Jimmy Caragianes, strolling in the midafternoon sun down Pearl St., across the snowbanks and through the slush, is a moving center of attention. Everyone but everyone know him--drivers slow to ask if he needs a ride, passersby wave or shout.
And Caragianes, a leading citizen of Cambridgeport, knows everyone and everything in his neighborhood, which is bounded by Mass Ave and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Twice a candidate for City Council, forever a vocal advocate of change, Caragianes says he likes his neighborhood simply because it is a neighborhood.
"I lived on Huron Avenue (at the other end of Cambridge) for four years, and I couldn't wait to get out--I knew maybe five people. Here I walk out the door and greet 20 people," Caragianes explains.
A member of the liberal Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) yet an opponent of the city's controversial rent control program, Caragianes defies political categorization.
Revitalizing decayed Central Square and developing the "vast wasteland" of abandoned industrial plants and vacant lots that border Cambridgeport are his two current projects--he has been fighting both battles for at least a decade.
Breaking his patter only to shout at friends, Caragianes conducts a tour of the streets and alleys surrounding Camrbidgeport.
All Sorts of Garbage
Driving in and around the Simplex site, once home of a mammoth cable factory, and now with a field with "all sorts of garbage and not much else," Caragianes explains his dream.
"We have been looking at this vast emptiness for 15 years," he complains. "We could have had the Polaroid corporate headquarters here, but the city said 'we want something to provide blue collar jobs.'"
"Polaroid would have been a start--when you begin something other things attach to it," he contends. And by the same token, "blight breeds blight."
And decay is creeping in on Cambridgeport from the other direction as well, Caragianes says. Driving into Central Square, he points to barroom after barroom. "There's an oversaturation of gin mills and fast food places," he says.
"It doesn't attract the decent businesses, and people are scared to come in after dark," he adds.
"Now the kind of stores you see are the kinds that service a poorer class--you've lost the carriage trade and the middle class working people," Caragianes' wife Ethel adds.
And so the Caragianes work to force the city fathers to clean up and police Central Square.
But in his present-day fights, Caragianes constantly refers to his past, closely tied to the city of Cambridge.
His uncle's store, Felix's, ancestor of the current Linden St. shoe repair store, once stood where Gnomon Copy now stands on Mass Ave.
More than a shoe repair store, Felix's sold newspapers and magazines of every kind, and even offered hat-cleaning, "back in the days when people wore hats."
On the newsstands, the store carried The Daily Worker, the New Republic and the Irish Nation. "We were always listening to people who were furious about the left-leaning periodicals we sold," Caragianes explains.
As his uncle was the unofficial "mayor of Harvard Square," once feted by Harvard President Conant and the faculty, so Caragianes is the unofficial first citizen of the Cambridgeport neighborhood, recognized wherever he goes.
"Sometimes I talk too much," he ways. "I don't have any doctor's degrees, but I've gone through a lot."