Year in Review

More Than a Square

Harvard Square is changing, but only at the pace of the consumer

With our nation’s first college arrived its first college town.  And like any other college town, Harvard Square has grown to become an integral part of Harvard College.

While Harvard as an institution may not frequently change its façade, the Square is a physical representation of the historical continuity that defines this community. Harvard Square, like its eternal partner, Harvard, has been a haven for the offbeat, the creative, and the intellectual. Throughout the years, Harvard Square and the University, entwined in a symbiotic relationship, have evolved with one another, reflecting the cultural developments of both the nation and the University. Harvard Square, with its quirks and its staples, also reflects, perhaps greater than any other metric, the seismic shifts in the desires and needs of Harvard’s evolving student body.

Alumni returning for this year’s Commencement will be sorry to learn that Bob Slate—Harvard Square’s long-lasting stationery store—closed its doors for the final time in March after 78 years of service to the Harvard community. The regional panini chain, Panera Bread, will soon fill Bob Slate’s location. Meanwhile, further down the street, a duplex Starbucks and a Pinkberry, of Los Angeles frozen yogurt lore, opened to a generally mixed reaction among Harvard’s student body. Although some elements of the Harvard community lamented the collapse of local businesses and the concurrent loss of their irreplaceable spirit, it is, after all, this same demographic and their buying power that ultimately decides the success of certain Square businesses. Despite the common misperception, there is no “master puppeteer” running Harvard Square, and many of the property owners, including Harvard, do their best to ensure that the Square remains unique. If anything, the consumers are responsible for these changes, which reflect a changed Square customer more than they do a changed epoch.

Many Harvard students—perhaps too eager to find immediate crises—falsely interpret the Square’s recent changes as a brand new phenomenon. According to the Harvard Square Business Association, which has tracked data on Square business over the past decade, the percentage of independent businesses in the Square during that time has remained between 72 and 80 percent. Much of the supposed growth of national chains is based primarily on perception. As HSBA Executive Director Denise A. Jillson said in an interview: “[Nationals] are in very prime locations… because of their footprint they have a large presence.” Lately, however, the overall presence of nationals has been steady. Quite simply, national chains are more capable of paying the rent and filling the large spaces of Harvard Square’s most prominent commercial real estate. Even if Harvard students can be criticized for perceiving recent trends in the Square’s changes of the last year, one can fairly assume that the rise in rent over the last several decades would push out some older, independent businesses from the Square’s prominent locations.

Every community balances the need for change with the aspiration to hold onto the spirit of its traditions. Of course, this balance exists in multiple realms, yet it appears most overtly in the prosperity (or demise) of local, independent businesses at the hands of less unique and more corporatized national chains. Although some changes in Harvard Square over the past decades may be representative of the changing costs of supporting a business here, others are more easily attributed to changes in consumer culture both within the world and at Harvard, specifically.


As is evident from a glance of Mo Lotman’s “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950,” the rise of the so-called “coffee culture,” the shift of the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, and the emergence of Internet shopping are only some of the national and international consumer trends evident in the evolution of Harvard Square in recent years.  According to data gathered by the HSBA, there has been a noted shift in Harvard Square from retail establishments to restaurants. Whereas 50 years ago a glance down Massachusetts Avenue would have revealed barbershops, tailors, and diners, a look today would show a few independent stores, newer eateries, and towering banks. Certain business niches are—in an age of subsidized chain stores—replaceable, and the ones that can compete are becoming smaller and more specialized.

Some of Harvard Square’s changes are the inevitable results of the constantly expanding economic and cultural backgrounds of Harvard’s student population. Today’s average student is probably more likely to prioritize price when shopping in the Square. Additionally, Harvard’s variety of businesses, both in terms of price scale and specialties, will continue to evolve with the demographics of Harvard’s student body. The closing of Bob Slate, for example, is a sign of a Harvard Square better tailored to students’ needs instead of the desires of the tourists and past students who knew a Harvard none of us will ever know. As Harvard Square responds to the University’s evolving student body and market trends, it will find a new balance that must cater to functionality and multiculturalism.

Unfortunately, the closing of some of Harvard Square’s oldest independent stores seems inevitable. Yet, insofar as Harvard and other property owners are capable of preserving the spirit of the Square, we trust that they will stem any possible trends toward gentrification and corporatization.

At the end of the day, we, the consumers, determine the fate of our local stores and, in turn, the face of Harvard Square. The rent or space may encourage national chains—and we should not view that development in a wholly cynical light—but, by and large, we are the greatest determinants of the prosperity of local stores.

Harvard and its students benefit in ineffable ways from the individuality and soul of Harvard Square’s independent businesses. We would do well to remember that these stores rely, not on our vocal support, but on our buying power. In short, Harvard Square will only maintain its uniqueness as long as Harvard students provide their half in this unequivocally symbiotic relationship.


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