More Than a College Town

The tall ships sailed into Boston Harbor last week, proud remnants of the age of sail on hand to mark that historic city's 350th birthday. But Cambridge historians will tell you that, some 990 years ago when the first ships blew into the Harbor, they didn't set anchor till they had journeyed up the river to Cambridge. Leif Ericson, these archaeologists contend, was the first Cantabrigian, and his settlement here may well have been the first European colony in the New World.

The legend isn't as well-known as it might be, in part because there is little proof, and in part because there is so much else for the city to pride itself on. Cambridge too is celebrating its 350th, a year-long bash commemorating the city that gave birth not only to endless generations of Harvard scholars but also the Porterhouse steak, the Polaroid Land camera, and the proportional representation election. "Boston is the biggest suburb of Cambridge," former mayor Edward Crane '35 was fond of declaring; indeed, few cities of 100,000 have had an impact so large on the nation.

Born seven years before Harvard, Cambridge, or Newtowne as it was called then, was the original seat of state government: Governor Winthrop's refusal to reside in the town, however, meant the bureaucrats quickly left, only to be replaced by the academics. A school opened in September of 1638 to an audience of a dozen adolescent boys; not a few weeks later, John Harvard died, leaving half his fortune to the institution that would bear his name.

The city's early years, like the College's were quiet and uneventful. Cambridge, rechristened in remembrance of England's foremost college on a river, spread out for miles to include Arlington, Lexington and Billerica. Since but one church was allowed for each community, these split off to form separate parishes as soon as there were enough residents to make commuting to services difficult. A corollary to this rule--state law required all churches to have a tavern within a few hundred feet, so independent towns had to be large enough to support their own grog shop.

Puritans ruled Cambridge, as they did most of Massachusetts Bay, in the early days--Henry Dunster, president of Harvard, left his post in 1654 rather than publicly extol infant baptism, and at least one "witch" left this world from Gallows Hill north of Harvard. But like the rest of the colony, Cambridge matured quickly--by the beginning of the 18th century, a new group of wealthier and more tolerant folks, the Tories, supplanted the Mathers and their ilk. Huge houses began to sprout on Brattle St., still seen by many as the home of the haughty "Brattle St. crowd."

Though these Tories had money, they weren't a majority in the city; historian S.B. Sutton estimates they comprised at best 10 per cent of the population and that many of the rest were among the colony's most rabid patriots. September 2, 1774, after the British raided a Somerville powderhouse, thousands of Cantabrigians gathered on the steps of the city's courthouse to demand action, and some shattered windows in the mansions of local Tories.

Many supporters of the crown found it prudent to flee to Boston where they could remain safe behind royal lines, and Cambridge became the boundary with the British Empire. That boundary was reinforced in the spring 1775, when, after starting the Revolutionary War in Lexington and Concord, British soldiers retreated into Boston. Behind them, Minutemen closed off the peninsula, camping 16,000 strong on Cambridge Common for months. When the soldiers needed barracks, Harvard agreeably moved to Concord for about a year. When the soldiers needed baths, they took them in the Charles River, often Sutton notes, "with disregard for modesty." General George Washington arrived June 17 to take command of the Continental Army in a ceremony on the Common.

Eventually the colonials camped in Cambridge succeeded in starving their Redcoat foes out of Boston--that ended the Revolutionary War in New England, and even before fighting had ceased elsewhere, Massachusetts citizens gathered in Cambridge to ratify the state Constitution. Drafted by John Adams, the document ended property qualifications for voting and set forth the rights of citizens to alter their government.

But Revolution turned quickly to normalcy in the city. Where once the Tories had lived, a new generation of younger speculators and developers now moved in, men who would change the face of Cambridge over the next century. Andrew Craigie, who lived in the Longfellow mansion on Brattle St. was typical. Working through straw buyers and fronts, Craigie quietly acquired most of the real estate in Cambridgeport, built bridges and dug canals. His crowning accomplishment came when he lured the country courthouse and jail to his East Cambridge properties, assuring that other development would follow.

The move of the courthouse to East Cambridge symbolized the declining power of the Yankees who dominated Old Cambridge--Brattle St. and Harvard Square. The speculators worried the Yankees, but it was another, larger migration that absolutely horrified them--the Irish, who were to end once and for all the upper-crust domination of Cambridge politics. Alfred E. Vellucci, an Italian neighborhood politician, describes the arrival of the Irish with a grand cry of delight. "Yeaaaaahh for the Irish. They came pouring in like crazy. The ships were docking in Boston and they were coming in droves, arriving by the thousands between 1850 and 1900." At first, Vellucci says, the Yankees made their fortunes off the immigrants--"the Craigies and the Lechmeres and the Danas, they filled in the land and built houses. With no zoning laws or health codes or building departments to stop them, they just reaped a harvest." But before they could check themselves, they had gone too far, he contends.

The last great party for the Brahmins came in 1896, on the 50th anniversary of Cambridge's incorporation as a city. Bunting hung from every window in the Square, and June 3 saw one of the great parades in the city's history. Led by surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the procession highstepped through the Square ending at Memorial Hall where crowds listened eagerly to a series of speeches. Harvard men marched second in the procession, and at least one group, the Crimson reported the next day, carried a sign asking the better-left-unanswered question "What would Cambridge do without us?"

But that celebration marked the end of an era--after that, the ethnics took over. From 1900-1930, Velucci insists, the Irish "had complete control of city hall, lock, stock and barrel. They had control of the school department, they had the mayor and the city council. There were Irish teachers being appointed, and cops and firemen and city laborers. Tip O'Neill's father was sewer commissioner, a friend of his ran the water department." Hard on the heels of the Irish, the Portuguese, the Italians and the French reached the far shore of the Charles. "Between them, they took all the power away from the silk-stocking gang," Vellucci says with a chuckle.

But the "Brattle St. crowd" fought back--their strategy to regain some power (and also to end the corruption that marked the reign of the Irish) was a scheme innocuously called "Plan E elections." Plan E supporters called for lessening the power of the mayor and putting the city under the administration of a professional "city manager," responsible to the city council. The plan also called for a new system of voting designed to insure that minorities within the city would have a voice. "We knew it was a plan by Harvard and the lace curtain ethnics to get control," Vellucci says. "It was under the disguise of clean and honest government, but we knew what the real plot was." And so in the 1938 campaign, embattled opponents of Plan E termed it the work of "Harvard communists," and the city council voted to symbolically "secede" from Harvard should the law pass. That idea appealed to the Harvard Lampoon, whose members dressed in storm trooper outfits and marched down Massachusetts Avenue toward the city Hall to demand that they too be made a separate state. Sutton records that Councilor Michael (Mickey the Dude) Sullivan was descending the steps as the Poonies arrived. He tried to stop the parade, and fell to the ground in the ensuing confusion. Luckily for the opponents of Plan E, Sullivan toppled in front of a photographer whose widely-circulated picture made it appear that a Harvard student in jackboots had kicked a city councilor.

Some combination of these incidents combined to kill Plan E in 1938. But two years later, the forces of clean government, Brattle St. politics and Plan E prevailed, winning every ward of the city except heavily Irish North and East Cambridge. As if to vindicate the Plan E forces, lame duckmayor John Lyons ran a disastrous administration for the intervening two years. Asked by the council to approve purchasing new snowplows, Sutton reports that Lyons replied "the Almighty sends the snow...He will in time remove it." Shortly afterwards, Lyons was convicted on 42 counts of requesting and accepting bribes. He stepped down.

With Lyons went the old horsetrading era of city politics. There are still powerful neighborhood politicians in the city--Vellucci, for example. But from the Plan E forces grew a strong coalition--the Cambridge Civic Association--that has provided a heavy counterweight. For the last decade, progressives have excercised tentative control over the city council; they currently own five of the seven school committee seats. Their support comes now not just from the Brattle St. Wealthy, but from city tenants and young people interested in rent control and social issues.

As the city filled out, Harvard and other university expansion became an issue, more for anguished protest than substantive reform. And now the city faces tough fights to preserve its neighborhoods in the face of condominium growth and its government in the face of tax cuts. History help ease the gloom, though. As one city official says, "From 1630 on, we've been in some kind of trouble and we're still here. That must mean something."