A Lament For Harvard Square
This is another piece from the mid 1970’s. At the time I lived at 5 Chauncy St. in Cambridge MA, just off of Harvard Square.. (I moved to Concord in 1976.) Not long before I moved I wrote this lament for Harvard Square as I first knew it.
Things haven’t changed too much since then. I must mention Burdick’s though. They are vendors of wonderful chocolates.
As many of you may know I live just a few blocks from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Many years ago, when I got out of the Marine Corps, I moved to Boston. (People sometimes ask me why I came to Boston. It was like this: When I was in the Marine Corps one of my lieutenants told me that I should go to MIT. When I got out I went back home, saw that there wasn’t anything I wanted to do there, and decided to go out to Boston to take a look at MIT. True, I had never been there, and had no idea what I would do when I got there, but what the hell…) One of the first things I ran into was Harvard Square, which I immediately fell in love with, and have been attached to ever since.
Over the years I have noticed a certain tendency that disturbs me a little. Harvard Square is slowly succumbing to what I call creeping chi-chi-ism. Let me illustrate: When I first arrived there was a book store just off the square named Philips’ Books. (That is, the book store was named Philips’ Books. As far as I know there is no square named Philips’ Books – although there might be. Who knows?) I used to spend many happy hours browsing in the Mathematics and Philosophy sections. In those days the store was oriented towards the Academic community; it was a place where people with scholarly interests could find material. There were textbooks, to be sure. But there were more than textbooks, there were treatises and monographs too. Let us say, it carried works for the informed reader. Some years ago Philips’ was acquired by Brentano’s which operates the same store under Bretano’s management. It carries a line of adult games, Springbok picture puzzles, the latest best sellers, lots of coffee table books, etc. Much glamour, much glitter, but no depth. For example, in the old Philips’ they carried MCO (Modern Chess Openings – a standard and authoritative manual of chess openings.) In the new Philips’ they carry a Bobby Fischer teaches Chess tutortext.
Harvard Square and the surrounding area is a physically attractive place; there are the brick sidewalks, the Harvard yard, the Cambridge Common, etc. But more than the physical environment the thing that made Harvard Square what it was was that it was a place geared to those who lived there, particularly the students and professors of Harvard, and the Cambridge carriage trade. In addition to these there was a neighbourhood community. The old Harvard Square was mildly shabby, the comfortable shabbiness of the highbrow.
Times change. The atmosphere of Harvard Square attracted many hangers on, of whom I should probably be counted as one. There are many people, particularly among the young but of all ages, who are particularly attracted to the spirit and character of an intellectual community but who have either the willingness or the ability or both to engage in serious sustained intellectual activity. They like the area as a consumer good. And they have made it a very popular place.
Let me list some of the places that have disappeared and what has replaced them: Philips’ I have told you about. A neighbourhood bar was replaced by a fashionable clothing store. A newstand that operated for many years was replaced by a copying center. A family style drugstore is replaced by a succession of “pop” stores that sold waterbeds, furs, and light boxes. Residences became a Mari-Meko. A Barnes and Noble bookstore became a restaurant. ((This was long before book superstores) Two cafeterias became a succession of restaurants. A garage became a bank. A grocery store became a paperback booksmith outlet. Etc.
Let me talk about the Meri-Mekko complex for a moment. This is a complex of buildings with a number of businesses in it. There is Meri-Mekko itself. There is Design Research, several clothing shops, etc. The building is all plate glass, chrome, and wood – an easternized and slightly more tasteful and restrained version of Neiman-Marcus. It is a haven for would be beautiful people. The goods sold are mostly consumer goods. They are chi-chi.
And this is the direction that Harvard Square has drifted. These places are oriented towards people who are affluent and ambitious consumers. The Square used to be principally a mixture of places that catered to inexpensive intellectualism and to expensive but conservative consumer goods. The expensive and conservative places are still there; the inexpensive is becoming squeezed out; the intellectualism is slowly becoming popularized; and the neighbourhood character is vanishing rapidly, if it is not already gone.
There is a conspiracy … (The dour and paranoid words of our time.) In this case there is, though. Or to be more precise, there is an interlocking group comprising the Harvard Square Merchants associate, Harvard University, and other Harvard Square realty interests. This group has acted to improve, enhance, and preserve the character and quality of the Square, as they see it. In several cases they have forced businesses out, either by not renewing the leases, or by jumping the rents. (The rent for the no longer present Hays-Bickford cafeteria was tripled, for example.) They have fought a half-hearted battle against the counter culture. I suspect half hearted because the chic and exotic elements are profitable and attractive as long as the scruffiest elements are kept under control. Land in Harvard Square and the surrounding area have become very expensive; rents are high; and the shops are increasingly more chic and expensive.
One of the by products of this is that the intellectual base that formed one of the real attractions of the Square has been undercut. It is not gone, far from it, but it is declining. (The Square is still a garden of Eden compared to most American urban areas,) A high cost area cannot afford marginal enterprises – and any enterprise that appeals to the interests and tastes of a small minority will be marginal. (Street vendors are an exception to this, because they don’t pay for the facilities they use.) There is more money to be made in selling tutuor-texts than in selling MCO; and if you have to go after the money, MCO will vanish.
Oh well, times change.
This page was last updated February 1, 2006.