Sunday, June 16, 2024

Miranda Santiago, third from the left in the front row, and friends at Dana Park. (Photo: Miranda Santiago)

My name is Miranda Santiago, and on Aug. 15 and 19, I will be conducting guided tours of Cambridgeport. As one of the most community-oriented, diverse and historically rich neighborhoods in the city, Cambridgeport has always held a special place in my heart.

I have always lived in Cambridge; I was born in the Birth Center beside the Cambridge Health Alliance on Cambridge Street and lived my first years on Spring Street in East Cambridge in a cozy apartment small enough for me to crawl laps across its entirety. When our apartment became too small for our growing family, we moved to West Cambridge right behind Star Market. Although my family and I lied in a different part of the city, what I knew as “the Coast” has always felt like home for me. 

Around the same time that we moved, I started the first of my nine precious years at the Amigos School in Cambridgeport, the site of some of my fondest childhood memories. Every day, starting on the corner of Pleasant and Upton streets, I’d make my way toward a gap in the short, gray fence that hugged the front perimeter of the school where I’d be greeted by the beloved Mr. Curnen. We would exchange waves, a half-eaten apple in my hand and a walkie-talkie in his: “Buenos dias, Miranda.”

Many of the streets and places near Amigos are meaningful to me. After school, my friends and I would rush to the basketball courts toward the end of Lawrence Street, chatting and relaxing in the shade of the trees. We’d spend all of our money on popsicles and Doritos at Pearl Street Market. On Halloween, we traversed each side of every street around the school carefully to make sure we didn’t miss any candy. Dana Park, where my friends and I would plan potlucks and picnics and, most recently, where we celebrated our high school graduation, will always be especially significant to me.

Miranda Santiago and classmates as young students at the Amigos School. (Photo: Miranda Santiago)

These childhood memories piqued my interest in understanding the historical fabric of Cambridgeport, which led to my interest in creating a guided tour. I have always wanted to know more about the people who have lived in the neighborhood, as well as those whose experiences and voices may not be found in prominent archives. During my first dive into Cambridge records, I came across an abundance of historical dates, reports about famed authors and civic leaders, and detailed documentation of our city’s geography. Digital archives document the origins and schematics of common and rare architecture, a staple of the city’s landscape.

Cambridge oozes historical pride, and many residents cling to the memories of our city’s founding through our efforts of preservation; indeed, many houses boast blue plaques denoting historical sites. Yet while the abundance of diagrams, blueprints and biographies tell us all about Cambridge’s colonial past, the more recent histories of the communities I knew from childhood are missing. Although I have found detailed personal stories written about The Port (toward East Cambridge), I hoped to find similar stories specifically about Cambridgeport and the community where I grew up. These have been harder to find.

Where are the stories of local legends? Are they not widely shared, or were they never recorded? Has the expansion of universities, zoning policies or the loss of local businesses sterilized our vibrant past? The city’s historical preservation efforts appear to struggle against the erasure of our tangible reality, creating tension between preservation and urban regeneration.

This tour aims to explore these questions (and more) by recounting neighborhood change through the eyes of several community members. The tour will be built around ideas and comments from local residents; we will welcome audience perspectives and look forward to having a living discussion on citywide issues. In just one hour, five stops and dozens of personal stories in between, the tour will explore well–known locations and history as well as anecdotes of Cambridgeport residents such as artist Peter Valentine and Erinn Brady, the owner of a local hair salon. We will discuss the landmarks that have served and fostered meaning in the community, such as St. Augustine African Orthodox Church and the old layout of Central Square.

My hope is that the tour will act as a living archive, providing an opportunity for participants to learn about the neighborhood’s more current and diverse history, including the stories of teachers, local artists and parents. We will explore the roots of neighborhood activism and political controversies, such as rent control, the failed Inner Belt Highway, university relations, women’s rights legislation and the underlying connections between them. With these discussions as we tour the streets of Cambridgeport, our aim is to generate a broader and more profound understanding of Cambridgeport history, people, issues, locations and events. I hope the experience will inspire tour takers to better appreciate the rich histories of their own neighborhoods and, as my mother says, take the time to look around, have a conversation and smell the flowers.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Miranda Santiago is a volunteer for History Cambridge.