The Real Purpose of the Square

Imagine yourself as a 30-year-old single white-collar worker, living in Boston or Cambridge. You enjoyed college, but somehow this new working life of yours just isn’t as much fun as you thought it’d be. You’d like to recapture some of the magic of your undergraduate days, but you’ve already got your masters degree and don’t need any more education. You haven’t slept past 11:30 AM in six years, and the last time you just dropped in on one of the people in your apartment building, your neighbor thought you were the super trying to collect the rent. And you’re not about to get drunk on cheap beer at your company’s Friday Beer Bash and hook up with Tiffani from Human Resources in front of everyone you know, so that particular form of nostalgia is also closed. How do you get back some of the old college feeling?

Now imagine that someone had built a theme park, just for you. It had a college campus right on it, and a charming street area that makes you think of a small town, or at least a small town with a subway and a million small-town folks in it. The theme park also has friendly homeless people who sell newspapers on the street, and an outdoor cafe in the center whose name you can pronounce, because you took a semester of French your freshman year. Of course, the essence of every theme park is to give you just enough of something new while keeping you firmly planted in your own reality, so this particular park also has a Gap, a cell phone store, lots of ATMs and a place that serves the same garlic-parmesan bagels your office does.

If you think of Harvard Square as a theme park for nostalgic thirty-somethings—we’ll call it Yuppie FantasyLand—then all the changes that have happened in Harvard Square in the last few years start to make sense. We’ve lost many of the best mom-and-pop stores of the Square in the last few years, including Grafton Street, The Bow and Arrow, The Tasty, Videopros (soon to be gone), the movie theater on JFK Street, and Il Vicoletto. Though these losses have been sad for us actual students, extensive market research with Yuppie focus groups revealed that Yuppies just didn’t like these kinds of businesses—even for a college nostalgia theme park, they were too genuine. Park management for Yuppie FantasyLand, always keen on remaining close to their customers, decided that these businesses just had to go.

The loss of small businesses is a sad but often-told story that has been repeated in all of our hometowns. But in Harvard Square something special is happening: national franchises with brands as strong as Structure, California Pizza Kitchen and Store 24 (another soon-to-be casualty) can no longer survive. Evidently, park management has decided that Store 24, which it thought would provide Yuppies with all the convenience of home, was just too sketchy and its employees too unpalatable for such a carefully controlled environment. If Yuppies need snacks or food late at night, they can just go to CVS, and if they need food really late, well, most theme parks close at midnight anyway, so what are they doing out so late? Park management also decided that too many Yuppie bars would ruin the tip the nostalgia/comfort balance too much in favor of Nerdistans like Waltham, so it decided to get rid of Grafton Street and expand the bank.

Lost in all this catering to Yuppie tastes are us, the real college students. Since Yuppie FantasyLand thinks of us as just extras in some new production of The Truman Show, our opinions don’t count. Our need for a 24-hour diner doesn’t matter. When we want to rent a movie at midnight on a Wednesday, that doesn’t matter either. Even our nightlife doesn’t matter, or else management wouldn’t have closed two bars in the last year and crippled the Grille to boot.

What really matters is perfecting the magic formula to get nostalgic thirty-somethings to dispose of their disposable income, and anything that doesn’t fit into that magic formula must be ruthlessly culled. If all this produces rising rents and anonymous shops in our favorite Square, then so be it. Just don’t cry when your favorite store, or even your favorite restaurant franchise, closes—Yuppie focus groups have obviously demanded it. While it may no longer be possible to rent a movie late at night or grab a pint at the Bow, you’ll always have plenty of options for buying wrinkle-free khakis.

Alex F. Rubalcava ’02 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears regularly.

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