Central Square: A Tradition of Diversity

Located halfway along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Kendall Squares, Central Square has historically been a thriving commercial district like its neighboring squares, a bustling transport hub and the home of City Hall, Cambridge’s government headquarters.

But Central Square is more than just an area for politicians to argue and students to shop; it is also a meeting place for people of many different backgrounds—ethnically, culturally, and socially.

For over 200 years, immigrants from around the world have come to Cambridge and made Central Square their place to eat, drink and shop.

“The diversity has always been there in Central Square,” says Sarah Boyer, author of Crossroads: Stories of Central Square. Local companies gave the immigrants opportunities, Boyer says: “There’s a lot of factories around here—you didn’t have to know English, [and] you had a chance to earn a day’s pay.”

Those immigrants, working low pay jobs in surrounding communities and slowly coming to grips with America and its people, gave the square a liberal, multicultural flavor, similar to that given to its neighboring squares by Harvard and MIT. Foreign cuisine establishments grew up, new languages filled the streets, and the square became more culturally oriented—from communist bookshops to the Greek-American Political Club, which still exists today.

Local residents, for example, attribute the lack of retributive attacks following Sept. 11, which occurred elsewhere in the country and even in Boston, to this open-minded atmosphere.

“Lots of people know people [who died in the Sept. attacks],” says one longtime resident. Like everyone else they were sad and angry, she says, but “we’re too liberal to have problems—there’s too many cultures here already [for anyone to feel antipathy to new cultures].”

The woman, who did not want to be identified, pointed to the area’s variety of restaurants as a credit to Central Square. “Just look in the local calendar,” she says. “Anyone can fit in here.”

But as gentrification has taken place in recent years, it has become more difficult for the square to keep to its traditions and appeal to its old customer base, some residents say. Due to an influx of big business companies and restaurant chains, and the abolishment of rent control, prices of real estate and consequentially of goods and services have gone up.

Residents complain of higher prices, more drugs and increased commercialization. Banks, cheap shops and fast food joints now line the streets—from Dunkin’ Donuts to Convenience Plus—and for some, these shops are not so convenient.

“The prices and rent are too high—the Mom and Pop stores have gone, it’s all very inconvenient,” says one local resident, who only goes by the name “Valentine.” The “smoke store” he used to shop at, for example, has been sacrificed for a chain store. “Now I need to go to Boston or even New Hampshire to get cigars,” he says. “It’s not that hometown community it was any more.”

Such gentrification often results in a community takeover by higher income groups, with rising prices displacing lower-income residents, or in this case customers. For Valentine, a chef who works in the Boston area, the changes to Central Square mean that he might need to move out, even though he likes his job and the city.

Like many other residents, for example, Valentine complains about Holmes Plaza, the new multipurpose complex built near the Central Square T stop, saying those behind it had acted with “no consideration” for middle-class workers like Valentine. He blames the Cambridge community, which he said should have acted to prevent such changes.

The multimillion-dollar project sparked some public outcry when it forced out seven stores—including a radical bookstore, a tobacconist and a men’s clothes store—as the previous buildings at the site were demolished.

“Boston’s becoming like New York,” Valentine says. “They said it was going to happen—earlier they tried keeping things open 24 hours [and] nobody went for it, but now they’ve brought in late-night transport service” to Central Square—a sign that the area is becoming commercialized, and tailoring to younger, more affluent customers, such as those who frequent late-night bars, he says.

But Valentine says he sees many benefits of the new Central Square. “Major construction’s going on, good things are coming into Boston,” he says—and he appreciates that, even with the changes, Boston’s historical heritage lives on.