The battle for Harvard Square Endangered: Preservationists are fighting a holding action as quirky eateries and unique buildings give way to Starbucks and chain stores in this outpost of urban eclecticism.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- If this fiercely independent city has a spiritual center, it is neither a church nor a synagogue nor a mosque. It is Harvard Square. As chain outlets and malls spread across the rest of the country, the small, independent merchants here shrugged, disdaining the accouterments of late 20th century capitalism.

The Square is the half-dozen blocks near the confluence of Massachusetts Avenue and JFK Street. By the standards of the contemporary urban United States, it is a rare social leveler. Wealthy lawyers have coexisted comfortably with the homeless, crowded bars with packed churches, ethnic restaurants with the WASPiest Harvard clubs.

But the last few years have brought a change. Natives compare it to the Westernization of Eastern Europe. Chain stores, from Tower Records to Dunkin' Donuts, have staked claims to the Square, and in the process they threaten the distinctiveness that made it a landmark.

"Why destroy it? Why screw up one more unique piece of urban America?" says Pebble Gifford, a residential real estate agent who serves as president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund. "The developers want to leave it quite bland. And what always brought people to the Square was the quirkiness, the chance to see the crazies.

"We just feel so much is done in the name of the profit motive and the bottom line that is destructive," she adds. "There have to be other considerations."

Gifford's defense fund was for years able to hold off big developers by soliciting donations and using the money to sue, to petition, to print leaflets and to sue some more -- until the developers tired and went away.

But the old tactics now seem to be failing. Two major projects that could require the demolition of several historic buildings in the Square are being considered by the city government. And the end of rent control, brought on by a statewide referendum two years ago, is bringing rapid changes to the city, which sits on the opposite side of the Charles River from its larger and coarser sister, Boston.

In the Square, the lifting of rent control has fueled a rush of the wealthy into an area that had nurtured a mix of well-off professors, blue-collar workers and penniless grad students. The new construction has so homogenized the Square that Robert Campbell, architecture critic for the Boston Globe, has dismissively identified a "standard" new edifice for a site that used to be diverse: red brick, two stories high.

Many citizens in a city the Socialist Worker is still sold on street corners see these changes as nothing less than cataclysmic. Deepening the sense of gloom is the feeling that if small and eclectic can't survive here, they're dead everywhere.

A recent meeting of local neighborhood groups was entitled: "Harvard Square, an Endangered Species." A city councilwoman has been quoted as comparing the Square to the mall in an upscale Boston suburb. And at the nearby public high school, where Gov. William F. Weld sends his children, a group of students have formed the Harvard Square Liberation Front.

Harvard Square was settled in the 17th century, and its street pattern dates to that time. But history suggests that the Square's distinctiveness was lucky to have lasted as long as it did. It remained a unique outpost of odd-shaped buildings, tiny eateries and leftist literature, primarily because of the inattention of a Russian immigrant named Bertha Cohen.

From the early Depression until her death 20 years ago, Cohen owned about three dozen Square properties. Instead of consolidating and bringing in large projects, she offered low rents to merchants with dreams and little capital. But when she died, one developer snapped up all the properties, and proceeded to sell them off to -- of all people -- entrepreneurs interested in making lots of money.

The battles over the Square's character date back to the effort during the 1970s to place the John F. Kennedy presidential library along the Charles River. Residents beat back the library, but were soon under assault from developers who amassed adjacent properties and then tried to create larger stores.

Despite numerous defeats, the developers continued to make progress.

Gone are old-style eateries such as the German restaurant Wursthaus and the Mount Auburn Street sandwich shop Elsie's, where Edward M. Kennedy went after paying another Harvard undergraduate to take his Spanish exam. (Kennedy was caught and suspended). Now there are two Starbucks, with a third on the way.

Gone are two old discount record stores. Now there is giant HMV, 20,000 square feet of compact discs in a layered white building that skirts city height requirements, obscures views of the historic Brattle Theater (where Monday night is still Humphrey Bogart night) and is derisively called the "wedding cake".

Gone is the old Harvard Coop, the student cooperative founded in 1882 to sell textbooks and firewood to undergraduates. Now there is the new Coop, managed by the Barnes & Noble book chain, which has removed the quirky music department and replaced the clothing section with a Harvard insignia shop catering to tourists.

"It's all so depressing," Gifford says. But she and other historical preservationists have not given up.

In the case of two major projects under consideration, they are trying to force compromises with developers by pushing the city to designate the buildings in question as historical landmarks.

In one of those projects, the developer has agreed to alter his plans to turn part of a block of Mount Auburn Street -- site of an Armenian church and a store that dates to 1870 -- into luxury apartments.

But in the other, Cambridge Savings Bank seems to be holding firm in its desire to demolish four buildings it owns at the Square's heart and create a new development with three superstores. The bank's president has been unmoved by residents who point out that three of the buildings are more than 200 years old.

"In one fell swoop, you would wipe out the four oldest commercial buildings in Cambridge," Charles Sullivan, head of the city's historical commission, says of the project.

The preservationists hold one important, sentimental weapon in this fight. The bank's plans would displace the Tasty, an all-night diner that has stood at the Square's main intersection since 1916.

Former patrons from as far away as Japan have written to newspapers in protest, and residents have rallied around the cause with fervor reminiscent of their ancestors, who once gathered on Cambridge Common to take up arms under the command of a Virginia planter named Washington.

Even if the protests defeat the bank's proposal, similar development attempts are certain to follow, civic leaders say. And the preservationists believe they have lost too much already. Their best hope for preserving what's left of the Square's distinctiveness is to secure a historic designation for their favorite part of west Cambridge.

That would be a powerful tool if, as some people believe, McDonald's is preparing to place a franchise here -- the natural progression, it seems, of forays into Beijing and Moscow. But if the ultimate chain were to come to the Square, preservationists say it would face a hostile proletariat.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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