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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Harvard Square: Hello, goodbye

An Associated Press article posted on describes a melancholy development: the corporatization of Harvard Square, as the formerly quirky mecca of intellectualism becomes a momument to mass marketing.

The article describes the utopian Harvard Square of previous decades, when Harvard professors mingled with homeless people over cholesterol-laden meals at the Tasty. There were other places with panache: the Wursthaus, a cavernous German restaurant, the Bow and Arrow, where Matt Damon wooed Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting," and Briggs & Briggs, a music lover's paradise. All of these stores are gone, with others -- the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the Brattle Theater -- on the brink. Replacing them are adidas stores and Citizens Banks.

Are barbarians finally reaching the brick gates -- modern-day Alarics and Odoacers wearing adidas, listening to iPods and stashing their plunder at Citizens? It's sad to see beloved businesses close and their employees get laid off. It's also sad to see the outrageous real estate prices demanded by landlords -- Harvard among them. These prices are one reason why smaller-scale stores shut down.

Places like Harvard Square provide people with the refreshing news that Starbucks, adidas, and Wal-Mart don't own every piece of commercial real estate in this country. While it's nice to get cheap clothing at Target, and while the prices at, say, the Harvard Book Store are often quite high, Harvard Square offered residents of Cambridge, and other visitors, an urban refuge from suburban sameness. As the Square loses its iconoclastic identity, we, as Americans, lose part of our identity as well.

Some remedies exist. Near Harvard Square are two other squares with healthy sprinklings of unconventionality: Brattle Square, with its storied old barn of a theater, along with the Algiers coffeeshop and the Casablanca restaurant; and Central Square, which, with its assortment of clubs and funky restaurants, seems on its way to becoming the old Harvard Square.

Also, the stores that formerly populated Harvard Square might want to consider moving to other parts of the country, where the rents are cheaper. (Any red state will do.) It's condescending to think that only Harvard students like or appreciate Beethoven, Baudelaire or Bergman. Time for a mass exodus to combat mass culture.


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