The first time I visited Harvard was a few months before I ever imagined I’d be a student here. Harvard is beautiful in the autumn: My mother and I spent several hours wandering campus under mosaic-like bursts of burgundy and ochre foliage; by the end of the day, we were exhausted. One of my favorite memories from that weekend is resting in the warmth of Crema Café, an inviting hug after a long day of physical and mental strain.
When I returned to campus as a first-year, Crema became a hallmark of my first few semesters. Sure, the café didn’t have Wi-Fi, and the second floor was usually crowded, but I loved the atmosphere, it was a local business, and I’d cultivated an emotional attachment to the place that was hard to shake. Among other things, Crema had a vibrant “community board” situated to the right of its entrance; it captured the various events that were being held in the Cambridge community and always made me feel like a part of something larger than Harvard. So when Crema closed seemingly because of rent practices perpetrated by their new property owner, Asana Partners, I was reasonably devastated.
However, the recent trend of local businesses fleeing Harvard Square due to the greed of new real estate investment firms Asana Partners and Regency Centers, is troubling for more than emotional reasons — it is an extreme continuation of real estate investment practices that have sculpted Harvard’s decades-long housing crisis into what it has become today.
The transformation of Harvard Square is not new. Just as generations of students cycle in and out of Harvard every four years or so, so too does the composition of Harvard Square continually change, albeit on a longer life-cycle. The past few decades in particular have seen Harvard Square shift from a local marketplace for residents of Cambridge to “a shopping district” for visitors and the relatively wealthy.
Harvard Square’s history of this sort of re-gentrification (a gentrification that cycles through different, but culturally-reliant, phases) began with projects in the 1980s like the openings of the Charles Hotel and the Eliot Street Garage in 1985. These events began to create a different aura about Harvard Square, one that didn’t reflect previous understandings of class and stature in Cambridge. The community response was two-fold: Community members founded the Harvard Square Defense Fund to restrict and fight aggressive real estate practices; students responded to the rising housing insecurity from rent hikes by founding groups like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, established in 1983.
Real estate firms found ways to cope with backlash, however, and in 1994, voters in Massachusetts passed a state-wide referendum banning rent control across the state. Though it was not singularly responsible for the commercial transformation of Harvard Square, the absence of such basic regulations opened the floodgates for rent hikes and eviction practices that would alter the socioeconomic composition of both Harvard Square and of housing in Cambridge at large.
All of this brings us to the present day. The recent sales of the Curious George building to Regency Centers and of Brattle Court to Asana Partners in 2017 have allowed for these firms to once again dramatically reconstruct Harvard Square’s identity. Whereas the definition of gentrification in the early 2010s was hipster coffee/dessert and old-guard chain restaurants (i.e. Crema, Tealuxe, Sweet, Chipotle), the Harvard Square that Asana and Regency want to create is one inhabited by &pizzas and Milk Bars, trendy national retailers featured in viral Instagram videos, offering prices that are even more exorbitant and questionable.
With an immensely complicated problem such as this one, there is no single solution. But what I do know is that without strong civic action, without pressure on Asana and Regency from the Cambridge community or the local government, the Harvard Square of five years from now will be even less inhabitable and less economically accessible to many members of the Cambridge community. We need to hold these firms accountable through policies that afford renters in Harvard Square more rights and protections. While not all landlords are large investment firms, the lack of any form of rent control or regulation clearly injures small businesses; installing protections for renters and perhaps even revisiting rent control are routes that could redistribute the disproportionate power that currently lies in the hands of landowners.
And finally, for Harvard students: We occupy this strange liminal space in our relationship to Harvard Square and Cambridge at large. We certainly have a stake in the cultural and economic geography of Cambridge, but it doesn’t make sense for our voices to carry equal weight to those of permanent residents of Cambridge, since our stake is relatively short-term — we’re each only here for around four years or so. Therefore, the civically sensible option for students is to rally around organizations that represent the interests of Cambridge residents, rather than superseding their interests with policies that might benefit students at Harvard most.
There are so many issues tied into this problem of property ownership and manipulation, especially that of homelessness in Harvard Square. But in order for us to think seriously about solving Cambridge’s “housing crisis,” we first need to stop these cycles of re-gentrification.
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.