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A Modest Plan for Square Reform

By Ben Heller

"Clear the square!" Those were the orders that Li Peng gave in 1989 in response to a crescendo of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The West rightfully responded with a chorus of denunciations. Now, as reform inevitably creeps over the Great Wall, people like Li will soon be on their way out.

Yet before we toast the imminent departure from power of one so despised, we should admit that his experience might be put to a less nefarious use. Harvard especially ought not overlook the man's talent. Sometimes I find myself repeating his angry mantra. "Clear the square," I mutter, not referring to Tiananmen. The particular quadrilateral to which I allude is that notorious pit of filth, both human and chemical, which we call Harvard Square.

Perhaps such a condemnation seems unduly harsh. Yet if Tiananmen represents the human spirit's aspirations toward freedom, then Harvard Square is surely its antipode. It symbolizes the complacency and vaculty of wasted, unsppreciated freedom.

The Square contains a plane of wretched excess, conspicuous consumerism and degeneracy. I freely admit that I fantasize about riding at the head of a phalanx of Sherman tanks, Li Peng at my side, and squashing the whole fetid dump.

My first encounter with Harvard Square was on a warm summer night in 1987. A friend and I, both still believing that the Square was a funky urban paradise, were walking along Dunster Street. Out of nowhere, a hyperactive skinhead ran up to us, punched me in the nose and promptly ran away. I don't lack experience with the big city. The standard mugger protocol is to ask for the wallet, and failing victim compliance, to take it by force. This clownish freak skipped that step entirely. What is done in other cities for lucre is done here for love alone.

Even if the average Square-dweller has so far escaped some pimply outcast's displaced frustration, no one can avoid the hawkers of Square Deal and other useless pieces of paper. Clogging the already insufficient sidewalk space, they shove their worthless dreck into your face, screaming an annoying cant the whole time.

In my more ironic moments I imagine all the paper we environmental do gooders struggle to recycle going to some chucking entrepreneur who uses it to print up thousands of Square Deals. In that case, the paper has simply taken a more roundabout route to the trash can.

In terms of sheer volume, the purveyors of the Square Deal are no competition for the main source of noise pollution: street musicians. Third-rate screechers and scrubby-looking guitar-and-harmonica acts vie with their cousins, the religious revivalists, for the hearts, ears, and dollars of innocent bystanders.

I spent my first year here in Wigglesworth Hall,, where I was daily subjected to the pseudosoprano scales of an indefatigable operatic pan-handler, a saxophonist who seemed to appreciate loudness more than melody and a Jimmy Hendrix wannabe. Many Square-lovers claim that the street music provides charming "local color." It's charming for about a week. After that, it's a powerful trigger for psychosis.

While noise pollution may be a matter of taste, no one can fairly claim that there is anything charming about Cambridge's abyssmal air quality. The main culprits in this regard are the ubiquitous idling taxis. We can turn down the heat until we get frostbite, we can dim the lights until we go blind from reading in the dark, we can win as many Green Cups or Ecolympics as we want, but as long as the Square remains the way it is, Cambridge will never get into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Li Peng had the right idea. He just picked the wrong square.

Our city can afford a commissioner of animal rights. The human animals who live around the Square also have rights--like the right to breathe something better than the putrid miasma of exhaust and New Age incense that is our local atmosphere. When Li and I finish rolling over the alcinheads, we will stage our own "Monster Tank Rally" and crush the offending cabs.

We have a Harvard Square Defense Fund, which purports to work for the preservation of "old-time Cambridge." Presumably, this includes rolling back the clock to a time before the Square was the polluted Macca of mall-rats and skinheads. Such goals are admirable.

Yet this estimable organization seems to spend most of its time and energy making sure McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts will never come to the Square. Cheap, quick food? Perish the thought! Perhaps if Ray Kroc had named his famous chain Chez Ronald, he would have had more luck in getting approval.

After all, it worked for Au Bon Pain; never underestimate the legitimacy that a simple French moniker can lend to the most shamelessly overpriced fast-food freak show. The greatest irony of all is that the Cambridge City Council smugly thinks it's done its part to help out the homeless by preventing ABP from ejecting its regular horde of homeless patrons. It seems to me a safe, clean place to live might be more important than the right to freeze to death after munching an overpriced baguette.

No one can deny that Harvard Square has real problems. While some may have nostalgia for the days when the Square was lined with small mom-and-pop shops, they must admit that those days are over--witness HMV, Towers Records and The Gap.

The Square has bigger problem than the encroachment of Dunkin Donuts. Were it not for the golden arches hanging over their store, small-time franchise owners are the type of people the Defense Fund would admire. Instead of harassing them, the Defense Fund and the Council could push for a tough anti-idling law such as the one on the books in New York City.

Without a doubt, these self-proclaimed Square-lovers have spent a great deal of energy on their cause. Yet unless they start to direct their efforts toward the truly compelling problems that plague the Square, nothing will change. As it stands, all the time and ink they've spent so far hasn't stopped Harvard Square from becoming a colossal disgrace.

I was not at Harvard when the People's Liberation Army massacred the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. Yet I imagine that a few days later, the Square witnessed a sympathy rally of sorts, where various speakers lauded the students and lavished praise on their courage and indomitable hope for democracy.

What a shame that they should even be able to speak about these virtues. They should have looked around and beheld their own Square. What courage does it take for Cambridge to proclaim itself a "Nuclear-Free Zone," yet lot pollution choke its residents? What bravery does it take to stand for "animal rights," while a motley mass of humanity sleeps sprawled out on the sidewalks? To these questions, Li and I have only one answer: "Clear the Square!"

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