Vol. 1, No. 1
A Brief History of Save Central Square
By Jay Scheide
On May 15, 1997, an article appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle, brimming with happy talk about a proposal to upgrade a supposedly degraded area of town -- Central Square. This piece was the first notice the neighborhood had of the ominous plans of Holmes Nominee Trust, the owners of the block extending from Green Street clear around to CVS Pharmacy. The idea was to demolish the existing storefronts, 18 businesses in all, and build an 11-story monstrosity with chain stores and high rents. People were outraged at this brazen attempt to gentrify one of the last user-friendly and affordable areas with character and diversity left in town.
Within days, more than 70 alarmed activists met at the First Baptist Church to mount resistance. Soon we came up with the name Save Central Square for ourselves and decided to: a) get the word out; b) find out and document the consensus of the community; and c) mobilize to stop the demolition. The first of a series of petitions was drafted, leading to the gathering of over 3,000 signatures; fliers, buttons, t-shirts and sweatshirts with logos were made up and circulated; letters of protest were sent -- and interviews given -- to various media, and a sizable network of dedicated folks were connected by a phone tree. In other words, people used the only reasonable tools available to them against big capital.
Throughout that summer there were important meetings with public officials, especially a series of Central Square Advisory Committee public hearings. The culmination of this was an August 28th CSAC recommendation that no variances or special permits be granted by the city. This appeared to be a major victory for Save Central Squares efforts, especially since that seemed to mean they could only build three stories, which would remove their financial incentive to demolish the building. Instead, the developers kept submitting plans, and kept meeting with city officials, sometimes -- in violation of city law -- without the publics knowledge. At the hearings that were advertised, SCS supporters often overflowed the room and sometimes were denied a chance to speak. But eventually, with every possible help from the citys lap-dog supposed guard-dogs of the public interest, they got their go-ahead for destruction, so that 17 of the 18 stores and restaurants were forced to close -- a few moving to other locations, but many going out of business. And so we come to where we are now -- at this writing, there is a only a barren pile of rubble. Looming on the horizon can plainly be seen chain stores, spiraling rents, and the continued assault on people in the dreaded bottom 80% of incomes, especially of course those at the tail end.
It should also be noted that there is still an appeal pending on how the development will proceed.
But, SCS has not been without its victories. By working hard to make the developers hew to some city ordinances, it did make things less horrendous. And as a result, and most importantly, I believe SCS kept alive a sense of community and solidarity, which among other benefits allows people in Cambridge and nearby communities to mobilize quickly in the future. So it can be hoped that success next time will be more tangible.
A photo montage of the Holmes block a few years ago, when it was a convenient and lively shopping district for Cambridge residents. (Photo by Lawrence Prift.)
The Holmes block now, after the wrecking ball finished with it. (Photo by Lawrence Prift.)
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