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Mapping Harvard Square’s Transformation, From the Last In-person Commencement to Today

By Katherine M. Burstein and Michal Goldstein, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard will host its first in-person Commencement Exercises since 2019 on Thursday. With three classes set to graduate this week, Harvard Square is alive and bustling with students, families, friends, and tourists.

But since the last Commencement, the Square has undergone a series of changes.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Harvard Square was devastated by the sudden loss of customers as students returned home and travel came to a halt.

“What we always knew — but the pandemic drove the message home — was how much Harvard Square relies on tourism,” said Denise A. Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Daniel P. Roughan, the owner of recent Harvard Square addition, Source Restaurant, described the Square as a “transient epicenter of movement,” explaining that the area is constantly changing.

Here’s a look at how the Square has transformed.

What’s Gone

During the initial lockdowns, roughly 480 Cambridge businesses shuttered their doors — some temporarily and some for good — according to small business advocacy group Cambridge Local First. Staple Harvard Square businesses were forced to close permanently, including Thai restaurant Spicies, Tex-Mex favorite Border Cafe, and nearly 50-year-old coffee shop Cafe Pamplona.

The location of beloved Harvard Square staple Cafe Pamplona now serves as the clubhouse to the all-female Bee Club after the building was purchased by the club’s then-president.

Other businesses that have bid farewell to the Square in the past two years include robotic kitchen Spyce, &pizza, Chinese restaurant Tom’s BaoBao, bakery café Au Bon Pain, Italian restaurant Benedetto, Boston Tea Stop, and seafood restaurant Legal Sea Foods.

Blue Bottle Coffee closed temporarily but has since reopened, and 105-year-old Brattle Square Florist was set to close permanently before its longtime manager — a member of the store's founding family — purchased it.

To students’ great dismay, the Mass Ave. Starbucks also closed down last year. Its location will now house a Harvard Shop run by the Harvard Student Agencies.

What’s New

Though the Square has said goodbye to a number of beloved businesses since the last Commencement, many shops and restaurants have also opened their doors for the first time.

Source Restaurant, a farm-to-table pizzeria, opened on Church Street in November 2020. Lovepop, a specialty card store, opened in July 2021 at 18 John F. Kennedy Street. Ben and Jerry’s reopened in a new location in January after a two-year-long hiatus, and Wusong Road, a Chinese restaurant and bar, opened in February.

Life Alive Organic Cafe opened in March in a collaborative storefront with a yoga studio on JFK Street.

The renovated Abbott Building located on Brattle Street is slated to open later this year after a long construction process that began in 2016. The new storefronts will feature a Starbucks, a comedy club, and the new location of El Jefe’s Taqueria.

Other new restaurants include boba tea chains Gong Cha and Kung Fu Tea, sandwich shop Sally’s Sandwiches, Dominican restaurant Las Palmas, seafood restaurants The Boiling Crab and Summer Shack, BBQ eatery The Smoke Shop, and Italian restaurant Bar Enza.

The Square also welcomed Cambridge Uncommon, an e-commerce pop-up store, and Cookies, a cannabis shop.

Regional diner chain The Friendly Toast is set to open in the former location of Grafton Street Pub, which moved to JFK Street where Park Restaurant and Bar was previously housed.

A Look to the Future

Suzanne P. Blier, president of Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, attributed changes to the Harvard Square landscape to the “turnover” of local businesses to national companies.

The HSNA is currently advocating for a 70 percent local businesses zoning ordinance — a goal Blier says will help retain the amount of small local businesses.

Longtime local businesses noted that the Square has bounced back following the pandemic.

“The place is definitely back to the energy it used to have,” said Stephen Zedros, owner of Brattle Square Florist.

—Staff writer Katherine M. Burstein can be reached at katherine.burstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kmburstein1.

—Staff writer Michal Goldstein can be reached at michal.goldstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.

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