“Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (1836)
“What did you do in this world that cannot be killed? What did you leave behind that the wind can’t blow away? A thing of beauty is here forever. Nothing can kill the beautiful deed.”
Brother Blue, eulogy for Igor Fokin at a memorial benefit in Brattle Square (September 28, 1996)
From Winthrop to Washington, from Samuel Sewall to Samuel Adams: In the colonial era, if you wanted to head west out of Boston, either to travel to Worcester, Springfield, or other points of interest in interior Massachusetts, or to go to New York along one of the two main routes (the other being via Providence, a route I have described at great length in a previous project), you almost certainly had to pass through Watertown Square, where all roads west converged. And, as two of these three roads converged in Cambridge Common, in all likelihood you passed through Harvard Square on your way to Watertown. This essay is about the road from Cambridge to Watertown, the final link in the chain of roads leading out of Boston which have been the subject of many of these essays. From Watertown Square one road, sometimes called the Boston Post Road, headed west away from the coast and the cities into the wilderness of New England and America.
There were three routes from Boston to Watertown in the colonial era as I have described in previous entries. The first of these followed what is today Washington Street from the Old State House to the gate at Boston Neck, located today at roughly the intersection of Berkeley and Washington Street in the South End. After leaving the confines of the old town the traveler continued through what is now the South End into Roxbury, turning right in what is today called Dudley Square to head across the Stony Brook, up Mission Hill and left at today’s Brigham Circle to follow what is now Huntington Avenue into Brookline Village.
From here the traveler could head in two directions. The first road led directly to Watertown via Washington Street in Brookline through Brighton and Newton Corner, crossing the Watertown Bridge across the Charles River. The second road is today’s Harvard Street through Brookline, which continued through what is today Allston and led to the bridge across the Charles River at Cambridge, which today has been replaced by the Anderson Memorial Bridge. From here a short walk up JFK Street led to Harvard Square and Cambridge Common.
An alternative ‘third’ road led from the Old State House to the Charlestown ferry in the North End. Once safely transported across the Charles River the traveler continued along Main Street through Charlestown and then turned left at what is today Sullivan Square to follow the road now known as Washington Street across Somerville through Union Square and into Cambridge where the road continued (today called Kirkland Street) to Cambridge Common and linked up with the aforementioned ‘second’ road from Allston. From Cambridge Common the traveler continued along Brattle Street and Mount Auburn Street to meet the ‘first’ road that went directly from Brookline to Watertown Bridge.
Although many illustrious personages have passed through Watertown and Cambridge on their travels, of particular interest to me are two less well-known gentlemen, who traveled at least two of the three roads to Watertown in late February and early March of 1775. A fascinating manuscript entitled General Gage’s Instructions, which describes the adventures of the aforementioned gentlemen, Captain William Browne and Ensign Henry DeBerniere, was published in Boston in 1779. The manuscript purports to be a transcription of military papers found after the hasty departure of the British troops in March 1776. In these papers are orders given by the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, to the two officers to travel in disguise along the roads out of Boston to Worcester and to “take a sketch of the country as you pass.” Captain Browne and Ensign DeBerniere traveled as far as Worcester, and followed the first trip up with a second trip to Concord, and the narrative written up by DeBerniere is a thrilling tale of derring-do as the purportedly incognito officers are repeatedly exposed and must evade numerous attempts by local ‘vigilantes’ to thwart their progress.
Captain Browne and Ensign DeBerniere, along with Browne’s personal servant, or ‘batman’ John, begin their trip by crossing the Charles at Charlestown Ferry, taking care to dress casually to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Passing through Charlestown and what is now Somerville along the ‘third’ road described above, they reached Cambridge, which DeBerniere describes as “a pretty town, with a college built of brick, the land is entirely level on which the town stands.” DeBerniere continues “we went next to Watertown and were unsuspected.” They stop at a tavern in Watertown and are almost immediately identified and the adventure begins. This fleeting reference to Cambridge and the map are the only evidence they have left behind of their adventures that relate to this particular walk. However, I feel their presence as I make my way through Cambridge and, as I make my way along the Post Road to Watertown and beyond, I will revisit the narrative of the two officers, whose descriptions of the taverns and roads are of great interest to me, and whose adventures make for entertaining reading.
The map above, the fruit of their labors, shows all the roads I have discussed: The ‘Charlestown Road’ comes in from the bottom left of the map and meets the road from the ‘Causeway’ and ‘Bridge’ over the Charles from today’s Allston and Brookline at Cambridge Common, where nearby the ‘College’ is shown. From there the road ‘from Watertown to Cambridge’ is shown as ‘3 M ½’ in length. My own calculation of the length of this walk using Google Maps is 3.7 miles, so their map is actually quite accurate despite it’s slightly skewed depiction of the actual roads. At Watertown the road from Cambridge links up with the road over the Charles River bridge at Watertown, which is referred to on the map (not shown on this section of the map but which can be seen here) as the ‘Watertown Post Road’ from Roxbury through Brookline and ‘Little Cambridge’ (today Brighton).
An astonishing fact to me is that when Officers Browne and DeBerniere (and John, the batman) made their way from Boston across to Charlestown, then to Cambridge, and on to Watertown, the road they were walking had been in existence for almost one hundred and fifty years. In all likelihood the road probably served as a path for the native Indians for an even longer period before that. In other words, it was an ancient road at the time of the American Revolution!
“To find what you seek in the road of life,
the best proverb of all is that which says:
‘Leave no stone unturned’.”
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Sanguine Temperament, in Caxtoniana (1864), p. 158.
“You can’t always get what you want.”
The Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed (1969).
Indeed, one of the great difficulties I have encountered in this project is the sheer quantity of information that exists about the history of Boston along these old roads. The same is true of Cambridge, as would be expected from the town which is the home to Harvard University. I have always been interested in this history but, in this project, my goal is not to rehash the same well-known anecdotes about the Revolution and the foundation of WGU (‘World’s Greatest University’). Many better story tellers than me have done an admirable job of covering the essentials of the history of Boston and environs.
What I have been attempting to do with these essays is to rediscover the ‘original’ roads that connected the towns and villages of the Boston area to each other and to convey how the roads and the areas through which these roads pass have been transformed over time. Of course, I have discussed many interesting historical events that occurred along these roads as I have made my way through Boston and areas that are integral parts of Boston even if they are separate political entities. Yet I have reached Cambridge Common and have effectively been paralyzed by the sheer weight of history that surrounds me. How much of the history of Harvard College do I include? How much of the history of the Revolution, which is particularly complex and interesting here at the location where George Washington took command of the nascent Continental Army, do I discuss? This entry could be many, many thousands of words longer if I decide to settle in and discuss these and many other topics of interest in the immediate area.
And so, I have written nothing; rather, I have written a great deal and published nothing. I feel a responsibility to make sure I leave no stone unturned as I make my way along the old roads but there is treasure under every stone here and progress is slow. The burden of history hangs like an albatross around my neck and impedes me from doing what I truly wish to do, which is to walk. These entries are meant to be light enough for the reader to follow along at a leisurely pace but not so light as to be frivolous. I try to say something of significance about my surroundings in each entry, to try to put together an argument that connects the past to the present, that links the places I pass on the road to the larger historical and cultural framework of America and even of the world.
However, if I write about every stone and what is beneath each stone I might as well not walk at all, as I can safely sit in the middle of Cambridge and regale the reader with historical and cultural anecdotes for an almost infinite number of entries. No, what I must do is paint an impression of Harvard and of Cambridge, to find some stone of particular interest that helps illuminate the road itself, and pass on. The point of these ‘rambles’ is to ramble, not to be stationary. I can and will come back to this area in a future entry and then I can meander through the back streets behind the walls of the College, but for now I need to move on, much as I had to discipline myself on the road through the North End of Boston, or through Roxbury or Charlestown. To paraphrase Hamlet, the road’s the thing, wherein I’ll recapture the spirit of this project
The map above shows the various roads converging in Cambridge. Beginning with the road across the bridge over the Charles River (the black line), I will follow each of the separate colored threads into and through the center of old Cambridge and finally make my way out of Cambridge along the road to Watertown, west along Brattle Street (shown in pink above).
Part 1: The Yellow Bit on the Google Map Above. ¹
I begin by slightly retracing my steps three quarters of a mile from Cambridge Common back into Allston, adjacent to Harvard Stadium. The entire area, formerly ‘salt meadows’ along the once tidal Charles River, is now part of the campus of Harvard University. Once an area destined for development of slaughterhouses, the undeveloped properties along this side of the river were purchased in the late nineteenth century by such luminaries as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and were donated to Harvard. Longfellow, who lived along Brattle Street (whose house I will pass directly), enjoyed unobstructed views of the meadows, what we might call salt marsh today, and was perturbed to think his idyllic view would be spoiled by an abbatoir. Alas, the view today from his house is obstructed by buildings as well as by trees and by Memorial Drive, and, though scenic for a city, the view likely lacks sufficient beauty to be immortalized in poetry as it once was. Athletic facilities and playing fields began to appear beginning around the turn of the century. Harvard Stadium, the McKim, Mead, and White nod to ancient Greece, was one of the first large buildings made of reinforced concrete when it was built in 1903.
The road itself once passed along a built up earthen ’causeway’, visible in the map of 1777 below, until it reached the south bank of the Charles River, cutting across the marsh that was eliminated by the damming of the Charles River in 1906 and the construction of the Allston campus of Harvard. On the right hand side of North Harvard Street, across from Harvard Stadium and other athletic facilities, is the campus of the Harvard Business School, which was dedicated in 1927. For reasons I have been unable to ascertain, this little corner of what is putatively Allston has its own zip code and is listed as being in Boston rather than in the neighborhood of Allston.
For nearly three decades, beginning in 1635, a ferry operated from the foot of Dunster Street on the north side of the river to a point now somewhere in the middle of the Harvard Business School Campus. The only other river crossings were the Charlestown Ferry a few miles down river, or the Watertown Bridge a few miles west of Cambridge. Both were extremely inconvenient for someone who wanted to go to ‘Little Cambridge’, as the south side of the river was known in the colonial era (now Allston and Brighton), or to Brookline or Roxbury, and the ferry was dangerous, especially in winter, when the river often froze.
Thus in the spring of 1663 work was completed on a second bridge across the Charles River, which became known as the ‘Great Bridge’ owing to the fact that a long causeway was also constructed on both sides through the salt marsh so that travelers might reach the bridge without trudging through marshland. This bridge, which cost the town £200 (let’s just say a lot of money then), would prove to be a contentious issue for decades to come, as it was relatively costly to maintain, and the costs were split among the various communities that benefited from its existence in a manner that resulted in constant squabbles over fairness and, at times negligence, which necessitated costly repairs. Judge Sewall reports in his diary on September 28, 1685, for instance, that “The last high Tide carried away the Bridge at Cambridge part of it; so that Cous. Fissenden now keeps a Ferry there. Seth tells me ’tis that part the Town (presumably the town of Cambridge) was to maintain.”
However, it certainly was a more convenient route between the towns surrounding Boston than the previous options. James Birket, in his diary entry of September 11, 1750, calls it a “very good wooden bridge.” By the time the area was being transformed into the playing fields of Harvard, the rickety wooden span that was the most recent (and not so ‘Great’) version of the ‘Great Bridge’ was deemed unsuitable for the burgeoning development of Harvard’s campus along both sides of the river. A new bridge, the current (and recently refurbished) Anderson Memorial Bridge, was opened in 1915, providing a more elegant entrance into Cambridge than the previous more modest incarnations.
The buildings on the north bank of the river and along the road into the center of Cambridge similarly date principally to the turn of the century. Weld Boathouse (1907), Eliot Hall (1931), Kirkland House (1933) were all constructed as part of the expansion of the Harvard campus towards and over the river. The street leading from the river to Harvard Square was originally called Wood Street (Lucius Paige, History of Cambridge, p. 14), then became Brighton Street, then was changed again in the late nineteenth century to Boylston Street and, finally, in 1981 took its present name of JFK Street. On the west side of JFK Street is the Kennedy School of Government, where losing candidates in elections go to lick their wounds and to burnish their resumes. The present campus dates to the late 1970s, as can easily be surmised from its extremely ugly and unwelcoming form. The naming of JFK Street was the result at least in part of a classic town/gown conflict involving the Kennedy School, the JFK Library, and the perceived lack of sufficient interest by the Harvard leadership in the Kennedy mystique according to some Cambridge city councilors.
Part 2. The Red Bit on the Google Map Above (the first, or curved part)
Eliot Street is the first of the original streets of Cambridge that intersect with JFK/Boylston/Brighton/Wood Street. On the Pelham map below it is clear that there existed but one or two structures between the bridge and Eliot Street in 1777. A left onto Eliot Street or Creek Lane as it was originally known, brought the traveler from the Brighton Road to Brattle Square in a sweeping curve. The curious curve of Eliot Street through to Brattle Square and on to Harvard Square followed the contour of, you guessed it, the creek that once ran in a sweeping curve from the river all the way into Harvard yard A left at Brattle Square onto what is now Brattle Street, but was once known as the ‘highway to Watertown’, brought the traveler to the junction with Mason Street, where the road from Charlestown through Cambridge Common merged and travelers from both roads continued along Brattle Street to Watertown.
Part 3. The Green Bit on the Google Map Above
Continuing past Eliot along JFK Street leads directly to Harvard Square, and passing through the Square along Massachusetts Avenue brought the traveler to Cambridge Common. Turning left on the Common led to Mason Street resulting in the aforementioned convergence, while a right turn at Cambridge Common took the traveler towards Charlestown. Thus the roads from Charlestown and from Brookline or Roxbury or Brighton were united in and around Cambridge Common and Harvard Square, which, prior to the construction of bridges from Boston across the Charles in the period immediately following the Revolution, was the major population center of Cambridge. Following the construction of the West End Bridge (1793, today the Longfellow Bridge) and and the Craigie Bridge (1809, today the Charles River Dam Bridge, the one that the Science Museum is on), Cambridge ceased to be a village centered around Harvard College as two rival centers evolved at Cambridgeport (Central Square) and East Cambridge.
Interlude. Return to the Red Bit on the Google Map Above (where the curved part meets the straighter part)
At the intersection of Brattle and Eliot Streets, Brattle Square, a small gold-colored bronze sculpture of a strange creature sits atop one of the granite columns designed to prevent cars from coming up onto the sidewalk (see the photo at the beginning of this entry). This small curiosity, which seems almost randomly placed as a sort of joke, brings memories and emotions flooding back. As I walk along these old roads I feel especially nostalgic, as these streets were a favorite stomping ground of mine for a period of fifteen years or so, as a teenager in the early 1980s and as a young adult in the late 1980s and 1990s. I am sure everybody has memories of a place that was a central part of their evolution into their contemporary self, and Harvard Square was critical to my development. Shortly after I turned 15 years of age, the Red Line extension of the MBTA to Braintree was completed which allowed me to make the trip to Harvard Square directly. I knew something was missing in my years in Braintree and it became immediately apparent upon my first visit to Harvard Square that I had found it. I was a movie fanatic at that age and went to virtually every new movie made at the time. However, callow youth that I was, I was completely unaware until that point that movies from other times and places could be shown in the theater and not just on Dana Hersey’s Movie Loft (which I loved, don’t get me wrong) on Channel 38 (WSBK). The Brattle Theater opened up an entirely new world for me, a place where I discovered Orson Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, where I saw Last Tango In Paris and Casablanca and The Wages of Fear for the first time, where I learned for the first time that the dominant cultural paradigm was not the only one in existence, that beyond what everybody was supposed to like were other things that one could enjoy, things that most of my classmates had no idea even existed.
Harvard Square was a special place for me as it was here, for the first time, that I felt intellect was not something to be ashamed of, that I had discovered a place in which I felt my natural curiosity was not something to be kept under wraps, that I realized it was not a requirement to fit in with the crowd. Even in college, and in the years when I first moved back to Boston as an adult, Harvard Square was a place I would gravitate to at any time of year. The sheer number of bookstores, selling both new and used books, at the time was impressive; many, even ones selling new books, like the bookstore Wordsworth, where I would go after a double bill at the Brattle to read up on the films I had just seen, are gone. Used record stores were also abundant, and eclectic, and were places where I began to move away from what I knew to what remains to be discovered. I purchased my first Miles Davis record, a beat up old copy of The Complete Birth of the Cool (a 1972 reissue of the famous 1957 album), in a record store whose name I no longer even remember in a basement along JFK Street.
Here too were many of the places where I first tried food that was, to me, exotic. Although my father was a chef, he was wedded to traditional Italian cooking with a few ‘continental’ exceptions and, being a dumb suburban teenager, even that seemed boring to me compared to eating at a fast food restaurant. An early date with my then girlfriend (now wife) in high school brought us to Harvard Square, where I inquired of the proprietor of a dry cleaning establishment where I might find a Burger King and was told in no uncertain terms that ‘those‘ types of places did not exist in Harvard Square. I got the message and opened my mind and my taste buds. I discovered restaurants like Grendel’s, with its fantastic space and its unique decor and its even funkier food, especially the eclectic buffet/salad bar, serving food that pushed me along the road to discovering Indian, Persian, Middle Eastern, and North African food. There was Iruña, a little Spanish restaurant hidden away down an alley off JFK street, where I first remember having tapas like chipirones en su tinta (squid in their own ink!) and sangria. These places were revelations, places with food and atmosphere I had not even been aware existed! The first cafes I ever dared to enter were in Harvard Square: the old Cafe Algiers, when it was in the basement of Brattle Hall (1889), the building housing the Brattle Theater, seemed as exotic to me as if I were in the Casbah or in Pépé le Moko. Later, when I had conquered my nerves, I headed into the Cafe Pamplona, the much more serious smoke-filled cafe with the severe Spanish matron. The Patisserie Française was one of my favorite places to go for croissants, the owner always welcoming us seated in his chair at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the basement cafe on JFK Street. Even the Wursthaus, a German restaurant right on Harvard Square, was a place I went to as a young adult with my buddies from work to try German beer and food and talk about what the future might hold.
The little golden statue is a memorial to a time that has gone forever. The statue is of a puppet called Doo Doo, one of the many great creations of a Russian puppeteer named Igor Fokin, who performed at this very location for a few years in the mid-1990s. I remember well coming out of the Brattle Theater one summer’s evening and passing this street performer who I almost ignored completely, when I was stopped in my tracks by how lifelike the puppet he was manipulating seemed to be. To be honest, I am not usually a big fan of street performers, nor do I have any real interest in puppetry. This man, however, was so incredibly talented that I was sucked right into his magical world. I saw him a few times over the next couple of years, and I especially liked his Louis Armstrong puppet, replete with white handkerchief used to wipe his sweaty brow (and the puppet seemed to sweat to be honest!). It was a highlight of a visit to Harvard Square, a reminder of how eclectic and interesting and unexpected a place it could be, even as the places I had grown up with started closing one by one and were replaced by soulless corporate shops that I could find at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, the very place from which I had been trying to escape all those years ago.
Then one morning in 1996 I was listening to the radio and the news mentioned the death of a Russian puppeteer who performed in Harvard Square. I was stunned as he was not much older than I was at the time. It turned out he had heart failure one morning and unexpectedly died. I was extremely grateful to find a documentary made in 2002 about Igor Fokin on YouTube that I cannot recommend enough. I have met very few people in my life who I would consider to be geniuses and this man was certainly one of them. With the death of Igor Fokin the Harvard Square I knew seemed to die.
And so, twenty years on, I walk the streets through which George Washington passed, the streets through which countless students, faculty, refugees, immigrants, people both famous and completely unknown have passed, and these once familiar streets now seem almost foreign to me. Sure, the street pattern is the same, many of the buildings are the same, the Brattle Theater is still around, even Grendel’s Den is still around (although today’s upstairs restaurant is a much sleeker restaurant than the Grendel’s I knew). Yet there is a veneer of slickness about Harvard Square today that did not exist when I was younger and prowled these streets in search of the next new thing that would open up a new world to me. The money and the corporations have arrived, and although there is as yet no Burger King, there is everything but, even if it just a slicker version of Burger King (Chipotle?). Sure, I realize that I sound like one of those old cranks who whines about how things used to be better in the good ole days; However, in this case, I am absolutely correct in stating that Harvard Square today is far less interesting, far less eclectic, far less stimulating than it was twenty or thirty years ago. From what I have read, it certainly seems likely that it was even more interesting in the years before the ones I remember, but all I can say with certainty is that my Harvard Square was much more interesting than today’s Harvard Square.
It is not that previous businesses were not interested in making a profit; of course they were interested in success. The difference between then and now is tricky to pin down. One might say that, ironically in this age of purported interest in ‘local’ products, that the businesses today are less local. Even the ‘local’ restaurants are usually part of a corporation (often called the -fill in the blank with a cute name- group to minimize their corporate roots) that has two, three, or more branches, often with unique ‘concepts’. I don’t mean to single out Orinoco, the Venezuelan restaurant that has replaced the old Iruña, but this is at least the third ‘branch’ in the Boston area now and how many does it take to qualify as a chain restaurant? I am sure that the owner of Cafe Algiers probably created what he knew rather than what he thought would be a great concept. More importantly, there he was when you went in, smoking in the corner near the bar- it was clearly his place. Who owns Orinoco? Can the owner(s) be in three places at the same time? Does it make any difference to the owner if the restaurant is in Harvard Square or Kendall Square or Arlington Center or Wellesley or Philadelphia or Toronto or Beijing? I doubt it.
In a world of total commodification, even things like the food we eat and the places we visit have become ‘products’ which have been designed and tested to achieve maximum success. Where once a restaurant catered to their fellow émigrés and those with enough knowledge or guts to just walk in and give it a try, today the typical Harvard Square restaurant is a theme park with just enough exoticism on the menu to seem like an effort is being made, when in fact it is more Epcot than say, Venezuela. Harvard Square is becoming a fancier, outdoor version of the South Shore Plaza; the only difference being that the chains here are more upmarket and cater to the burgeoning moneyed class who have developed a taste for the slightly more exotic brands on offer and have the extra cash required to pay for it. High rents have pushed many of the unique and eclectic businesses out and the newer generation cannot afford to set up shop here and so the unique energy of Harvard Square dissipates slowly.
I would be remiss if I did not place at least some of the blame on Harvard University itself. Not only do they own much of the property in the area, they seem to be constantly acquiring more and the rents just get squeezed that much more as a result. Harvard is also at the forefront of the commodification of education that has occurred in the last two decades. Harvard is less a place to be educated in the traditional sense (because frankly, you can learn just as much at UMass for a hell of a lot less money), and more a brand, a highly desirable brand because it is so exclusive; like a Ferrari, they only ‘make’ so many spaces and so they become highly sought after, the price goes up, and the prestige that accrues to the ‘owner’ of a spot rises proportionally. If you think I exaggerate, go stand by the so-called ‘statue of the three lies’ in Harvard Yard for a couple of minutes and watch what happens.
Incidentally, the whole ‘three lies’ thing is a shallow attempt at pedantry at best and flat-out wrong at worst. In this day and age it is better to be clever and wrong than to be boring and right. The truth is always more complicated but nobody has time for it any more. So, the prize goes to the witty aphorism at the expense of fact. But, as usual, I digress…
The Harvard ‘brand’ is not some new phenomenon. After all, Newtowne was renamed Cambridge in 1638 after the establishment of the college. The quest to improve the Harvard image goes back to at least the late nineteenth century and Eliot’s push to expand the campus toward and over the river, to burnish the image of the college by making it seem more like Oxford or Cambridge, to create a new image of the ‘Harvard Man,’ an athletic, intellectual, morally upstanding team player who would be sent forth to proselytize the Harvard gospel and to lead the world; ’twas ever thus. Yet here too the pace of commodification seems to be accelerating, perhaps unsurprisingly in the ‘Information Age’, when everything is instantly available, judged, and quantified.
Similarly, the Harvard brand is a transferable commodity and its value seems to rise as its relative scarcity is exaggerated by the increasing number of applications. I submit that the main function of Harvard is less to educate students in traditional subjects so as to be qualified to perform well in their chosen field of study, but rather to be a commodity for students to ‘possess’ to enhance their own ‘brand’, like an Apple Watch or a pair of Vans. Is it any surprise then that the main ‘business’ in Harvard Square, Harvard University, which is increasingly becoming a brand filled with branded ‘products’, is surrounded by other ‘brands’ catering to and trying to win the attention of both these students and their parents so that they too might also bathe in the reflected glow of the Harvard brand?
Regardless of my opinions about the changes in Harvard Square in my lifetime, it is remarkable to note how unchanging the layout of the area is relative to that shown on Pelham’s Map of 1777. Not only is it easy to see the curve of Eliot Street leading to Brattle Square, it is clear that JFK Street runs directly from the bridge to the southwest corner of Harvard Yard. The Common today is a reduced version of the one depicted on the map, and the road from Charlestown which once ran directly into the Common is now halted at the Harvard campus but Mason Street leads still leads directly from the opposite side of Cambridge Common to connect with Brattle Street.
Part 4. The Purple Bit on the Google Map Above
The one big change is the expansion of Harvard College outside the walls that today enclose Harvard Yard, the oldest part of the campus and the part shown on the maps above as Harvard College. One can hardly fail to notice today that the old road from Charlestown to Watertown has been divided into two parts by the northward expansion of the campus. Kirkland Street is the modern name for the section of the Charlestown Road that begins at the border of Somerville at roughly the place where Dali’s restaurant is located to its abrupt termination next to Memorial Hall at the intersection with Oxford Street. The intersection of Oxford and Kirkland is located just above the house labelled ‘Mr Foxcraft’ on Pelham’s Map, on the ‘Common’ side of the ‘Foxcraft’ house. The Foxcroft estate was an old one dating to the seventeenth century and was originally the property of Thomas Danforth, an early prominent figure in the history of the Massachusetts Colony. One of Danforth’s daughters married Francis Foxcroft, and as the daughter survived her brothers she inherited the estate which became the Foxcroft property. It was purportedly burned in 1777 but the ruins of the house are reported as late as the 1820s. Much of the property north of Kirkland, east of Oxford extending as far as perhaps Francis Street, much of which is now Harvard, was once part of the Foxcroft estate.
The road from Charlestown once continued across what is today the ugly little plaza between the Science Center, Memorial Hall, and the walls of the Yard. As long as I can remember there has been an ongoing effort to make this truly banal space of the campus into a place of interest. Often there are concerts here and food trucks and even a farmer’s market some days. There always seems to be some game or activity of some sort, which only heightens my suspicion that the students, rather than working, are being groomed and coddled while they are imprinted with their ‘Made at Harvard’ logos (full disclosure: I did attend Harvard University, but as a Graduate Student at Harvard Medical School, where my encounters with undergraduates were mostly underwhelming to say the least).
A short walk past the plaza in front of the Science Center reveals the reason for the ugliness as it becomes apparent that busy major roads runs directly under the plaza as part of a traffic rerouting plan that was clearly designed to make getting across campus easier and safer; otherwise the plaza would be the intersection of four major roads in Cambridge Street, Kirkland Street, Broadway, and Massachusetts Avenue. Suddenly the plaza looks a lot nicer.
A pathway separated from but adjacent to busy Cambridge Street below leads past Littauer Hall where, back in 1990, when I first returned to Boston, I tutored a student for the SAT exam, little knowing that the oldest road in Cambridge once ran directly past this building. A plaque to my right indicates that here on June 16, 1775, one thousand two hundred troops assembled under the command General William Prescott and marched to Bunker Hill. I worked at Bunker Hill Monument for two years and, unless he was given an honorary Generalship later in life that I do not know about, I submit that he was on that evening and is to this day referred to as Colonel William Prescott. Also, the battle was on Breed’s Hill, so technically…get your facts straight Harvard!
Just beyond the misleading plaque is a white house dating to 1838 called Gannett House which is most famous for housing the Harvard Law Review. As I stroll past it occurs to me that, in all likelihood, I unknowingly crossed this very path with the then President of the Harvard Law Review, a 28 year old Barack Obama.
Part 5. The Orange Bit on the Google Map Above
I cross Massachusetts Avenue and reach Cambridge Common. Ahead is the elegant Civil War Memorial. Massachusetts Avenue continues north as the old ‘road to Menotomy’ which is the old name for Arlington. It is also the same road that continues on to Lexington, and it was past this very spot that William Dawes, the less well-known messenger, rode on his way to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775. Dawes took the road out of Boston Neck, crossed the Charles over the Great Bridge, came up through Harvard Square along what is now JFK Street and now Massachusetts Avenue (the black and green lines on my map above of the old roads), and passed over Cambridge Common. He was originally meant to have met up at this point with Paul Revere who was taking the road from Charlestown (the purple line on my map above) as this was where the two roads converged. However, Revere was forced to take another road through Medford to evade British patrols that he encountered near today’s Sullivan Square in Somerville.
There is no shortage of information about the history of this area. All around me are plaques and waysides explaining the history of Cambridge. Horseshoes have been placed in the path along the Massachusetts Avenue side of the Common to commemorate Dawes’s journey. Cannon left by British troops at Fort William (now part of South Boston) have been strategically placed along the path across the Common. These were left behind as a direct result of the artillery used to force the evacuation of British troops in March 1776, which was originally captured and dragged from Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge Common across Massachusetts along the Post Road by teams of oxen and troops under the command of Colonel (later legitimately General!) Henry Knox (yes, Fort Knox is named for him). Subsequently, the cannon were dragged to Dorchester Heights, along the road to Boston from whence Dawes came across the river, and their commanding position effectively forced the evacuation of the besieged British soldiers in Boston.
Most famously, however, it was here on July 3, 1775 that General George Washington took formal command of the nascent Continental Army. The ceremony reputedly took place under an elm tree which fell in 1923. A replacement elm still marks the purported location of what some call a myth, although the stone monument below the tree confidently asserts it as fact.
Part 6. The rest of the Orange Bit on the Google Map Above, then the Red Bit (from the interlude spot to the intersection with the Orange Bit)
Across Cambridge Common is the short (300 yard) Mason Street, which merges with Brattle Street. Brattle Street from Brattle Square to this point is a mere 480 yards but is packed with noteworthy sites, many of which I have frequented over the years. On the left side I pass the Brattle Theater and the recently closed Cafe Algiers, of which I wrote earlier, while beyond on both sides of the street are some of the shops I have discussed. Also here are the William Brattle House, the first of the famous ‘Tory Row’ houses, about which I will have more to say in the next entry. Here too is the ‘Blacksmith House’ made famous by Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith. Soon I reach the American Repertory Theater, followed shortly by the Harvard Admissions Office, while on the right are various other buildings associated with Harvard: Gutman Library, followed by the buildings of the Graduate School of Education, and Radcliffe Yard. After this the road becomes remarkably tranquil and leafy as older houses and apartment buildings replace commercial establishments. At Mason Street the roads from Charlestown and from Roxbury converge into one road which leads away from the commercial center and former population center of Cambridge. This section of the walk will be the subject of the next entry in this project.
In the documentary on the life of Igor Fokin I discussed above is an elegant eulogy by another ‘character’ of Harvard Square, Brother Blue. Rather than lament the loss of Fokin, Brother Blue does not mince words about the mortality of man:
“The body’s got to go, it melts like snow. But there’s something that doesn’t melt, something inside of us. It’s your work! Igor’s work will live. What did you do in this world, that cannot be killed? Did you bring humor? Did you bring laughter? Nothing can kill the beautiful deed, the beautiful thought. What did you leave here that the wind cannot blow away…the fire can’t burn it, the storm can’t turn it, the bullet can’t down it, the water can’t drown it? What is left? You do the good work and, though the body goes, your work is here forever and ever. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Nothing can kill the beautiful deed.”
Igor Fokin, a “minor” player on the stage that is Harvard Square is gone, but the memory of his magic is still with me twenty years later. Cafe Algiers is gone, so too is Iruña, and countless other touchstones, but the memories of a Harvard Square now gone remain with me and perhaps have achieved a sort of afterlife in this retelling. The “great” historical figures like George Washington and the cultural icons like Emerson or Thoreau who once graced Harvard Square are also gone. So too, William Browne and Henry DeBerniere are gone but their map, and thus their spirit, lives on. The roads depicted on their map are also still here, hidden away but still living on in the quirky street patterns that make up Harvard Square. You can kill the body, but the work lives on. You just have to look under the stones, or in the case of Doo Doo, on top of a stone.
Distance walked in this entry: 1.40 miles
¹ I have placed these inelegant headings in order to attempt to clarify the route of this somewhat convoluted walk, which meanders all over the Harvard Square area. Just follow the colors and hopefully, you will see the walk I have done more clearly.
Other works consulted for this essay not discussed in the main text or hyper-linked.
Lucius Paige, History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. Boston: Houghton, 1877.
William Marchione, The Bull in the Garden: A History of Allston, Massachusetts (1986)