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Lost in the Blur of the Changing Square

By Kristoffer A. Garin, Crimson Staff Writer

This year’s graduating seniors will be the last class to have known The Tasty, a diner that served up greasy and beloved burgers for most of the 20th century at the current site of Abercrombie & Fitch; the class of 2004, now first-years, will be able to say when they graduate that they were the last to know Square staple Store24, which will be replaced at the end of the month by a cellular telephone store.

Are we looking at a new Square?

Harvard Square has been prime real estate for longer than the United States has been a country, but in recent years rents have spiraled so drastically as to threaten a profound change to the landscape.

Turnover is nothing new in the Square. Some businesses thrive, and some fail, here as everywhere. Over the last decade, however, rents have become so high that few local businesses can afford to risk setting up shop, leaving national franchises with vast margins to up the slack.

“I’ve been hanging out in the Square since I was a little kid, and I’ve seen it pass through many phases,” says Christian R. Lorentzen ’99, whose father owns a small trucking business in western Mass. “The new trend seems to be national chains. For them the risk is small in the big picture, but if a small business fails, you lose everything.”

Square residents are of varied minds on recent events, but everyone agrees on one point--something’s different about the Square.

Let Them Eat Phones

“The Square is becoming more tourist-y and less college-y,” says Phillip M. Chan ’02.

Chan is hardly alone in his feeling. The phrase “outdoor mall” has become a byword among small business owners and other Cantabridgians in the last few years.

“People around here have been joking that if you put a roof over JFK Street, you’d have a mall,” says Adam Dicenso, who has worked at Pinnochio’s Pizza for the last 12 years.

Like many others, Dicenso says he feels that the Square is losing much of the unique character that draws people to Harvard.

“I’ve been speaking to a lot of the people that come here, and it seems like they’re going out there,” Dicenso says, gesturing in the direction of Central and Porter Squares. “There’s a base of people who will stay—students, people who work here—but I think the weekend people are going that way because those places have what Harvard Square had—or is losing, I should say.”

And there is no denying that the corner of JFK and Mt. Auburn Streets boasts quite a view of the Square’s new facades—national chains rather than local businesses.

Standing there, one can see 7-Eleven, Staples, Pizzeria Uno, Peet’s Coffee, American Express Travel, the House of Blues, the Vitamin Shoppe, CVS, Abercrombie & Fitch, Pacific Sunwear, Sunglass Hut, Urban Outfitters, Tower Records, two different Breugger’s Bagels stores, and—just barely—the Harvard Coop (turned Barnes & Noble college superstore).

Lawrence P. Hopkins, co-owner of the newly opened bar and restaurant Daedalus, echoes Dicenso’s concerns.

“You’ve heard it many times by now--tt’s becoming an outdoor mall. Is it losing its identity? Of course it is. It’s losing the charm of the small business owner,” Hopkins says.

Harvard University itself is closing the doors of two Square institutions whose lease it holds, the Harvard Provision Company—known to thirsty students over 21 as “the Pro”—and Upstairs at the Pudding, both of which are to become office space for the University, possibly with retail space on street-level.

The design for Harvard’s new building planned at 90 Mt. Auburn Street—now occupied by the Harvard Provision Company—has been rejected by the Cambridge Historical Commission.

“I’m not optimistic that the tide is going to change soon,” says Martin J. Connealy, who has managed the Harvard Provision Company for 13 years. “A lot of people are paying very high rents they can’t afford right now.”

The Harvard Provision Company has been selling beer, wine and spirits at its location in one form or another since the 1890’s—with a break during prohibition—changing owners only three times, according to Connealy.

It is the only liquor store in the Square.

Less venerable, but also unique in their offerings to the Harvard Square community were Videopros and Sage’s Market—formerly the Square’s sole video rental and grocery stores, respectively.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies James R. Russell, who lives in the Square. “I have to go to Porter Square to buy food now.”

Sage’s Market has been replaced by a Sprint PCS mobile telephone store, which uses the very large space to sell its very small phones.

The Square’s very own telecommunications revolution has further cramped the style of hungry Square denizens—Store24’s closure to make room for Omnipoint, another cellular provider, seems likely to make allies out of frustrated home gourmets and late-night snackers.

Last Call?

People get attached to the places where they have their good times, so it isn’t any surprise that Harvard students have been hit hard by the changes in Square nightlife, especially the recent—if temporary—demise of Grafton Street, a popular bar and restaurant.

“It’s sad to see places like the Tasty and Grafton go, especially when they’re replaced by places like Abercrombie,” says Matthew O’Hare ’01.

Grafton Street in particular was a central feature of Square nightlife, and many students continue to bemoan its loss, which compounds last year’s departure of the Bow and Arrow and the suspension of the Crimson Sports Grille’s liquor license.

The popular upscale bar and restaurant had piggybacked onto the lease held by One Potato, Two Potato, the restaurant which had previously occupied the space. The lease had slightly more than four years remaining on it at the time of signing, however, and their landlord chose not to extend it.

Grafton Street closed its doors last month, swamped during its final days by hordes of sympathetic customers who formed long lines outside to wait for a last chance at seating.

Life goes on, however, and for O’Hare at least, there is hope for students in the years to come.

“I’m sure there will be still enough places to make Harvard a fun place to go to school,” he said.

Grafton Street hopes to re-open in time for next semester, in the former location of the Bow and Arrow. Its former Mass. Ave. space will be taken over, at least partially, by neighboring Bob Slate’s Stationary, which is itself being displaced by the Cambridgeport Savings Bank.

Across from the River Houses on Mt. Auburn Street, also at the top of the Square, Daedalus has recently opened its doors, offering an elegant, upscale menu, and a glimmer of hope for Square nightlife.

The bar’s co-owners, brothers Brendan and Lawrence Hopkins, are both former Grafton Street bartenders, and say they took some lessons away from Grafton’s hard-knocks education.

“They offered us a 10-year lease, but we didn’t want to get into anything under 15 years,” Lawrence says.

The brothers walked away with a 16-year lease, which will be renegotiated in eight years, and expect to serve the class of 2001 at their 15-year reunion.

“One thing we’ve learned is you don’t take anything on word of mouth,” Lawrence says.

Please Go Away Often

On the street and behind the storefronts, the feeling that the Square is in the midst of a quiet battle for its soul is increasing, and while the scales seem tipped against local businesses and the unique character they afford, Square partisans are far from ready to give up, nor are they of one mind on the issue.

One camp tends towards the conspiratorial, seeing big business as an active, purposeful enemy of the Square and its culture.

“I think there are sinister commercial forces at work in the Square, who don’t have any sense of the quality, the character, the nature of the Square,” says Anthony Cornish, an artist in residence at Tufts University who has lived in the Square on and off since the 1960’s, raising his son in Cambridge for part of that time. “My son came back and said, ‘Where’s all the ice cream gone?’ It was more individualized back then, I suppose.”

While some long-time residents like Cornish favor conspiracy theories when they look at the changing face of Harvard Square, others point to more ordinary causes.

Local store owners, after all, are first and foremost running businesses. Many are quick to point out that despite rising rents, a poorly run operation does not deserve to stay in business simply because it is locally owned.

Lawrence Hopkins jokes about the collapse of the Sony Janus movie theater on JFK Street.

“I used to love going to see movies down there,” he says, affecting a tone of mock-tragedy. “There was never anyone down there—you had the whole place to yourself.”

Keith Gamble, manager of Bob Slate’s Stationary, says the issue at stake for the community is not the fact that businesses are failing more than before, but that when they do, they are replaced by national companies with little interest in the community.

“I’ve been in the Square for a lot of years, and it doesn’t seem to be changing any faster than it’s ever been—there’s always been turnover in the Square,” Gamble says. “If anything, what’s changing is the character of the people coming in. They’re chain stores rather than locally owned businesses.”

“We wish Grafton was still there,” Gamble adds. “They were good neighbors and they brought a lot of traffic to the area.”

A few local businesses continue to move in, however, and many long-time enterprises persist and even thrive.

The “outdoor mall” of today’s Square notwithstanding, the view from the corner of Mt. Auburn and JFK St. also includes a new independent record store Other Music, which opened on election day this year, as well as the neighboring Market Theater, which opened its doors in April.

The theater is funded entirely by the Carr Foundation, which promotes human rights education and the arts. It plans to focus on producing and showcasing theater from local playwrights and performers, according to Jane A. Beall, director of marketing and press.

These new independents are next door to a stalwart neighbor--Grendel’s Den, which re-opened last year after an elaborate renovation.

And it is not only local businesses that fail in the Square. National chains Express, Structure and Adidas all vacated the Square this year in spite of highly desirable locations.

As ever, competition for space and survival in Harvard Square is fierce, and nothing is written in stone.

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