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On the Same Riverside

Residential Area Near Mather House Provides Local Flavor within Walking Distance of Square

By C.r. Mcfadden

On the corner of River and Kinnaird streets, fewer than ten blocks away from the concrete tower of Mather House, stands a true neighborhood bar.

For 42 years, residents of Cambridge's Riverside neighborhood have come to the charles River Sports Pub to shoot darts, shoot vodka, and shoot the bull after a long day's work.

"The neighborhood people are easygoing people," says owner Karen A Waldron, cracking open a bottle of Budweiser for one of the bar's regulars.

One regular patron, a retired fence company proprietor, says he frequents the bar because he feels comfortable there.

"This is probably the most cosmopolitan bar in the whole city," he says. "You can walk right in and mix right in. It's not a Harvard Square bar, but it's a neighborhood bar with neighborhood prices."

A giant Boston Celtics schedule covers one wall of the bar, and a poster of Cambridge Rindge and Latin's most famous alumnus--New York Knick Patrick Ewing--graces the opposite wall.

In fact, the all-star basketball player often returns to the bar, which backs up to Hoyt Field, the playground where Ewing shot hoops as a Cambridge youngster.

"When he comes back, he drops in, says hi, and has a few drinks," sys Kenneth L. Preston, a disabled veteran who says he comes to the bar "all the time."

The pub's dedicated patrons say the bar is a microcosm of Riverside, the Cambridge neighborhood in which it is located.

"This is proof that diversity can work. The new immigrants don't bother me at all," says Robbie Hahn, a 39-year-old lifelong resident of Riverside. "I know the names of almost everyone in this neighborhood."

According to city officials, Riverside extends from the Charles River to Mass. Ave. and is bordered by River Street and JFK Street. While Riverside technically includes Harvard's River Houses, many neighborhood residents hesitate to number Harvard students among their own.

Riverside residents say the neighborhood's diversity is its strongest asset.

"It's always been the most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city," says Cambridge City Councillor Michael A. Sullivan, whose family has represented Riverside for over fifty years.

On the corner of Howard and Callender streets sits a monument to Riverside's diversity, the Cambridge Community Center.

Eighty children of dozens of racial backgrounds come here each day after school to study and play, according to Dawn Swan, executive director of the community center.

Although 90 percent of the children are "of color," Swan says this group includes not only Black Americans but also children from Carribean and south American countries.

"The diversity is part of what makes Cambridge a special city," Swan says.

Swan says some of the center's more famous guests have included Ewing and current New Jersey Net and former University of Michigan point guard Rumeal Robinson.

Swan says the center's history is representative of the character of Riverside residents.

In 1929, she says, the center was founded in an old school that had been abandoned. Single women who lived in the neighborhood volunteered to watch the children of working mothers during the day.

"This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Cambridge," Swan says. "But nearly all the residents are working-class families, not welfare recipients. This is very much a working-class neighborhood."

Just across the street from the Cambridge Community Center is the Howard Street Apostolic Pentecostal Church, another Riverside institution. Rev. Aiden Ward, the church's pastor emeritus, says neighborhood residents have always been eager to welcome new immigrants to their neighborhood.

"We'll accept new immigrants just as people accepted us," Ward says.

Neighborhood History

Until 1950, Riverside was home to primarily Blacks, Italian-Americans and Irish -Americans. According to the Cambridge Historical Commission, residents were attracted by a location close to the factories along the Charles River but outside the congestion of Boston city life.

Riverside is noted for the three-floor, three-family houses that line Green Street and permeate the neighborhood.

"It's always been working-class and industrial rather than an upper-crust residential neighborhood," says Erika S. Bruner, assistant director of the commission.

The neighborhood has retained a great deal of continuity, Bruner says, as some families have lived in Riverside for generations.

"There's a lot of families that inherited their homes from parents and grandparents," says Heidi Goulopoulos, owner of Riverside Pizza and Seafood, a longtime neighborhood eatery.

Blacks, in particular, have called Riverside home for nearly two centuries, says Lt. Steve Williams of the Cambridge Police Department.

"A Black community has flourished in pockets of Riverside since about 1800," Williams says.

According to 1990 census data, about 35 percent of Riverside's residents listed themselves as Black.

Many residents say they believe that a fundamental change took place in neighborhood with the construction of Putnam Gardens, a federally-funded housing project constructed on the corner of Callender and Putnam Streets in 1952.

"It became very run down. This was not a neighborhood to be out in," says one resident who wishes to remain anonymous. "There were heroin sales in broad daylight."

The once Black and white ethnic neighborhood took on a sizable number of Haitian, Hispanic and Asian immigrants, residents say.

"Since the projects were built in 1952, we've had a mix of all nationalities," Ward says.

As in other urban areas across the country, changing neighborhood patterns led to some racial tensions in Riverside during the 1960s.

"Back in the late 60s there was tension. It started to get a little rough," Goulopoulos says. "People who don't know the neighborhood seem to think it's a dangerous neighborhood."

In fact, according to the historical commission, Riverside residents rejected a plan in 1976 to build a new park out of "fear that a park would become a crime-producing no-man's-land."

Reclaiming Riverside

The frustration felt by residents perhaps was epitomized best by the 1970 demonstration at Harvard's commencement by Riverside activist and former City Councillor Saundra Graham.

Graham and a band of followers marched onto the stage, seized the microphone, and criticized Harvard's construction of Mather House and Peabody Terrace, extending the college's sprawling campus into the residential Riverside neighborhood.

Since that period, Riverside residents have worked hard to improve Riverside's image as a quiet and peaceful family neighborhood.

Riverside residents currently are working closely with the Cambridge Police Department to improve neighborhood security, most notably by forming tenant coalitions, neighborhood watch groups and community policing programs.

"It's a joint effort. It's not the police doing all the work," says Williams, who coordinates community policing efforts. "We're tying all service providers in the city together. This frees up police time for more serious law enforcement."

Since the community policing program began in the summer of 1993, Riverside has seen a 25 percent decrease in all crimes, "especially petty crimes like larceny and vandalism," says Metta Finch, a crime analyst for the Cambridge Police Department.

The community has also increased recreational programs for children. Ward says he has instituted a youth program at his church every Friday night.

"People are very interested and trying to bring things back together for themselves and their kid's," Della Morrison, a 13-year resident of Putnam Gardens says.

N. Leon Venable, owner of Leon's Ribs on River Street, says he has fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a carry out restaurant.

While Venable says local people have been receptive to his "down-home cooking," he also says he has been the victim of two breakins since September.

"People are breaking down the door because they want my ribs," says Venable, whose slogan reads "You need no teeth to eat my meat."

Morrison and other citizens say they fear the end of rent control may change the character of Riverside by allowing nearby Harvard and MIT to purchase large tracts of land and encroach upon the neighborhood.

But Sullivan remains optimistic that Riverside will stay a diverse and vibrant neighborhood dominated by single-family homes.

"It's the best-kept secret in Cambridge," Sullivan says. "We're waiting to see what the next year will bring us. We need some affordable housing to preserve this rich community."

Riverside is the first of thirteen Cambridge neighborhoods The Crimson will profile in its "Harvard's Neighbors" series this year.

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