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City Sees Urban Renewal

With the construction of new buildings, Cambridge transforms from an industrial city to a research center

Tech Square construction, August 1962. Courtesy of Fay Foto Service. Cambridge Historical Commission
Tech Square construction, August 1962. Courtesy of Fay Foto Service. Cambridge Historical Commission
By Rediet T. Abebe, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge of the 1950s was one of pastel homes alongside abandoned parking lots and a winding Charles River polluted with industrial run-off.

Although Cambridge is now a hub for technology and research, in the era after World War II but before the ’60s, the city was home to declining heavy industry and oil reserve tanks.

“It was an industrial wasteland,” says Joseph Tulimeiri, executive director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority. “Just about every obnoxious industrial use that you can think of was in this area.”

As a result, people moved out, and after the end of WWII the city experienced a decline in population and industry.

In an attempt to counteract Cambridge’s deterioration, the city administration created the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority in the early ’60s, marking the beginning of urban renewal in Cambridge.

The end of WWII “coincided with the notion that you can and should reinvigorate urban context in very large parcels,” says Cambridge City Councilor Sam Seidel.

Following zoning amendments passed in the early ’60s, which permitted the construction of buildings by MIT and other organizations, Cambridge began its transformation from a decrepit industrial city to a revived research-focused one.


In response to the downward spiral in Cambridge following WWII, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority approved the construction of Technology Square, built under the advising of a real estate agency, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, Inc, hired by MIT.

The city cleared off some land and built offices, research labs, and spaces for small businesses in the Kendall and Central Square areas.

The construction was intended to make the square “a much more attractive neighborhood for everybody to walk around,” Tulimeiri says.

The square was also intended to house the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mission control center, considered the  epitome of technological advancement at the time.

By 1965, NASA had been granted permission to use nearly a third of the cleared property in Technology Square. But when President John F. Kennedy ’40 was assassinated, Technology Square’s face shifted.

“Cambridge, Mass. was Kennedy’s choice for NASA,” Seidel explains. But President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, moved the NASA base to Houston, Texas, Johnson’s home state, leaving Technology Square with a large, vacated tract of land which was filled by other tenants.

Even though NASA’s intended entry was thwarted, other urban renewal projects spearheaded by the city revitalized Cambridge. According to Tulimeiri, the construction successfully improved the city’s tax income, job offerings, and aesthetics, and Cambridge became a more popular place to live.

By 1970, according to Charles M. Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, the city had to introduce rent control to keep housing affordable after the influx of inhabitants.


When Brian A. Thompson ’62 first came to Cambridge as a freshman at Harvard College, he remembers MIT as having “quite a bit of building going on.” But he remembers very few construction efforts at Harvard, recalling that most of Harvard Square’s transformation was to follow urban renewal efforts in other parts of Cambridge.

Harvard did still undergo some building efforts at the time. The Holyoke Center, in the heart of the Square, was opened for use in the early ’60s.

The University also bought the St. Paul’s church rectory and parking lot in order to change the rectory into a low income housing unit, according  to Thompson.

Harvard itself provides constancy to the state of the Square.

“Harvard’s footprint is important in Harvard Square,” Sullivan says.


Looking back on the urban renewal efforts of the ’60s, Seidel asserts that the focus of renewal has shifted somewhat.

“The vision of the physical space is absolutely different. Our understanding of what makes a good city is very different,” Seidel says. Unlike the previous emphasis purely on utility, “The focus [now] is on making places enjoyable.”

Even with this shift in emphasis, Sullivan says that Cambridge has been very successful in balancing industrial development and residential life.

“One of the things we’re finding out is that it does not make sense to do a lot of development without putting people in these places,” Seidel says. As a result, the city is currently examining how best to jointly incorporate apartment and office buildings into city plans.

“Cities will always change. The tools we use to change them will always change,” Seidel said. “Urban renewal was a tool that was used after WWII. [Now] we rely a lot more on the private sector.”

Despite the advancements of the ’60s, the Cambridge city renewal efforts are far from complete.

Tulimeiri says that there are about 1.5 million square feet of land that could be redeveloped further, noting that the abandoned parking lots have not all disappeared.

But throughout these renewal efforts, representatives of the city say they have always focused on protecting the character of Cambridge’s many neighborhoods.

“The main focus of the city is to protect its neighborhoods [while] at the same time creating an economic base that supports the programs the city has,” Sullivan says.

Nostalgically, Thompson remembers the Harvard Square that predates renewal efforts as being “a little funky.”

“You could get roast beef sandwich for 39 cents,” Thompson says.

But Thompson, who still lives in Cambridge, says the Square has since changed.

The sandwich shop, now gone, has been replaced by an ATM.

—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at

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