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CAMBRIDGE IN FLUX

Inner Belt, University Expansion, Housing Problems Are Disrupting the City's Old Traits and Traditions

By Robert J. Samuelson

But Cambridge is not only facing a period of major and uncertain physical change. It is also experiencing less obvious, but no less important, social changes. The most prominent, most publicly-discussed of these is the influx of "transients."

Cambridge has entered a period of significant change. The City's six square miles are crammed with an incredible variety of industries, businesses, homes, and institutions, and the possibility of altering things would seem, at first, minimal. It isn't.

The City already faces an accelerating series of physical changes, some of which have already started, and others which have already started, and others which should begin within the next decade:

* The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is building a $60 million research laboratory near M.I.T. Next to the 29-acre NASA development, the city is planning a private urban renewal project of high rise buildings expected to accommodate many of the research and engineering firms attracted to Cambridge by NASA and M.I.T. The City, with the cooperation of M.I.T., has already sponsored one such project, Technology Square.

* The eight-lane Inner Belt highway, which is still being fought by Cambridge politicians, will probably cut through the City several blocks east of Central Square, displacing between 3000 and 5000 residents.

* The John F. Kennedy Memorial Library will be built on the last large piece of undeveloped real estate in Harvard Square, the MBTA's Bennett St. repair yards, which will be relocated. Once completed, the Library is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. And the City administration is now talking seriously about plans for redeveloping other parts of Harvard Square.

* The city dump, long an eyesore and inconvenience for the surrounding neighborhood which has had to endure blowing garbage and billows of smoke, will be replaced by an incinerator. The real dividend for Cambridge will be new land for development; the dump is one of the last remaining large tracks of virgin real estate in the City open for public or private use.

* The MBTA will extend its Harvard Square line into North Cambridge, with one stop at Porter Square and another at Alewife Brook Parkway, where new repair yards will be located to replace the Bennett St. facilities across from Eliot House.

An Insoluble Problem?

These changes are coming, but no one predicts confidently what -- if any -- the long range consequences for the City will be. In fact, no one is even sure of the precise shape the changes will take. The Inner Belt, for example, has been in discussion for nearly two decades. The relocation problem it will create is staggering; many think it is insoluble. Yet because it was politically dangerous to imply an acceptance that the highway was coming, a start on relocation is only now being made.

The city dump, despite its recognized potential for massive redevelopment, is another area where specific plans are nowhere in sight. The Planning Board, the Historic Commission, and other like-minded groups believe that the area should be planned in a systematic, coordinated fashion. Other interests -- primarily land-hungry businesses, so far -- seem to be pressing for a quicker and less lofty disposition of the land. It is obvious that the dump will someday will not be a dump, but the nature, speed, and desirability of the different alternatives are obscure. Likewise the redevelopment of Harvard Square, much discussed in general terms, has so far escaped details.

The Transients

But Cambridge is not only facing a period of major and uncertain physical change. It is also experiencing less obvious, but no less important, social changes. The most prominent, most publicly-discussed of these is the influx of "transients."

The conventional way of seeing this trend is as a housing problem. There is little doubt that Cambridge has become a magnet for large numbers of students, young single workers, and young professionals. They are placing a tremendous strain on the local housing supply. They have flooded areas to the north and east of Harvard Square, and they are turning up in increasing numbers around Central Square and even in East and North Cambridge. In the process, many buildings in the City have been converted and rehabilitated, rents have gone up, and -- according to the commonly-accepted theory -- Cambridge residents have been forced out of the City to look for housing elsewhere.

The result is the housing "shortage." There is little evidence to contradict the existence of a real squeeze, and most City officials who watch the housing situation believe there will be a continuing demand for more space among young people who want to live in Cambridge. The prospect, then, is for more of the same: more transients, low rents getting higher, and low-income Cambridge residents being forced out of the City. The next logical area for these "market forces" to work seems to be eastern, most residential areas of the City.

To the existing pressures are added the probability of the Inner Belt's taking more than 1200 housing units and the possibility of business or commercial expansion around NASA and M.I.T. It was the combination of these forces that led the planners to propose a model cities project for 268 acres in East Cambridge. The City's proposal perceived the problem this way:

Too often, there is a tendency to view the low-income neighborhood as expendable... One chief thrust of the Cambridge proposal is to confront that issue directly, and to test many techniques for preserving a low-income area for its residents and for injecting new and valuable resources into its way of life.

There is no guarantee that Cambridge will have its model cities application approved, and even if it does, there is less certainty that the techniques proposed in the application will work. Though there is also no certainty in the predictions that the low-income residents in Eastern Cambridge will become increasing beleagured (and many of them slowly replaced), the hypothesis has become the Conventional Wisdom.

Whatever happens, it is clear that the City's housing situation is changing in more ways than one. The demand for housing is causing a great deal of new construction and promises to cause more. A drive along Harvard St. reveals a string of new apartment buildings -- all built since 1960. Harvard and M.I.T. have constructed substantial quantities of married student housing; Peabody Terrace contains 500 units, and M.I.T. has one 200-unit house in operation and is now completing another one.

The new apartments are increasing the housing supply (though gains will be wiped out or nullified at least temporarily by the construction of the Inner Belt) and supporting a new segment of the City's population. A large part of this population is indeed transient -- students, young workers who settle for only a few years and change their apartments annually, and a variety of hangers-on. But no one is very sure -- and probably won't be until 1970, if then -- how much of the new population is not transient.

High Prices

Young professionals are, everyone concedes, coming into the City, but there is no information on how stable, how rich, or how large a group this is. In addition, the City is drawing more well-established residents. Land prices in the Brattle St. neighborhood have skyrocketed, and many homes are selling in the $50,000 to $100,000 bracket. Some people have done substantial remodeling to make less attractive homes "livable." The demand for deluxe accomodations has also made it profitable to build large, expensive apartments, and the new tower at 1010 Memorial Drive may be the first of many. There are other responses to the demand for high quality housing: on Chauncy St. town houses are being constructed and offered for a cool $60,000 each.

End of the Old City

All this has potential significance beyond the housing market. The traditional Cambridge is pictured as a city of separate, tightly-knit communities remaining from that time that the city absorbed large numbers of immigrants. The national groups stuck together closely, although time and affluence have weakened the bonds as affluent sons and daughters moved up and away. But these communities have persisted in modified form. A drive along Cambridge St. cast from Harvard Square reveals only a superficial reminder of this continuity: a long string of small stores and shops geared almost exclusively to the needs of local neighborhoods.

Current trends seem to be hastening the demise of these communities. The Inner Belt, for example, will take a heavy toll in some areas. It will also have a big impact on low-income families: preliminary figures from the Cambridge Planning oBard show that 58 per cent of the families in the path of the highway earn under $6000 a year while about half of the single persons living along the route have an annual income of less than $3000. The forces of the housing market seem to be having a similar effect -- pushing the poor out of their neighborhood.

Growing Middle Class

The trend, over the long run, seems to be for a growing middle-class population. This slow shift is more significant than it appears. Cambridge traditionally has been pictured not only as a city of neighborhoods (Brattle St. being the Harvard-oriented community with Harvard Square as its shopping center), but also as a city split between rich and poor. It was the Yankees vs. the Irish, or, in a more sophisticated version, the Aristocrats vs. the Immigrants.

The stigma of the earlier conflict remains, but the City is no longer strictly divided. In the winter of 1966, for example, the Cambridge City Council spawned a feud which dug deep into the City's political traditions and demonstrated that the old forces had lost much of their strength. The conventional political alignment had always pitted councillors endorsed by the Cambridge Civic Association (a "good government" organization) against so-called independents, the non-endorsed councillors.

For years now, this sharp division has only been strictly maintained on a few of the most conspicuous issues. In 1966, the CAA-independent division disappeared completely. Both groups split down the middle, and a coalition of three independents and two CAA-endorsed councillors appointed a new city manager. Although personal feuds counted a great deal in this fight, the fact remained that the old political animosities had weakened enough to permit councillors from each group to join the new alliance. In public, they united in what amounted to a plea to shake the cobwebs from the city administration and "solve" the city's "problems."

There is no assurance that the new group will survive the November election. Nor is their any certainty that their defeat will mean a return to the politics of the past. Nothing seems predictable today for the City's politicians. Traditional politics were based on a councillor's personality and his availability to his constituents for advice, favors, or more camraderie; issues in City elections have usually been non-existent. Many of the councillors in the new coalition grew up in this kind of politics and still act as if things had not changed. Yet, in taking their radical departure, they have also introduced a new form of politics--more issue-oriented, with a commtiment to public programs and demonstrable "progress."

The old style of politics is not dead, nor will the new style, even if it suffers setbacks in the fall, be killed off, the future promises a confusing blend of the two, reflecting, in part, the confusing and changing population pattern.

The ubiquitous population change applies not only to residents; even the character of visitors to Cambridge is different. Harvard Square has begun to draw shoppers, sightseers, and pleasure-seekers from all over the metropolitan area: the teeny-boppers come for the "action" and the more serious types for a look at the University or to browse in the Square's specialty stores. Cambridge has become more metropolitan and less local in nature.

The future seems to hold more of the same. When the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library is constructed, the number of sightseers in Harvard Square will jump quickly. If the City does push through an urban redevelopment program for parts of the Square, even more people may come on a regular basis.

Other parts of the city promise to become more accessible with the construction of new highways through the city: the Inner Belt and the extension of Route 2 from the northwest. The extension of the MBTA line to North Cambridge will do the same. Moreover, Cambridge's job market is expanding and will continue to do so. According to Planning Board figures, there were 87,000 City-based jobs in 1966, 13,000 more than in 1950. With NASA and M.I.T. expected to bring more research-oriented and consulting firms to the City, and with the universities' payroll growing, the number is predicted to rise to 90,000 in 1970 and between 100,000 and 105,000 in 1980.

What will Cambridge be like in 10 or 15 years? The statistics can't tell the story. Much depends on how individual decisions are made and then implemented--the disposition of the city dump land, for example, could have a lasting impact on Cambridge's politics. It is already clear that the formal and informal role sof the universities are growing larger, if for no other reasons than the rise in the number of employees they hire and the number of students and faculty members they bring to the city. With the NASA complex and the Kennedy Library, are these roles bound to grow even larger?

A reasonable argument could be made on either side of the question. Cambridge's future is not so clear-cut as some emerging trends make it appear. New developments will not destroy the past; they will only superimpose themselves on the existing city, producing some positive change and much uncertainty

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