History of Central Cambridge

By Dante Marino

 Trees, graffiti, and a variety of storefronts give color to Massachusetts Ave in Central Square.   Photo courtesy of equityapartments.com.

Trees, graffiti, and a variety of storefronts give color to Massachusetts Ave in Central Square.  Photo courtesy of equityapartments.com.

Central Cambridge sits just south of Somerville, and north of the Charles River, with Fenway and Back Bay right across the water. Now with a population of approximately 110,000 people, Cambridge began as a simple farming village. It was founded in 1630 by a group of Puritans who had just sailed from England. Cambridge became a city in 1846 and Central Square became the downtown area. Around the same time, many Irish immigrants moved to Cambridge to escape the potato famine in Ireland. There had been a minor African-American presence in Cambridge since it’s founding, but the population increased during the early 1800s when many families started relocating from Boston because of the integrated schools in Cambridge. Immigrants from Portugal, Sweden, Russia, and Eastern Europe also found their way to Cambridge and by the early 1900s, Central Square boasted a wide variety of cultures and classes. 

 Boston Elevated Railway Collection, 1920.   Photo courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

Boston Elevated Railway Collection, 1920.  Photo courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

The First Baptist Church at 5 Magazine Street has been a part of Central for many years. Originally built in 1817, the church burned down and had to be rebuilt in 1866 and again in 1881. Trolly lines traveled throughout Central Cambridge from the late 1800s to early 1900s. The Subway that connects Boston, Central Square, and Harvard Square was completed in 1912. This helped to position Central as the business center of the city. There used to be a number of cheap coffee shops and lunch spots, such as the Harvard Doughnut Shop and the Liberty Cafe, but they closed down in the late 1990s due to a shift in taste and the emergence of Starbucks. 

However, there are restaurants and shops located in Central Cambridge that have been around for decades and are still running today. Cheapo Records is a record shop at 538 Massachusetts Avenue that has been a part of the neighborhood since 1954. The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub at 472 Massachusetts Avenue started as a Lebanese restaurant in 1970, but has since become a major fixture in the Boston rock scene with the addition of four separate venues to showcase bands, DJs, and comedians alike. The Women’s Center at 46 Pleasant Street was an abandoned building when a group of women seized it in 1971 to protest racism, sexism, and domestic violence. It then became the Women’s Center which provides counseling for women and offers crisis intervention and workshops related to women’s issues. 

 The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub has an event every night.   Photo courtesy of fineartamerica.com.

The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub has an event every night.  Photo courtesy of fineartamerica.com.

Beginning in the late 1950s and lasting until 1970, Central Square was threatened by plans to build a large eight lane highway through the area. The community protested the highway and the plans were ultimately abandoned, but during that long span of years, the neighborhood had changed. Due to fear over the highway’s impact on the neighborhood as well as the fear of violent protests in the area, many moved from Central Square to the suburbs during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Stores closed down, buildings were abandoned, and crime increased. The 1990s, however, were a time of revitalization for Central Cambridge. The area was cleaned up and made more orderly. Throughout this process, efforts were made to maintain Central Square’s diversity. Central Cambridge has become more gentrified over the years but the neighborhood is still home to plenty of unique shops, ethnic eateries, and graffiti art.

 

 

 

Sources:

“Brief History of Cambridge, Mass.” Cambridgema.gov, Cambridge Historical Commission,  www.cambridgema.gov/historic/cambridgehistory

“Central Square: Then and Now.” CambridgeHistory.com, Cambridge Historical Society,  Cambridge Historical Commission, cambridgehistory.org/Central-Square/

“Demographics and Statistics FAQ.” Cambridgema.gov, Cambridge Community Development Department, www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/factsandmaps/demographicfaq

“Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Central Square | BU Today | Boston University.” BU Today, 19 Dec. 2013, www.bu.edu/today/2013/getting-to-know-your-neighborhood- central-square/

Murthy, Rekha, and Dennis Frenchman. “Central Square, Cambridge: Rising Fortunes at a Regional Crossroads.” Oct. 2004, doi:10.18411/a-2017-023