Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Catherine J. Turco, author of “Harvard Square: A Love Story.” (Photo: Philip Borden)

Most nonfiction – surely most texts on economics – have plenty of pages that can be skipped. Cantabrigians will read “Harvard Square: A Love Story” from the prologue right through a thick section of footnotes, though, as a book that is basically about them: It breathes the same air. It eats the same bagels. Author Catherine J. Turco has been watching the evolution of the square from weekly childhood visits, Harvard dorms and as a resident now teaching at MIT.

The cliché would have it that her insider’s exploration of our relationship with markets lives rent-free in our heads, if the notion of free rent weren’t so remote to the topic of Harvard Square. Still, Turco has uncannily captured nearly every aspect of wondering about it, worrying because of it and wandering through it, from explaining its origins forming around Harvard in 1636 to coming into its own during a cosmopolitan, trend-setting phase in the 1950s. She captures the pleasures of being a regular at retailers and restaurants, of stopping by The Tasty the night the diner closed forever and being one of the types “headed to yet another meeting about the fate of Harvard Square” in 2019 (and leaving depressed).

Turco, an economic sociologist, wants to understand why we love local marketplaces and are so unhappy when they change. The lessons are theoretically applicable to Main Streets across America, but I wouldn’t know – it was impossible for me to read “A Love Story” from the perspective of someone from anywhere else, and I tried. I think everyone should read this absorbing, deeply reported love story, which tears through centuries of history found in Historical Commission archives, copies of the Cambridge Tribune, minutes of organizations and increasingly poignant poems of old white men finding the market to be a metaphor for mortality (and morality). She digs so deep she all but pinpoints the moment “Harvard Square isn’t what it used to be” becomes a mug-worthy in-joke that Harvard is in a constant state of not being what it was. The book is also filled with bits of information that may not be deeply reported at all, because Turco is as likely to encounter her sources on a daily walk through Harvard Square as any long-timer. She knows that Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson is a “descendant of Rebecca Chamberlain, a woman accused of witchcraft who died in a Cambridge jail in 1692,” for instance. Is that as interesting outside Cambridge as it is here? I wish I knew.

This is a surpassingly impartial book for its passion, and Turco spends a lot of time interrogating the responses of anyone in love with a Main Street or a square by working past her own subjectivities. She convinces us there’s a perversity about our love of businesses and that we’re just as often upset about success as we are at failure, like the members of the old Harvard Square Business Men’s Association despairing over all the traffic and throngs of shoppers and tourists they worked so hard to attract. The potheads and beatniks were despised in their day, and the noise from the circus of buskers needed quashing, yet for many of us their era was the most romantic of all the strata built up in Harvard Square since the 1600s. There’s a whole section about much of Cambridge rising up to block the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum from coming to Harvard Square – and Cambridge loved Kennedy – because it would attract too many tourists and change the nature of the square. “Clearly a case of Nimby-ism,” Turco writes, “a rather unusual one … the cherished thing people were fighting to protect was the identity of a commercial marketplace.” (Alfred Vellucci got Boylston Street in Harvard Square renamed JFK Street because he was “still angry about all the opposition.”)

Turco’s objectivity, which has her spending roughly equal amounts of time and sympathy on former Black Ink proprietor Susan Corcoran and scion of development John DiGiovanni, might miss some truths and dodge some lines of questioning.

Cambridge recoiled at what a JFK museum would do to Harvard Square because JFK was a mania, and Harvard Square is not built for it. Objections to what feels out of place in the square, which we think of as its mallification, have been consistent over decades. Cambridge has never stopped talking about The Tasty, the greasy, 14-seat diner where, Turco quotes filmmaker Federico Muchnik as saying, “on your right you would have a Harvard professor and on your left you would have a homeless person and you could have a conversation.” Cambridge Savings Bank leaders of the time expelled The Tasty for admittedly necessary renovations with a glibly offensive offer that’s been used countless times over the years: It could come back at the higher rent demanded of a shiny new space that cost so much to make. Eighty-one years of The Tasty ending on 1997 made way for Abercrombie & Fitch, the malliest of shops embodying Harvard Square’s sluttiest of eugenicists, and the teen fashion shop lasted a whole five years. There’s as much to that as Turco’s story about the square’s five taco shops, with only the two locally owned ones surviving. Maybe Harvard Square has a hive mind, but that may be a little too woo-woo for a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Turco also doesn’t look too deeply into what lies beyond the purchases of Gerald Chan, Asana Partners and Regency Centers, though, and it’s the only thing about “A Love Story” that’s truly disappointing. She notes their collective billions in buys in Harvard Square, their upheavals and ousters of retailers such as Black Ink from real estate and frustratingly oblivious approach to filling vacancies, in which Asana and Regency let street-level shops sit vacant while they “package” “brands” at properties around the globe. All three bought into Harvard Square for their own reasons at prices “no reasonable discounted cash flow could justify,” Turco quotes a property manager as saying, and it “nearly doubled” the assessed property value of Harvard Square as a whole in 2017, to $3.3 billion, leaving “two different markets now operating in one little square.”

What does this distortion of the marketplace mean in the long term? Can Harvard Square ever find a balance? Do these prices ever fall back, or do Chan, Asana and Regency send the sales totals and rents around them spiraling upward too? Are there hints of an answer anywhere that Turco ignored in favor of a focus on Harvard Square – or is the square somehow facing this seemingly broken model alone? As much as I loved this obsessive romance novel of an economics text, I hope it translates. Cantabrigians want everyone to care as much about Harvard Square as they do, though that might be impossible.

  • Catherine J. Turco reads from “Harvard Square: A Love Story” at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square. Free. Well-fitting masks are required. Information is here.