In Memorium: Central Square

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through Central Square in Cambridge, looking for somewhere to grab a quick bite before heading back to the SPARE CHANGE NEWS offices. I thought about Hi-Fi, the little fast food restaurant on the corner of Brookline St. and Massachusetts Ave. Not the healthiest of choices for lunch, I know, but Hi-Fi almost always has great food to eat when one is violating his diet.

I was in shock when I arrived and found it closed– as in, out of business. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. Progress has come to this old square and it’s not necessarily a good thing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Central Square. It used to be Harvard Square’s cooler cousin. It had an urban feel, and you always felt welcome no matter who you were. Back then it was a place far from the madness happening in Boston.

There were always good places to eat in the Square and great clubs, like the Rise and the Cantab – and if you liked your entertainment a little salty, the old Buffet on Prospect St. Homeless people mingled with regulars. There was not much of a choice in that matter, being that Salvation Army and Caspar Shelter were right near the Square. Central wasn’t a bad place to be. Clubs and restaurants came and went but, for the most part, things remained the same in Central. But change was on the horizon.

For me, that change started around the time SPARE CHANGE NEWS was just beginning. Up until then, Caspar Shelter basically consisted of two trailers on MIT property since its opening in 1979. Emergency services for the homeless had increased in the 13 years since that time, though, and Caspar needed to expand. Two trailers to house nearly 70 people just wouldn’t do. Thing was – where to build this new shelter? As usual, people were sympathetic to the plight of Cambridge’s homeless and wanted a new shelter built – just not in their neighborhood. Finally, MIT agreed to let the shelter stay where it was and even offered to build the new shelter. But before you start saying “How generous of them” — hold on. MIT agreed to do all of this, but only if the city of Cambridge turned over a couple of city streets in return. Times being what they were, the city agreed to the deal. A former friend of mine who went to MIT liked to claim that they rescued Caspar Shelter. You buy that and I have a loaded diaper to sell you.

Those city streets, by the way, are part of University Park – yeah, that one. Since then, MIT’s influence has spread along the Square, though the Central Square business association would probably say differently. But you can see it. Most of the cooler places in the Square have either moved, gone out of business or changed their names to accommodate the suddenly upscale clientele of the Square. The Middle East is planning on building housing atop its club, but it will be for high-end renters. Unreasonable rent costs have driven people out. Hi-Fi is being replaced by Clover Food – yes, really. There are more stores that are geared toward vegans than for us good old meat-eating folk.

The Cantab still stands, but mainly because it’s a tourist draw. Hubba-Hubba was pushed out by their renters, the Dance Complex. There is some irony in that, given that the owner of Hubba-Hubba always complained about the homeless people in the square. Speaking of the homeless, there is almost no way the powers that be in Cambridge – whoever they are – will be able to run all of them and other poor people out of the Square, but it won’t be for a lack of trying. Most of the benches in the square were taken out long ago, and the circle that borders Prospect St. and Western Ave. – a popular homeless hangout – almost always has a police presence. Agencies that serve the homeless and the poor — the Multi-Service Center and Cambridge Housing – are now housed in the old Cambridge police station. It’s just off the Square, but far enough that you can’t see Cambridge’s poorest residents hanging around. Homestart is in a more discreet place that you may miss if you don’t know where it is. And McDonald’s – where SPARE CHANGE NEWS was practically born as we spent so much time there – has added “Café” to its name and has actually hired a security guard to keep the homeless and other undesirables out. Once again, progress has destroyed another neighborhood. May you rest in peace, Central Square.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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