Living in Cambridge: Neighborhoods
At the western edge of the city, the 370 acre Alewife area is known as “The Gateway to Cambridge.” Bounded by Route 2, Belmont, and Concord Avenue along the Fresh Pond Reservoir, Alewife is a vitally important part of the city. It contains huge environmental resources, including the 115-acre Alewife Reservation. It is a transportation hub: the famed Red Line terminates at Alewife Station, which houses restaurants and services (dry cleaners, daycare, bank machine, vendors) as well as access to MBTA subway and buses. And, it is an economic development district, home to bio-pharmaceutical companies, high tech, and many shops, restaurants, and services.
North Cambridge is a gateway to the suburbs of Arlington, Belmont, and other suburbs to the north and east of the city. It is also possibly the last vestige of the small town heritage of Cambridge prior to its incorporation as a city in the mid-nineteenth century. Neighborhoods of single- and multi-family dwellings, storefronts, churches, and high-rise affordable housing where North Cambridge borders West Cambridge at Fresh Pond form an enclave of working-class and middle-class values that persist to this day.
Mt. Auburn/Brattle Street
More stately mansions proliferated here in the colonial period of our country, leading to the nickname of “Tory Row” for the houses along Brattle Street, where an enclave of Royalist sympathizers resided as the Revolutionary War began to rage in the farmlands just west of Cambridge.
Today this is a much more sedate community, where political loyalties remain more private, and life seems dedicated to a more measured, perhaps even a kind of stately, existence. Home to governors, professors, and other professional gentry, West Cambridge is one of the more sought-after sections of the City for those who can afford the expansive lawns and commodious dwellings that predominate.
Call it the center, call it the crossroads, Central Square is right in the middle of things. Historically the mercantile center of Cambridge, Central Square has seen a renaissance in the past five years, attracting crowds of shoppers, bystanders, cafe idlers, food lovers, and travelers near and far.
Central Square is proud of its large and growing collection of diverse eateries. In fact, you can take a virtual tour of the world’s dining pleasures, sampling the cuisines of Asia, India, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and many stops along the way.
Central Square is, as well, the seat of city government and thus, fittingly, it is also the home of the Chamber of Commerce.
Like Central Square, Porter Square is a former center of light industry whose importance to commerce has long been part of the city’s history. Today it is a destination for home-buyers and merchants intent on expanding the prosperity that has added vitality to life in Cambridge for several decades.
Porter Square also has the distinction of being home to the first urban stop on the suburban commuter rail line that brings our neighbors to the west into the City of Cambridge, and further, to the terminal of North Station in Boston.
Mid-Cambridge is the most densely populated area of Cambridge and claims as its most salient quality its diversity. It has diversity of citizenry, from new emigres to established faculty of the prestigious institutions of Cambridge. It has diversity of architecture, from buildings of significance to nondescript brick apartment blocks, built in the 60’s and 70’s under eased zoning constraints to help relieve a severe housing shortage. In this respect, Mid-Cambridge perhaps epitomizes the best and the worst of the effects of the importance and attractions of Cambridge to the rest of the world.
Like Paris, Harvard Square is said to be one of those places in the world where, if you sit long enough, everyone you know will walk by. This is, of course, a way of noting that Cambridge (with Harvard Square as its international epicenter) is a very cosmopolitan place.
Home, of course, to Harvard University, Harvard Square is also home to upwards of 30 book stores, hundreds of fascinating and unique shops, world-class restaurants, two major hotels, some smaller inns, and a world-famous repertory theater.
Summer and winter, the streets fill up with sidewalk performances of every stripe and taste, from seemingly every continent. From the time this was a colonial farmer’s cow yard—hence the origin of one of the world’s most exclusive parking spots, Harvard Yard—the “Square” has been a focus of diverse activity, always lively, often famous, sometimes infamous. Within its historic bounds converge deep thoughts, commercial fervor, and the ceaseless impetuosity of youth.
Like North Cambridge, Inman Square has long been an enclave of working and middle class residents—the people who have kept the factories and offices of Cambridge bustling for almost two centuries.
Like many other Cambridge neighborhoods that surround the city’s squares, Inman Square has an eponymous, lively center, at the junction of two of the City’s main thoroughfares. Inman Square began to distinguish itself as a place to congregate for good food, good drink, good entertainment and good companionship back in the late 1970’s. Today the tradition continues, with restaurants and coffee houses that some residents (and many repeat visitors) call the best in the country.
East Cambridge is a vibrant commercial and residential neighborhood that has been home to industry and workers since the beginning of Cambridge’s industrial and commercial history. In the 19th Century housing was developed for workers at the industrial mills that grew in this part of the City well served by rail and water transportation facilities. The community grew with a number of ethnic groups establishing deep roots in the community including Italian, Portuguese, Polish and Irish immigrants.
Today small businesses along Cambridge Street and First Street, the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall and the Lechmere Station on the MBTA Green Line provide services to residents and visitors. The neighborhood is also home the Cambridge Police Department at the Robert W. Healy Public Safety Building and to several State offices serving Middlesex County residents.
Kendall Square is the epicenter of Cambridge’s technology and biotechnology industries. This world-renowned area of commercial and industrial activity is home to firms such as Genzyme, Biogen IDEC, Draper Laboratory and Akamai, as well as MIT. During the day, Kendall Square has a visibly professional population: laptops, cell phones and tech chatter fill outdoor cafes in the warmer months, and the square’s many indoor haunts cater to this crowd in the cooler months.
Kendall Square nightlife, though not as well-known as Harvard or Central Square, is ever popular with avant-garde audiences. Kendall Square Cinema is known for its distinctive movie selection, which emphasizes first-run foreign, American independent, and sophisticated Hollywood studio films. Hip new restaurants are interspersed with more traditional bar and grill establishments.
Kendall Square features one of the best panoramic views of Boston from its prime location at the mouth of the Charles River.
The neighborhood of Cambridgeport is attractively situated on the Charles River and is bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the north, River Street to the west and MIT to the east. Historically, Cambridgeport was primarily a working class neighborhood: residences were established close to the factories that populated the area due to lower land costs and shortened travel-to-work time. Over the last twenty years, Cambridgeport has been making the transition from a traditional factory-based economy to a more modern and dynamic mix of commercial endeavors—by the 1980’s the majority of factories there had relocated and their old buildings are now being demolished or converted to other uses.
Today, Cambridgeport is a diverse residential area made up of small store owners, software and biotechnology executives, and mechanics and artists, among others. Its proximity to MIT has made the neighborhood attractive to entrepreneurs and professionals as well as students. In addition, the neighborhood is quite popular with the Cambridge arts community.
Cambridgeport offers convenient access in and out of Boston via Memorial Drive, Storrow Drive and the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Just west of Cambridgeport is the neighborhood of Riverside, which, as its name suggests, looks out over the Charles River. River Street serves as the boundary line between Cambridgeport and Riverside, though the two are often mentioned in the same breath due to their status as the two residential areas along the Charles between Harvard and MIT.
With many of its dormitories located in the northwest section of Riverside, Harvard University is a major presence in this neighborhood. Riverside is a predominantly middle class area and has seen no population growth since the 1960’s. There are two large parks in this area, Hoyt Field and Riverside Press Park.
Riverside is a large and vital commercial and tourist area, and its residents enjoy easy access to both Central Square and Harvard Square.