Uncreative Destruction of Harvard Square

Creative destruction = Joseph Schumpeter’s account of capitalism’s dynamism based on innovation and the destruction and abandonment of the old.

I’m just the 10,001st person to complain about it in print, but Harvard Square has become an outdoor mall.  What’s distressing is not just the loss of all the old book stores, record stores, cafes and diners, but that they’ve mostly become outposts of multinationals — showcase locations for Adidas, Verizon, Bank of America, etc etc.

la flamme

I got my hair cut at La Flamme barbershop which is where it’s always been on Dunster Street.  I sometimes got haircuts here as a teenager.  Amusingly, I have a vague recollection that it was slightly pricey, and so I tended to prefer Central Barber on Mass. Ave. (where the Lemonheads got their trademark buzz cuts), but their current price is $14, so how much could it really have been in 1985?  I did not remember that it opened in this spot in 1898.  It’s very old-school with neat moldings, fixtures, and old-fashioned sinks.  I felt a little Rip Van Winklish, melancholy about all the transformation and loss of what used to make Harvard Square a distinct place rather than an abstract space for late capitalist consumption.  (Specifically, I was upset about the disappearance of the Harvard University Press display store, where I used to get Harvard UP paperbacks for $1, $5 or $10.  You could always find certain books on the dollar shelf: Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for example.)

What other Harvard Square institutions survive?  I just checked online and apparently Cafe Pamplona is still there, staffed (according to a Citysearch review) by “‘lanky, slightly despairing graduate students.”  (Sounds about right.)  Whew.  Any votes for most egregious transformation at a single address?

When and if the Harvard Book Store goes, I wash my hands of the place entirely.

9 thoughts on “Uncreative Destruction of Harvard Square”

  1. For me, the tipping point was when The Tasty diner – that ratty, wedge-shaped all-night spot at the corner of JFK and Mass Ave – was swallowed up by Abercromie. As a not-so-frequent return visitor to Cambridge, I’m sure there were other more significant atrocities earlier, but that’s the one that really hit me where it hurts.

    Aside from the general significance of the place, it had a personal nostalgic value for me, in that your brother and I once orchestrated a ruse to stay out all night at a friend’s place, and the ‘cover story’ we presented to our parents hinged on the claim that we had been hanging out at the Tasty in the wee hours.

  2. Yeah, I too think of the loss of the Tasty as some kind of symbolic tipping point. I also remember that time you two got caught in that lie/story. I remember Jake being very frustrated because there was no way to PROVE that you were lying but my parents considered that they had sufficient probable cause to convict.

  3. Remember Tommy’s lunch, which I used to think of as the classier alternative to the Tasty? It became Tommy’s pizza, featuring sesame seed crust, and now I think it’s morphed into Tommy’s convenience store. Not exactly what you’re talking about but I miss it just the same.

    But Bartley’s persists.

    1. I’m sure eventually it will become Tommy’s Transglobal Branding.

      Actually one of the funniest examples is not in Harvard Sq proper. When I was a kid I used to play Donkey Kong obsessively at this convenience store a block from our house on Broadway. That store is now, I think, a branch of the Swedish Embassy.

      1. Slight correction – it is the Swiss consulate, strategically located between Harvard and MIT for reasons of business, technology, science, etc. It is built like a small sleek fortress.

        The old Harvard square redux:
        The most recent positive, albeit temporary new development is that since Crate and Barrel has left, the wife of Ben Thompson, the original architect for Design Research has installed an exhibit of old Marimekko dresses – hanging in all the windows. It will be there until September. I’ll have to go and check it out.

  4. FWIW, Herrell’s is expanding (albeit into a OOB shoe store that I suspect was a small, non-multinational).

  5. Hey Ivan – hope you’re well. Living in the area for the past 10 years or so, I’ve seen the less-than-creative destruction continue unabated. Just the other day, Herrel’s said it was closing at the end of the month.
    http://www.boston.com/business/ticker/2009/09/herrells_will_c.html

    Blog post I wrote about the loss of book stores: http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/?p=315

    Good but dated list of places we’ve lost:
    http://homepage.mac.com/aglee/2001/2001-02-11-old-cambridge/

  6. Hi, Ivan, I was looking to see if George had finally broken his silence and then went on to read your entries. The Pamplona still exists but in a “new and improved” version which includes decaf coffee and inedible pastries. We still like to sit outside there after going to the good old Harvard Bookstore–which now has an electronic sign in the side window and prints books on demand! If I started on a list of what has gone from Harvard Square… Say hi to Sarah and your girls–it was fun to see them last year. George’s mom

  7. Thanks for the comment, Carol, aka George’s mom! Not sure if I approve of Pamplona serving decaf, their refusal to do that was always part of their uncompromising Gallic appeal, for me.

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