A snippet of a Square that used to be more fun.
A snippet of a Square that used to be more fun.

How the Square Got So Square

The desire for more social and meeting space has long been old news on this campus. However, this old argument
By Aria S.K. Laskin

The desire for more social and meeting space has long been old news on this campus. However, this old argument has gained new intensity as more space has been lost to the College. As recently as 10 years ago there was more available meeting space per group, post-9 p.m. fun to be had in the Square, and a building called the Freshman Union.

The union, now the Barker Center, used to serve as a student center for the freshman class. Freshmen ate their meals there, held meetings, and even got to watch cable television starting in 1993. Concentration fairs and theatrical presentations made the Union truly the hub of freshman life. This all changed in 1995, when the University decided to relocate the Union, relocate the freshman, and turn the building into a home for the Humanities faculties—with a $25 million budget. The project went ahead, despite fears that the relocation of freshmen to Memorial Hall would create overcrowded eating space, and that a newly renovated Loker Commons was no replacement for the Union.

When asked by the Crimson in 1995 how she felt about the renovations, Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth S. Nathans said, “It’s going to be—different.”

Her hesitation is understandable. Activities such as the first year concentration fair could not be held in the confines of Loker, due to a lack of space. The Union was a true core of college life, as many alumni now confirm.

“I don’t remember wanting for social space,” says Thomas C. Frietzche ’67, though he does recall one raucous bachelor party thrown in the Kirkland Basement for want of a better location.

A more recent loss for freshman was the replacement of the Crimson Sports Grille with Redline in 2002. Laurence P. Noonan ’03 remembers spending countless nights at the Grille, which was known for freshmen and cheap beer. “It was not the classiest bar,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but it was always fun.” The replacement of the popular Grille with the upscale Redline was, according to Noonan, “a loss of massive proportions”. “Whether you went or not, the grille was a staple/aspect/representation/whatever of freshman life,” he wrote.

Before Redline and before the Grille, another type of business thrived in the Square: all-night eateries. When Frietzche was an undergraduate, three all-night diners sat within walking distance of his dorm.

One favorite was Hayes Bickford, a 24-hour cafeteria. Frietzche remembers one particularly impressive characteristic of the diner: the presence of interracial couples. “”I remember a lot of interracial dating at those places, people out getting coffee and talking,” he says. This phenomenon—impressive for the mid-1960’s—seemed to be characteristic of the zeitgeist of the Square, which at the time was overflowing with small shops and inviting eateries.

The Hayes Bickford was eventually replaced by an ice cream parlor, which was then replaced by what is now the Bank of America. In fact, most of the banks and similar stores in the Square replaced student-friendly venues and hangouts.

A popular eatery once operated where the Cambridge Savings Bank now stands. The Sprint store on the corner of Brattle and Church streets replaced Sages, an immensely popular family-owned grocery store.

What’s the problem with these types of businesses? It’s a ripple effect. “There are certain uses [of space] that can deactivate, rather than activate, an area,” says Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design Jerold S. Kayden ’75, who has studied Harvard social space (see “The Space Scientist,” page 16). “Areas that may be deemed important are given over to inert uses.”

As the Square continued to lose its character, clamors for more social space got louder. When he was still dean of the College, Harry R. Lewis ’68 sent Dean Jeremy R. Knowles a loaded report on some of the issues surrounding lack of space in the college.

Meanwhile, undergraduate demands for a student center gained momentum. “It came up over and over again,” says Sam C. Cohen ’00, who as an undergraduate was UC vice president and chair of the Student Center Working Group.

In 1999, the UC pledged $25,000 or the building of a student center—a paltry sum for what the center would ultimately cost, but a large chunk of the UC budget. “The money showed that we were serious about it,” Cohen says. At the same time, the UC put out a report on the need for a student center, which they coined “College Hall.”

But College Hall was to be finished before it ever began. Instead of building the large center, smaller gestures—like the construction of lockers in Loker Commons—were made. “I remember feeling like, ‘Alright, they gave us a quarter loaf, we can be satisfied with that,’” says Cohen.

His experience sounds eerily similar to that of today’s UC. Though President Matthew J. Glazer ’06 has said only a centralized student center will solve what he calls the “crisis of social space,” without the money or power to make it happen, he forces himself to accept sacrifices.

“Having the resources of a student center decentralized,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Crimson, “is certainly better than not having them at all.”