It Takes an Idiot to Make a Village

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

The history of Cambridge, Massachusetts, nowadays still smirkingly referred to as "the People’s Republic" (though the reason for the smirk is a function of the politics of the smirker), dates to the beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay colony (it was established in 1630 as a village with the name of Newtowne; for perspective, let me just say that Plymouth Rock was a discovery in 1620, and Boston shares 1630 as the year of its establishment). So promising was Newtowne, for any number of strategic geographic and political reasons, it was long considered as the likely site of the chief city, or capital, of the newly founded colony—especially once it had gotten its feet on the ground. That is, once it was clear that no external threat, or internal scourge, such as disease or dissension, would annihilate the stalwart inhabitants.

A fellow named John Harvard helped establish what I will whimsically call a bible college (preparatory to the training of ministers of the faith, who would be needed in greater numbers as the population of the colony swelled). He died young, alas, but left a bequest of profound worth to the fledgling school—his personal library. Books being worth, possibly as much as, if not more than, their weight in gold, this was an estimable legacy. Apparently, considered in concert with the character, if not the piety, of the newly deceased benefactor and his generous gift, it was decided to name the college after him. Further, as if this signal honor were not sufficient (the full significance of which may not have been realized until several hundred years hence—after all Harvard did not become Harvard with the the mere signal honor of the name bestowal—"Tobias, we must rename the college Harvard. Instant prestige, my good sir! The endowment coffers will swell. At the moment we have but books, and three Holstein cows. And when Yale College is founded 65 years hence, we will be well ahead of them in applicants…."), the gratitude of the city fathers extended so far as to conclude that the only full measure of their gratitude could be taken in the re-naming of Newtowne as Cambridge. Cambridge was, of course, the seat and eponymous namesake of the very much older, and already famous, University of which the young John Harvard was so proudly an alumnus.

Not that the two facts were associated (at least I don’t think so), but it was at about the time of the renaming of the community, or town, or village (which is all it truly was at the time—Harvard Yard famously being the cow pasture formerly grazed by the kine of any townsman who cared to lead them to it) that any idea of making it the capital of the colony went out the window (the year Cambridge was renamed was 1638; Harvard College was officially founded two years earlier). Boston went on to glory in this role of primacy among incorporated towns within the Commonwealth. Cambridge was left to seek its own glory in its own inimitable way.

The only other salient fact to bear in mind is that Cambridge remained a village for quite some time. It was in 1846 the town incorporated itself as a city, though it was in signal recognition of its having exceeded being the mere home of a very old college. Harvard was, and the laws of physics being what they are still is, the oldest in the nation. In 1846, however, Harvard made only a plodding and obstinate claim to academic merit, based on its sheer venerability, if nothing else. And many academic historians say there wasn’t very much else to speak for the claim of any distinction, but the vocal and loyal and already very rich members of the rolls of alumni.

Cambridge had become as well a center of commerce and light industry, including tannning and candy manufacture among its main occupations. A village no longer, Cambridge has struggled with its role as a city, and whatever that may mean. In the present day this seems to remain as obscure a fact (seem like simple questions: "what is a city? are we a city?") to the current residents, but especially those most and best endowed with educational attainment, social standing, and financial success. It is as if none of them have ever heard of Ms. Jane Jacobs and her seminal theory—generally, though not universally, accepted as definitive—about what makes a city and, concomitantly, what unmakes it: The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Cambridge, incidentally, originally incorporated as a city as the result of the merger of three smaller villages: Old Cambridge (which centered around what is now called Harvard Square), East Cambridge (then and now the nearest point in Cambridge to the center of Boston being separated by an inlet to the Charles River) and Cambridgeport (which, to the extent it constituted a port, was a port on the Charles River). The three original villages have quite distinct personalities, if not a sense of unique community within each, even today, and even as the city has grown to include several other distinct quarters of readily differentiated traits. But that’s the point of this opinion piece about this small city.

I am biased, as Cambridge is, and has been for 20 years, my home town, but I think, small as it is, it is not a village, but a great American city. I’m not so sure it was great then (150 years or so ago). In fact, it seemed to have exhibited some of the same dubious conduct on the part of the citizenry that remains intractable, if not ineradicable. The official history of the City on the City Web site suggests the three villages that merged as a city had, to that point, engaged in a kind of rivalry. Unfortunately it is not clear of what sort the rivalry might be classified. Given the vagaries of human behavior and the persistence of idiocy as a human trait I am content to suppose that it must have been akin to the benign rivalries that exist today.The ones that become news every Thanksgiving when this "traditional" rivalry or that pits the football team of one town’s high school against that of another. Of such are cherished human memories made.

There’s a new newspaper in this city, my hometown, Cambridge MA. It’s called Cambridge Day, and it seems innocuous enough. It’s been out there, distributed free in the quantity of 15,000 per day each weekday at various points throughout the city. My very casual observation indicates that these are usually retail outlets or the door-stoops to same. The Editor (and apparent publisher; there is no masthead as it is commonly expected to appear in a periodical publication) is one Marc Levy, who offers his paper’s mission, in very personal terms here: About Cambridge Day.

Ads have begun to appear in Cambridge Day, in less than the three weeks or so that the paper seems to have been in circulation. It seems that Levy expects ultimately that the thing will be self-sustaining, or so I infer. Reporting and editing, I can only further infer, seem to be largely on a voluntary basis. But, as there is no shortage of opinion (ranging from the sage to the hortatory, if not bloviatory)  in town, and no shortage of folks who believe they have the makings of vigilant, highly observant investigators, and, likely, no shortage of successful graduates of the Harvard College compulsory course in Expository Writing still in residence within the city limits, and absolutely no shortage of self-appointed experts or chutzpah of other varieties, Levy should never suffer from lack of material or contributors.

There have been a number of editorials, and one of the latest (from the November 14 edition) is the text, or at least the leaping off place for this opinionated, bloviating, vigilant and observant reporter (alas, I have had to gain what few expository writing skills I may have entirely on my own, with some minor tutelage in my Advanced Placement English courses in the 11th grade).

The theme is the observation that "for Cambridge as a community, the T’s green line makes no sense whatsoever" [the green line, as opposed to the red, orange and blue, and the new silver lines, is a light rail trolley and underground system run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority throughout Boston and several of its suburbs, including Cambridge, in a quite abbreviated spur line to the Lechmere section—in fact it consists of a single stop, the terminus, within the city limits]. I believe the editorialist means that to get from any one point in Cambridge to another, the green line is inherently inefficient (the logic is irrefutable: the green line makes only one stop in Cambridge, and it’s the end of that particular route).

Why make this obvious point? Because the underlying subject of the piece concerns the imminent start of development of a very large tract of previously industrial zoned land in the northeast corner of Cambridge, and which has lain fallow since the days of the great retreat of Cambridge residents to the suburbs, which occurred, as it did all over the nation in the days immediately followig the end of World War II. These 45 acres have been designated "North Point" by the planners, and big ideas are afoot with a grand vision of creating a new "community."

I put that in inverted quotes, because reference to "community" appears several times in this editorial, and it would seem to have a slippery meaning, at least with regard to the locus of application. Variously, Cambridge is a "community" (as quoted above, one for which the green line is "no sense at all"). A sentence or two away, we see that North Point, an as yet unrealized venue, is an "entire community" (Platonic as it may be, or shall we say, a conceptual community?) that, because of the absence of a green line, will find it "easier to go to Boston or Somerville than anywhere in Cambridge."

Now, Cambridge is a seat of great learning, the home of life-changing discoveries and earth-shattering intellectual attainments. It is not the custom of Cantabrigians to preoccupy their better-than-average intellects with the obvious.

That we leave to editorial writers whose self-appointed mandate is local boosterism.

Looking at a map (not the one appended to the editorial in Cambridge Day — it’s a subway system map, distorted and out-of-scale, and the stuff of the nightmares of Edward Tufte) points one immediately to the irrefutable truth of the foregoing editorial assertion. Even with no vehicular transportation whatsoever, of any hue (green or otherwise), it’s easier to get to Boston or Somerville from North Point than to almost anywhere else in Cambridge, except what is immediately contiguous, that is, the neighborhood of East Cambridge. That’s because North Point borders on Somerville to the west and north, and is immediately proximate to the bridge that takes one out of Cambridge and into the now defunct West End of Boston (a lovely walk, may I say, but perhaps not in the winter). Indeed, it will always be easier.

Maybe we should start stating some truths here: if you are anywhere on the planet, you have to be next to something. Northpoint happens to be next to Boston and Somerville. It’s not next to Harvard Square.

The writer further asserts, having established the brutish and hostile neglectful treatment of future North Pointers at the hands of the MBTA and, by implication, those of the city planners, that there’s "not much impetus to go to Central or Harvard squares, though, when the green line [there it is again, the nasty green line, its tracks implacably and relentlessly taking all of its riders away from places they should want to go, presumably, as members of the greater Cambridge "community"] can carry you to Copley Square or Newbury Street [ed. note: this would be the same stop] as fast as you can walk to Kendall."

Obviously the writer has not sat in a green line car in the Government Center station, or in the tunnel just outside of the Boylston Street stop, interminably and always for reasons it would not deign the conductors of the vehicles to inform their passengers; that, or the author walks really really slowly.

But enough of this, as much fun as it is. The point is not one concerning the inadequate rhetorical skills of the editorial writer. Rather it is one that concerns a larger issue, not only for Cantabrigians, but for all of us faced with the issues life in America forces us to confront.

The editorial quotes Terrence Smith, Director of Government Affairs for the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce [full disclosure here: I am a member of the board of directors of the Cambridge Chamber, as I have been for 14 years; in effect, Terrence works for the President of the Chamber, and she presides at the pleasure of, well, me and the rest of the lively gang of business and institutional leaders that comprise the Board]. The theme of the obvious must have been implicit somewhere in the question that elicited this statement from Terrence:

"Historically, East Cambridge has been sort of its own neighborhood with a unique personality compared with the rest of Cambridge. Look at a map of Cambridge—it looked like different communities. If you’re going to buy or rent in East Cambridge, you’ve already figured out that East Cambridge is harder to get to than Riverside, mid-Cambridge or North Cambridge."

Let’s sort this out, as the editor has done Terrence the disservice of removing any point of reference, and perhaps, methinks, the greater disservice of some brutal editing and lifting out of context. Terrence seems to mean that East Cambridge is further away from some unnamed point of departure than other neighborhoods and distinct communities in the City. In fact, in the second to the last paragraph of the editorial, the writer makes the questionable assertion that "Harvard Square is the geographic heart of Cambridge…" and one may suppose that this is the reference point that is required to make any sense of Terrence’s statement.

I don’t want to put words in Terrence’s mouth, but the reference and informational materials themselves that the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce publishes (and produced at great trouble and expense, I might add, on a yearly basis) does just that. I’ll consult with Terrence about any possible conflict he may feel with regard to the descriptions about the appeal of Cambridge as a whole that are posted on the Chamber Web site, and in its literature.

If there is anything to be celebrated in even as small a city as Cambridge is (and this is one reason I feel it is a great city—it manages to manifest a diverse character in as small an area as 7+ square miles and with a population of barely 100,000, and to serve some of the most arcane needs that exist on the planet), it is the diversity of its population, the unique neighborhoods it embodies, and the profound differences in feeling, not to mention the experience in the quality of life, reported by so many when comparing Inman Square to East Cambridge, or Central Square to North Cambridge, not to mention the invidious comparisons of all of these to Harvard Square, the putative heart of the City.

May I just say, if Harvard Square is the heart of the City, Cambridge is doomed to some serious cardiac intensive care.

The beef in this editorial is that short shrift, if any shrift at all, has been given to the transportation needs of Cambridge—a city apparently in desperate need of better means for citizens within the city itself to get from one part of the city to another. Indeed, it is practically made the responsibiilty of the MBTA to ensure that such means are planned and developed. The implication is that the absence of such means is worse than somehow ensuring that there is enough of a lure in any one neighborhood to entice inhabitants of another neighborhood to come on by for a visit. Not to mention the possibility of attracting entrepreneurs and shop owners who have truly unique things to sell, not only to North Pointers, not only to Cantabrigians, but to the world.

Implicit in all this is a state of mind that most benignly and efficiently can be called provincial. It’s not uncommon in Cambridge, this most famous of cities on the world stage (but famous for what happens in the minds of its residents and inhabitants, not for what happens in its streets) to experience the daily manifestation of provincial thinking.

The great lesson of Jane Jacobs, if there is merely one lesson to be learned from this wise and thoughtful woman, it’s that one thing and one thing only characterizes cities. A city changes. It’s dynamic. This is how it stays alive.

Further, of course, she makes clear that our sense of cities, the sense that Americans hold as a cherished ideal (and it may, indeed, be an outmoded ideal, if not already archaic, sadly; dare I say, it might itself be provincial to think of cities in this way). It’s an idea that nevertheless still holds, in practical and day-to-day terms and mainly for perfectly ordinary people who must live in cities.

I’ve never heard anyone argue convincingly otherwise than that a city neighborhood—perhaps one of many neighborhoods, if not hundreds, depending on the scope of the city—is a living thing, and its chief constituent is people, people who are there for many purposes: living, yes, but working as well, and providing services to those doing the living and the working, and finally those transporting people and goods into and out of the neighborhood. People constantly entering and leaving it; people seldom leaving it because it is their home.

Now, I ask you (and the writer of this idiotic scolding of the MBTA), should people want to go to Harvard Square because the green line has conveniently placed a stop there, as well as on the corner nearest your condo in North Point? Or should they want to go because there are stores like Clothware and Setebello and Harnett’s and Burdick’s, and the Brattle theater, and the restaurants Casablanca and Algiers—and because places like that just don’t exist anywhere else?

Is it unfair to have city planners consider that there might be other modes of transportation, less disruptive of street traffic and the building of which would be less disruptive of residential and commercial life for the years it would take to build it than a light rail line (which, let’s face it, is designed for commuters, and other travelers who must traverse great distances in cities of far greater breadth than Cambridge—here’s a point of reference: New York City is 800 square miles; Boston, not a very large city itself, is nevertheless over 48 square miles within the city limits)? Is it fair to think that Cantabrigians, indeed, above all because they are Cantabrigians, cannot consider walking from one neighborhood to another? Or riding a bicycle? Or renting a Zip Car for two hours (less than the cost of a cab ride from one end of Cambridge to the other, never mind into Boston, never mind onto Newbury Street at mid-day).

There are repeated testimonials, not to mention exhortations, in Cambridge Day as to the virtues of shopping locally, "Shop Local First." I’m all for it, but I may be missing something if I fail to see the connection between the absence of a green line strategy for joining North Point with Harvard Square, and shopping locally "first." If there is a failure of the local citizenry to shop locally, it just might be either because the local shops aren’t worth the patronage, or because local shops would rather blame the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which services 175 cities and towns covering over one thousand square miles, and over two million people, than assume responsibility for more effective marketing, offering more interesting, better differentiated products and services, and inviting folks from every neighborhood into their own.

The absence of green line access across Cambridge neighborhoods may not be an incentive to greater communal solidarity (it wouldn’t be in any event if there was nothing in any other neighborhood to go and get), but it is certainly no impediment.

The lament seems instead to be that this big change, called North Point, is coming. Something new will appear among us, and it will be called North Point. What I wonder is, what will there be in North Point that I might want to go there to get? But there is no mention made of that. Rather, there seems to be an undercurrent of fear. There will be a new "other" at the outskirts of our village, and they may shun us.

Well, we are no village, and if we are shunned, it may be because we should be.

Cambridge is a city and it must change if it is to remain vital. Just as the Necco building is now Novartis world headquarters for their chief research facilty, and just as the continuing development of University Park continues to exert changes on the rhythm and make-up of the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We’re good at pushing back here in Cambridge, and that’s a good thing, even if the energy comes from some provincial impulse to keep the intruder out, or at least keep the intruder from changing my daily routine.

At worst, we will not even notice that some time in the not too distant future (and here’s hoping I live that long) there is an enclave of thousands of people in a place someone arbitrarily (and unimaginatively if you ask me—the name is stupefyingly dull) called North Point that never gets a foot closer to where I hang—Harvard Square, Porter Square, Inman Square, and East Cambridge.

If they’re spending all their time on Newbury Street, it just means it won’t get harder to get a seat at the bar at Casablanca for a glass of Booker’s small batch bourbon, neat, with a soda on the side. And if I’m feeling hungry, maybe a plate of Ana’s Short Rib. That’s a combination I know I won’t find anywhere else: on either the green, red, blue, orange, or silver line.

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