A Changing Neighborhood
Later this week, a similar coalition of the Harvard Square Defense Fund and the Neighborhood 10 organization will join forces in the same chambers, where the city's zoning board meets. On Thursday, the board will discuss whether to approve a zoning permit for Dream Machine, a video-game center which hopes to open in the Garage complex on the corner of Mt. Auburn and Dunster St. The neighborhood groups will again try to squelch permission.
On the surface, it my seem that mid-Cambridge, long reputed for its liberal bent, is now witnessing a conservative backlash. Yet the philosophy behind the Square's current controversy is far from evangelical. For neighborhood groups, the liquor and video game battles are merely two skirmishes in a full-scale war for the preservation of the square.
Since the mid '70s, the commercial district surrounding Harvard has undergone drastic changes. Rents in the largely traditional, somewhat antiquated shopping area have skyrocketed; a number of the older shops, like the Mandrake Bookstore, have been forced to relocate to less expensive properties; the neighborhood Woolworth's remembered nostalgically by countless are residents, closed recently to make way-for-The Gap. In general, the trend has been to draw in national chains-like Pizzeria Uno and The Gap at the expense of independent, uniquely flavored shops.
Furthermore, construction on the Red Line has altered the area's shape and appearance, while attracting more outside consumers and pushing rents up even higher. The type of stores coming in have been what Dean Johnson, an active member of the Defense Fund, calls "youth-oriented." catering to the transient needs of students and not to the people living in the area.
Ever since the changes began, a group of neighborhood residents has tried to oppose them. The Defense Fund, which now claims membership of up to 600 area residents, first coalesced in 1979 to prevent the Kennedy Library from locating on what is now Kenneds St. Learing that it would attract additional crowds and impose an un manageable burden on the already strained parking facilities of the Square Opponents of the Harvard area site won that battle and they soon directed their energies to two other development University Place and Parcel B the direction of which they felt to be crucial to the future of the area. In both cases community groups won concessions which they now believe will maintain that balance between old and new Square which they desperately want to preserve.
Until this fall community activity focused on such "macro issues." according to Francis M. Duchay '55 a city Councillor and resident of nearby West Cambridge. "We did not concentrate on the tinier, quality of life issues" like pinball and liquor licensing. While certain groups have fought specific licensing decisions in the past this tall is the first time they've done the policy analysis and the kind of research which has allowed them to make more coherent conclusions." Duchay explains.
But the groups have lately found that liquor and pinball establishments have proliferated rapidly. Since 1979, the number of alcohol permits in the Square has increased by 36 percent. Now, one quarter of all Cambridge bars are in the Square, and, according to Duehay. Harvard Square has one of the highest concentrations of liquor establishment in New England.
This observation has generated two concerns among those monitoring the Square. The first is that pinball and liquor joints draw undesirable elements. "They attract people who want to come to drink." says Johnson, adding. "They are not based at Harvard College. The Square is becoming an unattractivew place for people who live around here, and it raise the question of who's the Square for?" Citizens have complained of rising crime rates surrounding certain Square bars.
Neighborhood activists worry that the spread of pinball and liquor licenses exemplifies the direction in which the area is going. One person active in the fight against Dream Machine places his battle in a larger context. "We're all pretty worried about what the Square is going to look like once the tornado that is the Red Line settles. Maybe it's just nostalgia. but I'm not pleased with what's happened with the number of ice cream stores and pizza stores, as opposed to drugstores and quality clothing stores...In that respect, the video at cade does not fit into what I fell the Square should be."
In response to the trend, neighborhood groups have accused the licensing board of issuing licenses for establishments haphazardly without any concern for the overall quality of the neighborhood. Ouchay sponsored a motion-which the City Council adopted late last year-urging the adoption of a coherent set of guidelines, and some argue that Grendel's and Ruggles should at least wait until such a policy is adopted before they receive their permits.
IT IS INDEED SAD to see the transformation of the Square Anyone who has visited other college campuses has most likely seen what this are could very well turn into a colorless strip of Golden Arches, blue Jean shops and pizza parlors. But it is uncertain whether a few licensing squabbles won will serve as anything more than pebbles ever so slightly altering the course of the tide pouring through the area. Within the past two months, it was announced that two of the oldest establishments in Cambridge--Schoenhol's and pangloss Bookstores--will soon close down to make room for a new office complex. And another branch of the Au Bon Pain chain has replaced. The Crimzon Shop in the choice Holyoke Center location.
In a way, the two restaurants and the pinball outfit now under attack are innocent victims, outlets for the frustration of those witnessing admittedly undesirable but probably inexorable changes. The liquor establishments which cause trouble are stand-up bars, not restaurants that happen to serve alcohol. It is difficult to believe that if Grendel's and Ruggles begin to serve beer, the number of outsiders coming to the Square will sharply rise. While a stronger case can be made against the impact of arcades like the Dream Machine, much of the damage has probably already been done at the packed Tommy's Lunch and Elsie's video rooms.
Johnson himself describes the trend over the past few years as "the process of incremental alterations, and before anyone realized it, it's changed. [There's a feeling of] let's get a handle on it. Do what you want, but do something" It is sad, but probably the truth, that, in a few years, the old Harvard Square will be gone-whatever they do.