Sunday, June 16, 2024

This is the second of a four-part series by Emily Hiestand, a writer, editor and friend of History Cambridge. The series was first published for The Georgia Review and Beacon Press in 1998. It was updated slightly in 2021 for publication in This Impermanent Earth, and in 2024 for History Cambridge. The full series can be found on the History Cambridge website.

A detail from an 1854 city map showing the North Cambridge neighborhood. (Image: History Cambridge)

Part One | Street

Like travelers who want to keep some favorite place from being overly discovered, the residents of our neighborhood sometimes confide to one another in a near-whisper, “There’s no other place like this in the city.”

It’s not a grand neighborhood, only a modest enclave on the fringe of the Boston metropolis, but visitors who chance upon our streets are routinely surprised. They remark on the quiet of the area, on the colonnade of maples whose canopies have grown together into a leafy arch over the street, on the many front porches (which older residents call their piazzas), and on the overall sense of being in a little village.

This small urban village is in the territory long represented by the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who served in the U.S. Congress for 34 years, nine as Speaker of the House. Our streets are part of his “lunch-bucket liberal” district, a working-class neighborhood on land that formerly held such things as the city’s poorhouse, blacksmith shops and tanneries. The earliest inhabitants of our streets were predominantly French-Canadian, families and young men fleeing British persecution, streaming south from Nova Scotia, Quebec and the Iles de la Madeleine. That early history explains why our inland houses and streets feel curiously like a small fishing village; the architecture of the small cottages, the exterior stairs and porches, even the way the houses are sited – close to the sidewalks with miniature front yards – are all transplants from the maritime villages of Acadia.

Immigrants from several other countries were also lightly represented in the early history of this neighborhood. The streets immediately surrounding the French-Canadian enclave were home to Irish, Italian and West Indian immigrants, and to African-Americans migrated from the American South. From the beginning, our neighborhood has had a diverse population, and universally, the older residents who grew up here recall that these streets were not contested territory, which is something of a rarity, then and now. 

Together, the varied people of this end of town created a way of life based on dogged work and devotion, doughnuts from Verna’s coffee shop, tolerance, fraternal clubs, church and church bingo. The early neighborhood tone can be gleaned from one widely observed tradition, which was a principal entertainment on summer evenings. The activity consisted of residents sitting on their front porches after supper and talking to one another and to passersby. “Sitting out,” they called it. The close-set houses with facing porches, rows of shade trees and the intimate scale of the streets all contributed to making this neighborly activity possible.

At the end of a road, on the edge of town, our neighborhood was long a modest backwater, sociologically and geographically remote from other parts of Cambridge. As our neighbor Alice, who has been living here for 78 years, puts it: “No one came down this way unless they lived here.” But O’Neill, a pure product of these streets, took the local, big-hearted ethos national, where it made a difference across the length and breadth of the land.

The bones of the early demographics of this street are still visible where the names on scattered mailboxes read Beauchemin, Arsenault and Ouellette. In keeping with its original character as a portal into the city, our neighborhood has more recently become home to new citizens from India, Haiti, China and Cape Verde, as well as to local writers and artists seeking affordable housing. It is also a peaceful place to work, the quiet engineered by a rabbit warren of one-way streets that deters incidental traffic from attempting the neighborhood, creating a precinct that is, by city standards, serene. 

By day you can hear the tinkle of a small brass bell tied to the door of the mom-and-pop store across the street; by night, the lightly syncopated jazz of crickets and katydids rises from our small yards. Not too quiet, though. The bells of St. John the Evangelist peal on the quarter hour, and Notre Dame de Pitié rings its three great Belgian-made cloches – bells named Marie, Joseph and Jesus. At Christmastime Notre Dame plays the carols “Venez Divin Messie” and “Dans Cette Étable.” Several times a day, a train hurtles through a nearby crossing, blowing a classic lonesome whistle; in the late afternoons clusters of children come by our house after school, the girls singing, the boys bouncing basketballs en route to the corner park; and at night festive teenagers sometimes roil along our sidewalks, releasing what Walt Whitman proudly called barbaric yawps.

Not far from our street is a lumberyard, a Big & Tall men’s shop, two grand churches, the best Greek restaurant in town, and two fortune-telling parlors. There is a genetics lab in our neighborhood, close to a Tex-Mex bar and grill where any escaping DNA on the lam could probably hide for days. There are fishmongers, lobster tanks and think tanks here, and a storefront dental office with a neon molar in the window. There is a candy jobber and the Free Romania Foundation. There used to be a fast-food shack named Babo’s that had a sweeping modernist roof, designed by a local disciple of the architect Eero Saarinen. There are sushi bars with sandalwood counters, pizza parlors and, recently, several nail salons. It is a dense, urban neighborhood, baroque with energies, more than anyone could ever say. Just last year we were all stunned to hear that a cigar-smuggling ring was operating in a house not too far from ours. According to the surprised neighbors, the people who ran it were “very polite.” Even more surprising, to me, was the discovery that most of our neighborhood exists on land that was – not so very long ago – a vast and ancient swamp.

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Emily Hiestand and her husband lived in the North Cambridge neighborhood described in this essay for 20 years. Her writing appears in magazines (including The Atlantic, Salon and The New Yorker); anthologies (including Best American Poetry, The Norton Book of Nature Writing and “This Impermanent Earth”); and many literary journals. She developed the communications program for MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and served as its director for 15 years. Earlier, Hiestand was the Literary Editor for Orion Magazine, working with America’s leading nature writers and introducing themes (including environmental justice) into the magazine’s pages. She has served on the boards of PEN New England and the Associates of the Boston Public Library.