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
This square coincides with a major stop on the
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
The best evidence of this? The signage, of course. The few older establishments stick out like a Chevy Malibu parked on a
Planet Records claims to date from 1983, making it among the older vendors in Harvard Square, though the signage of these other two establishments would suggest that they’re considerably older:
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 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
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
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
What does the future hold for Harvard Square? Unless