Down with The Shops: A Manifesto

Guest Commentary

In East Berlin, they've torn down monuments less offensive than this one.

Picture, if you will, a homely and none too bombastic statue of Marx and Lenin, looming over one of the city's grayest public spaces. The men gaze deeply into each other's eyes, their image pathetic yet darkly erotic. Despite its quaint chumminess, the statue symbolizes state oppression and popular fear.

But on the night of November 9, 1989, things changed. The Wall fell, state socialism gasped its last breath, and the East German people rose up against that dreaded stone symbol of authority. Toppled by the will of the people, Marx and Lenin were consigned to the mass grave of statuary piling up in Eastern Europe since 1989.

And in that mass grave, Marx and Lenin would be rolling over if they only knew what was going on here in Harvard Square.

You know it. You've seen it. Lurking between Cambridge Trust and Au Bon Pain, all swathes of solid colors and square block fonts, the kiosk is a beacon to Harvard Square's newest arena of consumption, "The Shops at Harvard Yard." And while to most it may seem faintly amusing, worthy only of only a regretful shake of the head on the way to the Yard, this behemoth begs our attention.


The reaction of the Square to the Holyoke Center renovation project--which so far has consisted only of grumbling, bewilderment and the disappearance of a letter "S"--will determine the future of public space in Cambridge.

The inevitable first impression elicits giggles at the curious intersection of phallus and vulva, which reveals more about the tortured psyche of some undersexed Design School grad than most of us care to consider as we make our way down Mass. Ave. Or, as soothsayer of public space and Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape Development John R. Stilgoe says, "It looks like the phone company is about to unroll a length of cable."

Ridicule aside, the consequences of this construction are far more offensive than is apparent to the galled eye. The space in front of the Holyoke Arcade was, until recently, one of the few large, flat and open pedestrian spaces in the Square.

Its use reflected its vastness. Juggling unicyclists, "flowers wrapped in poetry," collections for the AIDS Brigade, an aging charlatan's attempt at magic--all these are part of our experiences in this space, and our emotions toward it. For most, the space was not alienating, but inviting. And unlike the sublime cultural pleasures of a country club or the symphony, you never needed a ticket to experience the Square.

But if the open space can be seen as inviting, Holyoke Center itself cannot. Josep Lluis Sert's massive construction originally met with nothing but praise. As a 1957 Boston Globe review put it, "[A] new visual image will take over the University, [an image] which has become the symbol of intellectual achievement."

But it didn't take long for people to realize what an error Sert's tower, with its primitive strip mall, truly was. Contemporary critics of Holyoke Center, the Prudential Tower, and similar Cold-War pedestrian shopping arcades are right: The Holyoke Center Arcade is an alienating space.

This alienation is intensified by accumulating reports of late-night harassment, a bonechilling wind-tunnel effect and the stench of urine and rubbish. The late 1950s June Cleaver dreamworld of the pedestrian shopping zone has been steadily turning into a nightmare. With the recent departure of the genteel Cambridge Shop (for Ladies) and the Crimson Shop (for Gentlemen), one can imagine the upper echelons of Harvard Real Estate peering down into the morass of the Square and wringing their hands in dismay.

So if you can't take the Square out of Holyoke Center, take Holyoke Center out of the Square. If you look closely, you'll notice that the same old overpriced travel agency, the same old contraceptive dispensary and the same dusty books on the $1 rack at Harvard University Press are now part of The Shops at Harvard Yard. The renovation project has made the Holyoke Arcade less alienating to the shopper and the suburban daytripper, and infinitely more alienating to the countercultural mindtripper.

"The Shops at Harvard Yard" is not just a marketing agency's half-assed attempt to make us feel upscale. It's meant to make us feel safe. To the dowager from Concord, "Harvard Square" says homeless people, punks in the Pit and the headache of finding parking. "Harvard Yard" says wide, green spaces, tranquility, and the unobstructed fulfillment of the fetishism of commodities. As one frequent patron of the Square put it, "Why not just put a glass dome over the whole thing and call it a fucking mall?"

Admittedly, the remodeled space has the strange and irresistible attraction that makes one pick at scabs or attend grand openings of Wal-Marts. The attraction of the space does not come from the "very now, very 90s" blue, metal waves along the arcade, or the painstakingly hip "Rebecca's Santa Fe Express Cafe." It comes from the sheer magnetism of the new.

But this reign of consumerist psycho-terror cannot last forever. Hearken closely, Mother Harvard: Rebecca's blue corn tortillas alone will not sate us.

The question at hand is, of course, what is to be done. Our only remaining hope is that people of the Square will, late one night, rally forth and reclaim the space as their own. The revolutionaries will poster the kiosk with the information that really matters in this independently owned and operated neighborhood adrift in a global sea of megamalls: "Boycott Miller," "LaRouche for President," "Jungian Men's Group Forming: Find Your Inner Child," "Three vegan trekkies seek fourth in Davis sublet."

After taking back the function of the kiosk, the Square will finally begin to reappropriate the space for itself. Performers will come out of the woodwork--first a timid juggler, then a JFK-Mark-David-Chapman-CIA-Stephen-King conspiracy theorist and a pitiful guitarist who thinks he's Jimi Hendrix.

And then the great and glorious day will dawn when Cantabrigians all--every man, woman and child--will rise up under the mighty spell of the Peruvian pied pipers, topple this monstrosity and abandon it in the trashheap together with Marx, Lenin and The Shops at Harvard Yard.

Christopher Capozzola '94 is writing his senior thesis on monuments and public space.