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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.

His shop, a refinished basement adorned with cosmic photographs and pottery as well as several lively and colorful parrots, seems to be the type of quirky, esoteric store that many lament is quickly disappearing from Harvard Square.

A large clientele is not materializing for Johnson and many other businesses in Inman Square.

"You have your traditional following at S&S, but elsewhere..." Johnson muses. "There's even a Korean restaurant down the street that installed venetian blinds recently, probably so people who pass can't see that it's empty inside."

Without advertising, Johnson relies primarily on curious local passers-by for business, but cannot afford to make Mud Man the sole source of support for his family.

But as the newer, glitzier operations begin to dominate the square's economy, many residents and business owners say they are bringing in a different breed of customer.

With its large advertising budget and its national reputation, the East Coast Grill in Inman Square, like S&S, continues to thrive.

But that restaurant makes most of its profits from a more transient clientele: tourists. It lacks a strong showing of local regulars.

A restaurant employee says that many of the locals traditionally favor certain spots. But because of an absence of interaction and sense of community among the races in this multicultural region, few locals are willing to try out the newer places.

Many local residents also say that East Cambridge seems to be divided into ethnic zones that rarely mix.

"Each group does its own thing, has its own parades. It seems like a new group, Haitian or Portuguese, is having its parades and such, but they don't tell anybody about it," says a square resident.

Johnson says he has found that some parts of Cambridge surrounding Inman Square are populated almost entirely by a single ethnic group.

And in the middle of all this is a local election. Walsh is running for a fourth term on the Cambridge city council.

The Local Politician

Walsh's re-election posters line many side streets in East Cambridge, hanging even in the storefront windows of failed and abandoned businesses.

Financial successes and woes seem to have divided many Inman Square shopkeepers into ardent Walsh supporters and vehement opponents.

"He doesn't listen. Nobody listens in the government," said the grocery owner.

Mitchell, however, says that he believes Walsh, a personal friend of his, is concerned with the community.

And Johnson says he believes the local government should stimulate business in Inman Square and place a greater focus on crime prevention through increased foot patrols in the area.

Responding to these concerns, Walsh attributes much of the area's economic hardships to a lack of adequate parking lots combined with the strict enforcement of timed parking meters.

"Inman Square had 10 years ago begun a remarkable economic rebound, but the problem is the parking situation," Walsh explains.

"It had the restaurants, the boutique shops, and the jazz music. It had become sort of a jazz music center, but the city has never been able to address the parking," he continues.

"Instead the city continues to tag, which makes it prohibitive for people to go there, including myself. If I can't find a parking space in one of the lots, I just keep going."

Walsh also agrees that a greater police presence intent on preventing and punishing crime would tighten security and bring a more optimistic business climate.

"It is especially important in business areas where if people don't find parking, the alternative is to park on a side street, and people don't want to do that at night," Walsh says.

Walsh, however, dismisses the notion that East Cambridge is ethnically or racially divided.

"It just keeps dividing into new groups of people. A unique group of people is a very positive aspect," Walsh says.

So what does the future hold for Inman Square and its residents?

Walsh says he believes that careful attention and planning can cure the economic and social woes in the community.

"I think in general with a little bit of luck and some resolutions to the parking problem, it will go forward and be a very positive transition.

"But on the other hand, if we just ignore it, it can become stagnant or fall backwards."

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