In 2019, both Bill Bartley and his Burger Cottage will turn sixty.
Over the years that his family business has operated in Harvard Square, Bartley has never needed to advertise his restaurant, and today it’s packed for the lunchtime rush. “We just let the food speak for itself,” he says, laying three burgers onto a sizzling grill. “People aren’t stupid — if they have a great meal, they tell their friends.”
Pinned to the wood-paneled walls of Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers is a noisy array of replica street signs, aged posters, and autographed sports jerseys. As the grill begins to hiss, Bartley edges his spatula under the corner of one of the burgers and flips it with a turn of his wrist. Something about the decor and the aroma of the food evokes a certain nostalgia: from its place on Massachusetts Ave., the restaurant has witnessed half a century of history.
“At one point in the ’70s and ’80s when me and my brother and my parents would walk in and turn the key, there would be a 125 years of combined restaurant experience when we’d open that door,” says Bartley. “We were a machine back then.”
Still, such a storied past cannot insulate the restaurant and its owner from an uncertain future: Like countless other small business owners in the Square, Bartley fears that skyrocketing rents may soon price him out of the space that his family has operated since the year he was born.
For the past 48 years, Harvard has owned the 1244-1256 Mass. Ave. properties, home to Bartley’s, Harvard Book Store, and the Hampden Hall swing dormitories currently used by Lowell House. “They always were the best landlord in the world,” says Bartley, gleaming spatula in hand. “We’ve never had a problem with Harvard — until right now.”
With his lease set to expire, Bartley entered into negotiations with Harvard’s leasing team over the summer. “When I met with them, they said they loved us, that we were the greatest tenant of all time,” Bartley confides proudly. “Every Fourth of July, I have a family cookout, and I remember telling the woman who was doing the negotiations at the time, ‘Thanks so much — everybody at the cookout is going to be so excited.’” His face lights up as he recounts the years his family members spent working the same grill that crackles behind him.
But before long, his smile fades. “And then they sent me the lease,” he continues. “She said she had an offer, but it wasn’t anything like what we had had before.” Bartley braces the heels of his hands against the counter, his head bowed. “Finally I just said, ‘Fine, I’m going to do something we’ve never done before — I’m going to call my lawyer.’”
Bartley is hardly alone in his concerns. In just the past two months, Harvard Square has witnessed the closings of Crema Cafe, Tealuxe, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Urban Outfitters, Sweet Bakery, Au Bon Pain, and Petsi Pies. Though small business owners report increased competition from chain stores and online retailers like Amazon, their problems have deeper roots: In a neighborhood where property values have risen steadily over the past several years, even national chains struggle to sustain the profit margins necessary to pay the rents their landlords demand.
“Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage has been a staple in the Square for nearly 60 years,” explains Harvard spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke in an emailed statement. “[W]e look forward to achieving a mutually acceptable lease.”
In the meantime, however, Bartley’s lease remains undetermined, his future rent unknown. “Crazy shit!” he exclaims, shaking his head. “When we were negotiating and [a Harvard representative] was playing hardball, I remember telling her, ‘Do you really want to be the one who makes me go? Because I can go someplace else. Do you want that to happen on your watch?’”
He surveys the store and its creative chaos, taking in the haphazard clusters of brightly-colored vintage signage and Boston sports memorabilia surrounding the chairs that have seated a laundry list of celebrities and public figures from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Adam Sandler. He sighs. “But we’ll see — we’re a tenant at will in a month.”
Should Bill Bartley have to leave the neighborhood, he will take a piece of its history with him. Yet his departure would be but one of many, part of a long, gradual erosion of the landmarks that have distinguished Harvard Square for many years. And as the face of the Square changes, small business owners have no choice but to confront a version of the neighborhood’s future that may no longer save space for them.
A holiday card preserved in the Cambridge Historical Commission’s archives depicts a snow-dusted corner of Harvard Square, illuminated by street lights that warm a seemingly frigid evening. Red script neatly penned below the image reads, “Isn’t this a beautiful corner of Harvard Square, with the warm glow of the Tasty, the restored News Kiosk, and the elegant curve and delicate detail on that corner — evoking 19. century London!”
Though the Out of Town News kiosk is a familiar sight for most Harvard students and Cambridge residents, The Tasty — as opposed to Tasty Burger — may be less recognizable. The Tasty was a 12-seat diner located in the Cambridge Savings Bank building that served burgers and fries 24 hours a day. The site of Matt Damon ’92’s date with Minnie Driver in “Good Will Hunting,” the restaurant was well-known and well-loved within the neighborhood and beyond. It shuttered in October 1997, when renovations began on the Cambridge Savings Bank building, and with rents set to increase following the conclusion of the construction project, the restaurant never returned. The Tasty was first replaced by an Abercrombie & Fitch; today a 24-hour CVS Pharmacy occupies its place.
Upon reaching the bottom of the card, the red writing bends and stretches up the stationary’s right edge. The note concludes with a promise: “Shall we preserve and care for it? Yes — absolutely!”
To some of its longtime occupants, the Harvard Square of today bears little resemblance to the neighborhood pictured in the holiday card. “It’s not the small, individual type mom-and-pop stores anymore,” says Ned Ver Planck, owner of the multi-level hardware store Dickson Bros True Value Hardware. Operated by Ver Planck’s family since 1964, Dickson Bros sits a storefront down from the Corcoran Building, which housed Urban Outfitters, Sweet Bakery, and Tealuxe. As the Corcoran Building enters renovations of its own, it is possible these three stores will go the way of The Tasty.
“It’s more the bigger, corporate type stores, big business type stores,” Ver Planck continues. He reports that the smaller, locally-owned model used to be more common before large investors began purchasing more and more property in the Square.
A man enters Dickson Bros with his granddaughter and weaves between the narrow aisles looking for a very specific screwdriver. When Ver Planck helps him locate it, his face lights up. “I knew I’d be able to find this here!” he says excitedly. His granddaughter smiles shyly, clutching at his pants.
Ver Planck rings up his customers at the cash register and then returns to the conversation. “That guy coming in with his granddaughter just now, he was saying it: ‘The Square has changed a lot,’” he notes. “So, has it affected us yet? No. Will it affect us? I hope not,” he confides uneasily. “But I don’t know how it can’t affect us when you’re ripping down one building and renovating two buildings along the main drag,” he adds, referencing the Corcoran Building. “I don’t know how it can’t affect business.”
Ver Planck owns the building that houses Dickson Bros, insulating him from the rising rents that have forced out many local businesses. But as property values in the neighborhood increase, his property taxes follow suit. “Rents have skyrocketed — it’s gone out of control,” he says of the neighborhood more broadly. “They went up in the ’80s, but then they stayed constant for awhile; now with the buildings getting sold, the rents are just going to continue to go up.”
The initial rent rise in the 1980s cited by Ver Planck traces its roots to the decade prior. Throughout the turbulent Vietnam War years, thousands of people flooded into Harvard Square, having heard that, as G. Garrett Epps ’72 explains in a Crimson article from 1970, “Cambridge was where the dope and music [was].” The 1969-70 academic year was marked by frequent protests that occasionally turned violent, reaching a climax in the April 15 “trashing” of Harvard Square, in which 3,000 demonstrators set fires in the streets, threw flaming debris into the Coop, and smashed all the first floor windows of the Holyoke Center, now the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center.
Local businesses began to suffer as a result. Forced to install steel grates over their windows, many business owners worried that the Square was losing the quaint appeal that attracted wealthy consumers from the suburbs. The July following the “trashing,” Vice President of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce Malcolm Fryer suggested to the city council that business “had fallen off because people [were] afraid to come into the area.”
As the raucousness of the Square leveled off toward the end of the decade, large chains began to replace many of the small businesses that had suffered throughout the 1970s. In 1978, the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store was forced from the 15 Brattle St. storefront it had occupied since the 1920s; The GAP promptly took its place. Corcoran’s, a furniture store owned by Paul R. Corcoran Jr. ’54, yielded to Urban Outfitters in 1987.
The wave of closings that proliferated throughout the 1980s and 1990s likely lent urgency to the holiday card writer’s tone — but the dynamics of change were outside the scope of their control. Even the intensity of their commitment to “preserve and care” for the Square could in no way prevent the exodus of small businesses from the neighborhood.
Over 20 years later, the staff of Mr. Bartley’s expressed similar sentiments in an Instagram post dated from Christmas Eve of 2018. “As we pause to look back on all the wonderful moments we have had over the years, we are struck by how many of our local businesses are no longer with us,” the caption reads, situated beneath a photo of the restaurant’s staff wearing reindeer antlers and Santa hats. “We are still here and going strong because of you and your families that come back year after year, and we are incredibly great for that, and feel like our customers and staff are like family.”
Just below eye level at 12 Bow St. sits Harvard Square’s favorite “hole in the wall”: Café Pamplona. Josefina Yanguas, a native of Pamplona, Spain, founded the restaurant out of her own basement in 1958, hoping to meet new people and alleviate her longing for home. Pamplona’s atmosphere and fare has attracted customers for over 60 years, and while Yanguas left the restaurant in 2004, current owner Nina S. Hovagimian acknowledges that Pamplona’s resiliency is unique.
“Nothing is up to code with the laws today — I mean today if you wanted to open this, you couldn’t; you’d never get a permit,” Hovagimian admits. “The city lets us stay open, I think, partly because it’s historical — it’s part of old Harvard.” Pamplona was the first coffee shop in Harvard Square to have an espresso machine, attracting students and locals throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Café Pamplona’s low ceilings, dim lighting, and mustard yellow walls are distinguishing traits that make the restaurant irreplaceable for more reasons than its unique design and location. Hovagimian has made sure to maintain its legacy. “The menu hasn’t really changed. The recipes we use are original recipes that [the original owner] used to have in the ’60s.”
Despite the constancy of Café Pamplona, however, business has started to decline. Hovagimian has cut her hours short, saying that she has “no business at night,” and the typical patterns of rushes and lulls are becoming unpredictable.
“I haven’t changed anything, you know what I mean?” she says, gesturing around the bustling cafe. “The Square has changed. Clientele has changed, the night business has changed. I used to have people come here and have coffee at night; people now go out to drink…. People tell me from 20 or 30 years ago [the Square is] completely unrecognizable.”
Local activists, longtime Cambridge residents, and eager Crimson editors have waxed nostalgic about the “changing face” of Harvard Square for decades. But the rapid closings of recent years seem to represent an acceleration of the historical trend that has altered the Square since the 1980s.
Yet, despite the longstanding impact of such changes, several local business owners acknowledge that today’s commercial landscape is notably distinct. “One thing I used to always say about this neighborhood is nothing ever changes,” emphasizes Paul DeRuzzo, owner of University Wine Shop. “But in the last — I’m going to say about 10 years — it’s changed a lot.”
Local businesses hoping to enter the Square may find it increasingly difficult to gain a foothold and sustain themselves in the current climate. “In 20 years from now, you’ll hardly find any small shops or retails on the street,” DeRuzzo says. “No one’ll be able to afford it, the way it’s going now.”
Between 2015 and 2019, median assessed property values in Cambridge rose from $570,900 to $781,000. This increase, however, reflects a change across all of Cambridge’s properties; individual institutions, particularly ones in the Square, have witnessed far greater gaps between their past and current value assessments. Though the city of Cambridge does not publish rent data, assessed property values provide insight into the rise and fall of rent rates over time. As a building becomes more valuable, landlords can charge their tenants more, driven in part by increased property taxes.
DeRuzzo had accumulated over 30 years of business in his 1739 Mass. Ave. location before retail firm Myer Dana & Sons bought the shop’s building in 2017. The rents imposed by his new landlord proved too high for him to afford, and he was forced to move locations in December of that year. According to DeRuzzo, average rent per square foot in the area ranges from $35 to $42. The new rent charged by Myer Dana & Sons was $25 more per square foot than Deruzzo had previously been paying.
DeRuzzo attempted to negotiate, even researching average rents in the area and presenting the landlord with realistic prices. But despite his best efforts, the firm refused to budge.
“One of the most dishonoring things was they didn’t believe us,” DeRuzzo said. “They had their own view of what rents were and didn’t go out and do their own homework and figure out themselves.”
Representatives from Myer Dana & Sons declined to comment on DeRuzzo’s claims, and his former location remains unoccupied to this day.
“To me, it’s just disappointing that it’s so tough for people to make a living in small retail anymore,” DeRuzzo says.
Though DeRuzzo argues that the proposed rents at his old location would have surpassed market levels, the increase imposed by his new landlord reflects the increase in real estate value across Cambridge. Between 2015 and 2019, the assessed value of 1741 Mass. Ave., a property adjacent to the original University Wine Shop location also owned by Myer Dana & Sons, increased 47 percent from $1,001,000 to $1,472,600.
Over the same time period, the assessed value of of 1244-1256 Mass. Ave., the Harvard-owned building home to Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, increased from $11,849,700 to $17,504,500. One of the most staggering increases, however, is the building where Crema Cafe formerly resided: In 2015, the block of properties filed at 37 Brattle St., which also houses Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria and Flat Patties, was valued at $15,213,100. In 2019, the property clocked in at $25,663,000.
“The recent addition of property ownership by non-local entities, principally by investment firms, has, I think, caused rents to appreciate at a higher rate and to a level that is really not accessible to the average local businessperson,” says Adriane B. Musgrave, executive director of Cambridge Local First, a non-profit network of local businesses committed to educating the public on the importance of a strong local economy.
The block of properties at 37 Brattle St. was purchased by Asana Partners in 2017. The North Carolina-based real estate investment firm paid over $100 million for the property, and according to a Crimson article published in December, Asana decided not to continue Crema’s lease for 2019 due to “declining returns.”
Asana Partners could not be reached for comment.
Bill Bartley was sad to see Crema leave the Square. When the cafe’s closing was announced in December, the chalkboard sign outside of Bartley’s that typically encourages passersby to stop in for a burger displayed a message of solidarity: “We will miss you Crema!”
Bartley estimates that Crema would have needed to pay $30,000 per month in rent and recalls cautioning the owners against fighting to remain in the Square. “Get out,” he remembers saying, “You can pay the 30; you might be able to tread water for a couple of years, but get out — it’s just not worth it.”
Reflecting on his own experience running a restaurant, Bartley continues: “At that rate, you’re going to go downhill — you’re going to have to cut on ingredients, you’re going to have to cut on staff, you’re to have to cut, cut, cut just to tread water.” He sighs. “This is a really bad hobby to have, so if you’re not making money, I’d say you got to get out.”
Previous Crema co-owner Liza Shirazi could not be reached to confirm Bartley’s assessment. But in late December, she relocated to Davis Square, opening a new restaurant in January with partner Steve “Nookie” Postal called Revival Cafe + Kitchen. The faded outlines of “Crema Cafe,” still visible on the awning above 27 Brattle St., will soon read “Bluestone Lane” — the name of the high-end Australian coffee chain replacing it.
Over the last few years, businesses with decades of history have shuttered, including Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, which closed in 2017 after 161 years of business. Longevity does not appear to be a symbol of stability or security, as stores must meet higher rents with relatively constant revenue. Cornerstone restaurants such as Café Pamplona and Pinocchio’s Pizza & Subs have become exceptions; their continued success is in part due to their uniquely stable relationships with their landlords.
Adam DiCenso, owner of Pinocchio’s, takes a break from serving customers at the counter and steps out into the unusually warm February sun. Pinocchio’s opened in 1966, and DiCenso’s family took over the restaurant in 1982; while rents have increased gradually, Noch’s appears to have weathered this change.
“Fortunately for us,” he says, glancing around, “knock on something, we’ve been having [our rent] go up but nothing crazy, no doubling of rents or tripling of rents or whatever I’ve heard with some of the places.” Pinocchio’s rents its space from a family that has owned the building for over 100 years, as opposed to a real estate company or trust — and the DiCenso’s have maintained an amicable relationship with them. “I’ve heard horror stories about some of the landlords around here, and they’ve been great with us. Once again, we’ve been really lucky with that.”
Similarly, Hovagimian pays rent to the family of Café Pamplona’s original owners, who still own the building. She deems her rent “reasonable,” and recognizes her setup’s uniqueness. “It would be impossible for me to pay rent like these other places pay rent, because I sell one coffee at a time,” she says, nodding at the cramped kitchen behind the counter. “[The cafe] is not owned by Harvard; it’s not owned by a corporation, so it’s still family-owned. And [the landlords] also understand that I wouldn’t be able to survive if I had to pay more.”
Most businesses, however, lack the security afforded by these unique ties to landlords, and their futures remain uncertain. Without such relationships, many of the recently closed establishments — Crema, Chipotle, Sweet Bakery, and Tealuxe, among others — were vulnerable to the whims of their landlords and unpredictable market forces.
Still, new businesses forge ahead to fill the gaps left by these closures. Milk Bar and &pizza, one of the Square’s most recent additions, continues the trend of larger chains replacing local establishments, occupying what used to be Tory Row and the Crimson Corner Newsstand at 3 Brattle St.
Despite the numerous additions, Harvard Square stands to lose an intangible quality during this turnover. “The local businesses are what make Harvard sparkle,” says Musgrave.
“If you talked to a lot of people about the history of the Square, they would say that a lot of its authenticity and a lot of its charm was rooted in the independent business owners who were a part of that community,” says Randy R. Ricker, owner of Brattle Square Florist. “That’s something that’s been eroding for 20, 30, 40 years.”
Yet the demand for locally-oriented businesses is still strong. “The reception from the Square — from the people who have lived here forever and the other businesses — has been so much better than we ever expected,” says Shoshanah B. Garber, co-founder of Black Sheep Bagel Cafe.
Black Sheep, a new mom-and-pop styled restaurant on JFK St. owned by a particularly young mom and pop, opened in June 2018, standing in contrast to the Square’s current influx of chains. “A lot of people seem to be really appreciative of what we’re doing here,” Garber continues. “We live in the neighborhood, so we’re really as local as we can be.”
Chains seem to threaten the personable nature of local businesses that many treasure. “We used to have property owners who really loved and cared about the Square for more than just financial value, and we’ve lost a lot of that,” says Musgrave. “At the end of the day, the only thing that these investors care about are the dollars and cents, not about community, not about neighborhood character, not about vitality. Those things are related to financial success, but sometimes they are separate.”
According to Musgrave, Harvard Square’s transformation mirrors “techy destinations” such as New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, and it risks losing the spark that attracts visitors and local residents alike. “If our globalization and homogenization of business happens to such an extent, then why would I go to [Harvard Square] to see something new and unique and cool?” she asks.
“Why would I waste my time to go some place when I’ve already been to those places before?”
—Magazine writer Andrew W. D. Aoyama can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewAoyama.
—Magazine writer Jane Z. Li can be reached email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaneZLi.