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Industrial History, Popular Schools Forge the Modern-Day Patchwork of Cambridgeport

By Andrew S. Holbrook, Crimson Staff Writer

In the densely residential south Cambridge neighborhood of Cambridgeport, dwellings that show a half-century of wear stand next to recently restored structures.

A large industrial park with new and extensively renovated buildings faces industrial warehouses fitted for high-tech and biotech firms.

Just a few blocks away from a tall city-owned apartment building are narrow, multi-family houses--evidence of the neighborhood's industrial past.

The Corner Store

Essentially, Cambridgeport is laid out on a grid. Bordered on the north and south by Mass. Ave. and the Charles River, the neighborhood is segmented by four major streets running diagonally southwest to northeast. The streets run perfectly parallel, in a marked contrast to the winding streets so omnipresent in Cambridge.

And several of these perfectly regular corners, with their exact 90-degree angles, have a little bit of everything, offering neighborhood residents convenient pedestrian access to a variety of shops and services.

For instance, the corner of Brookline Street and Putnam Avenue is home to First United Market; Troy Anthony's Barbershop; Dimitrios Cuisine, specializing in steak tip dinners; Stefanni Pizzeria, "serving since 1980," as its sign proudly advertises; and the Cybersuds Coin-op Laundry.

Decia B. Goodwin, who has lived in Cambridgeport for 25 years, says for her, "Days and days go by without getting in a car."

She says she walks to the Graham and Parks School in the morning with her children and recently even found a dentist within walking distance at Central Square.

Long-time neighborhood resident Geneva T. Malenfant says laundromats are especially important for residents of the neighborhood's many low-cost apartments who don't have laundry machines.

But some residents say they are becoming concerned about traffic disrupting their walks to the corner store.

Memorial Drive is increasingly congested during rush hour. The Cambridge Police Department (CPD) has even installed speed clocks on Sidney and Brookline Streets, comparing drivers' speeds to the 25 mph limit.

A Little Bit of Everything

The neighborhood's geography is balanced between different universities and recreational areas.

Residents in north Cambridgeport are close to Central Square; those to the south are just blocks from the Charles River and the popular riverside Magazine Beach, named for the powder magazine that once stood nearby.

"To be able to walk out of my house and be at the river--there's very few places like that," says Nancy B. Woods, a resident of the Hastings Square area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Academic facilities are easy to get to from Cambridgeport: Boston University is just across the bridge, MIT down the river. And every 20 minutes in the morning and evening, the number 47 bus takes passengers to and from the Longwood Medical Area.

"It's not a place dominated by any one university," says Malenfant, a 35-year resident who moved to Cambridgeport from Rhode Island because her husband went to graduate school at MIT.

"If [universities] become too dominant, then we become a college town," she says. "I like the idea that there's industry in the city."

Industry in Cambridgeport began when the Grand Junction Railroad was built in 1853. Factories produced soap, railroad cars and candy, among other products.

The tracks are still used today and form the neighborhood's eastern border with the MIT neighborhood.

After the Second World War, many industrial buildings remained standing, though they are no longer used for traditional industry. These days, many house technology start-up companies or biotechnology research firms, with names like AstraZenca and ImmunoGen.

Across Sidney Street from these transformed industrial warehouses is University Park at MIT, a 27-acre complex of corporate office buildings, managed in part by the school.

The park bears little resemblance to the rest of Cambridgeport. Though some of its buildings date back to the turn of the century, even those have been extensively renovated. Along one side of Sidney Street hang banners painted with double helixes; on the other is a park dotted with modern sculptures.

Diverse Homes, Diverse Prices

Closely packed multi-family dwellings are one of the neighborhood's most distinct features. Cheap, small wooden homes were first built about a century and a half ago near the factories to house European immigrant workers.

The neighborhood houses a little less than one-tenth of the city's population, the fifth highest count of the city's 13 neighborhoods as designated by the CPD.

According to census data analyzed by the city's Community Development Department, housing turnover decreased from 1980 to 1990, meaning the neighborhood is becoming more stable.

Housing costs are increasing in Cambridgeport, as they are throughout the city.

"It creates a paradox for people who live here who couldn't afford to buy their homes now," Goodwin says.

Despite rising rents and increasing price tags on homes, Malenfant calls Cambridgeport one of the city's "most welcoming neighborhoods" as far as city-designated affordable housing.

The Cambridge Housing Authority runs two apartment buildings that provide nearly 400 apartments, nearly half the neighborhood's affordable housing units, mostly to elderly tenants.

In Auburn Court, a housing complex near the University Park development, 45 of 60 new units will be affordable.

Coveted Classrooms

Across Cambridge, increased housing costs are pushing out lower-income residents. They, in turn, are being replaced by wealthier homeowners and renters who tend to have fewer children.

In many areas of the city, this trend has especially hurt the public schools. In the last decade the district has seen a major decline in enrollment due in large part to parents opting to send their children to private schools.

Cambridgeport is no exception to this pattern, but the trend may be somewhat less worrisome for the neighborhood because it is home to two of the city's most popular elementary schools: the Cambridgeport School and the Graham and Parks School.

The schools' popularity may also carry the added benefit of creating neighborhood solidarity. Residents with elementary-aged children say those schools are a central part of their sense of community.

Josie P. Patterson, who has one child at Cambridgeport and another at Graham and Parks, says her neighborhood involvement has come by way of the schools.

"For me, Cambridgeport has really fulfilled that--it's very much my social life," she says.

The Cambridgeport School was founded a decade ago by a group of about 60 parents who had not received their top choices in the district's system of school assignment.

School district officials gave the developing school, which began as a kindergarten program, broad latitude to develop its own curriculum.

Graham and Parks houses a popular Haitian bilingual program, where students are taught in both Haitian Creole and English.

"We're encouraged to spend time there and go in classrooms," says Goodwin, a Graham and Parks parent.

Goodwin says she likes Community Schools, a program at each Cambridge elementary school offering after-hours activities and homework help.

"It is wonderful enrichment for my children, from piano to arts and crafts, pottery, woodworking and yoga classes," she says.

But Patterson says the public facilities she and her children use--the school buildings, the public library and the parks--are sub-par.

"The library is decrepit and has been for years," she says. "That is probably the thing that bothers me the most."

Like education, art is another cultural factor that has pulled together members of the neighborhood.

Judith Motzkin is a potter who successfully lobbied for a change in city zoning policy to allow artists to build studios in their backyards. She founded the Cambridgeport Artists Open Studios, an annual event where artists who work in the neighborhood open their homes and show their works. Last fall, about 50 artists opened their studios to hundreds of Cantabrigians.

"I like that artists can live within the neighborhood, rather than artists jammed together in one place," she says.

View from Magazine and Upton

At 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Jerre G. Quayle shepherds parents and their children across the intersection at Magazine and Upton Streets.

She has been a crossing guard for 11 years and has lived in Cambridgeport all her life. Part of her time in the neighborhood she spent in an area that used to be called "greasy village" after the soap factories that operated there.

Quayle stands in the drizzle one afternoon wearing her fluorescent crossing guard vest and talks about visiting Central Square, which many Cambridgeport residents appreciate being close by.

"Central Square used to be like Boston," she says. "It used to have all the shops, the Harvard Bazaar, three bowling allies. It was a pleasure to go there."

She says she doesn't feel comfortable with the square late at night like she used to.

"Everything's drugs, everything's violence," she says.

But she says crime has decreased over the past few years.

According to CPD statistics, Cambridgeport is susceptible to auto thefts and robberies from homes and cars--consequences of being a dense residential neighborhood close to Central Square.

Like crime nationwide, theft in Cambridgeport has decreased significantly in the '90s compared to the '80s. And those three categories all decreased by double-digit percentages last year compared to 1998.

Like many people in Cambridge, Quayle says she's known people who have had to move out of her neighborhood.

"You can't live here unless you're really poor or going to be rich," she says.

She says she lives in housing subsidized by the Cambridge Housing Authority--without that help, she says, she couldn't afford to live in the neighborhood.

As a school bus passes by, Quayle waves to her grandson, who's taking the bus home from the Graham and Parks school.

From her view on the Upton-Magazine corner--one block west is Graham and Parks, two blocks south is Cambridgeport--says she sees how the schools bring the community together.

"I don't go in the schools much," she says. "I just do the crossing."

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