Can Cambridge and Its Establishment Cooperate on the City's Problems?
Cambridge Corporation may give the answer
Seven years ago, Martin Myerson, the then director of the Harvard-M.I.T. Joint Center for Urban Studies, received a letter from the City Manager of Cambridge, John Curry '19, asking for ideas "to make the town move forward." Myerson's answer was simple and provocative. He put forward plans for a "private development corporation" which would take advantage of industry and the universities -- the huge resources the Cambridge community had never before really tapped.
Instead of funneling grants to charitable projects, the corporation would lend money to concerns which otherwise couldn't get off the ground. It was to be as imaginative as possible in doling out the loans, helping residential, commercial, or industrial developments.
The idea for a private development corporation was new itself, but the idea of involving the universities and industry in the community was an even more daring concept. Myerson wanted the corporation to be "small in size, but extraordinary in skill." Run by a president and secretary, it would depend on the universities for guidance on special projects.
For five years the idea was kept in mothballs. Then in 1965 Mayor Daniel J. Hayes wrote a long letter to President Pusey and James R. Killian Jr., Chairman of the Corporation of M.I.T. Hayes told them that the two institutions were living in Cambridge, contributing nothing to the community but some pressure on the city's housing problems.
The letter led to several meetings between the city and the two institutions to discuss ways of meeting Cambridge's snowballing needs. Three alternatives emerged. The city could raise the tax rate; it could develop more effective ways of using federal programs; or it could devise some scheme to enable various groups to exploit development opportunities -- a suggestion which had the added attractiveness of increasing the city's tax base. The decision was not very difficult. Raising taxes was politically unwise, and probably the weakest solution in any case. Alternatives two and three remained.
The papers of incorporation for the Cambridge Corporation were filed a very few months later, in the fall of '65. Signatories were Pusey, Killian, General James M. Gavin, chairman of the Board of Arthur D. Little, Inc., and the Most Reverend Thomas J. Riley. The papers were also signed by representatives of three Cambridge banks, the Polaroid Corporation, Lechmere Sales, and two prestigious local law firms.
In the spring of 1966, the organization was announced publicly. Oliver Brooks, who had had long years of experience in community development projects, was hired as president. Richard Green, a project director for the Boston Urban Renewal Authority in the South End, became vice-president. They hired a recent Wellesley graduate--Cynthia Whaite--as a researcher, and they rounded out the staff with a secretary.
The corporation aimed at "stimulating a variety of projects for the benefit of the community," Brooks wrote in the Cambridge Chronicle-Sun. "The private sector's response to the community problems cannot be based on good intentions alone."
The key issues with which Cambridge would have to deal were, as Brooks saw them, "whether the community can find the means for adjusting to change on its own terms, rather than purely on the terms that may be dictated by the economics of the market place or by the unrestrained collision of competing pressures."
Within this starting point the Cambridge Corporation was to become an agency boosting development which might otherwise have been impossible because of insufficient "seed" money. The Corporation would provide initial capital which groups could use to get later loans from federal or private sources.
The seed money would come from a revolving fund of $1 million, of which Harvard and M.I.T. pledged to contribute half. The remaining $500,000 would be put up by business and industry in Cambridge. The Corporation, as in Myerson's original scheme, would rarely give money away. Rather it would be a source from which money could be borrowed quickly with a minimum of red tape.
"Our role is essentially to urge other people to make the effort," Brooks says. This means that the Corporation will often accept risks of loss where other businesses could not afford to. Depending on the situation, the Corporation may or may not charge interest. And, if it sees "important community benefits," it is even willing to incure a loss. In short, Brooks described the Corporation as a catalyst to change within the community, letting the community decide the direction of change for itself.
Now, almost a year and a half since Oliver Brooks and his staff moved into the small, revamped home-turned-office-building at 930 Mass. Ave., the Corporation is involved in ten different projects.
Together with eleven Cambridge churches the Corporation has been working on plans for a moderate income housing development. The Corporation picked up the tab for initial soil tests, architects' plans, and an application for federal subsidies.
In addition, Brooks, along with a group that calls itself the Interfaith Housing Corporation, is planning a radically new approach to moderate income housing. Instead of isolating the old or the poor in any one development, the Corporation is planning a mixed community. On an eight-acre tract in the Waldon Square area of Northwest Cambridge the City Stables housing project will be built--250 low rise garden apartments (for families with children) and a cluster of high rise apartments. About 25 per cent of the apartments will be rented under the Public Housing Leasing Program, under which the city pays the difference between what a low income family can afford and the rent for the housing. These arrangements will be kept confidential and families with rent subsidies will be scattered around the project. So they will not carry the stigma so often attached to low income families in huge, monolithic, low-income housing projects.
Operating on a tight budget, the Corporation has still been able to hire a first rate firm, Architects' Collaborative, to draw up the project's design. The Corporation is also pushing to get City Hall to declare City Stables the site of an Urban Renewal Project. If the site can't be purchased under the Urban Renewal program, rent for the housing will have to jump $15 per month.
The Corporation is taking its pledge of encouraging local groups to do the work very seriously. It will not initiate any program nor will it jump into one uninvited. Recently it was approached by COBI (the Conference of Organizations, Blocks, and Individuals)--a group formed by the people in Cambridge's area number 4, now part of the Model Cities program. When COBI asked the Cambridge Corporation for technical advice on solving the housing problem and lack of recreational facilities, "we were more than delighted to comply," Brooks says.
Though it works only with grass-roots organizations, the Cambridge Corporation has Establishment written all over. It has no grass-roots representatives on its board and is entirely dependent on the educational and industrial establishments for its financial backing. "We are very conscious of the fact that we were created out of the fabric of the establishment," Brooks says. "Because we recognize that, we have an obligation to achieve total community objectives rather than the self-interested objectives of any one of the concerns backing us." Brooks admits that the Corporation will always be treated with suspicion by the people they want to work with. "There is an endemic credibility gap. People will always ask -- 'What is your angle really?'"
The Corporation helped COBI draw up a physical plan for improving the neighborhood (a plan which was eventually incorporated into Cambridge's successful model cities application). But COBI still looked on the Corporation with more than a measure of suspicion.
The chance for the Corporation to prove where it stands has come fairly early. COBI was faced with its first fight when it discovered that the Polaroid Company had bought a vacant lot with the intention of turning it into a parking lot. The residents wanted to use that area as a play lot, since recreational facilities in that area are very scarce. Nor is this a problem specific to area number 4. One residential area after another has had to watch