Another of Central Square's constituencies has a little more cash to burn, but not much. For years, the local economy has been tethered to nightlife. The Middle East and T.T. the Bear's Place — bastions of the local music scene — made Central Square a destination for students, music fans, and artsy types. Whether the moneyed tech elite's continued incursion into what was once their turf will help or hinder these businesses remains to be seen.
What is certain is that, a year from now, things in Central Square will look a lot different. To follow is a portrait of a neighborhood on the verge.
SQUARE ROOTS A complex retail ecosystem, Central Square is the last revenant of Cambridge's less-affluent past.
Going-out-of-business signs dominate the windows of Jax's Liquidation Outlets, the discount store on Mass Ave near Pearl Street. Inside, the store is half-empty — rows of towels, kitchen gear, and off-brand housecleaning products give way to a vacant back wall.
Behind the cash register, part-owner Jack Brown — a chipper older gentleman in a plaid button-down and a baseball cap — tags the remaining inventory with a price gun.
"We've been here for 39 years, and we're finally getting out," Brown says. "Our landlord thinks we're not classy enough." Rising utility bills and smaller profit margins have made it impossible for Jax's to stay in business, he explains.
Although Jax's is the only place in the neighborhood that sells sheets and towels, people aren't buying. "In the last few years, people come in, pick up the sheets, look at the thread count, and put them back down," Brown says. "They never used to do that."
In addition to raised bedding consciousness, other, more important things have changed. Since the start of the New Depression, liquidators like Jax's have suffered along with retailers — it's hard to find inventory to liquidate when retailers are careful not to order more than they can sell.
"Now nothing is like it used to be," Brown says. "There are no closeouts."Moreover, much of Jax's customer base — people with lower incomes — have been priced out of the neighborhood. As he's relating this, Brown greets a homeless man trundling through the kitchenware section. "He's been here for 10 years," Brown says. "A lot of people don't want to stop with him around."
Brown can't hire locally. "My help all lives in Lynn and Malden," he says. He can't afford salaries high enough for people to work at Jax's as their main source of income, and so most of his employees suffer through a long commute to work part-time. "I wish I could afford to pay people a living wage," he says.
Behind the empty shelves along the back wall are Jax's offices — a small room with a refrigerator and a break table. There, Brown has pictures on display: one, a framed 12-year-old feature from the Phoenix calling Jax's "an exercise in overstimulation." The other is a printout of a picture taken on July 4, 1946 — the day of Central Square's centennial celebration. It shows a street teeming with people and lined in now-defunct department stores.