Inman Square: a neighborhood's traditional business community makes the painful move to a more modern economy.

A community profile by CHRIS M. FORTUNATO

If you walk far enough down Cambridge St. away from the Science Center, you'll come to an intersection that juxtaposes the newly renovated S&S Deli--a shop that caters to local college students--and abandoned buildings that formerly housed traditional groceries and corner stores.

The long-entrenched family business of East Cambridge's Inman Square are facing the realities of economic change, as the recession, a rise in crime and market shifts towards a younger clientele take their toll on the square's economy. Those changes are disproportionately hurting the square's smaller, less sophisticated businesses, residents and business owners say.

The square's businesses are in transition, as the established local shops vie for dominance with the newer, slicker stores, says William H. Walsh, an incumbent city councillor running for re-election. Walsh is by far the most visibly popular council candidate in the Inman Square area.

On one hand, the owners of the trendy, successful tourist stops and college student hot spots like the S&S Deli say that business is just fine. On the other, the traditional mom and pop shops say it's rarely been worse.

The S&S, which caters to undergraduate and graduate students from Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Boston University, in addition to many local regulars, is coming off of one its best years financially, according to Gary Mitchell, the fourth-generation owner of the restaurant.


Adapting to the Market

Although the S&S is a traditional family-owned business, its owners have clearly decided to adapt to the market: The restaurant, which has been in the family for four generations now, features a deli counter with a neon light and a modern pastel interior.

But Mitchell is still very much the traditional shop owner: He describes Inman Square as a close-knit community, a "village" of sorts, where all the local merchants know one another.

"Most people in this area own their own houses and have a lot of pride," he says. "In the morning, most merchants are out sweeping the sidewalks."

But a local grocer who runs a business across the street has a far less positive view--he bemoans the stagnant economy of the region.

"This has been getting worse every year for the last three years," says the shop owner. "This is scary. This is depressing. Look across the street--four stores closing down in a year. Look what we're heading for."

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, only one customer shopped in the grocery. The owner would stand outside the store on the sparsely populated street looking for customers.

"Four or five years ago, parking was very hard on a Saturday afternoon. Now it is very easy," the grocer continues.

Business has also been slow for Marc Johnson, proprietor of Mud Man, a craft shop specializing in "interplanetary pottery."

"I don't know if it's the recession or the fact that unemployment is high, but since the summer business has been really slow," Johnson says.