Harvard Square's New Businesses Annoy Neighbors

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Harvard Square is no longer a scruffy neighborhood of quirky, independent businesses. Locals are grumbling about chain stores ruining the area. Harvard University, which owns a lot of the real estate on the Square, is sensitive to the criticism and says it's not really justified.


So for some people, the workplace is a fire zone. For other people, the workplace is full of history. This past weekend, 300,000 people showed up to watch the Head of the Charles Regatta in Massachusetts. Afterward, tourists packed into Harvard Square, which is the center of a local controversy. Harvard University and other landlords say commercial change to the 400-year-old Square is inevitable, which is not stopping local opposition.

We have more this morning from reporter Philip Martin.

PHILIP MARTIN: Full disclosure: I've been around Harvard Square for a long time. And over the past 10 years, I've been hearing a complaint so familiar it has become a virtual chant. Harvard Square has lost its soul. One of those who see it that way is the square's unofficial mayor.

Mr. TOM MAGLIOZZI (Ray Magliozzi's Co-host, CAR TALK Radio Show): My name is Tom Magliozzi, and I live in the Harvard Square.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yes, that Tom Magliozzi, of NPR's CAR TALK fame. The radio show is headquartered on the second floor above Harvard Square's main intersection. But that's not where Tom Magliozzi holds court.

On a sun-drenched day, I find him sitting on a park bench outside of Harvard University's Holyoke Center, sipping coffee. He's here because his favorite cafe closed down this summer, after occupying the same space for nearly 25 years.

Mr. MAGLIOZZI: The Paradiso, where we used to hang out, he was paying something like 12,000 bucks a month rent. He got to sell a lot of coffee. So he's gone, and now we got no place to sit down anymore. This is the closest we found, but it isn't home.

MARTIN: Magliozzi had felt this way for some time now. He's been hanging out on the Square since 1955, when he was a student at nearby MIT. Harvard Square's gentrification began in the '70s, but accelerated in the late '90s with the loss of several landmark businesses.

Mr. MAGLIOZZI: Well, the biggest change that I first noticed was when the Tasty disappeared. Tasty was the most magnificent place we could ever eat, and it was called the Tasty because the food sucked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAGLIOZZI: But they were opened 24 hours a day, and that was the beginning of the end.

MARTIN: Today, there's a bank where the legendary Tasty once stood. Similar changes have taken place all over the Square. Harvard University is the Square's principal landlord, owning about 8 percent of the area's roughly three million square feet.

Jim Gray says the changes taking place have more to do with consumer taste than anything else. He's with Harvard Real Estate Services.

Mr. JIM GRAY (Associate Vice President, Harvard Real Estate Services): Harvard Square is constantly changing. It is not a service to any of our constituent groups or community groups to shrink wrap it and make it a museum. At the end of the day, the consumers decide what businesses are in Harvard Square.

MARTIN: Yale Turner - yup, that's his real name, Yale Turner. He doesn't quite see it that way. Turner owns Vision House Opticians, once located in Harvard's Holyoke Center - that is, he says, until Harvard doubled the rent 15 years ago.

Mr. YALE TURNER (Employee, Vision House Opticians): You know, I admire Harvard for the teaching institution that they are and the research that they do, but they're more concerned with the bottom line. They've taken advantage of the families over the years, the small independent businessmen, for their own personal gain.

MARTIN: Harvard disputes this. The university says it even subsidizes some small businesses to keep them in the area. Harvard gets a lot of credit form Denise Jillson, president of the Harvard Square Business Association. She says thanks in part to the university, the association's members are mainly mom and pop stores.

Ms. DENISE JILLSON (Executive Director, Harvard Square Business Association): And out of the 350 members, only 28 of them are either national chains or regional chains.

MARTIN: Still, Harvard acknowledges that its famous Square has an image problem. So the university is working to bring more pizzazz to this famous tourist attraction. But that's not what Tom Magliozzi's is looking for. On the other side of the plaza, he's still sitting on a park bench, seemingly resigned to the changes taking place in his beloved Harvard Square.

Mr. MAGLIOZZI: I guess it went upscale, and back in the '50s, there was a lot of dumps here. Dumps are great places.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For NPR News, I'm Philip Martin in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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