Merchants Fear a Cambridge Ghetto
"How long can we be passive and turn the other cheek when we get hit," asks Bobbi Baker, half-owner of "Bobbi Baker's," a little boutique on Holyoke Street that has been trashed three times in the last four months. "How long can we afford to stay in business?"
"I don't ask to be a millionaire," says her partner Ruth. "Just to take home a little money. Who has a right to take that away? Those kids on the street? They say the streets belong to the people. Well, we're the people, too."
Last Saturday night's broken windows have mostly been replaced, but the merchants who were hit, and many who weren't, have decided that the time has come to do something to protect themselves from rioters and crazy youths in the Square, "outright crooks hooking onto a movement," in the words of Jim Jacobs, owner of J. August, the first store hit last Saturday night.
The merchants are frightened and angry, and have been the prime movers in the City Council crackdowns on freaks in the Square. The new militancy means more than protection against future riots, it means "cleaning up" the Square, getting rid of unpleasantries like panhandling which are keeping potential customers out of the Square and money out of the merchants' pockets.
Some merchants attended Monday's City Council meeting to demand action. More came to a private meeting called by Bobbi Baker Wednesday night. "It was a meeting of neighbors, not the formation of a committee. People affected were invited to come and exchange sad experiences," says Jim Jacobs.
At the meeting, the informal group discussed what measures it could ask the City Council to take at its meeting Thursday. The group, now representing the Harvard Square Businessmen's Association, met Thursday morning and asked the City Manager to do three things: provide more foot patrolmen round the clock in the Square and on the sidestreets: enforce ordinances covering panhandling and unlicensed hawking of crafts and newspapers; and ban large gatherings anywhere in the Harvard Square area.
The merchants' dream of Haryard Square is of a "quaint, pleasant place to shop, where anyone can feel comfortable." One that would once more attract "the suburban housewives" and "the little insurance girls and secretaries from Boston" who used to shop in the Square, but don't now because the dirty panhandlers and the violence make them feel uptight.
Bobbi Baker says, "there's been anamazing change in the Square in the five years we've been here. There's twice the shoplifting And nobody who doesn't live here will come in to shop." Alexander Zavelle, manager of the Coop, says that the Coop gets calls all the time from people wanting to know whether it's safe to come in shopping.
The merchants' greatest fear, the one that motivates their militancy against street people rather than simply against the political rioters, is that Cambridge is turning into a ghetto, becoming another Berkeley, a city too risky for high class businesses. Saks Fifth Avenue, a store that adds class to the Square, that brings shoppers in, was demolished in the riot. A mailbox was hurled through a window, not only breaking glass, but much of the counter area.
Saks will be closed at least until August second for repairs. There is some question as to whether it will reopen at all. "Why does Saks need a store in Cambridge?" asks Jacobs. "They don't make much money here, nothing at all like New York. If stores like that close we'll end up like upper Putnam Avenue."
The smaller owners fear that the larger ones, like Restaurant Associates, which runs Zum Zum, the Treadway Inn, and Barney's, may simply board up and pay their rent until their leases expire. Jacobs imagines that "we could have a skid row here in one or two years."
The rents in Harvard Square are among the highest in the Boston area, which means that retailers have to do lots of business to achieve an acceptable profit margin. In addition, most businesses have had their insurance cancelled or seen their rates rise terrifically since the riots began. Though they realize that flooding the Square with police may also keep shoppers away the merchants are desperate.
"Why does everyone have to come to Harvard Square. Why not Newton Square of Medford." asks Jacobs. "I'm not talking about killing the grass, just getting rid of the weeds, that's all."
He continues like a wistful clothier remembering styles that have gone out of fashion, "It's no fun anymore. Not like it used to be. I love selling this stuff. See those purple pants over there. They're not for fags, they're for businessmen who want a little color in their lives."
"I'll tell you this," says Bobbi Baker, "I'd like to see the 99 per cent of kids stand up and be counted against that one per cent violent types. Like the Silent Majority. Where are the flower people now? Throwing bricks. Why did it happen? Why did Hitler happen? People are sheep: they're lax." But Bobbi Baker has stood up and been counted, and she feels better.