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The Rise and Fall of a Square


Central Square was born as a commercial area in 1793 when the West Boston Bridge was opened providing a new port of entry into Boston for people bringing goods from western Massachusetts. The district grew as travellers stopped in Cambridge for the night before entering Boston.

The square's second period of growth occured in 1853 as the Grand Junction Railroad was run across the Cambridgeport section of the city filling in marsh and making way for new construction of factories and providing an industrial base.

But the square really came of age in the first 50 years of the 20th century.

"My father was born in Cambridge I was born in Cambridge. I remember Central Square when it was a family-oriented shopping center--the biggest in metro Boston," remembers Carl F. Barron, president of Putnam Furnature Leasing Company and one of the city's foremost business leaders.

A 1948 proposal to build the Inner Belt--a massive highway around Boston which would have destroyed the square--put the area's future in doubt for the next two decades, until massive community opposition forced the state to scrap the plan.

With the economic base already weakened, the neighborhood was hit even harder by the arrival in the early '70s of suburban shopping malls.

The square became the territory of gangs at night and more homeless began to filter in. Stores which once used to be open late at night on Thursdays and Saturdays began to close down early.

For a time it seemed that urban renewal in the late '80s would help reverse this trend. New lights were installed, a community advisory group was created and the city set up benches in the square. Meanwhile the police drove out the gangs and the subway stop was completely renovated.

And while it never matched the soaring growth of neighboring Kendall and Harvard Squares, Barron says Central Square was on its way to a rebirth of sorts.

"It went from the lowest of the low to a much improved situation," says Barron.

But now, as the money from state coffers slows to a trickle, the strides to get Central Square back on its feet seem to have stalled for the time being, and Barron forsees more troubles for the neighborhood that once was the city's economic hub.

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