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Wonderful, Diverse 02139

Postcard from Cambridge

By Lauren R. Dorgan

CAMBRIDGE—My summer place is nestled between an MIT frat, the Asgard pub and a Chinese restaurant called the Pu Pu Hot Pot. The most noticeable feature of the abandoned lot next door is a gigantic graffiti of Richard Nixon’s face, the eyes adorned with skulls and the shoulder marked with the word “OBEY.”

Meanwhile, at my summer digs—an MIT-affiliated enclave of feminist physicist types known as the Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG)—Joni Mitchell is blaring and Cary Grant is starring on the living room tube.

Welcome to Central Square.

This summer, although I’ve traveled less than two miles away from my beloved Quincy House, I’ve become acquainted with the virtues of cheap(er) real estate. Yes, Central Square does lack that 02138 mystique of the square down the road, but that’s about the only thing it lacks.

So having finally come to know MIT and its environs for something more than suicide and science, I’ve become a bit jealous of the tech school down the road.

Here, in the shadow of skyscrapers with names like Rinogen and Zanotech and in the midst of high-pressure students with goals like saving the human race and making a ton of money, is a thriving, quirky neighborhood split between biotech- boomers and long-time Cantabrigians, old and young, a spectrum of races and classes and goals unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Ever since I was a baby, I’ve had a reputation for being a mini-sociologist who loves to people-watch.

And I’ve realized how much people-watching I’ve been missing in Harvard Square, which presents a pretty stark divide between the haves (students and tourists) and have-nots (sellers of Spare Change and requesters of quarters).

And while the people are at the two extremes of the spectrum, the businesses are strictly high-rent types. Few are seedy in the least and they prefer the splurging-tourist-or-parent demographic to the poor-student-or-otherwise-poor demographic. But Central Square has it all, for everyone, especially people-watchers like myself.

There are the wealthy and the poor and people on every step of the ladder in between, ambitious nose-to-the-grindstone academic types and older folks who gather on benches to watch the day go by.

And the businesses, from the airier, more spacious, cheaper Toscanini’s to the dozen Indian restaurants to the numerous delicious and low-budget pizza joints, reflect an area that has little in the way of homogeneity.

There are many small mysteries—there’s the biotech lab facing Mass. Ave. which for some unknown reason hides its pipette-wielders from view with a set of cartoonish stained-glass windows. There’s the 50-something woman energetically doing calisthenics to hip-hop music blaring out of a store that sells everything, from luggage to sports jersey dresses.

There’s the woman discreetly exchanging a wad of cash for a little packet of drugs from the man on the corner.

There are the future-hardbodies looking very put together as they jog towards the gym. There’s the organic supermarket co-op which offers perks like free massages to its members.

There are vegetable vendors at a farmer’s market block away, whose presence is marked only by one flimsy, often-overlooked little sign. There are the employees of the 1369 Coffee House taking a break from mixing mochas to play the guitar and accordion as a 50-something man dirty-dances to the music.

There are sunbathers and readers and yoga-doers basking on the lawn of City Hall, the only good green space on Mass. Ave. for quite a stretch. There are people speaking Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, new immigrants and old, homeless and fortune-seekers, yuppies and yippies.

There was a time, some say, when Harvard Square had it all, too, back in the days of all-night cafeterias and such.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, it is Central Square’s incomplete gentrification that makes it such a mixture. Someday soon, many suggest, Central Square too will be like Harvard Square—expensive and far too homogenous.

That would be a big loss for this town.

Lauren R. Dorgan ’04, a history concentrator in Quincy House, is an executive editor of The Crimson. When she’s not people-watching, she’s at the Schlesinger Library reading the papers of Ruth Handler, the woman who created Barbie.

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