This must be the place

A short paper on Harvard Square's roots
By CLIF GARBODEN  |  April 23, 2010

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This article originally appeared in the April 8, 1975 issue of the Boston Phoenix within a special pull-out section of the paper. 

It is a place so confident, so much an institution, as to presume to call itself by its last name. When someone says they’re going to the Square, nobody expects them to turn up at the Statler Building in Park Square or under the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square or in Elmer N. Buswell Square. In an area with dozens of intersections dedicated to politicians or Civil War veterans, the Square – Harvard Square – prevails as the squarest square of them all. 

Touted as the crossroads of nations, it is in fact the crossroads of Brighton, Somerville, Arlington and Boston. Lauded as a community of scholars, the truth reveals that it has become a community of shoppers, with Harvard, the Big H, the dreadful and imposing Godfather of American scholarship, shunted off to one side, a stranger in its own backyard, all but overwhelmed by a never-ending flood of taxi cabs, townies and tourists. The local merchants, occupying the space where stores were originally established to provide for the needs of stout-hearted Crimson lads, cater to the fads and fancy of outsiders and pay rents to provide for the needs of the Harvard endowment.

The Freedom Trail never gets there, but the guide books call it “Historic Harvard Square.” Historic, yes, but the place changes so frequently now that the history has been submerged, neglected and sometimes lost amid the merchandise. A street sign reminds us that Dunster Street was called Wate Street in 1633. Apparently, the city of Cambridge expects someone to come back for a reunion. The Cambridge Center for Adult Education operates a restaurant on the site where once the village smithy stood under the spreading chestnut tree and shod Longfellow’s horse, forging away with his arms like the iron bands. There are private homes, houses, mansions – mostly owned by Harvard – where great men lived and met with other great men to speak their great words. There are the low-brow landmarks – the clock in front of the Coop, Elsie’s (where JFK ate roast beef), the unused MBTA entrance on Mass. Ave., the Lampoon building. You don’t have to be a scholar to pick those out. But history does take a back seat to today. The Square is just too busy to be steeped in tradition. 

Whatever its commercial or antiquarian importance, however disappointingly typical it may look for an international crossroads, Harvard Square is, in the collective consciousness, the center of activity. Being there is important. When something important happens, people are likely to be there. Doing something there makes that something official. When Nixon resigned, the elated people of Boston came out and danced in the streets. Not in front of their own apartments over in Back Bay or down on Green Street but right in front of the MBTA station in Harvard Square. There was never any question about where to celebrate. We still think of it as an arena that the whole world watches. 

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