Goodbye Harvard Square?

Late last week, I found out about a meeting taking place at Cambridge City Hall held by the Cambridge Historical Commission regarding the controversial proposal to gut the buildings that house the Curious George bookstore and Urban Outfitters and essentially turn it into a mall. I looked forward to the meeting with some excitement because the debate about gentrifying the square (and make no mistake, that’s what it is) has been going on since the plan was first unveiled last fall.

I made my way to the meeting that evening, expecting a barrage of emotional outbursts from those who I figured would be outraged. A mall in the People’s Republic? In Harvard Square? I didn’t think you’d fine many who were fond of that idea.

And who are the folks proposing this? Equity One, out of New York, whose claim to fame is “The redevelopment of high quality shopping centers in supply constrained markets.” They plunked down a cool 85 million for the buildings just in time for Halloween.

As I made my way into the second floor chambers, the first thing I noticed was that none of the folks except for one gentleman looked anything like the folks that usually navigate the square. Nevertheless, I settled in and waited for what I thought would be a fiery evening.

A representative from Equity spoke first and presented a slideshow describing the changes that would have to be made to accommodate their plan, which includes a lobby, a stairway and an elevator that will take you to the second floor and more retail. Also, there is a plan for a rooftop or pavilion, which may be used as a penthouse (I know, didn’t make sense to me either).

After that, the commission spoke and then asked if people from the audience wanted to speak. For the next hour or so, people spoke but not about how this proposed mall would change the fabric of the square. Instead they seemed more interested in whether the lobby would have an escalator or an elevator and the size dimensions of the roof or the walls. Next to nothing was said about the changes to the square itself.

Maybe I should have said something. Instead I left disappointed.

But I will say here what I should have said that night. Harvard Square is unique—its vitality, quirkiness, music, characters, the fact that it’s always full of people, full of life, good food and fun. I used to love summer days taking in the square, the chess matches, the great conversations—even the holidays seemed different at times. Spare Change having the Square as its home was a natural fit. I remember when the paper first started and we began selling papers there, we were welcomed with open arms.

Yes, I know things change. The square has changed before, but it’s always survived. But this? Along with the potential closing of Out of Town News, Tory Row, Crimson Corner and Au Bon Pain—a place where you could sit outside and perhaps play chess with someone from another country—these are the things that made it the square

A mall will end it as we know it, and it will only be a matter of time before the homeless are driven out as well. Another neighborhood destroyed by “progress.”

James Shearer

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

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