Though Cambridge's city fathers print "Cambridge-The University City," on their information brochure, they may often wish that, back in 1636, the Great and General Court had decided to plant its new college somewhere else-where, for example, Malden or Dorchester or another of the communities ringing Boston now stands.
If truth be told, Cambridge is a city with universities, not a university city. About 100,000 people live here, and it's a good bet that over half of them-those who sometimes proudly term "lifelong residents of Cambridge" -have muttered the words "Harvard" or "M.I.T." with the incantations proper for a Druid curse at least once in their lives. The universities are here; Cambridge can do little about that. Living with them is, however, not always easy.
For a long while-ever since the first waves of Irish immigrants began pushing into the City-there have really been two Cambridges. The first is composed of University students and Faculty, plus middle and upper class Cantabrigians associated, if only sentimentally, with Harvard or M. I. T. The other is made up of the remainder of the City-which has lower incomes, less education, and generally, a slight edge in political power.
In the earlier part of this century, Harvard was viewed, in large measure correctly, as a bastion of Yankee privileges. Town-gown clashes took on the added dimension of ethnic squabbles. An Irish mayor named Sullivan would denounce a Yankee president of Harvard by the name of Conant: Boston newspaper headlines would recount the clash the next morning. For the most part, Harvard reacted to the Irish influx much as the Boston Brahmins had: the University made itself into a citadel and generally stood aloof from the rest of Cambridge.
The University did not stand completely aside; it would sometimes take note of the rest of Cambridge, but for the most part, only when it wanted to get something. Often, the contact was one which the other parts of Cambridge did not remember with any particular fondness; in the 1930's, for example, Harvard decided to build its Houses. They were constructed on the site of the Kerry Corner neighborhood, where a clan of local Irish politicians had grown up. Today, only one frame house at Plympton St. and Memorial Drive remains of this neighborhood.
At first glance; it might appear that the antagonism between Harvard and the rest of Cambridge should have lessened since the 1930's. Harvard no longer buys up massive tracts like Kerry Corners; the total land area of the University has expanded by only one-third since 1939. The old ethnic antagonisms have abated, indeed almost disappeared; Yankee Harvard no longer faces off against Irish Cambridge. Over the years, a series of Cambridge politicians and civic leaders have grown up to bridge the gap.
Yet the split remains; there have probably been more local denunciations of Harvard and M.I.T. in the last 18 months than in the ten previous years. The universities have once again been attacked by a significant minority of local residents as bastions of privilege insensitive to the plight of the rest of the City.
In large part, the resurgence of anti-University sentiment is only significant of a deeper problem: Cambridge is now undergoing a period of agonizing change, a period which will almost certainly create a city substantially different from today's or that of twenty years ago. The universities are usually only indirectly responsible for the changes, yet since they are the bodies most in the public view, criticism has been concentrated on them.
None of the changes threatening the old Cambridge have as yet been fully realized, but their effects are already being felt. The most visible changes include:
Construction of a new NASA center and accompanying in development of technological firms in Tech Square.
The Kennedy Memorial Library which, although still delayed by problems of site clearance, will someday bring large numbers of tourists and scholars into the City.
Several planned expressways, primarily the Inner Belt, which will destroy substantial amounts of Cambridge's housing stock; about 1200 families will be displaced by the Belt alone.
Beyond these highly visible changes-and probably more important than them-is a shift in the composition of the population of Cambridge. In recent years, young professional people, students from various Boston universities, and enthusiasts of various varieties of hip culture have flocked to the City-attracted to it by the presence of the universities.
What all these changes mean is that the older Cambridge-the collection of cohesive, often ethnic neighborhoods-is being threatened. Little by little, the old balance between separate communities of University and non-University people is shifting. The new residents are not necessarily normally connected with the universities, but their life styles tend to make them look toward Harvard and M.I.T..
The measure both of the changes Cambridge is now experiencing and of the agony which those changes are causing is what has come to be called the City's "housing crisis." The crux of the problem is simple: Cambridge's housing stock is not large enough to accommodate all the people who want to live in the City. Generally more affluent than the older residents, the newcomers have bid up the price of housing.