The Harvard Crimson

From Bob Dylan to This? Surviving a Shrinking Cambridge Arts Scene

Artists imbue the Square with the culture and charm that give the city its character — and its market price. But what would a sustainable arts culture look like in Cambridge, and who is willing to pay for it?
By Catherine H. Feng

From Bob Dylan to This? Surviving a Shrinking Cambridge Arts Scene

Artists imbue the Square with the culture and charm that give the city its character — and its market price. But what would a sustainable arts culture look like in Cambridge, and who is willing to pay for it?
By Tess C. Wayland

It’s me and a bunch of old men here tonight. One wears a Canadian tuxedo, one sings a song dedicated to his late wife, and one goes by the stage name Blind Dr. Bob. One of them tells me it’s always been his dream to perform here. Among the young people, an intrepid hipster tries out throat-singing, and a class-conscious grad student sings a tune about unionization at the North Pole. Very few of the performers, young or old, live in Cambridge.

I write my notes over a promotional ad for beginner banjo classes at the music school, waiting to hear something that sounds like a rolling stone. But most of the original songs trade in clichés. Love takes flight, sparks ignite. It’s open mic night at Club Passim, and I can’t help but wonder — we went from Bob Dylan to this?

Joan Baez got her start here, playing every Tuesday night. Bob Dylan strummed for free during an intermission, just to say he had played Passim. Tracy Chapman wrote a New Years card to the club before jetting off to Argentina. Van Morrison lived a quick walk away on Green Street, where he wrote lines about “coming from Cambridgeport with my poetry and jazz.”

Folk revival gave way to punk’s arrival. The Pit ruled the Square. The punks ruled the Pit. The pits were ruled by hair. Skaters, freaks, radicals, lefties, boomboxers — above all, artists — had a home in Cambridge.

But that home has been threatened by forces of gentrification. Since this storied heyday, it seems to many that the arts scene is on the decline, losing spaces to rising rent.

As the cost of living goes up, the artists who once defined Cambridge can no longer afford to create here. The median rent in Cambridge is $3,500, sitting $1,500 above the national median. Though businesses were already shuttering before 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated conditions for local artists.

But they aren’t just getting priced out. They’re existing in a precarious ecosystem, where one shuttered business, one closed studio or gallery, or one relocated friend, ripples to impact the entire network of artists.

Since 2011, Cambridge has seen a significant number of arts spaces relocated or shuttered altogether: Mobius Performing Arts, Out of the Blue Art Gallery, New Alliance Gallery, the Deborah Mason School of Dance and the Bridge Repertory theater company, Green Street Studios, and EMF Studios. The 2018 shutdown of EMF Studios, now offices, marked the closure of the last major music and arts studio space.

To try to define how many arts spaces still exist, I first had to define an arts space. A walk through the Square makes the category blurry — do you count Harvard-owned museums and galleries, commercial movie theaters, locally-owned book, comic, and record stores, Instagram-friendly murals and free-agent buskers, Free Little Libraries and public statues made out of rusted shovels?

I found that the few arts spaces left mainly survive through makeshift rent arrangements, the generosity of benevolent patrons, and the backing of generational wealth.

Though the Cambridge Government has launched a number of initiatives to try to preserve the city’s once-thriving scene, the results of their efforts remain unclear amidst a regional crisis of housing instability. Biotech windfall may offer an alternate way forward, but it can’t change the fact that many artists are no longer here.

Anxieties around artist displacement aren’t new — they’re part of a longer discourse on the changes in Harvard Square and Cambridge at large. Residents, developers, and politicians argue over whether these changes constitute character decline or creative destruction.

Cambridge has always been split between corporate chains and local business, between tradition and reinvention, and most of all, between the ivory towers and the rebellious people living beside them.

Between all these camps — punks, professors, politicians, professionals — most seem to want an arts scene in the city. At the very least, they want avant-garde aesthetics overlaid on upper-class establishments: buskers playing outside of buildings they can’t swipe into, commissioned graffiti on the wall of a million-dollar makerspace. Artists imbue the Square with the culture and charm that give the city its character — and its market price. But what would a sustainable arts culture look like in Cambridge, and who is willing to pay for it?

Selling at the Sacred Space

The Grolier Poetry Book Shop’s 400 square foot space houses almost 100 years of history. The space has transformed from an old boys club with Harvard men like T.S. Eliot sitting on the couch to an immigrant-owned, globally-minded community space.

Ifeanyi Menkiti, a poet-philosopher-professor, fell in love with the Grolier while he wrote his dissertation under John Rawls and ended up saving the bookstore from bankruptcy in 2006. Over the course of my call with two generations of the Menkiti family, who lost their patriarch in 2019, the Grolier is called a “sacred space,” “passion project,” and “cultural institution.”

“My husband believed very much in community. He believed in a community of poets,” Carol Menkiti tells me. If you push back the display table in the center of the building, there’s room for the shop’s “intimate” readings, which usually run twice a week.

The Grolier is also, technically, a retail establishment. The bookshop’s longevity is a testament not just to community, but to the sacrifice and dedication of individuals, a theme across enduring arts spaces. It survives on the family’s personal contributions and the donation of time, money, and books from that poet community. To ensure the survival of the Grolier, the Menkitis have even considered conversion to a nonprofit.

In its historic tenure, Grolier has seen the storefronts around it change. The Square’s activist presence off the heels of the Vietnam War dampened foot traffic, causing local joints to shutter and chains to crop up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Meanwhile, Cambridge’s rent control policy came under attack, and organizing in favor of it began to falter. After the dissolution of key advocacy groups, landlords and developers ran a campaign to ban rent control at the state level.

In 1994, they succeeded, and the city’s housing landscape radically changed. Housing valuations in the area spiked by 1.8 billion in the ten years following the ban, and rent prices rose accordingly. Recent calls to revive rent control in Massachusetts, under the new branding of “rent stabilization” have stumbled.

On top of rising rents, square footage itself is a scarcity. Even with pushes for affordable housing from city councilors and local activists, Cambridge lacks the room to meet the demand. As of 2023, over 20,000 people were on the waiting list for affordable units, a clear mark of an ongoing housing crisis.

City government isn’t the only entity after space — developers hold large swaths of land throughout Cambridge. In Harvard Square, one of the major players is Trinity Property Management, whose president is longtime resident John P. DiGiovanni. He may be best known to students for his plans to remodel The Garage, a shopping mall with favorites like Le’s and Newbury Comics, into upper-floor office space.

Alongside DiGiovanni, billionaire Gerald Chan, the namesake of Harvard’s School of Public Health, started making major acquisitions in the neighborhood in 2014, including the historic — and still shuttered — Harvard Square Theater. At the time of purchase, his holdings totaled $100 million.

Harvard itself is the other major real estate player, with over 80 properties across New England publicly listed on its Harvard Real Estate website. A handful of their properties house arts and culture spaces — though many bear the stamp of the Harvard name.

Harvard is also the landlord of the Grolier. “It’s very small, it’s a very old space that hasn’t been renovated,” says Ndidi Menkiti. “And it’s a historic store, so they’ve kept the rent quite low.”

Menkiti adds that poetry stores aren’t exactly profitable — something she’s sure Harvard recognizes. She finds that the friction between the Grolier’s scant dividends and deep cultural significance raises questions about who bears the responsibility of supporting Cambridge’s art scene.

“What is the role of the state?” she asks. “What is the role of the shopper in keeping retail establishments with a cultural value alive, even when they’re not economically solvent?”

‘Trying to Hang On’ in A Damaged Ecosystem

Beverley Coniglio wears black eyeliner and flared black lace sleeves, her hands decorated with what she calls “boyfriend rings.” Coniglio heads the Cambridge Artists’ Cooperative on Church Street. The co-op is a worker-owned-and-operated space that has peddled craftsman wares since the late ’80s.

“We’ve just been trying to hang on. It ebbs and flows,” Coniglio says.

When the pandemic forced temporary closure, the co-op survived off of federal grants to pay their rent. Not all of their neighbors were so lucky. Though Coniglio notes that many local businesses were struggling before the pandemic, she says that Covid-19 “wiped out a lot of the last handful of little shops.”

The co-op itself has faced a rising rent on their two-year lease, which forced them to negotiate their three-floor space down to one floor. Since paring down their space, they’ve had to limit how many artists they display. And as artist opportunities go down, there’s less and less of a point to paying the skyrocketing Cambridge rent.

The Cambridge Artists' Cooperative has faced a rising rent on their two-year lease, which forced them to negotiate their three-floor space down to one floor. Since paring down their space, they’ve had to limit how many artists they display.
The Cambridge Artists' Cooperative has faced a rising rent on their two-year lease, which forced them to negotiate their three-floor space down to one floor. Since paring down their space, they’ve had to limit how many artists they display. By Lucy H. Vuong

As I interview Coniglio, two older residents browse the store, looking for Valentine's Day gifts. They overhear our conversation and start to chime in.

They don’t want to grumble about generational decline — everybody their age thinks character’s gone, and everybody my age thinks we’re going to fix it. But what both generations can agree on, it seems, is that character has changed — and more importantly, so has livability.

One of the biggest losses, they tell me, was Dickinson’s hardware. Workers at the co-op used to be able to walk a few storefronts down, pick up a nail, and install paintings on the wall right then and there. Coniglio also recalls a bead store next door, where artists could grab new wire and charms on their way to drop off their latest necklace for display. Coniglio and the patrons are describing a closer-knit city, one where a resident could access all essentials within a 15-minute walking radius.

The panic over dying neighborhoods bleeds into the discourse surrounding local businesses and large chains. People worry that the Square is going too corporate, an anxiety that can seem strange, considering the Square gets its name from the so-called oldest corporation in the western hemisphere: Harvard.

One of the patrons points out the University’s influence. “It’s ambitious for expansion, and Harvard, it buys buildings, drives up rent.”

With its annual influx of students and researchers, Harvard guarantees the neighborhood a customer base of tens of thousands every year. But the needs of that base are transient, demanding change over time.

The patron chimes in again. “Any institution has a tendency to create a dead zone around it, which is completely saturated by things that are related to the function of the institution and not to the people who happen to live in the neighborhoods around it.”

“Ensuring that Harvard Square remains a vibrant hub of dining, retail, and entertainment remains a long-standing priority,” Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa says, “not only for the Harvard community, but for Cambridge residents and for the Square’s thousands of annual visitors as well.”

The Many Deaths of Harvard Square

DiGiovanni, the developer behind Trinity Management and a former president of the Harvard Square Business Association, has a different view on the “dead zone.” He asks me to meet him at Black Sheep Bagel — his home territory, a space he can show off for its ivy-vined, family-owned image of success.

When I pitch DiGiovanni on my piece, I put it in the context of a national housing crisis. He interrupts me the minute I suggest rent is rising — he tells me rent is going down, tapping the table with each word. DiGiovanni, who has spent his whole career in Cambridge, sees himself as a steward of Harvard Square and the arts. He’s helped to stage street festivals, organized film screenings, and puts flowers and banners on the street lamps every year.

“I’m not gonna put myself as altruistic, because the truth is, if it doesn’t work, on some economic basis, it’s not relevant,” DiGiovanni tells me. Rent rates are just a reflection of how much business a storefront brings.

Relevance is one of DiGiovanni’s guiding principles, and he knows it’s possible for local business to meet the charge — look, again, at Black Sheep Bagel. According to the Harvard Square Business Association, about 72 percent of businesses in the Square are still local. Chains, however, tend to have more square footage and better locations.

They’re hard to miss. Walking from class to Kirkland, I salute the inflation-era CVS. I start counting boba and coffee chains. I wonder who decided that Harvard Square needed another Starbucks, and who before that put a Santander bank in place of the Curious George store.

I’m not the only resident to notice the corporate presence. Catherine J. Turco, an MIT economic sociologist and a concerned citizen of the neighborhood, writes in her book “Harvard Square: A Love Story” about the phenomenon she has named the “Harvard Square Death Discourse.” Since the 1920s, she argues, residents have grumbled about local shutterings and lost character, some indefinable spirit that’s finally, for real this time, died out. She quotes a Boston Herald Reporter from the 1930s: “Harvard Square is a different place. The old stores, the old friends are gone.”

In Turco’s framework, there is always someone who responds: we must adapt. Businesses that close do so for a reason. We don’t have horses and buggies anymore. Harvard Square should look different from decades ago.

This is DiGiovanni’s role. The Square, he says, must constantly reinvent itself for its shifting client base of students. Those students should be demanding: “the Square must serve them.” In this view, Harvard Square isn’t dying. It’s simply being reborn.

Pouring and Performing

If you’re looking to make art in this rebirth of Cambridge, the options are almost null. But if you want to watch art — in a concert hall or a dive bar — you’re in luck. But venues have also been relying on patronage or starting to reconsider their models altogether.

DiGiovanni helped develop Church Street music venue The Sinclair, a Bowery Presents Boston project he says he gave a lot of “runway” during development because of the venue’s ability to “anchor” the neighborhood. DiGiovanni’s investment is clear in the sound-proofed, high-ceilinged, double-deckered modern venue. He says he keeps the venue’s rent reasonable: his approach to any lease, he writes in an email, is to let the occupants advocate for “an appropriate rent or occupancy cost relative to their particular industry.”

It’s not fair to say the rent is subsidized — the crowds the venue draws, he claims, help nearby businesses survive.

“We really believe that entertainment was critical and is critical,” DiGiovanni says. “It usually costs a lot to start these up, so you have to create some space and time for them to be able to do that.”

“I think they’re a great example of why we can afford to have more of that in the Square,” he adds.

DiGiovanni is looking into putting venues and event spaces in other properties, including the now-open event space Dx @Dunster.

They would join historic venues like Club Passim, along with The Cantab Lounge and The Middle East Club in Central Square — anchors of the arts scene, operating since the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, respectively. Though venues still face tough profit margins, alcohol licensing gives them an advantage an art gallery or book store doesn’t have: wine and beer.

But even the old venues are looking to change their model. The Middle East has been exploring a proposal to redevelop the site to include hotel and retail space, following rumors of closure and demolition.

For others, turning a profit is a secondary aim. The Cantab Lounge had been pouring and performing for decades when it shut down during Covid-19. This would have been a window for the venue’s landlord to approach the city and start to redevelop prime real estate, right across from City Hall and perpendicular to Mass Ave. But the landlord, in a burst of generosity, supported keeping the dive bar open.

In came Tim and Maureen Dibble, ready to buy. The Cantab wasn’t their first date — but it was dates two through ten. Back when they were my age, in the ’80s, they would leave the Cantab bathed in sweat.

“You’d have Black and white and gay and straight and rich and poor and old and young moshing on the same dance floor,” Dibble recalls. “It was live music seven nights a week, and it was this place with serious character and serious soul.”

Dibble used to camp out in the rain and snow to get in the Cantab, but post-pandemic and post-technology, Dibble says, people are too used to staying at home for him to count on them for reliable rain-or-shine profit.

Luckily, the couple doesn’t have to count on them. Dibble, a partner at the private equity firm Alta, described himself and his wife as the “right buyers at the right time.” They hoped to keep the place almost exactly the way it was in their heyday, plus some fixed toilets — and they had the means to do so.

“We had done well enough in our life and cared so much about the institution that we could afford to buy it and reopen it on a basis where the daily financial viability of it was less of a concern for us,” Dibble says.

“We don’t need to pull an income out of it,” he says. “If we did, it would be really hard.”

‘Can I Make it Here?’

But if artists are to live here, they need not just places to perform, but spaces to make and hang their art.

David Craft came to Cambridgeport hoping to start a vegan restaurant. Instead, he ended up with Gallery 263, a non-profit arts space that hosts weekly yoga, critique workshops, music nights, and exhibit openings that routinely spill out into the street.

Craft, a former assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital complete with a tech-bro beanie, yogi-beard, and tasteful Fjallraven slacks, tells me he’s always “clowning around” and looking for “some other trouble to get into.” He pulls up two chairs as the Exhibitions Director Douglas Breault nails Gallery 263’s latest showcase — a meditation on why people make portraits — to the wall. Though Craft is in machine learning and medicine by trade, this is his passion project, which he sustained out-of-pocket before moving to a crowdfunded model.

“Everyone who loves it is poor. And everyone who works for us is poor,” Breault says.

The space is small, with past lives as the ’70s era Brinkerhoff gallery, an antique furniture resale shop, and a personal studio. Only 20 artists go up on the wall, but the gallery receives 200 to 300 submissions per cycle — a sign that the space, one of the only nonprofit galleries in Cambridge, is a rare opportunity for local artists.

David Craft, a former assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, founded Gallery 263, a non-profit arts space that hosts weekly yoga, critique workshops, music nights, and exhibit openings that routinely spill out into the street.
David Craft, a former assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, founded Gallery 263, a non-profit arts space that hosts weekly yoga, critique workshops, music nights, and exhibit openings that routinely spill out into the street. By Daniel Morales Rosales

If rising rent challenges artists to find space to display and space to live, space to create is an even bigger ask. Since the closure of the EMF Studios in 2018, there are almost no major studio spaces for rent. Across the river, studio space at 1199 Braintree in Allston is being demolished and redeveloped into multi-use retail, restaurant, and residential space.

With limited studio or gallery space, artists are running out of reasons to stay.

Breault, a photographer, painter and sculptor, has moved farther and farther from Cambridge and Boston since finishing grad school in the area. He’s had to do the same with his studio.

He’s part of a flood of younger artists migrating out of the city. The more reliably quirky — and more reliably livable — havens of Providence and Salem are two popular choices, but people also make the pilgrimage to Medford or Watertown. They go nearby if they can, to Allston or Brighton. They’ll go most places with square footage left to flock to. In the Cambridge area, they pay the same rent they could pay in Brooklyn, which has hundreds more opportunities.

Breault frames the question of living in Cambridge with stark terms.

“Can I make it here?” Breault asks. “Or do I have to have three jobs to live here?”

At the Passim open mic, the sound tech tells me she doesn’t know any artists who live or work around here, and that she herself is in the process of moving into an under-the-radar “music house” for artists. When I email Coniglio asking for other Cambridge artists I can talk to, she has bad news: “Only one of our members lives in Cambridge, and she owns her building.”

The owning class has a notable advantage in the Cambridge arts scene. Craft bought Gallery 263, at the time a home studio-gallery, from a middle-aged artist supported by their wealthy spouse. This story seems to be common — older artists who dig in their heels and stay, whether it’s because of access to generational wealth and property or a stubborn spirit. They’ve been here for a while, and they won’t be driven out.

Gallery 263 is isolated from market trends because its landlords, an older couple who lives in the area, have rented it to Craft below market rate with almost no increases since 2008. Almost every other residential tenant of the building — among them teachers, artists, yogis, guitarists, and antique sellers — has been in the building since the gallery’s occupancy began.

It increasingly seems to me that when places and people manage to make it, they do so in unconventional arrangements, negotiations between the public, private, and philanthropic sector.

Though there’s a certain beauty in these makeshift, make-ends-meet maker spaces, occupants know it’s a precarious solution.

“We don’t know how long our landlord will be this generous. There’s no guarantee or things written in stone — something can happen and our rent triples, and we don’t know about it until this year,” Breault says.

Art in the City Annex

Tucked out of Harvard’s reach on Broadway Street is the “city” everyone keeps talking about. Or, at least, the city’s annex, where the government-run Cambridge Arts Council is housed.

The Cambridge Arts office is smothered by flyers: open mic advertisements, applications for block parties, street performer permitting, home studios maps, invitation to buy art shares. The office space opens into a gallery, which will soon launch an exhibit on caring for public art.

With six full time staffers and a budget of 1.27 million, the Cambridge Arts department might best be described as small but mighty. Executive Director Jason Weeks, who oversees the patchwork of arts initiatives and programming, believes firmly in the value the arts brings to the city — not just in the abstract, but in concrete financial terms.

A commissioned study by the department found that, pre-Covid-19, the arts were a $174.8 million industry in the city of Cambridge, supporting about 6,000 full-time jobs and generating $13.6 million in government revenue.

The reality for artists these days often falls short of these numbers. Weeks knows living and creating in Cambridge has been hard for a while now. To combat this, the city is exploring live-work residential units for artists, city-appointed artists-in-residence, and creating more affordable cultural space. But he explains that the city struggles to compete for space against faster, better-resourced developers.

“It happens so quickly that most of the time, you don’t know it until somebody is actually building something up out of the ground,” Weeks says.

With space as an obstacle, the office tries to get as much money into people’s hands as possible with different grants run every year. Some focus on social justice, some on creative business, and some on Covid-19 relief. They started one of the earliest and longest-lasting artistic survival funds during the pandemic, which has now transitioned into a dedicated “cultural capital” fund. In some ways, Weeks says, the industry is still clawing its way out of the pandemic: arts were the first to close and last to open.

As a part of their Creative Marketplace program, which encourages arts-driven economic development, the office supports artists through professional development workshops. They’ve offered programming on artistic identity, grant-writing, financial literacy, health and wellness, and arts as advocacy. Arts governance is tapped into many of the questions artists and art spaces are asking: How do you market yourself in order to survive? How do you value work in order to survive? How do you survive, point-blank? And where do you do it?

This last question is perhaps the most daunting. Housing and cultural space were identified as the top two needs for Central Square, which has been a state-designated Arts and Culture district since 2012. This designation overlaps with a Business Improvement District, where property owners buy-in to provide what the government calls “enhancements” including arts and culture — to contribute to neighborhood feel.

This neighborhood-scale strategy, that utilizes zoning and municipal structures, is one approach to the dearth of cultural space. But in the past two years, Cambridge has started to try something new with Claudia Zarazua, Cambridge’s inaugural Arts and Cultural Planning Director, and the Making Space for Art project, a collaboration with Boston and Somerville.

All three cities have heard from artists and activists — at public hearings, in the streets — that they need more cultural refuge. The study looks at the three contiguous cities as a bigger, porous network for art-making. An arts closure in Cambridge isn’t always a loss — instead, it might simply be a relocation into these neighboring arts scenes.

The team is working on collecting data to pinpointing the locations of in-demand rehearsal and venue space, which is set for release this summer. The next step will be figuring out how the three governments can incentivize the creation of new space while protecting existing assets.

The line of thinking starts here: Developers agree that to be competitive in the region, they “need” public art. Data already exists to map public art — Zarazua can go into a meeting with a developer or community partner and point to a three-block radius where a mural is needed. But now they want to be able to do the same with developers, pointing them to “cultural deserts” on the map.

“If we already agree that public art is the bare minimum, the next level is how do we provide affordable cultural space for our artists, and that looks like access to a storefront to share more about their work, or that may look like an affordable rehearsal space,” Zazarua says.

Cultural development might look like converting lots in Central Square to flexible art space or building housing on top of music venues, with housing for artists as a buffer between the noise pollution and the rest of the residential areas.

To sustain such an ecosystem, the office gets support from partnerships with companies and universities.

“When it comes to arts and culture, no community provides enough resources, or enough capacity, or enough physical space. It always needs to be more,” Weeks says.

“I think we do better than most,” he adds.

Even if Cambridge does do “better” than other communities at supporting arts and culture, there are still plenty of ideas for what more the city could be doing. Across the 2010s, activists have pushed for artists to receive preferential points on the affordable housing list and for rezoned residential spaces to allow for house studios. All have failed or stalled so far.

New York has zoning laws that allow artists to live in lofts designated for commercial use. Somerville boasts “fabrication districts,” meant to protect the use of commercial spaces for creative industry. Even so, many of these sites are at risk of being rezoned.

“Don’t F with Fab,” a Somerville-focused advocacy campaign, has been lobbying city councilors and building citizen awareness to keep this protective designation in place. Meanwhile, Art Stays Here, a regional coalition of activists and community members dedicated to protecting the arts, hardly organizes in Cambridge. When I reach out to the FAB team, they email back: “We don’t know of any arts buildings left in Cambridge…do you?”

A Mural On ‘Hideous Scrim’

Tucked behind Kendall Square is Cambridge’s Port neighborhood, historically one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Massachusetts. But in recent years, diversity has gone down and median income is on the rise. The Port is not safe from the boom of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals next door, a well-funded, land-hungry industry that began surging in Cambridge around the 2010s.

“In a neighborhood that’s rapidly changing, the uncertainty is always sitting on your shoulder about what’s next,” Erin Muirhead McCarty, executive director of the Community Arts Center, tells me in her office.

A hold in the Port neighborhood since the 1930s, the project — part-childcare, part-community space, and part-arts school — began out of the basement of Newtonne Court, one of the oldest public housing developments in the country. The center provides a vision of the arts as a public service, done from the bottom-up.

“It’s really amazing that we’ve made it this far, this long, because it is a scrappy grassroots organization, and people have sacrificed a lot and given a lot of themselves to keep this engine moving,” says McCarty.

Kids and teens work on film festivals, podcasts, sculptures, and murals that can be brought out into the neighborhood or city. In the mural “Past, Present, and Future,” smokestacks billow next to a Victorian-style house uprooted from the ground, in the shadow of the Volpe Center for Transportation Innovation, while tootsie rolls — Kendall Square’s old industry — rain down on everyone.

Many of the center’s staff and families have been a part of the neighborhood and the center for generations. “So many of them don’t really recognize this neighborhood as much anymore,” says McCarty. “It is a gentrified community.”

A hold in the Port neighborhood since the 1930s, the Community Arts Center — part-childcare, part-community space, and part-arts school — began out of the basement of Newtonne Court, one of the oldest public housing developments in the country. The center provides a vision of the arts as a public service, done from the bottom-up.
A hold in the Port neighborhood since the 1930s, the Community Arts Center — part-childcare, part-community space, and part-arts school — began out of the basement of Newtonne Court, one of the oldest public housing developments in the country. The center provides a vision of the arts as a public service, done from the bottom-up. By Daniel Morales Rosales

McCarty says that amidst the changes in Kendall, meeting and community space has dissipated. No one, community organization or corporation, wants that. She says there’s often a real interest from biotech and pharma companies in the area in giving back — but that they shouldn’t look to do something new.

Instead, she suggests, new arrivals should “tap in and check in with people who’ve been here before and ask them about their needs, and their wants, and their dreams.”

McCarty says the center has collaborated on public art for development companies like Alexandria and Boston Properties, creating something visually appealing for a “milquetoast” wall or a “hideous scrim” during construction. But even the relationships built through collaboration are unstable, as companies often come and go in Kendall Square.

Within that precarity, the almost-100-year-old center feels like proof that something can last here.

But lasting is a balancing act. Their current space is housed in a building owned by the city, leased to the Cambridge Housing Alliance, and then leased to the Cambridge Housing Authority. Their convoluted lease agreement helps keep the rent lowered. McCarty stresses that the space would not survive if its owners had to pay rent at market rate, at this point a common refrain among those I talk to.

Though the center would love to have their own footprint in the neighborhood, McCarty tells me, they’re used to sharing — and know that space in Kendall Square is a hot commodity.

‘Steam to STEAM’

DiGiovanni may take pride in the Sinclair, but when I bring up the redevelopment of the EMF Building — another building he owns — he reaches over to pause my recording.

The EMF Studios closure was a major flashpoint in arts activism in Cambridge, displacing around 200 musicians from affordable practice space. In 2016, DiGiovanni bought the building for $4 million before converting it to office space in 2018.

DiGiovanni was villainized by artists who saw themselves as not only pushed out of their studio space but out of their city. His only on-the-record response to the critique: read the fire department’s report.

The 2018 report on EMF, which followed several up-to-code evaluations from the fire department, declared the building’s conditions unfit for tenants to work in, citing asbestos, building deterioration, space heaters, exposed wirings, obstructed doors and outdated sprinkler systems. Though occupants argued many of the complaints were disprovable or fixable and asked the city to intervene, artist evictions went forward as planned.

The mythology of the artist calls to mind a flammable lifestyle — cigarette smoke, hanging fabrics, crowded floors, disorganized papers ready to catch and burn. To an insurance-coded mind, the idea must seem a natural liability. The lifestyle must be extinguished, one might reason, or it’ll go up into flames on its own.

There is a place where the arts can survive, in one idea of DiGiovanni’s: underground. As in, literally beneath the earth.

He’s long had his sights on an abandoned MBTA tunnel, which he hopes to turn into an events space. Some of those events might even be adjacent to art. In this vision, perhaps I’ll be there at my reunion to watch my classmate give a TED Talk. For now, it’s just some concrete in need of a feasibility study.

Aboveground, other developers are visualizing space for the arts in Kendall Square. In 2026, the life science developer BioMed will give 30,000 square feet of a 600,000-square-feet Takeda development to the previously mobile Global Arts Live project. Though not yet operational, mock-ups of the 585 Arts performance center boast a glass exterior and gallery rooms where thoughtfully diverse computer-generated children play with blocks.

But during the wait for 585 Arts, another future is already here: The Foundry.

It started as a bargaining chip. Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a firm that develops biotech office buildings and laboratories, owned the 133-year-old Foundry building. Once the home of the Blake and Knowles Steam Pump Company, the high-ceilinged, 50,000 square foot space sat idle until 2015, when it was taken over by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.

To mitigate Alexandria’s acquisition of large amounts of property — and in exchange for rezoning some of them to build up eight or nine floors — Cambridge took possession of the building. The community demanded it be filled with something in the public interest: open cultural space. The almost decade-long process solicited proposals from non-profits, eventually selecting the newly-founded Foundry Consortium, which aimed to start a STEAM maker and education space. So used to sharing space, it seems, art now slips naturally into the familiar “STEM” acronym.

At the Foundry, you can reserve studio space, host an arts event in a maker studio, sell your wares at a night market, or apply to display in The Point, their conference room and gallery. Children dance in a black box theater to Vampire Weekend. All the maker spaces are glass-fronted. A sign explains the building’s history, titled “From steam to STEAM.” The open floor space and high ceilings are textured with cement columns, raw wood, and reused brick: the telltale signs of creative refurbishment. The programming on the day I visit ranges from “Introduction to Parkour” to “Drum, Sing, Dance, Freedom!” to “Celebrate the Year of the Dragon with Paper Cutting.”

At the Foundry, you can reserve studio space, host an arts event in a maker studio, sell your wares at a night market, or apply to display in The Point, their conference room and gallery.
At the Foundry, you can reserve studio space, host an arts event in a maker studio, sell your wares at a night market, or apply to display in The Point, their conference room and gallery. By Daniel Morales Rosales

It seems like the idyllic arts oasis the city has been searching for — $46 million idyllic.

On the wall of the Foundry’s gallery this week are screen-prints from Lesley University, mostly depicting the Foundry itself. Some look vaguely like an acid trip, but one, hidden behind the rolling TV-display, reads: “After you’ve been forced out, come back visit Suburbia Cambridge.” The piece, rendered in deep red ink, seems to understand the anxiety of its own sentence. After you’ve been priced out, it seems to say, you should still hang out doing parkour at our refurbished maker space. It’s hard to printmake your way out of steep prices and scarce space.

Initially supported by a generous investment from the city, the Foundry is now sustained, in part, by the biotech industry.

“When biotech showed up on the scene, it blew every other economic factor out of the water,” Executive Director Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas tells me, “to the point where it became difficult to talk about arts or academia as a major factor in both the culture and then the sustainability of the city.”

Large portions of The Foundry’s funding comes from full-building rentals for Microsoft and Google company retreats. To cover operational costs, they lease the upstairs as office space to tenants including Deep Genomics, a company that aims to develop drugs using AI.

The whole project is overseen through the government by an advisory council of Cambridge citizens. The Foundry touches on every player on the arts’ stage.

I want to be skeptical, but in my interview with Navarrete-Rackauckas, done in a laser-cutter scented room, it seems the consortium covered all their bases. Most classes are pay what you can, reservation fees are done on a sliding scale that disadvantages corporations, and programming focuses on youth, elderly, and the marginalized. They have hosted over 300 community organizations since opening.

“Yeah,” Navarette-Rackauckas says, as she shows me a list of their collaborators, “we don’t fuck around.”

It may not matter, then, if all this is done in a space reminiscent of Harvard’s Cabot Science Library. When people are given space to create, Navarette-Rackauckas suggests, they do.

“People feel like because a place like this exists, it’s a little bit more possible for them,” Navarette-Rackauckas says.

Still, the Foundry’s art programming is couched in the curious hybrid of STEAM, as if trying to prove that these forces are not always in opposition in Cambridge. Some patrons of the Foundry’s maker speakers are from the neighboring Kendall industries, coming in to exercise their creative side. Zarazua tells me many artists at the city’s workshops make their living in science industry day jobs.

As less and less actual creation happens, the word creative takes on new meaning. DiGiovanni tells me that the EMF building still has creative use as office space for Wistia, a content-creation, video-marketing platform.

Science is creative. Development is creative. Capital is creative. Just because something has been created, it possesses an inherent artistic quality. This, at some level, is the logic of the “makerspace.”


On my way back to campus from the Foundry, I learn that the MBTA has caught fire. I have to walk 40-minutes home — past the new Takeda construction site, past the MIT start-up incubator, past glass and brick buildings that seem unrelated to the place they are sprouting out of, into Central Square. Flyers are everywhere, advertising stone-carving sculpture classes, secret location DJ sets, full-street vintage markets, rock ‘n’ roll burlesque, and writing workshops. This is a place you are implored to dance, sing, watch, listen, make. A few blocks past the Cantab, I see an ad for the Socialist Party whose information has been scribbled out. I must be back in Harvard Square.

Here, an arts experience might be seeing an art film at the Brattle Theater, housed underneath the “New American” Alden and Harlow, with their three-dollar-sign, carmelized-brussel-sprout brunch. It might be a DJ night at the newcomer Faro Cafe, with its $6 house lattes and neutral toned pillows, owned by a former Groton rower. But it might also be an open mic with Passim old heads. Somewhere between Harvard and MIT, history and potential, billion dollar endowment and biotech money, art exists in its compromised form. Sandwiched into STEAM, renting at sub-market price, it survives.

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