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Fighting to Keep A Square Alive

By Julian E. Barnes

Central Square has long been something of an afterthought in the city of Cambridge, a rough grey area untouched by the prosperity that two thriving universities have brought to neighboring Harvard and Kendall Squares.

Even on sunny days, it has a dingy look to it, heightened by the rows of vagrants that line the foyers of its shops and restaurants. Once a busy commercial center at the heart, the square has been hard-hit by a regional recession, and today many of its concrete storefronts lie vacant.

"All the industries are moved," says one long time merchant. "This has become a ghost square. If not for the MBTA this square would be dead.

"The majority of the better businesses have left," he continues, sweeping his arms in a vague arc meant to indicate the square's perimeter. "The malls have taken people away--easier shopping."

Many area merchants--men and women who have had businesses there for years--now look at the changes in their old neighborhood with an air of despair, scanning the city streets for the key factor which will explain their sagging fortunes.

And as their eyes traverse the pavements, inevitably they light upon the homeless--many of them plagued with alcohol problems or by mental illness--and suddenly the formless cloud of anger that hovers over the square takes on a definite shape.

"In the last year-and-a-half the situation has changed for the worse and that has been created by a substantial influx of unfortunates in various catagories--alcoholics, those afflicted with mental problems and the homeless," says Carl F. Barron, president of Putnam Furniture Leasing Company and president of the area's business association.

"Customers will not come into a location where they experience fear," says Barron, who has been in business in the square for 50 years. "I am after equal treatment of the average person living or working in Central Square.

"We are interested in having equal treatment for us in contrast to having preferential treatment of the homeless. The matter should be non-controversial and non-political. All we are asking for is freedom from fear."

Glory Days Recede

Ironically, Barron says that two years ago, in the heady days of the Massachusetts Miracle, the square was beginning to see an economic turnaround, perhaps even a return to its glory days at the turn of the century.

Now, he says the only way to solve Central Square's problem is to get the homeless off the streets--a solution which the city is ill-equipped to implement. Presenting his complaints to the City Council on Monday, he called on the city to put three officers on constant patrol in the area to enforce loitering and anti-vagrancy ordinances.

But even if the homeless could be removed and the streets cleaned up, city planners are skeptical about the ability of Central Square to bounce back in the current economic climate.

"It's not fair to say you need to solve the problems of the homeless to help Central Square," says Catherine Woodbury, an economic planner for the city's Community Development Department.

"The issues are getting confused," Woodbury complains. "It's not the homeless that are the problem. To blame the homeless is not correct. They have enough problems of their own that they don't need to be blamed for the decay of an urban area.

"Central Square has hit some bad economic times. We hope the trend can be reversed. We are trying to create an identity, give it a positive image and get the vacancies filled."

But with city banks currently reluctant to loan the money the area needs to rebuild itself, the renaissance of Central Square seems increasingly remote, Woodbury says. And meanwhile, the complaints about the homeless continue to mount.

A Lack of Resources

From his office at 5 Western Ave., just on the edge of Central Square proper, Police Chief Anthony G. Paolillo has an ideal vantage point from which to survey the area's problems. And despite the three patrol routes which he says already go through the square, he doesn't see a cure coming out of the police department.

"The burden has fallen on the police to solve a social problem and I don't have the where-withall or resources to deal with it," says Paolillo, whose office in the city police department sits just outside the square proper. "It's not getting any better in the last three or four years--it's gotten a heck of a lot worse."

Adding to the problem, he said, is that foot patrols are encouraged to establish ties with the communities they serve, and often feel a bond with the disenfranchised that makes them reluctant to take official action.

"There is no one closer to these people than the beat officer. It is extremely frustrating--we feel for these people. He knows them as people and thinks twice about sending them here," says Paolillo, gesturing toward the city's cell block. Because of a state law to prevent suicides, the bars in the room are covered with plexiglass, creating a suffocating heat that lingers in the lungs even in the air-condiditioned hallway.

"My own officers give them a buck so they can get a glass of wine," says Paolillo clearly frustrated with the problems that plagued the square he has worked in for most of his career. "How do we solve it?"

Indeed, one of Central Square's ironies is that the solutions are sometimes inextricably enmeshed with the problems.

Nestled on Albany St. at the edge of the square, a set of red brick buildings marks the beginning of the new Cambridge, a cluster of high-tech firms with names like BASF Bioresearch, Transkaryotic Therapies, and Kurzweil. But next door to the MIT plasma fusion center, at 240 Albany St., lies a complex of two trailers that seems oddly misplaced in this new industrial mecca.

This is home to the Emergency Service Center an arm of Cambridge and Somerville Alcoholism Rehabilitation (CASPAR) and only shelter in the area willing to provide beds for homeless alcoholics. Last year, the center housed 25,357 people--an average of 55 each night--in its 45 beds.

The Emergency Service Center is the only "wet" shelter in the area taking active alcoholics from Cambridge and Somerville--even those who are visibly intoxicated when entering the center.

Some of the Central Square merchants grumble about the shelter, describing it as a magnet drawing fresh crowds of vagrants to the area. But to hear Win Poor, the shelter's director, tell the story, people's attitudes are--slowly--beginning to change.

"There seems to be a split among the ranks," says Poor. "I think there is growing support for us."

Poor says that in the shelter's 11 years, not one major problem has been caused by a visitor to the shelter, pointing to that fact to show that 240 Albany St. is part of the solution, not the problem.

Chief Paolillo says that the magnet effect exists, but that the shelter is the only place the police, who brought 2022 people to the shelter last year, can take area's homeless people.

"It is advantageous for me to keep 240 Albany St. open," he says. "The paradox is that 240 Albany St. is the source of my problems."

Diversity and Neighborliness

Barron's prognosis for Central Square, should the current climate continue, is nothing if not blunt.

"If we can clean up social problems," he says, "then we can have people willing to create jobs, use the goods and services and invest in Central Square. If the social problems are not resolved, Central Square will remain as it is."

But not all the businesspeople in the community speak about Central Square in the same grim tones. Despite the rough economic times, they continue to heap praise on the area's diversity and neighborly feeling.

"My feeling is that it is nice to see Central Square in a positive light." says Sandra Levine the owner of Central Square Florist on Mass. Ave. "It is a lot of fun here.

"There are a lot of different ethnic groups--it certainly is not boring. You get to know your customers. Everyone's not a strange face in the door."

Levine, whose shop has been in business in the square since 1929, stresses the presence of "mom and pop" businesses, economical prices and a friendly atmosphere which allow the square to remain competitive with malls.

And although retail stores are struggling to survive, the multi-ethnic character of the neighborhood has contributed to a number of success stories for up-and-coming restauranteurs, selling a variety of food ranging from Indian to Greek to Taiwanese.

Nabil Sater, the owner of the Middle East Restaurant on Mass. Ave., has been in the square since 1974 and says his business is good and getting better.

"We need more tourists," he says. "We need more people to recognize the international flavor of Central Square."

And other area merchants--particularly the younger ones--are similarly optimistic, even about the social problems that Barron criticizes.

"At night there are tons of drunks, but during the day there are no problems. They are just a side show." says Steve S. Reich, the self-styled "second banana" at the Sleep-A-Rama in Central Square. "They're not dangerous--just a bother."

"It's still a viable area if one is able tailor merchandise to the public at large," says Bud Carter, the manager of Surman's, a menswear store claiming to be the oldest business in the area.

Carter acknowledges the increase in homeless people and and says a growth in crime has hurt prices, but he blames the decreasing business primarily on the changing times.

Carter, who speaks several languages, adds that the changeing ethnic composition of the square has changed business and made it more exciting.

"It adds to the excitement if you are a lover of people," says Carter, who claims not to be a capitalist at heart. "A business that is trying to serve the public will always have a place."

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