his role in ensuring that the former East Cambridge courthouse would be redeveloped into a bog-standard mixed-use commercial monstrosity (with 48 “affordable” apartments, excelsior!) instead of a desperately needed major public housing development in a city with little public land left to build public housing on and nearly zero political will to do so (as thousands sit on Cambridge’s public housing waiting lists). Jillson and McGovern doubtless have many other sins to atone for in the matter of changing Cambridge from a cultural mecca into a soulless playground for the wealthy and sociopathic, but the examples above suffice to make my point of the moment.
Still, I don’t want to over-personalize my long-standing political animus toward Jillson and McGovern or try to say only homeless pit kids were real pit kids. Obviously, they and the other event organizers have some connection to and affection for the place, or they wouldn’t bother doing a memorial event. And clearly, there have been huge numbers of crews over several decades, often overlapping, who can lay claim to being pit kids. Not to forget the growing numbers of older unhoused people who have lived rough in and around Harvard Square since even before the half-century lifespan of The Pit – first arriving after the deinstitutionalization of Massachusetts public mental hospitals began in the mid-’70s. It’s a policy crisis related to the rise of homelessness in Cambridge that I haven’t seen anyone mention in the announcements, articles, or social media discussions of this weekend’s pit-themed event.
But in the current buzz, I don’t recognize the place that my ever-shifting crew of about a dozen homeless or near-homeless pit kids claimed as our own in the late ’80s. Where most of us worked crappy service jobs in the square yet couldn’t even afford the cheaper rents of the period … while the Reagan administration had already wiped out most public jobs and housing programs that might have helped us. Where art was literally in the streets. Where we could have deep conversations about any conceivable topic for hours at any time of day or night. Where there was always some interesting show or reading or party or happening going on nearby that we could attend or crash. Where the owner of the now-shuttered Algiers Coffee House, Emile Durzi, and his staff would let us linger over tea when it was cold or raining out and give us baskets of pita bread for free, sometimes not even charging us for the drinks. Where I shouted “JUMP!” from my perch in front of Out of Town News to passing despondent businesspeople as they got off the T after the market crashed one fine day. Where we had an organized theft ring and stole our bosses blind for stuff to exchange for stuff we needed from each other. Where we slept in the Common when it was nice – and the cops didn’t roust us – and anywhere we could (except the shelters that started popping up in that period) when it was not. Crashing at friends’ places until their roommates threw us out, if we were lucky. Where needle drugs were just starting to come back after being less prevalent in the square for a time. Where we got our medical treatment at the Bridge Over Troubled Waters medical van (donate to BOTW here). Where AIDS was an omnipresent threat for a bunch of hormone-driven young people and an automatic death sentence for those who got it.
Life on the streets had its great moments for my friends and I, but mostly it was hard, and those of us who could manage to do so got away from it as fast as possible. By December 1987 I had found the first in a short series of very cheap and crappy rooms (in Watertown and Boston) that kept me indoors until I split the Pit scene and Cambridge in June 1988 for another series of cheap places in Vermont for a couple of years. When I returned to the area in 1990, fully burying the hatchet with my long-suffering parents in the process, the pit kids I had known were mostly gone. And I had lost any interest in hanging out there.
For all that, I have a soft spot for The Pit and its many crews and will be sad to see it paved over. But I simply cannot participate in what I consider to be a tone-deaf, ill-conceived celebration of its legacy.
I’m not telling anyone else to avoid the Pit-A-Palooza event, of course. But any former pit kids of any generation sharing my disquiet with the proceedings who would like to organize some alternative commemoration of the place that we all shaped as it shaped us are welcome to contact me at [email protected]. It would be nice to see folks who had some version of my experience on the streets of Harvard Square. And search for lost time together.
A version of this story appeared originally on DigBoston.
Jason Pramas is executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
It really is outrageous that someone like Denise Jillson can be one of the key architects of modern-day homelessness in Mass and then get a second act as a “civic leader”. Check out this academic article (free to download) for a lot of detail on what went down– it’s gross! https://scholarworks.umb.edu/nejpp/vol12/iss1/6/
This feels muddled. I get Pramas’ disinterest in a disney-ized celebration of the Pit, but is he suggesting that things were better in his earlier days, even then filled with political unrest, homelessness, housing affordability, drug problems, and public policy and personal health issues? Sound familiar? Has he noticed that plenty of young and not-so-young Cantabrigians today have at least equal claim to disillusion and loss and family and community stress as he did in the day?
I share his likely feeling that Cambridge–like many other places–has been selling itself to the highest bidder. But he should know that Cambridge actually does a really good job of building public and affordable housing units, especially compared to surrounding communities. Is it enough? No. Should we be asking more of eager developers in exchange for building here? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The two individuals he cites may have had a hand in changing Cambridge from something he yearns for, but they were not alone by a long shot. It’s bigger than them. It’s bigger than Cambridge.
Peace Be Unto You,
I don’t agree with the idea of calling, identifying, and labeling our fellow human beings, down on their luck as Rats. It is a reflection of how terrible the minds are of those perpetrators that stand guilty, among our local leadership, extending out to some that are municipal policy makers. Shame on you all for such a waste of social resources.
Yours In Peace