Thursday, July 18, 2024

There’s so much horror and unhappiness in the world, with violence in the Middle East and Ukraine being only the most prominent in the headlines, that most days living in Cambridge can feel like paradise – at the very least, like a kind of mundane magic. Turkeys roam, usually peacefully; bunnies munch our grass. Fairy lights hang over rows of restaurants’ outdoor dining and a happy hubbub of conversation and music. Schools are being rebuilt; towers are rising in which scientists turn around life-saving vaccines with lightning speed; the ideas being discussed in our academic halls are world-changing. Hundreds of languages are spoken here by people of all sorts coexisting happily, and we’re adding play areas for pickleball, cricket and children with disabilities.

Everyone should have this. Heck, Fortune even called Cambridge the best place to live for wellness.

Cambridge isn’t perfect, though. Not everyone gets to enjoy the peace and plenty equally, and we have crime and anguish, as well as complaints about government and public health. Sewage flows into our waterways faster than we can rebuild infrastructure, spurred by climate change-induced weather phenomenon we may not be doing enough to face; we have complaints about our kids’ education, and why it’s so hard to close achievement gaps between races or keep algebra in place; Lesley University went through painful layoffs, and a popular citizen-led emergency response team called Heart spent the year trying to get municipal buy-in.

When Cambridge Day asked residents their best and worst local news of 2023, we heard some that connected with our own selections and a few worthy of mentioning on their own. One writer said reader comments on Cambridge Day stories ranked as worst of the year: “The abusive tone, the relentless repetition of biased ‘information’ and the monopolization of this public space by a few mean-spirited voices have together created a new low in public discourse.” It’s hard to disagree; while there were many great and helpful comments, others felt like they didn’t live up to Cantabrigians’ capabilities for constructive dialogue. Others hated how a vote on a cease-fire in Gaza went down and that City Council votes on some motions could be seen as a “rush to ensure passage before a new council takes power.” (Residents had “bests” to offer too, such as the people who keep the streets and sidewalks clean: “Thank them for doing a great job. Their walking around the town sweeping up cigarette butts, wrappers, etc., has helped keep Central Square in a tidy appearance for the past few years now. I give a standing ovation.”)

The City Council took significant legislative actions this year (including a huge advancement of universal prekindergarten that will begin in 2024). Ideally   everyone could take from this the lesson that our democracy works, even if the value of the outcomes are debated. For changes to Affordable Housing Overlay zoning, which is meant to make it easier to build homes for lower-income residents, and passage of a Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance against greenhouse gas emissions, there may be no meeting of the minds or clarity for many years as to whether they were good or bad. Each had extensive process with many public meetings of various boards, committees and councils, though, and the hope is that everyone at least came away feeling heard.

Before getting to our necessarily subjective list of bests and worsts, it’s striking to think of some of the people and institutions we lost this year – and to appreciate what is coming to fill the gaps left behind.

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People

Saundra Graham speaks at a police brutality hearings at Cambridge City Council in January 1971. With her in a photo from the Cambridge Public Library’s archives and special collections is Joanne Pelham. (Photo: Olive Pierce)

An incomplete list of people we lost in 2023 includes former Cambridge city councillor, mayor and state representative Alice Wolf, who died Jan. 26 at 89. North Cambridge’s Mussie Nirayo, 22, was shot fatally Feb. 20 in Woburn. Mary-Catherine Deibel – a restaurateur known to the community as the “unofficial mayor of Harvard Square” – passed away at age 72 on June 1. Don Holland, creator of the legendary ManRay club that he saw resurrected this year in Central Square, died June 18. Saundra Graham, Cambridge’s first Black woman city councillor, a former state representative and namesake of the Graham & Parks School with fellow civil rights activist Rosa Parks, passed away at age 81 on June 23. James Lewis, the East Cambridge resident suspected in a 1982 rash of deadly Tylenol poisonings in Chicago, was found dead July 9 in his Gore Street condominium. Harvard professor Charles Ogletree Jr. died Aug. 4 at age 70. Jaden McDaniels, 16, died Sept. 6 from injuries from a motor vehicle crash the previous month. Lesley Rebecca Phillips, a minister and Democratic leader – the first trans person elected to a seat on the state Democratic State Committee – died Aug. 14 at 78. Perennial council candidate Gregg Moree died Nov. 7 at 66, never knowing the outcome of his final run. Bernard Goldberg, who served five consecutive terms as a city councillor before being elected vice mayor, died Nov. 30 at 94. Paul Parravano, who long led MIT’s Government and Community Relations Department and supported Cambridge nonprofits such as the Margaret Fuller House, Tutoring Plus and the Cambridge Community Center, died Dec. 9 at 71.

Other transitions are more to be celebrated than mourned as notable Cantabrigians move on to new phases in life. Longtime commissioner of Cambridge’s Inspectional Services Department, Ranjit Singanayagam, retired at the end of January after 40 years with the city. Margaret Drury left the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority in April after five terms – but before that had been city clerk from 1992 to 2012. Cambridge’s head of finance David Kale retired in early July, ending 33 years in public service between City Hall and Cambridge Public Schools. City solicitor Nancy Glowa retired after more than 11 years leading Cambridge’s Law Department and nearly 30 years with the city. Deputy superintendent Carolyn Turk retired in October after 46 years with Cambridge Public Schools. The School Committee’s longest-serving member, Fred Fantini, said in June that he is retiring after serving for 40 years.

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Businesses

The Rockler woodworking store in North Cambridge, seen Nov. 5, has announced its permanent closing. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Longtime retailers, restaurants and other institutions closed in 2023 for a variety of reasons, including retirements, a tough economic environment or hangover from the Covid pandemic.

This list is far from complete, but even a partial list is striking: January saw the Korean restaurant Chocho’s close and news that Christopher’s restaurant would never reopen, but instead be sold in an anticipated $3 million deal with the attached Toad bar. The dessert retailer Milk Bar closed on Feb. 19 in Harvard Square. Atwood’s Tavern, a restaurant, bar and music club near Cambridge’s Inman Square, closed March 31 after 16 years. Phil’s Towing closed April 14 after nearly 40 years in business, with owners blaming Cambridge’s street cleaning pilot program that emphasized tickets over tows. EHChocolatier, maker of artisanal candy bars and distinctively decorated bonbons since 2009, closed in Huron Village on April 28. Portugalia in Wellington-Harrington, open since 1983, served its last meal April 30, and Cloud & Spirits, a Korean-infused restaurant in The Port neighborhood, closed that month to become an event space. The Fernandes Fish Market closed its doors June 24 after 28 years in Cambridge’s Inman Square surrounded by a vibrant Portuguese-speaking community. Raven Used Books left Harvard Square on July 30 as a success story, moving to Western Massachusetts. Diaper Lab, a seller of environmentally conscious baby goods and advice since 2008, closed its bricks-and-mortar location near Davis Square in July. CIC Health, which tackled testing during the Covid pandemic as an offshoot of the international workshare space provider the Cambridge Innovation Center, ended operations in August. Rangzen Tibetan Place in Central Square closed in September, with owners saying on social media that “it was a beautiful 25 years.” Commonwealth, a casual upscale restaurant in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, closed permanently Nov. 4. Mother Juice closed in Harvard Square after less than two years, and Bertucci’s pizza closed in Central Square in October. The Upper Crust pizzeria and Daniel R. Spirer Jewelers closed their neighboring storefronts in Neighborhood 9 near Porter Square on Dec. 18, with Upper Crust’s owner citing rent increases, preceded by a nearby Zoe açai bowl eatery that just never seemed to catch on. Rockler Woodworking and Hardware announced in November that it would close this year in North Cambridge after 40 years as its parent company focused on stores with more square footage. The ImprovBoston theater company and comedy school also dissolved after 40 years, with regular operations to end Sunday in Central Square.

Storefronts also filled. In just some of the notable arrivals: The club ManRay reopened Jan. 14 in Central Square, more than 17 years after closing at its original Brookline Street location. Of four empty Darwin’s Ltd. coffee shops, Roust Coffee took over in Harvard Square in January and Circus Cooperative Cafe was in place in Riverside by early October. (A third space in Mid-Cambridge has approval to be filled by a bakery called Asaro.) Sub Zero Nitrogen Ice Cream had a grand opening in Cambridgeport on March 21. Remnant Brewing of Somerville has taken over the Atwood’s Tavern space, which is now called Satellite – even keeping some music. As of July 7, a Dudley Café outpost fills the former Hi-Rise Bread Co. space in the Baldwin neighborhood between Harvard and Porter squares. A Friendly Toast opened in Harvard Square on July 26, replacing a relocated Grafton Street Pub & Grill after a Kendall site of the Toast closed in August 2020. Similarly, on Sept. 1, Harvard Square celebrated the return of Rodney’s Bookstore, the used-books seller that closed in Central Square in October 2020. A Ripple Café location opened in August in Kendall Square in a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology building at the entrance to an MBTA red line headhouse. Union Square Donuts opened in Harvard Square this fall, and Blank Street Coffee nearby on Nov. 16 where there was once a local flagship Starbucks. The Painted Burro opened Nov. 20 in Cambridge’s Harvard Square in a two-story revival of the former Border Cafe space.

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The best of Cambridge in 2023

Direct payments and a CCF plan

Lida Griffin gets a hug from U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley on May 2 at Cambridge City Hall at the announcement of a Rise Up guaranteed-income program. The Cambridge Community Foundation’s Geeta Pradhan is at left. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Big problems deserve big answers, and Cambridge has some of each. After a $1.5 million guaranteed-income test in 2021 gave 130 single-caretaker households $500 no-strings-attached monthly payments, the city liked what it saw and on May 2 announced Rise Up, another 18-month round of $500 direct payments to families with children, this time funded with a full $22 million in federal Covid-relief funds. There were more than 1,000 applications within the program’s first 24 hours, representing around half of the families eligible for the cash payments, and the city even managed to start sending the relief a week early to hundreds of families. (Rise Up got a reader vote for the best of 2023, too.) In a follow-up, as many as 30 students will get a tuition-free education at Bunker Hill Community College in what is expected to be the first year of a permanent program called Cambridge Promise that launched Sept. 11 with starter donations from Harvard and MIT. Looking ahead to a time after Rise Up, the Cambridge Community Foundation announced at an Oct. 15 block party that it has a five-year Strategic Plan for taking on the city’s biggest, most persistent problems, including food and economic insecurity and housing instability, while boosting arts and culture, social innovation, education and resident engagement. “We’re developing methodologies to build on the work the community is already doing and working collaboratively to solve problems,” foundation president Geeta Pradhan said.

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Cambridge enters reparations

Saskia VannJames works Aug. 31 in her offices at the Democracy Center in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

The creation of an American Freedmen Commission to explore reparations was ordained unanimously Dec. 4 by the City Council, creating a way to investigate historical human-rights violations and how to address them that residents and activists from across the country called historic for how its very name defines the issue. “This will be the first approved commission since Reconstruction to focus on the descendants of American chattel slavery,” said Cheryce Cryer, a Los Angeles lawyer active in California’s ongoing work on reparations. Resident Saskia VannJames has been laying the groundwork over two years of law study, meetings and attending reparations conferences. She estimated in September that she spoke with 1,000 people in preparing presentations for the council.

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Arts stretch after a Covid nap

Rick Jenkins at the future Comedy Studio in Cambridge’s Harvard Square on Oct. 19, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

It’s not like the arts have been gone, but 2023 in many ways felt like a big teaser trailer for what lies ahead, starting with the Jan. 12 announcement that a new nonprofit called Arrow Street Arts would take over the empty Oberon theater space in Harvard Square, creating a street-front studio for audiences of 100-plus and an attached renovated black box theater for 300 that will get a weeklong opening festival in March. BioMed Realty completed a $49.5 million purchase and rapid destruction of a 0.32-acre NStar Gas transfer station at 330 Third St. that was complicating construction of a life-sciences tower with a public base: a 400-seat theater and 150-seat stage in a lobby with year-round garden and a commons around it that will include a bar, cafe and giant video screen. To the relief of comedy fans, The Comedy Studio’s Rick Jenkins said he has locked down the $2 million needed to reopen the iconic club back in Harvard Square in the spring. Meanwhile, Gallery 263 in Cambridgeport celebrated its 15th anniversary in June and in October moved on to a “263 to $40k” fundraiser, the biggest in its history. The Harvard Art Museums became free for all visitors on June 23; Club Passim launched a Folk Collective on April 10 to return more diverse audiences and artists to the genre; and Elmendorf Baking Goods and Supplies in East Cambridge brought the city in June a brilliant new tradition, Le Grand Prix Elmendorf du Pain – a baguette bake-off. (No Cambridge or Somerville bakeries won the first edition, an outcome that cannot stand.) Regattabar, the 220-seat jazz club in Harvard Square’s Charles Hotel, reopened Sept. 15 after closing March 17, 2020, for the health emergency.

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Inman improvements are done

The reconfigured Inman Square in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After four and a half years of construction that cost $12 million, the new, reconfigured Inman Square was finished during the summer and got an Oct. 21 celebration and rededication for its Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci Community Plaza, with a public installation of a deer by artist Mark Reigelman titled “Edge of the Forest” and public seating surrounded by pedestrian crossings and separated bike lanes. The main virtue was a reconfiguration of confusing traffic patterns that had felt dangerous for decades before the death of bicyclist Amanda Phillips in June 2016, but the work brought revived public spaces with new lighting systems, replaced water mains and services and a reconstructed Springfield Street parking lot. Sure, the project began in 2018 at a projected $5 million, felled trees and brought protest and a lawsuit before bogging down during Covid – but even the staunchest foe of the design must admit that it feels good to be at the end, and that Inman Square deserves the attention.

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Rat infestation complaints drop

The carcass of a rat on Beech Street in North Cambridge on Sept. 14. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Talk about a quality-of-life issue. There’s less eerie rustling of bushes as walkers pass by and fewer animals darting by our feet as rats get disrupted while scavenging: Rat complaints are down dramatically, staff said in December. Calls of infestations peaked two years ago at 784 after they were added as an option to the SeeClickFix complaint system in 2020. This year, in the 365 days leading up to Nov. 23, reports had dropped by half to 396 after improved response times to complaints from a contractor, construction-site kills, rolling out of new trash carts and locking compost bins, “Big Belly” compactors in public areas that had open trash cans and deployment of devices that electrocute rats and pump gently fatal carbon monoxide into burrows. A group is also collaborating with counterparts in Somerville on slipping infertility drugs that affect only rats into the population in 2024 to see if breeding rates drop.

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The worst of Cambridge in 2023

Police shoot Arif Sayed Faisal

The window Sayed Faisal reportedly jumped out of Jan. 4, seen the next day. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Four days into the new year, the fatal police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi, changed everything – and for some, not enough. Questions began immediately, and protests soon afterward from anguished community members and youth who saw in the incident reason to worry about their own safety or that of loved ones, considering the mental health crisis emerging from the Covid pandemic. Faisal had been self-harming with a knife and shards of glass, but ran from police for around 10 minutes in a route that brought him into contact with others around Cambridgeport; police said he shook off a projectile from a nonlethal weapon. When he moved toward an officer while holding the knife out in front of him, according to a judge’s inquest released in October, the officer shot Faisal fatally. The inquest determined that the shooting was justified and did not constitute a criminal act. But in the interim came moves for reform that might prevent another killing and, if one happens, change how things play out afterward, underlining the need for unarmed response in addressing issues of mental and behavioral health; the introduction of body cameras on police, arriving potentially in early 2024; more less-lethal options to try in similar pursuits; and a policy to quickly identify officers in use-of-force incidents.

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It’s time to tighten the belt

The $299 million Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School under construction on June 4. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A period of austerity that’s been warned about for years has arrived, and elected officials have to start setting priorities for what projects get a go-ahead for the next five to 10 years and what must be scaled back or halted, Cambridge staff said Dec. 12. The message felt like something of a shock in a city that has long been able to hire when other communities were seeing layoffs and build when others have been deferring maintenance on existing structures. School construction tells a story: the rebuilt Martin Luther King Jr. School complex opened in 2015 at a cost of $95.5 million, the King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School & Community Complex opened in 2019 costing $160 million and a new Tobin School and Darby Vassal Upper School is expected to open in 2025 with a $299 million price tag. “There are some profound decisions that we’re going to have to make,” assistant city manager Owen O’Riordan said, pointing to a coming bump up against safe credit limits.

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Central Square draws concern

A visitor to Central Square passes through a group of homeless people Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Even at a Dec. 6 community meeting about what police believe to be a targeted killing, all people wanted to talk about was where the shooting – more or less coincidentally – took place: Central Square. No part of Cambridge has drawn as much concern in the past several months. While the challenges of the square, which hosts numerous social services, have existed for years, a recent influx of homeless and the violence resulting from people preying on them has led to a perception of crime throughout the area. Addressing an increase in homelessness, drug use and public intoxication, violence and aggressive panhandling has become a top priority for city officials, though there doesn’t seem to be a single easy solution. The square’s status as a cultural district is also challenged as arts institutions struggle everywhere; the open-air Starlight Square has been a bright spot since Covid for entertainment, the local economy and as a municipal gathering place, but concerns remain about municipal buy-in after an ongoing delay in the transfer of federal Covid-relief funds.

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The MBTA fails its customers

The scene of an MBTA red line rider’s injury May 1 from a falling utility box at Harvard Square Station. (Photo: Laura St via Twitter)

What does a city built around transit do when the transit sucks? Cambridge is finding out. As a city policy accelerates to discourage the use of cars being driven and parked by a lone occupant, including the elimination of parking minimums, slower street speeds and the addition of bike lanes, state transportation officials have been allowing their infrastructure to break down, failing to enforce usable work among contractors, setting questionable priorities and struggling to keep their workforce whole, which has led to cuts in routes and schedules that create commuter doubts and frustrations. Instead of making public transit free, the T has opted to spend around $1 billion on a new fare-collection system that is (predictably) late and over budget for a still speed-choked system fewer people are opting to ride – money that could have gone toward needed repairs and staff. A $25 billion price tag to fix the system wouldn’t have stopped local creation of “transit-oriented development” even if officials released the figure long ago, while the state Legislature seems incapable of holding officials to account. Even the platforms where riders wait are breaking down, though it doesn’t help the system when people try to use transit to self-harm.

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Bike lanes and a park divide

A rider uses a bike lane down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge on Oct. 7. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Transit problems not of Cambridge’s making and beyond its control meet communications issues that are in its control in a clash over the Cycling Safety Ordinance and the bike lane installations that the law mandates. In a city where everyone wants to live, and more do all the time, of course there must be steps taken to move a growing population around and through it more efficiently. (The litany of bicyclist deaths also must stop.) But Cantabrigians too busy living their lives to pay attention to the law as it was enacted and implemented and city staff that have been slow to learn how to counteract that unfamiliarity are a bad mix, creating a constant cycle (sorry) of shock and outrage over a wearying half-dozen years. Opposition to the lanes has been a literally losing battle, with two lawsuits facing rejection by judges at various steps along the way, but data about safety and economic impact continue to be gathered and debated and City Council candidate Joan Pickett rode to victory in November as a bike-lane opponent. Though it’s not for use just by bicyclists, Riverbend Park has been another area of ugly divisiveness for the city, with several Riverside residents opposing the addition of Saturday to long-standing Sunday hours for a recreation area created by closing parts of Memorial Drive to car traffic. A release of state documents in late July from a public records request said the neighborhood in general was opposed to the Saturday hours and that the City Council also decided against it – neither of which is true. The trove also revealed that the state’s own legal counsel said Saturday hours were allowed by law, which is the opposite of what was presented to Cambridge by state officials. People were also disappointed to find Massachusetts officials describing state Rep. Marjorie Decker as “staunchly opposed” to Riverbend Park, confirming reports she was acting behind the scenes even as she was telling constituents in a form email that she has “not ever publicly or privately advocated against Saturday closings.” The bike lane fights often pit seniors and businesses against riders; Riverbend feels worse – it has added issues of race and class.