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A Cancer in Cambridge: Juvenile Delinquency

Local Teenagers Commit More Crimes Than Any Similar Group in Country

By Philip M. Boffey

CAMBRIDGE today is in the position of an advanced cancer victim. The tumor of juvenile delinquency has grown to dangerous size, and, unless it is reduced, may well spread disease to the healthier parts of the city. But the cure will be long and hard, perhaps next to impossible.

Yet, like many such victims, Cambridge seems only dimly aware of its disease. A handful of social workers, a few academic men, one or two policemen may understand the problem. But the great majority of citizens is either unaware of its existence, or blithely ignores it.

A short, virtually unnoticed, Associated Press bulletin last year indicated the gravity of the situation when it announced that the Cambridge-Somerville district has the largest rate of juvenile delinquency in the country.

This statistic may have been misleading. There are no zip gun wars here such as those in New York, and the crimes committed here are probably slightly less serious in nature. But the problem is simply this: a greater number of teenagers in this area seem to commit unlawful and anti-social acts than in any comparable area in the country.

Environmental Causes

The causes of Cambridge delinquency are the familiar ones. To a certain extent they are environmental. One can work out a pretty close correlation between the degree of dilapidation of an area and the degree of its delinquency. The fairly substantial middle class sections adjoining and to the west of Harvard Yard are relatively free of juvenile problems. But it is in the poorer sections of the city, to the east of Harvard, that the real difficulty lies.

Chief of the problem areas is Neighborhood Four. Lying behind M.I.T., it includes the vice area around Kendall Square and two crime-producing federal housing projects. Here one finds a close correspondence between environment and juvenile crime. For if the area is a leader in delinquency, it is also a leader in housing problems. It contains only 11% of the city's dwelling units, yet it claims 23% of the city's dilapidated homes. Fifty percent of its houses have no central heating system.

The area is also badly overcrowded, especially in the younger age brackets. Compared with the city average of 24.2 children per acre, Neighborhood Four has about one acre of land for each 53.5 children. Play space is at a minimum.

Close behind this neighborhood in delinquency problems follow the Central Square area, the Western Avenue section behind Dunster House, and Census Tract Seven, a long thin district running along the Cambridge-Somerville line. All of these exhibit the same characteristics of poor housing and overcrowding.

But poor living conditions and urban renewal problems are not the sole determinants of Cambridge delinquency. A glance at the neighborhood of East Cambridge proves that. It, too, has low income families. It has fairly poor housing, and has a greater percentage of dwelling units without central heating than any of the problem areas mentioned above. It is overcrowded, and is an island completely surrounded by industry. Yet for some reason it has a relatively low rate of delinquency.

The solution to the dilemma would seem to be this: it is not the slums per se which cause Cambridge delinquency; rather it is a combination of factors, including the deterioration of the family and the absence of social organization in the neighborhood.

The low rate of delinquency for East Cambridge can thus be attributed to the strong family, religious, and civic ties which exist there. The area contains three strong, self-sufficient nationality groups, the Italians, the Portuguese, and the Poles, with a smattering of Lithuanians. Each group has its own active parish and societies, and takes great pride in the neighborhood. Despite the poor housing conditions, most families are eager to stay in the area.

In sharp contrast stands the notorious Neighborhood Four. Here the social problems are acute. Many families have lost the father, sometimes accidentally, sometimes through incarceration, sometimes because he just plain ran away. The neighborhood claims 25% of the City's mother's aid cases and 22% of the City's relief cases.

Nor is there any strong sense of pride in the area. Most of those who work do so outside the district, and hence feel less tied to the neighborhood than they might. Social organization has been virtually non-existent in the neighborhood. As one social worker expressed it. "You would be amazed at the lack of natural resources here. No women's clubs, no Boy Scouts, no nothing."

The Housing Projects

One focal point of juvenile trouble in this area has been the two federal housing projects of New Towne Court and Washington Elms. Built in 1937 and 1941 respectively as slum clearance undertakings for families of low incomes, the developments are comprised of three-story brick and concrete apartment structures. In housing quality they rank better than any census tract in the city, but in human relations they show up very poorly. It is mostly the lower elements of society which tend to gravitate to these projects, and the more ambitious families are continually moving out. In addition, the projects crowd together a large number of juveniles in a fairly small area.

A similar deterioration of family and community structure characterizes the City's other delinquent areas. As one social worker from the Western Avenue section put it, "The parents around here seem more interested in having a good time than in being parents. They spend a lot of time away from home and leave the kids on their own. And when they are home they drink, and swear, and fight, and engage in illicit sexual relations. It's no wonder the kids go bad."

It is probably true that no one cause or set of causes can explain every case of juvenile delinquency in Cambridge. But the influence of the family would seem to be the most important, and when this is combined with a decadent neighborhood environment, the result is usually delinquency.

The life of the Cambridge delinquent is very little known to the rest of the City. Right behind Dunster, virtually unnoticed by most of the University, exists a brutal and anti-social society with a moral code all of its own. And the situation is even worse in the Neighborhood Four area. As one social worker from this district said, "When you first come down here you are shocked at your new surroundings. Then you take another look and think that it's a pretty ordinary neighborhood. But after you've been here awhile, and bits of information come seeping in from all over, you become appalled. If people really knew what went on down here, they would probably rise up in arms."

Delinquent life in Cambridge centers around the gang and the street corner. Driven out of the home by an unpleasant family situation, the typical Cambridge delinquent finds companionship and prestige as a member of the gang. Within the gang itself, he may also gain prestige as a leader. This post usually falls to the boy who can outfight his contemporaries.

Each gang has a regular meeting place, usually at some corner store. The store serves as a communications center for the gang, for everyone usually stops by there at least once a day, and there are almost always one or two members around to pass on the word. On rainy days these places are jammed, as anyone who has walked past the corner of Mt. Auburn St. and Putnam Square can testify.

It is almost unbelievable to an outsider just how much time the gang members spend loafing on the corner. "Some of the guys spend hours and hours and days and days on the street corner," one gang leader said. "Last summer, some of them would get up around 11 o'clock, go up to the corner, go back home when they felt hungry, go back up to the store until dinner, and return after dinner to stay till midnight."

The gang is formed chiefly on the basis of geographical proximity. The ties of the neighborhood are strong, and those established at school or elsewhere are insignificant. At virtually every age level from eight to 21 you can find some sort of gang functioning somewhere in the city. Many are not formed until high school, while some begin much earlier. Just this year a gang of nine-year-olds in Neighborhood Four successfully carried out many thefts and was finally apprehended while pulling off a highly-organized burglary of a local house.

Few Gang Wars

Surprisingly enough, there are very few large-scale gang wars in Cambridge. A few years ago, about 200 Cambridge youths invaded Belmont to redress an alleged grievance, but nothing came of that foray. On the whole, the fighting has been confined to chance encounters between a few members of rival gangs. The odds are seldom even, and if one gang is able to obtain an eight to one numerical advantage, more power to it.

Most gang acts in Cambridge are directed against the Society at large rather than rival gangs. Juveniles engage in a wide variety of illegal activities here. Out of a total of 509 complaints received against juveniles last year by the Crime Prevention Bureau of the City Police Department, the following ten, with the number of complaints in parentheses, were the most frequent: larceny (53), destruction of property (46), stubbornness (42), trespassing (38), running away (36), using motor vehicle without authority (30), attempted larceny (26), disturbing the peace (24), assault and battery (19), and gaming with dice and cards (15).

Although Society may regard these acts as criminal, within the gang they are looked on in a different light. Sometimes they are revered because they strike at the unfriendly outsiders. And in almost no gang are they really felt to be wrong. It is much the same situation as when a Harvard student throws a candy wrapper on the grass. Technically, he knows it is wrong. But there is no heartburn, no feeling of guilt, over the act.


The basic causes of delinquency have been mentioned. The more immediate motivations for these crimes are varied and complex. Some are of a deep psychological nature. Others can be traced to immediate wants or boredom. Still others to meanness.

It is hard for most students to realize just how far poverty can drive a boy. One youth from the Dunster area told of stealing coke bottles from University buildings to collect the deposits and go to a show. "If it wasn't for those two cent bottles," he said, "there would have been several hundred less times that I would have been able to go to the movies."

To meet their real or imagined needs, most gangs develop bold and ingenious theft techniques. One gang used to walk into five and ten cent stores wearing baggy, long-sleeved coats. One of the boys would sidle up to a counter and, standing not five feet from a clerk, would cram everything he could lay his hands on up the sleeve of the coat. Another gang pretended to collect newspapers and went around ringing doorbells until it found an empty house to break into. No matter how dumb these boys may appear, it is important to remember that they are trained experts and very clever in their field.

Pure want cannot explain most of the delinquencies. A gang leader from Banks Street told of breaking into a fifth floor room in Adams House one summer and stealing 85 ties. These did not have a great resale value, and the leader obviously had no use for all of them. Here the search for excitement played an important role, for as the leader said, "it's pretty scary business rummaging through someone's room."

Juvenile Boredom

The fact is that boredom pervades a good part of the delinquent's life. Walking through the federal housing projects in Neighborhood Four, one sees many boys sitting on the door-steps staring off into space for hour after hour. The same is true of the various street corner hangouts.

With no money to spend on amusement, and few places he wants to go for recreation, the juvenile is led to escape his boredom elsewhere, often in crime. A convicted delinquent from the housing project area explained it this way: "We always liked to hang around together at night. Sometimes we'd play the pinballs at the Spa, but usually we got kicked out. Then someone would say 'Let's take a walk' and pretty soon we'd end up down near the railroad tracks. Then, we'd hop a freight and clip a case of beer and get high."

Many juvenile crimes, especially in the advanced teens, are motivated by downright meanness. Around the ages of sixteen and seventeen some of the boys become so tough and anti-social that their acts become increasingly brutal. A good example occurred a few years ago when one local tough stood on a street corner flipping a coin in the air for fifteen minutes. He then let it drop to the sidewalk. Another boy standing nearby bent over to pick it up for him, and promptly received a kick in the face from the flipper. "That guy was real mean," a local gang leader reminisced later. "He was sort of insane. Playing football, he used to bite guys and wouldn't let go until he drew blood. He was sure a good 'jammer', though." (A jammer is a street fighter who can use his legs and arms and anything else effectively.)

Exaggerated Toughness

Kicking people is one way the Cambridge delinquent gains prestige in the eyes of his contemporaries, for the "tough guy" is feared and respected. Consequently toughness is to a great extent put on and exaggerated. The local youths play a never-ending game of bluff and test and bluff again.

All of these motivations play a part in making Harvard a prime target of juvenile attacks. Harvard has undeniably become associated in local minds with the rich and the "haves," and is regarded as fair game for any pilfering the locals may have in mind. Covetous eyes, unaccustomed to any luxury, gaze longingly at the University's obvious material wealth. Sometimes a theft results. Other times a youth merely crosses two wires of an open car in fender alley, starts it up, and just sits there pretending he is driving it.

Sometimes the reaction against boredom erupts against the University, and then the answer to the perennial question "What'll we do tonight?" becomes "Let's go up to the Square and jump a few students." Other times the University just happens to be conveniently nearby when a g takes it into its head to do something Still other times, maliciousness ters then a brutal mugging curs or someone's tires are slash

University Soon Forgets

On these occasions, the student b becomes aware of the problem right the University's back door. But uproar quickly dies down, and remain interested long enough worry about a cure. Yet the astounding fact remains that no method of meeting the problem of juvenile delinquency has proved conclusively successfull in Cambridge.

Police methods have proven on the whole unfortunate. It is probably true that reform schools have seldom reformed anybody, and those in Massachusetts are no exception to the rule. Nor has the cop on the beat5Basketball provides a temporarily constructive release of energy.

University Soon Forgets

On these occasions, the student b becomes aware of the problem right the University's back door. But uproar quickly dies down, and remain interested long enough worry about a cure. Yet the astounding fact remains that no method of meeting the problem of juvenile delinquency has proved conclusively successfull in Cambridge.

Police methods have proven on the whole unfortunate. It is probably true that reform schools have seldom reformed anybody, and those in Massachusetts are no exception to the rule. Nor has the cop on the beat5Basketball provides a temporarily constructive release of energy.

Police methods have proven on the whole unfortunate. It is probably true that reform schools have seldom reformed anybody, and those in Massachusetts are no exception to the rule. Nor has the cop on the beat5Basketball provides a temporarily constructive release of energy.

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