Sunday, May 19, 2024

A painted utility box on a Central Square street corner. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Twenty-five years ago, Starbucks opened a location in Central Square and caused a stir among locals who fretted about the chain’s impact on the surrounding community. Yet Central stayed eccentric throughout this period, with a vibrant music, bar and restaurant scene and durable independents such as 1369 and Andala coffeehouses. Just last month, the same Starbucks closed due to a rise in crime. This follows other recent departures of fixtures such as Rodney’s Bookstore and the People’s Republik. Is Central losing its edginess as it moves from being a little sketchy to just plain scary?

Central Square does account for most of the crime in Cambridge, and it’s been getting worse, likely driven by larger trends such as opioid addiction, housing costs and social inequality. As a longtime Cambridge resident, I’ve felt the growing unease about crime from neighbors and come across my share of syringes in the street passing through Central. But these concerns about public safety are not new, and rates are still lower than 10 or 20 years ago. In the early 2000s, I was an undergrad at MIT and remember older students warning us to be cautious in walking through Central at night. Zooming out, Cambridge also continues to be at the vanguard of national efforts to promote housing density and affordability with a combination of incentives, taxes and zoning reform.

The puzzle of Central is that for every vice, there is a corresponding virtue. Crime is high and it gets a large share of the city’s resources for data-driven policing, addiction treatment and services for the unhoused. Rents are astronomical and there is more development such as Market Central, with its 20 percent affordable housing. Starbucks and Rodney’s are closing and others are taking their place or thriving, such as Cicada Coffee Bar and Pandemonium Books & Games. And there can be mixed outcomes from well-intentioned policies: For example, higher crime from the opioid epidemic has helped motivate investment in needle exchanges, which can increase opportunities for perpetrators to prey on those suffering from addiction nearby.

In her classic on urban development, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs argued that vibrant and safe neighborhoods depend on a diversity of buildings and people – residential and commercial spaces, new and old structures, public and private venues – that lead people to bump into each other at all hours, develop attachments to an area and look out for one another over time. Central has all of these elements: homes, offices, retail, nightlife, 100-plus-year-old landmarks such as the Cambridge YMCA, public gathering places such as City Hall and of course the arteries of Massachusetts Avenue and the MBTA red line that ensure a constant blend of vehicle, bicycle and foot traffic.

Contrast this with Harvard’s ossified quaintness and Kendall’s office jumble and one could argue that Central is the most dynamic and open “square” of them all. Though it obviously benefits from Harvard and MIT’s proximity, Central doesn’t limit access to significant parts of the city like their private campuses do. Only in Central, for example, would Graffiti Alley emerge as a place for local street artists to compete for public attention and express themselves freely, including on issues such as the murder of George Floyd.

This optimistic message is easy to offer if you haven’t had an uncomfortable experience in Central in the past few years. You may be tempted (like I have been) to avoid the area if you can and stick to the more sterile but predictable feeling you get from walking through Harvard or Kendall squares. But the lesson from Jacobs and other urban experts is that diversity and density are what keep cities healthy. It is the eyes and hearts of a multitude of residents, workers, visitors and passersby who help prevent crime and keep a place such as Central feeling like a community.


Izzat Jarudi is a founder and writer who holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and a bachelor’s degree in brain and cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has lived in Cambridge for more than 15 years.

This post was updated Dec. 11, 2022, to say that the Market Central developments came online with 20 percent of units reserved as affordable housing.