Faded paint can be a badge worn proudly.

In the past I’ve mused obliquely about how signage can influence the overall character of a retail district. Lo and behold, the character of a retail district can, in turn, influence the type of signage as well. And what better place to demonstrate this than in some of the most heavily trafficked retail locations in the country, where demand for limited space is so high that the competition becomes cutthroat and leases are outrageous? Places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue/Magnificent Mile, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be exact), Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Newbury Street in Boston come to mind. Or, just a few miles away from that last corridor in the series, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This square coincides with a major stop on the Boston’s subway system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (best known as the “T”) and the edge of Harvard University. It also serves as the densest concentration of retail and commerce and some multi-family residential in Cambridge, thus serving as the de facto central business district of the city. Aside from the huge concentration of students and shoppers, it attracts a considerable number of tourists, no doubt enticed to visit one of the most famous higher learning institutions in the world. Immediately upon exiting the Harvard T stop, one encounters this kiosk. (Can you spot the grammatical/mechanics error?)

Cambridge, by American standards, is a very densely populated city: 2007 Census estimates put it at over 15,000 persons per square mile. It is also in close proximity to some of the wealthiest areas in metro Boston. Though Cambridge itself only shows average reporting for median household income, the figure of approximately $50,000 (depending on Census year taken from between 2000 readings and 2008 estimates) is skewed downward by the huge student presence, as well as the city’s commitment to income diversification through affordable housing for the working class. Nevertheless, portions of west Cambridge are quite affluent, the abutting suburbs are considerably wealthy, and directly to the east are some of Boston’s premier neighborhoods such as the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. So it is not surprising that Harvard Square/downtown Cambridge should be the epicenter of some expensive retail.

What’s surprising when one walks the streets of Harvard Square is how exclusive it is. I could also apply the word “eclectic”, but it seems like an overtly subjective—not to mention highly clichéd—judgment call. “Exclusive” seems a bit more balanced in this context because very little of the mundane survives: hardware stores, dry cleaning, barber shops, delicatessens, a local watering hole, and many of the other conventional tenants that occupied Main Streets of the past (as well as other Main Streets in metro Boston in the present) are hard, if not impossible, to find here. Instead, one sees a plethora of restaurants (both high-end and fast food), boutiques, spas, travel agencies, and upmarket national chains, as evidenced below:

Ann Taylor on the left, Crate and Barrel on the right.

This observation is not intended as a criticism of Cambridge’s downtown: by the metrics of pedestrian counts and per-square-foot leasing prices, Harvard Square is performing better than most central business districts in the country, and might rank among the more prestigious commercial centers in the world. Yet I have heard locals gripe about how Harvard Square is nowhere near is great as it used to be: it’s a whitewashed version of its grittier, humbler, more bohemian past. It’s obvious that it draws upmarket tenants; less conspicuous to the mere visitor is how quickly most of these tenants come and go. With such high lease rates, retailers need a high sales volume to stay profitable, and this can become onerous to local entrepreneurs who don’t have the working capital to guarantee survival during the life of a lease, which can last up to five years. Thus, with each passing year, Harvard Square’s local flavor succumbs to more reliable tenants: banks and major chains.

The best evidence of this? The signage, of course. The few older establishments stick out like a Chevy Malibu parked on a Cambridge street among all the Volvos and Audis.

Planet Records claims to date from 1983, making it among the older local vendors in Harvard Square, though the signage of these other two establishments would suggest that they’re considerably older:

Cambridge local biz

Cardullo’s (since 1950) is a specialty grocer, featuring a significant variety of imports.

Charlie’s Kitchen, a greasy-spoon diner with a full bar, dates from about the same time as Cardullo’s; among its competitors (at least for food) is Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, also preparing for its 50th birthday.

In a retail environment where the long-term survival rate is low, it behooves these proprietors not to update or improve their signage because they provide such a sharp visual contrast to the ephemera around them. The continued intrusion of national chains only intensifies the contrast, since it has become standard corporate procedure to “freshen up” the logo after a decade or two; witness the recent transformation of Walmart. Thus, Cardullo’s and Charlie’s Kitchen proudly proclaim their local, non-corporate status through unchanged logo design—whether it is stale and tired or hip and retro depends on individual tastes.

Perhaps I can save a later post for the financing of signage; all I will say here is that the ever-reliable wisdom gleaned from hearsay is that customized storefront signs are expensive. Wooden signs, currently the implicit signal for local chic, are particularly onerous to small business owners, while neon or backlit plastic sheathes are much cheaper. Harvard Square is rife with wooden signs, reinforcing the exclusivity of the shopping here—very little meshes with workaday, routine needs. Contrast that with some of the other commercial nodes in the area, such as Union Square in neighboring Somerville, which still predominantly consists of mom-and-pop eateries (many lower market ethnic), dry cleaning, nail salons, et cetera. Even Central Square in Cambridge, just a mile away from Harvard Square, has enough perceived grit to attract a completely different cadre of retailers. And the signage at Central and Union Square reflects these two nodes’ humbler aspirations.

My suspicion—reinforced from conversation by people who have lived in the area an know if far better than I do—is that Harvard Square’s retail didn’t enjoy this cachet thirty or even just twenty years ago. It had a functional purpose beyond leisure consumption, meeting mundane shopping needs just as much as Union Square and Central Square did (and by and large continue to do). Much of the transformation comes with the emergence of college campuses as tourist attractions in and of themselves, partly induced by the following phenomena:

1) Universities and college campuses have the capacity (often underutilized) to exert an indelible impact on the economic development and even the retail content of the community that surrounds them, sometimes divorced from the university’s own efforts.

2) The demystification of higher learning, partly through superior financial aid and also shifts in the focus of curricula in primary schools, has oriented institutions toward a broader array of the population, rather than catering simply to the “country club contingent” as it may have a century ago. Thus, all institutions—even elite ones such as Harvard—have essentially opened their gates to a broader constituency.

3) Piggybacking on phenomenon number 2, globalization of higher learning has enhanced the appeal of universities across political boundaries, transforming the schools and their adjacent communities into epicenters of cosmopolitan culture reflective of their affiliated student and faculty demographic. (Mike Featherstone, among many others, has reflected upon cosmopolitanism with far greater sophistication—and well beyond the university context—than this blog entry does.)

4) Higher learning has galvanized its association with upward mobility, to the extent that most of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US (and across the world) are those that benefit from a high percentage of the workforce possessing a college education. University towns have an embedded appeal for their dependence on a highly educated work force for basic operation, giving them significant advantages at further enhancing their economies over towns that lack them due in part to the fact that well-educated people are more likely to gravitate toward other well-educated people. And these people reflect their own tastes—and their superior capacity for leisure spending—in the retail of places such as Harvard Square.

5) All of these features operate in aggregate to enhance the tourist appeal of these communities, and the precise demographics who seek university environments as tourist destinations are generally as affluent and educated as the university environments whose academic cultures they are consuming.

These highly generalizable stabs only skim the surface of what has transpired at Harvard Square over the years. But many of the same patterns are visible along M Street in WashingtonDC’s Georgetown (feeding into Georgetown University) or in downtown Evanston, Illinois (feeding into Northwestern University). And these are just two other retail nodes with which I’m highly familiar; many others exist across the country, and it comes as no surprise that many of the exact same upscale national chains are squeezing out the local entrepreneurs.

What does the future hold for Harvard Square? Unless Harvard University engages in the unconscionable act of relocation, I see only a further intensification of the exclusivity of the retail here: it fits with the character of an elite school in a densely populated neighborhood that comprises a sizable component of the Boston tourist experience. The few successful locally run boutiques that manage to survive would be prudent not to update their signs, for anything over twenty years of age becomes an institution by default. And as for the locals? Without seeming too cavalier, what does it mean to be a local in a city where over one quarter of the population is foreign-born and many others are simply investing in an expensive education? It is as much a part of the character of Harvard Square’s retail to be upmarket and elite as it is for the local population (at least that segment that is in any way affiliated with Harvard or its equally prestigious neighbor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to complain about how Harvard’s Square has gone downhill since it’s gotten so fancy and “corporate”. No doubt part of the frustration toward the homogenized affluence of Harvard Square is attributable to the tourist presence, but for the locals who vent their spleen at these out-of-towners, all they need is a closer examination of their backgrounds, aspirations, education levels, and spending habits to see that it is much the same as holding up a mirror.

2 thoughts on “Faded paint can be a badge worn proudly.

  1. J.M.

    As I was reading this article, I was thinking of Georgetown and M Street, and saw that you referenced it.

    I went to Georgetown University from 1999-2003. Last year, I was back in the area for one of the first times since graduating, and it’s amazing how much M Street has transformed and changed only in the last 10-15 years (it would probably more for an interesting article).

    When I was a student, M street (and Wisconsin, nearby) was still a major commercial center, but there were few nationwide retailers on this stretch. You did have some major brands like Banana Republic, Pizzeria Uno, Subway, and Barnes & Noble, but there were also a significant number of mom and pop retail establishments.

    In fact, I distinctly remember several stores that were anything but national – a bunch of mens’ stores selling cheap suits, some cheaper eateries, some stores selling cheaper artwork, etc. There was always high-end retail at the Georgetown Park Mall (which has transformed significantly itself – it’s not really a mall anymore), but otherwise there was plenty of room for “regular” stores.

    When I visited, I was amazed at how commercialized it has become. There are a ton of national names and brands (to some degree, some of those type of stores moving out of the Georgetown Park Mall and onto M Street is in line with national trends), including an Apple store, but virtually no smaller stores.

    In fact, when I was a student, there were some empty storefronts on M street closer to the university. Now, that would be completely crazy.

    DuPont Circle has also undergone a tremendous change in the same time period (in some ways, DuPont Circle’s transformation is even greater).

    Reply
  2. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks so much for your comments, J.M. It was interesting to see how an article about Cambridge MA could inspire your ruminations on Washington DC, showing how similar transformations take place in all sorts of different metros, as long as the underlying socioeconomic conditions favor them. I’m sure Cambridge has changed even more since I was last there in 2010, and, at least at Harvard Square, those mom-and-pops with the faded signage are harder to come by.

    I lived in DC during the summer of 2008, and I worked in Georgetown. By that point M Street was pretty much a place of national retailers with just a few local establishments (mostly restaurants) remaining. But I don’t think there was an Apple Store there yet, and it didn’t yet even seem like a “contender”.

    My suspicions is that both Harvard Square and M Street have such costly leases that no one else can afford them besides the spendy national brands. While some people would assert that this is just cause for hand-wringing (“our neighborhood is losing its character!”) retail conditions change so starkly and quickly that fighting these changes is often a lost cause. It’s better, in my opinion, simply to target infill development that allows smaller storefront spaces that, while still outrageously expensive (on a cost-per-square-foot basis) might still be affordable enough for some of the local, independent proprietors to remain in the neighborhood.

    I appreciate your thoughts!

    Reply

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