VARSITY Liquor is moving out. The little store wedged into a corner of the Square next to the Tasty has been serving the neighborhood for more than 50 years. Although the Varsity could never boast a huge selection, students could always count on it for beer or booze for extracurricular activities.
The same family that opened the business in the 1930s after the repeal of Prohibition still owns it. Over the years Varsity Liquor has become part of the fabric of the community. It weathered wars, riots and even the years of construction on the new Harvard Square MBTA station. But the family business could not withstand the powerful forces affecting Harvard Square today. The owner of the building is evicting Varsity Liquor on June 1 because an unnamed party offered to pay three times the current rent.
The owners of Varsity would like to relocate somewhere in the Square but there is not much space available. They are too loyal to the neighborhood to consider opening anywhere else.
VARSITY Liquor is just one of many casualties of the intense development currently occuring in the Square. Harvard Square has always been a dynamic, changing place, but over the last few years the pace has risen dramatically. Visitors who have not been back for a few years are amazed at the different atmosphere Gone are many of the book stores and cheap coffee shops that used to mark the neighborhood. Family-owned businesses have given way to a flood of banks and giant chain stores like Urban Outfitters, Bennetton and CVS.
These are only the Square's most obvious changes. But they represent much larger disruptions occuring in the neighborhood and throughout Cambridge. Rents are rising not just for businesses but for everyone, students and longtime residents alike. For every business forced out by the high rents, probably dozens of families must also seek cheaper housing elsewhere. Some of these families will find other places in Cambridge, some will be forced to move away, and some may become homeless. Rent control tends to moderate the damage done by rent hikes, but it simply is not enough to prevent Harvard Square and much of the rest of Cambridge from becoming a wealthy ghetto.
Many local residents and business now worry about what will happen to the Square and their neighborhoods if development keeps up at its current pace. Plans are now being laid to replace much of the western part of the Square with large new office buildings. The sites of the Harvard Motor Lodge and Club Casablanca will be among the first to go. And many of the buildings along Brattle and Eliot Streets (Charlie's Kitchen, Brine's Sporting Goods) may soon be torn down and replaced by six-story office buildings.
Large new office buildings mean more traffic and parking congestion and more yuppies who can afford to pay higher prices and higher rents. Higher prices and higher rents mean the neighborhood will become unliveable, especially for those who are less wealthy.
THE city council has waffled in dealing with the problems of displacement and gentrification, but a response may finally come from the residents and businesses of the Square. In response to the scheduled development, several neighborhood groups have put together a plan to rezone the Square. Their plan is to place a two- or three-story limit on new development and to require the developers to include affordable housing in their buildings.
It is an attempt to slow the development and to "get control of the city back from the developers" as one of the neighborhood group's leaders said. The plan will not solve the Square's problems but it is certainly a good first step. Cambridge certainly needs more affordable housing (rather than luxury apartments and expensive hotels) and the atmosphere of the Square needs to be preserved.
Without some kind of brake on development, the Square is doomed to lose all the homey, friendly businesses which gave it its flavor. Instead we may find a haven for the rich who can afford the soulless office buildings and expensive boutiques which are accumulating today.