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Before Plympton Street was Plympton Street, it was Chestnut Street, named simply for the genus of tree that lined its curb. This was something of a tradition in early Cambridge, which also boasted Acacia, Ash, Camellia, and Linden Streets. Prior to the steeples and bell towers that now define Harvard Square, there were soaring tree trunks.
On the block between Chestnut and Linden Streets stood the home of Cambridge selectman Sylvanus Plympton ’80. (That’s 1780.) He and his wife Mary died in the 1830s, and four decades later, a nostalgic city council decreed that Chestnut would henceforth be known as Plympton Street.
All of this preceded Harvard’s expansion to the banks of the Charles River—the Allston project of yore but with fewer low-income housing projects in the way. Adams House opened in 1935, and Quincy made its arrival down the street at the height of the modernist architectural movement of the 1950s, which explains why the House looks like a ski lodge.
The point is: this city changes, Plympton Street as much as anywhere. Earlier this month, a former mayor of Cambridge proposed renaming the road yet again in honor of his Harvard classmate, David L. Halberstam ’55, who died last year after a storied journalistic career. Like Plympton before him, Halberstam once lived on the street that might bear his name—in the newsroom of The Harvard Crimson, at parcel 14.
The student newspaper moved onto the block in 1915, tearing down a 79-year-old home to make room for a handsome, if staid, redbrick building with an underground printing press. Halberstam, who was managing editor of The Crimson in 1954, wrote a flowery sports column for the paper called “Egg in Your Beer.” His legacy persists in The Crimson’s front hallway, where the pictures of Pulitzer-Prize-winning alumni hang.
Still, the idea of renaming Chestnut-cum-Plympton after Halberstam strikes some, including this newspaper’s leadership, as heresy. The post office can’t be too eager, either. But Cambridge has a long tradition of rechristening its thoroughfares: Holyoke Street was once Crooked Lane; Charles River Road yielded to Memorial Drive. In 1982, the Cambridge city council worried that Harvard was about to drop the Kennedy name from its School of Government. So they promptly turned the road outside the school’s front door into John F. Kennedy Street. It had three previous names, too.
Cambridge’s penchant for rebranding roads is part of the culture of reinvention that has pervaded the city since its settlement in 1630 (when it was known as Newetowne, by the way). We change street names in the same way that we pave them, leaving the earlier memories of dirt, cobblestone, and asphalt underneath. History isn’t static, and each successive generation should add its own layer.
Not that the bar is very high for placing your mark on a road here. Brattle Street is named for a leading Tory general, William Brattle, who tipped off the Royal government when citizens started arming themselves in advance of the Revolution. Then he seized the rebels’ gunpowder and fled to Nova Scotia—great guy! And let’s not bother delving into the sins of Harvard’s philandering and racist former presidents, whose names adorn a multitude of Cambridge roads and University buildings.
True, Halberstam is not the most mellifluous street name, though it’s no Cowperthwaite. He is not even the best journalist to have emerged from 14 Plympton in 1955. (That would be J. Anthony Lukas ’55, also a Pulitzer Prize winner). But by all accounts, Halberstam had an ego fit for a road sign, which is really the brilliance of the proposal. Crimson reporters have long dreamed of adding their names to the newspaper’s hallowed hallway of Pulitzers. But the whole street? Halberstam will have raised the stakes considerably.
Zachary M. Seward ’07-’09, a Crimson news editor, is an African-American studies concentrator in Lowell House.
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