News

Mass. State Rep. Calls on University VP to Increase Transparency for Allston Multimodal Project

News

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow Made $1.1 Million in 2020, Financial Disclosures Show

News

Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp To Step Down

News

81 Republican Lawmakers File Amicus Brief Supporting SFFA in Harvard Affirmative Action Lawsuit

News

Duke Senior’s Commencement Speech Appears to Plagiarize 2014 Address by Harvard Student

Old Days of Quiet Neighborhood Die

Tourist-Oriented Stores Invade Square

By Leondra R. Kruger

Former Cambridge Mayor Walter J. Sullivan has a tale to tell.

Once upon a time, Harvard Square was a small gathering place with two restaurants, three supermarkets, an ice cream store and a movie theater.

The Square was a place where families would go to buy their groceries, where teachers would go to play with "the kiddos" after school and where, just every once in a while, people might go for a good time.

"In the old days, no one had too much money," the 72 year-old Cambridge native explains. "We used to go the Square just to buy an ice cream."

The Coop? It once was a small bookstore on the corner of Brattle Street. BayBank? An old-fashioned cafeteria. Store 24? The University Theater, a deluxe movie house complete with reserve sections.

Sullivan recalls that he was sitting in that theater on December 7, 1941, when he learned that the U.S. had declared war on Japan.

Sullivan, who has lived 40 of his 72 years in the same flat on Putnam Avenue, leans back into his soft living room chair and smiles.

"It used to be a real nice, nice neighborhood," he says.

There are no longer many story-tellers like Walter J. Sullivan. For most long-time residents of Cambridge, the fairy tale is over.

Call it development or call it a disgrace, the fact of today's Harvard Square remains. In the past two decades, the Square has become Cambridge's equivalent of Grand Central Station.

People may stay for a day, a week or four years, but eventually everybody just passes through, residents say.

From photo-happy tourists to drunken college students, more and more people seem to think Harvard Square is a nice place to visit, but not a place to settle down.

And the recent influx of short-term visitors means that residents like Sullivan are hard-pressed to find a reasonably priced loaf of bread in what used to be the center of a quiet residential district.

Franchises

Many Cambridge residents blame the shift in the Square's dynamics on the growth of franchises. Every year, it seems, more of the mom-and-pop stores that used to fill Harvard Square are being replaced by bigger and shinier chain establishments.

"The Square is beginning to resemble the Burlington Mall," says City Councillor and long-time Cambridge resident Kathleen Leahy Born. "It lacks the character it used to have."

Elsie's famous roast beef sandwiches have given way to the stylized, express croissants of Au Bon Pain.

Specialty bookstores like Pangloss Books are struggling to pay high building rents, while chains such as WordsWorth Books are thriving.

In the past four years alone, Cantabridgianshave witnessed the construction of One BrattleSquare, a complex complete with the national chainstores HMV, Express and Structure, and thetransformation of the Holyoke Arcade into theShops by Harvard Yard.

The net result of all these changes, someresidents say, has been the erosion of thecharacter of the Square.

What was once a quaint town center is now whatCity Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 terms "atrifle of a honkey-tonk atmosphere."

Of course not all Cambridge residents areopposed to the increasing "mallization" of theSquare.

Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72, for instance, sayshe has no preference between the ghost of HarvardSquare past and the reality of Harvard Squarepresent.

"I loved that one and I love this one," hesays. "The Square is every bit as exciting as ithas ever been."

The mayor says he enjoys the Square'scontemporary, cafe-style atmosphere.

"I am a consummate people watcher, and backthen I could not sit at Au Bon Pain and watch theworld go by," Reeves says. "That is a newimprovement."

John R. Pitkin, a 25-year resident and thepresident of the Mid-Cambridge NeighborhoodAssociation, says he doesn't think the characterof the Square has been changed "in any fundamentalway" by local growth of national franchises.

And like Reeves, Pitkin says he sees at leastone bright side to the commercialization of recentyears. "The 'Shops by Harvard Yard' sign is gone,"he laughs. "That's an improvement."

But according to Pitkin, the real change in theSquare's character has been "the inundation oftourists."

Trading on the Tourists

Pitkin attributes the increase in the number oftourists to the Central Artery project in Boston,which has forced several tour companies tore-route their sightseers and to add HarvardSquare to their tours' itineraries.

But whatever the causes, many Square residentssay they think the effects of increased tourismare crystal clear.

"We have too much tourist-related industry, toomuch fast food, fast clothing," Duehay says. "TheSquare is dictated by the economy."

And Kevin Montague, a 36-year Cambridgeresident who works in the Harvard SquareInformation Booth, agrees. The view from the boothwindow--the Coop, CVS and six banks--pretty muchsums up the "disappointing" changes Harvard Squarehas undergone, he says.

"You don't need a bank on every corner,"Montague says. "The Square has lost 40 percent ofits alternative flavor. It is turning morecommercialized."

For some, the Square is a capitalist dream: bigstores making big bucks. But Cambridge residentssay big businesses benefit the visitors and notthose who live nearby.

The restaurants and stores in the new Square"mainly cater to tourists and people who work inthe Square as opposed to residents and students,"Duehay says.

Cambridge residents say the problem is not thatthey don't like the new establishments, but thatthey simply miss the old stores which have beenedged out.

Residents must travel as far as Porter orCentral Square to find basic necessities atreasonable prices. Bertucci's and Pizzeria Unodon't make good substitutes for a grocery store.

"You can't buy a stick of butter or a spool ofthread in the Square," says Paul Corcoran, ownerof the Harvard Shop.

Rent Control's Legacy

Residents worried about the changing nature ofthe Square say abolishing rent control may verywell add fuel to the fire consuming their oldneighborhood.

According to Pitkin, who runs a demographicconsulting firm on Brattle Street, the Novemberdecision to abolish rent control is likely todestabilize Cambridge's tenant population.

Many people have been living in the samerent-controlled apartments for years, Pitkin says.When housing prices rise, those people will leave,returning Cambridge to the "pattern of short-termresidents" that characterized the Square beforerent control took effect in the early 1970s.

"Cambridge--before rent control--had the leaststable population in Massachusetts," Pitkin says.

In fact, when Pitkin moved to the city in 1970,there were some apartments that would change handsthree or four times a year. "You couldn't go downthe streets because they were choked by movingtrucks," he says.

"Those people who were there five years agoprobably won't be there a couple of years fromnow," he warns.

Slowing the Change

Caught between the onslaught of new stores andthe possibility of new tenants, many residents andsmall business owners conclude that not much canbe done to salvage the remnants of the Square ofyore.

"There will be high-rises everywhere," saysMarc Starr, who has owned and managed the StarrBookshop for 65 years. "It is inevitable."

But coming into a market once dominated bymom-and-pop isn't easy for a chain store, saysMatt Perry, the manager of Chili's Restaurant.

Chili's is trying to compensate for being animpersonal franchise by creating "a neighborhoodbar atmosphere."

"It's not a Chili's corporate bar," Perry says."It's a hangout."

The attitude at Chili's pretty much sums it up.In a business world where only the strong survive,even the most vehement preservationists concedethat keeping the same bartender behind the counterof a chain restaurant is pretty much all that canbe done to maintain continuity.

And changing zoning laws to prevent the squarefrom developing more would hurt the economy.Historical preservation "means less taxes, lessmoney for the city," Duehay says.

The Owner

With the city's hands tied by economicconstraints, property owners alone may be able toturn the commercial tide--and the largest propertyowner in Harvard Square is Harvard University.

Harvard Real Estate (HRE) owns about 15 percentof all commercial space in the Square, accordingto President Kristin S. Demong. That's not a lotof space, but enough to make an impact on theSquare's economy--and, Demong is careful to pointout, Harvard isn't any more anxious to glut theSquare with franchises than are residents.

"The last thing we want is for us to become onemore shopping mall," Demong says.

HRE's solution is to deal preferentially withsmall businesses, Demong says. The companycurrently rents to only two national chains, AuBon Pain and Hertz Rental Cars.

"I think that we're probably balanced too muchto the entrepreneurial small tenant," Demong says.

HRE's attempt to foster fledgling businessesmay seem like an improbable show of selflessness,but officials prefer to call it "enlightened selfinterest."

"Harvard Real Estate is the part of HarvardUniversity that's most outside of the Yard andmost in the community," explains Beth Wall, HRE'sdirector of communications and communityrelations. "We've got to humanize Harvard for thecommunity."

Demong likens the possibility for economicgrowth in the Square to the rejuvenation whichtook place in Boston's Quincy Market during the1960s.

"Years ago, it was a very tough part of town.It was basically the back of City Hall," Demongsays. "Then it became a Mecca for funky littleshops."

But in the past 15 years, Demong says, thenumber of stores in Quincy Market has declinedfrom 68 to about 15.

"It's very clear we don't want that to happenin Harvard Square," Demong says.

HRE officials say they try to balance theirgoal of appeasing the community with their basicneed to receive rent payments on time by selectingtheir tenants very carefully.

"The ideal tenant," Demong says, "is locallyaimed, locally based, maybe with three or fourstores in the Boston area. I think [localmanagement is] important for the success of theretailer or the tenant."

Demong holds up Au Bon Pain as an example ofsuccess through careful tenant selection: the"flagship" Au Bon Pain, located in Harvard Square,was only the fourth store to open--in the daysbefore Au Bon Pains began to appear on everycorner in Boston.

Now Louis Cain, the chain's original owner, hastaken the famous "French Bakery Cafe"international.

Au Bon Pain is not alone in basing huge successon a Harvard Square start, says Demong. The firstfranchises of the Lodge and the Coffee Connectionalso began here.

Furthermore, HRE has taken on some highlysuccessful small businesses like the Harvard BookStore, CitySports and the 8 Holyoke Grill, whichopened just two months ago.

Unfortunately for Cambridge residents, notevery small business is as successful as theHarvard Book Store, and HRE will only be able tokeep leasing to local businesses as long as peoplecontinue to spend money in those stores.

No Fairytale Ending

Despite Harvard's interest in fostering smallbusiness growth, the economy of the Square seemsto be headed toward large, franchise stores.

Old-time residents may pine for the fairytaleSquare of yesteryear, but today's busy shoppersseem hardly to notice the change as they hurryfrom BayBank cash machines to the sale racks atThe Gap.

Sullivan, however, says he seldom visits themodern, commercial Square. When he does, he says,it's for a very practical purpose: "for my watchmostly."Crimson File PhotoStreet performers entertain crowds inHarvard Square.

In the past four years alone, Cantabridgianshave witnessed the construction of One BrattleSquare, a complex complete with the national chainstores HMV, Express and Structure, and thetransformation of the Holyoke Arcade into theShops by Harvard Yard.

The net result of all these changes, someresidents say, has been the erosion of thecharacter of the Square.

What was once a quaint town center is now whatCity Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 terms "atrifle of a honkey-tonk atmosphere."

Of course not all Cambridge residents areopposed to the increasing "mallization" of theSquare.

Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72, for instance, sayshe has no preference between the ghost of HarvardSquare past and the reality of Harvard Squarepresent.

"I loved that one and I love this one," hesays. "The Square is every bit as exciting as ithas ever been."

The mayor says he enjoys the Square'scontemporary, cafe-style atmosphere.

"I am a consummate people watcher, and backthen I could not sit at Au Bon Pain and watch theworld go by," Reeves says. "That is a newimprovement."

John R. Pitkin, a 25-year resident and thepresident of the Mid-Cambridge NeighborhoodAssociation, says he doesn't think the characterof the Square has been changed "in any fundamentalway" by local growth of national franchises.

And like Reeves, Pitkin says he sees at leastone bright side to the commercialization of recentyears. "The 'Shops by Harvard Yard' sign is gone,"he laughs. "That's an improvement."

But according to Pitkin, the real change in theSquare's character has been "the inundation oftourists."

Trading on the Tourists

Pitkin attributes the increase in the number oftourists to the Central Artery project in Boston,which has forced several tour companies tore-route their sightseers and to add HarvardSquare to their tours' itineraries.

But whatever the causes, many Square residentssay they think the effects of increased tourismare crystal clear.

"We have too much tourist-related industry, toomuch fast food, fast clothing," Duehay says. "TheSquare is dictated by the economy."

And Kevin Montague, a 36-year Cambridgeresident who works in the Harvard SquareInformation Booth, agrees. The view from the boothwindow--the Coop, CVS and six banks--pretty muchsums up the "disappointing" changes Harvard Squarehas undergone, he says.

"You don't need a bank on every corner,"Montague says. "The Square has lost 40 percent ofits alternative flavor. It is turning morecommercialized."

For some, the Square is a capitalist dream: bigstores making big bucks. But Cambridge residentssay big businesses benefit the visitors and notthose who live nearby.

The restaurants and stores in the new Square"mainly cater to tourists and people who work inthe Square as opposed to residents and students,"Duehay says.

Cambridge residents say the problem is not thatthey don't like the new establishments, but thatthey simply miss the old stores which have beenedged out.

Residents must travel as far as Porter orCentral Square to find basic necessities atreasonable prices. Bertucci's and Pizzeria Unodon't make good substitutes for a grocery store.

"You can't buy a stick of butter or a spool ofthread in the Square," says Paul Corcoran, ownerof the Harvard Shop.

Rent Control's Legacy

Residents worried about the changing nature ofthe Square say abolishing rent control may verywell add fuel to the fire consuming their oldneighborhood.

According to Pitkin, who runs a demographicconsulting firm on Brattle Street, the Novemberdecision to abolish rent control is likely todestabilize Cambridge's tenant population.

Many people have been living in the samerent-controlled apartments for years, Pitkin says.When housing prices rise, those people will leave,returning Cambridge to the "pattern of short-termresidents" that characterized the Square beforerent control took effect in the early 1970s.

"Cambridge--before rent control--had the leaststable population in Massachusetts," Pitkin says.

In fact, when Pitkin moved to the city in 1970,there were some apartments that would change handsthree or four times a year. "You couldn't go downthe streets because they were choked by movingtrucks," he says.

"Those people who were there five years agoprobably won't be there a couple of years fromnow," he warns.

Slowing the Change

Caught between the onslaught of new stores andthe possibility of new tenants, many residents andsmall business owners conclude that not much canbe done to salvage the remnants of the Square ofyore.

"There will be high-rises everywhere," saysMarc Starr, who has owned and managed the StarrBookshop for 65 years. "It is inevitable."

But coming into a market once dominated bymom-and-pop isn't easy for a chain store, saysMatt Perry, the manager of Chili's Restaurant.

Chili's is trying to compensate for being animpersonal franchise by creating "a neighborhoodbar atmosphere."

"It's not a Chili's corporate bar," Perry says."It's a hangout."

The attitude at Chili's pretty much sums it up.In a business world where only the strong survive,even the most vehement preservationists concedethat keeping the same bartender behind the counterof a chain restaurant is pretty much all that canbe done to maintain continuity.

And changing zoning laws to prevent the squarefrom developing more would hurt the economy.Historical preservation "means less taxes, lessmoney for the city," Duehay says.

The Owner

With the city's hands tied by economicconstraints, property owners alone may be able toturn the commercial tide--and the largest propertyowner in Harvard Square is Harvard University.

Harvard Real Estate (HRE) owns about 15 percentof all commercial space in the Square, accordingto President Kristin S. Demong. That's not a lotof space, but enough to make an impact on theSquare's economy--and, Demong is careful to pointout, Harvard isn't any more anxious to glut theSquare with franchises than are residents.

"The last thing we want is for us to become onemore shopping mall," Demong says.

HRE's solution is to deal preferentially withsmall businesses, Demong says. The companycurrently rents to only two national chains, AuBon Pain and Hertz Rental Cars.

"I think that we're probably balanced too muchto the entrepreneurial small tenant," Demong says.

HRE's attempt to foster fledgling businessesmay seem like an improbable show of selflessness,but officials prefer to call it "enlightened selfinterest."

"Harvard Real Estate is the part of HarvardUniversity that's most outside of the Yard andmost in the community," explains Beth Wall, HRE'sdirector of communications and communityrelations. "We've got to humanize Harvard for thecommunity."

Demong likens the possibility for economicgrowth in the Square to the rejuvenation whichtook place in Boston's Quincy Market during the1960s.

"Years ago, it was a very tough part of town.It was basically the back of City Hall," Demongsays. "Then it became a Mecca for funky littleshops."

But in the past 15 years, Demong says, thenumber of stores in Quincy Market has declinedfrom 68 to about 15.

"It's very clear we don't want that to happenin Harvard Square," Demong says.

HRE officials say they try to balance theirgoal of appeasing the community with their basicneed to receive rent payments on time by selectingtheir tenants very carefully.

"The ideal tenant," Demong says, "is locallyaimed, locally based, maybe with three or fourstores in the Boston area. I think [localmanagement is] important for the success of theretailer or the tenant."

Demong holds up Au Bon Pain as an example ofsuccess through careful tenant selection: the"flagship" Au Bon Pain, located in Harvard Square,was only the fourth store to open--in the daysbefore Au Bon Pains began to appear on everycorner in Boston.

Now Louis Cain, the chain's original owner, hastaken the famous "French Bakery Cafe"international.

Au Bon Pain is not alone in basing huge successon a Harvard Square start, says Demong. The firstfranchises of the Lodge and the Coffee Connectionalso began here.

Furthermore, HRE has taken on some highlysuccessful small businesses like the Harvard BookStore, CitySports and the 8 Holyoke Grill, whichopened just two months ago.

Unfortunately for Cambridge residents, notevery small business is as successful as theHarvard Book Store, and HRE will only be able tokeep leasing to local businesses as long as peoplecontinue to spend money in those stores.

No Fairytale Ending

Despite Harvard's interest in fostering smallbusiness growth, the economy of the Square seemsto be headed toward large, franchise stores.

Old-time residents may pine for the fairytaleSquare of yesteryear, but today's busy shoppersseem hardly to notice the change as they hurryfrom BayBank cash machines to the sale racks atThe Gap.

Sullivan, however, says he seldom visits themodern, commercial Square. When he does, he says,it's for a very practical purpose: "for my watchmostly."Crimson File PhotoStreet performers entertain crowds inHarvard Square.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags