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Area 4: Our neighborhood

Many Cambridge neighborhoods have elegant names befitting the economic status of their residents: Peabody, Agassiz, Riverside.

Area 4, on the other hand, sounds more like a name for a war zone--and for many years, it has been.

For two decades, year after year, the East Cambridge neighborhood has led the city in street robberies, and it runs second in car larcenies.

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In fact, the name "Area 4" itself comes from the Cambridge Police Department (CPD), which divides the city into neighborhoods. Perhaps aptly, Area 4 is the only neighborhood that actually identifies itself by the number given to it by the CPD.

Keeping the Peace

For eight hours a day, four out of every six days, David Gamble is a citizen of Area 4. From behind the wheel of his Ford Crown Victoria patrol car, the CPD officer cruises the narrow residential streets and wide commercial boulevards of Area 4.

"It's not a bad area to work," Gamble says.

He says he enjoys his daily interactions with many residents--more than just crime victims. As he drives around he stops to chat with people he knows.

"They see us and they feel safer," he says.

Bounded on the east by the B&A; railroad and on the west by Prospect Street, Area 4 runs from Mass. Ave north to Hampshire Street.

One corner sits on Central Square, home to an MBTA stop, a homeless shelter and many of Cambridge's bars.

"We have a high number of homeless people and transients," Gamble says.

Gamble has worked Area 4 for 18 months, first in a two-person car, responding to crimes in progress, before striking out on his own. Now, working alone, he mostly takes reports of past incidents.

"During the day it's not so bad," he says. "But when people come home at night, it becomes a different area."

Area 4 is Cambridge's poorest neighborhood and is the only one to contain a majority of non-white residents. Its residents have an average annual income of only $24,665--half that of some of Cambridge's wealthier areas. Unemployment stands at more than 10 percent, double the rate in most of the city's other neighborhoods.

But Gamble says the situation isn't as bad as it may seem.

"Things are getting better," he says.

Bursting with Diversity

The area has some unique strengths. Its residents have diverse backgrounds, which leads to strong neighborhood ties.

Probably no other area of Cambridge contains a wider mix of people: Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, French-Creoles, Haitians and Portuguese, to name just a few.

English is not the primary language of more than one-third of Area 4's residents, census statistics show.

"It's a real mix of cultures," Gamble says. "That's what makes it interesting."

Except for family-owned stores, commerce in Area 4 is limited to the edges. Travel agencies advertise trips to Haiti; convenience stores trumpet sales in three languages.

The few stores within the residential neighborhoods are as varied as the residents, their names often printed in multiple languages.

However, all these signs are made harder to read by the large metal bars over the windows.

Columbia Market, a small Spanish bodega in the heart of Area 4, is one such store. The signs are in multiple languages, and the products inside are just as diverse. Fruits and exotic vegetables line the floors.

For 40 years, Manuel R. "Manny" Maldonado has lived in the same building as the market. Since his employer moved to Texas seven years ago, after he had worked there 33 years, he has spent much time talking to people around the market.

"I go together with everyone," he says. "White, black, Hispanic, it doesn't matter to me."

He doesn't think crime is Area 4's biggest problem, partly because the area's situation has improved in recent years.

"We've got good services here, especially the police," he says. "There's more help for the small people."

Indeed, the problem, he says, is that residents "can't afford it."

"Area 4 is really screwed up," Maldonado says.

The neighborhood's mostly immigrant population can't afford the base rate of $800 a month for a studio apartment "where you can't even move," he comments.

It's no wonder, he says, that there are so few corner stores left in Area 4. Rent for a corner storefront begins around $1,700 a month.

Maldonado says the rent will likely drive him away too. He says he hopes to return to his native Puerto Rico or possibly Central America.

Right now, he and his 26-year-old son share an apartment for $1,200 a month.

The apartments themselves are often small and cramped, with houses holding two or three families apiece, a large proportion of them families with children.

In fact, Area 4 has more people per household on average than any other Cambridge neighborhood. A total of almost 7,000 people live within Area 4's boundaries, roughly eight blocks on each side.

"It's a lot of people crammed into a small area," Gamble says.

A Safer Community

The CPD's efforts to clean up the neighborhood have been largely successful. As in the rest of Cambridge, crime is falling in Area 4.

Targeted anti-drug sweeps led to a doubling of the drug arrests in the area, shutting down many of the dealers who used to frequent the neighborhood.

CPD now regularly does "park-and-walks" to show the citizens they care and they're watching.

"We're fairly visible," Gamble says.

The decrease in crime has allowed police to pursue the little things, like public intoxication and graffiti.

"The focus now is on quality-of-life issues," Gamble says. "People like to walk down the street without being scared. They like to sit on their front porch without being harassed."

After several years in the '80s when residents would hardly dare to venture outside, they now play in the area's two major parks, Sennott and Washington, both located near the area's two clean, new housing projects, Washington Elms and Newtowne Court.

"A Place to Chill"

At the heart of the neighborhood lies a testament to its residents' resiliency: the Area IV Youth Center.

Open for as long as its administrators can remember, the center was first incarnated at the corner of Harvard and Prospect Streets. When that building closed and the city sold it, the area was suddenly without a youth center, says its current director, Allen E. Platt.

Seven years ago, citizens rallied for a new one, and the city built the big colorful concrete building, with a park stretching out behind it and a church and school nearby.

Gamble and the other CPD officers who patrol Area 4 take special care of the tract surrounding the Area 4 Youth Center. CPD officers can sometimes even be found joining the kids for a quick game of basketball.

Home to the neighborhood's Head Start program, the city-run center also is the location of the area's biggest playground. After school and on beautiful weekend days, kids gather for street hockey or basketball.

Local schools use the park and basketball courts behind the center for recreation.

One recent sunny day found the courts full of seventh graders jumping rope.

"The Center is a place to chill," one student says. "It's a good place to meet with friends, since not everybody is nearby."

Platt has been director of the center since January.

It has a game room, dance studio, full kitchen and computer lab.

"It's a center serving kids age nine to 19," he says. "The focus is on Area 4 but we accept members from any part of the city."

From 2 to 6 p.m., the center runs programs for middle schoolers, and from 5 until 8:30 p.m. there are programs for teens.

Last Monday's schedule of events ran the gamut from arts and crafts to homework, computer training and sports leagues.

"Lots of students walk to the center," Platt says. "It's a cross-section of the neighborhood."

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