by: Marceline Donaldson
My house in Harvard Square is for sale. As a result, as is my habit, I started researching – carefully – the past present and possible future of Harvard Square and all it contains. I wanted to know other peoples experience; historically what could I expect; everything connected with selling a house in a historical district in Harvard Square.
One experience I had of the past 37 years living in Harvard Square came from being African American and moving into an area where we seemed to be the “only ones” or – as my grandmother would say, this is a neighborhood where “we” are “as scarce as hens’ teeth” .
The house was on the historical register when we moved in. It shortly thereafter was dropped from the historical register and in spite of trying to discover why for several years, no answer was forthcoming. I was stalled, dissembled, confused, put off, etc. No racial problem there, just the normal way of treating those who ask seemingly simple questions to which there are no good answers.
In spite of that experience, I found many of my neighbors to be really great, accepting people who included us in their lives and sometimes their work and sometimes helped our work by doing business with Bettina Network, inc. and we sometimes helped them in their businesses.
So with that background and experience I went about this “project of discovery”.
When selling a house you do look closely at everything that could affect the sale and I have gone down several roads in this time of investigation and discovery.
One of the largest scandals in Harvard Square has to do with the purchase and sale of real estate, particularly of private homes.
This area does, after all, contain the “Gold Crown Historical District”. Basically, the goal of such a geographical designation is to keep houses within its carefully chosen area as true to their historical beginnings as possible. The architectural design of the home; the important details which were normal in the time frame of when the houses were built and so much more.
How has that been carried out!
To keep your suspense level as low as possible – it is not carried out. The farce which is the “Gold Crown Historical District” is a huge scandal.
Harvard Square is fast becoming the neighborhood of “Temples to Wealth and Money” – history is shunted off to the side and only appears if it is convenient or provides some kind of prestige to those with too much money, too little taste, and none to a very slight knowledge or interest in architectural history, who are buying homes in the Harvard Square area.
Don’t misunderstand me here – I love to see such “Temples to Wealth and Money”. However, I prefer seeing them in Wellesley, Dover, or other such places where there is much land and neither the houses nor the areas where they are located tout their great “historical” – architecturally historical – beginnings. Heck, I could even see such in Cambridge where there are areas where there is no historical designation applied. But in Harvard Square there are plaques on houses designating the “names”, who lived in the house, when it was built and more. Maintaining your history is as important as building your future.
In actual fact, step inside one of the homes recently sold and they all look alike with very few exceptions. They are a cross between North American and Scandinavian style and design (And not always the best of either of those design patterns.) Walk through the houses and you will see almost nothing that tells you of their architectural, design, history. Most look as though the same Contractor did them all from the same set of blueprints and bought 50 pairs of wall scones and chandeliers or other light fixtures at a bargain and then used them in several neighboring houses.
Very soon, living architectural history in the houses in Harvard Square will be non-existent. “Restoration” is a word used interchangeably with “Renovation” and that “Renovation” is always North American/Scandinavian style and that Restoration is usually a word which is interchangeable with renovation.
Once upon a time Cambridge bragged about having these historical districts, but “policing” only the outside, depending upon the home owners to maintain the historicity of their interiors. That started when money – too much money with too little taste – moved into Harvard Square and we don’t want to alienate those who can pay the property taxes with money to spare.
All the years I have lived in Harvard Square I did not hear about the ugly, petty internecine wars which are today beginning to take place. Those disputes and outright fights which are now common in the areas where the McMansions are becoming common place in Harvard Square.
Today, I have been the center of a few.
One recently relocated family moving into Harvard Square filed a police report against me claiming that my garden overgrew its boundaries on the Mount Auburn Street side and people could not walk on the sidewalk because of all the things growing across that sidewalk. When I went outside I didn’t see anything overgrowing its boundaries, but the policeman who takes care of such and delivers such complaints offered to come over to show me where I was failing. So what was that all about?
I put that aside and just went about my business – having called on several neighbors who did have lots of growth crawling onto the sidewalk to ask what they were going to do about the police notices they received! Turns out – they didn’t receive any. Who did? The African American family against whom one of the newest arrivals in that vaunted Harvard Square community complained because they were appalled that living in such a house was a family that would destroy the reason they moved to such a prestigious neighborhood.
My garden was hacked up pretty good over the winter – don’t know by who. But, to be perfectly immodest, thanks to my gardening skills I was able to pull it back together. I would have preferred to take this spring and summer as times to bring the garden to the next level, but I could not do both.
Looking out my window with my morning cup of coffee, I see the neighbors go by walking their dogs. They don’t take their dogs to the bathroom in front or in back of their own homes, a small number bring their dogs to crap in my garden.
This particular morning there was a new neighbor with his dog – a very beautiful toy dog with long black hair with white hair at the tips. I watched as he put his dog in my garden so the dog could have its morning bowel movement and he would not have to pick up the shit. A set-up for what? To complain about how foul the African American home smells? I couldn’t let that continue so I went outside to say you really can’t let your dog crap in other peoples gardens. According to my information that is called “Criminal Trespass” and also violates a City of Cambridge ordinance that says you must pick up your own dog’s shit and not leave it on the sidewalk or anyplace else, especially you cannot allow your dog to crap in a neighbor’s garden. The same dog when walked by a young woman seems to be trained to crap in my garden, as does a bull dog walked by a middle aged woman who will not make anyplace else. If I am outside the dog pulls back on his leash because he wants to crap where he always does, but he can’t with me glaring at both of them.
When I went outside to meet my new neighbor and ask that he not put his dog in my garden, it is not a dog toilet, he went off on an ugly tangent, demanding I clear the sidewalk of the horrible stuff overgrowing its boundaries and I realized during the exchange that this was the person who filed the police complaint against us. Imagine my surprise. Imagine also my shock when he lunged at me in a very physically threatening way and slammed his foot down on the sidewalk barely missing my delicate toes by less than an inch. I had to reflect a moment – am I still in Harvard Square or is this some other neighborhood I’ve wandered into. After 37 years as a part of this community this was a first.
My new neighbor, so riled up about my garden overstepping its boundaries is apparently the owner of one of the “Temples of Wealth and Money” recently created out of a very lovely historical home built in Harvard Square many decades ago and presently looking as though it ran away from Wellesley because it wanted the prestige of settling into Harvard Square. Anything historical about the architecture having been completely wiped out and replaced with that NorthAmerican/Scandinavian cultural style. It is complete with outsized outdoor grill and all the accoutrements that accompany such a house. The garden, which took the last owner decades to develop was wiped out by a bull dozer, as I watched and cringed, as was a beautiful, very old tree which was a part of the “Sacred Indian Circle” of trees in this area. (Isn’t that a no-no in Cambridge?) Can one cross the palms of someone in government and then take an ax to the beautiful old trees?
Since my neighbor clearly wanted me gone I am sure he cared even less for that Sacred Indian Circle of trees which pre-existed everything in this Harvard Square area.
What doesn’t fit in such a neighborhood? An African American family – especially one not a part of the “more money than sense with no respect for history” group.
I walked all around my neighborhood and saw a lot of construction activity going on and when I looked closely there were bulldozers inside a couple of houses knocking down everything – (yes, inside the houses). These were apparently being rebuilt “better than” with modern materials which didn’t exist back when the houses were built. This happened to the house I am now selling just before we bought it all those many years ago. A small part of the house was “renovated” and during the time we have lived in the house, I had no trouble with the structure of the restored parts of the house, but I have been pulling my hair out about that renovated part because it broke down fast – took about 9 years – looks awful and you can see how inferior the products are which were used in the renovation. Good recurring income for the developer, builder, contractor, architect though.
As I talked to a few of the workers and those apparently in charge of a couple of the houses being “restored” I discovered they had very little to no knowledge of what they were ripping apart; why it didn’t need to be ripped apart; the gloriousness of what they were destroying and the very limited time frame their new renovations would last. They didn’t have a clue how to restore the homes they were sending through daily shock waves. It was depressing.
I also discovered a new industry – a new financial center.
Realtors and Contractors, Architects, etc. have come together so when you put your house on the market for sale – before you take that step they want you to strip your house of all that makes it beautiful and they will upfront the money to the Contractor, Architect, etc. to totally renovate your house so it will sell “fast”. Once sold you will get the balance of the sale price minus what the realtor or contractor has upfronted for the project. As I checked out some of the houses being so treated, it is a scandal and a scam.
Everyone I talked to thought that was fantastic and a wonderful new development in the field. I was appalled. My house will pass to its next owner in the shape it is in currently and that new owner can decide what they want to do. I have a list of suggestions from life within the walls of the house for so many years, but the final decision is theirs.
Giving that new owner the power to make those decisions means if the work done is not up to snuff, they have the guarantees from the builders, renovators, restorers to be able to have them come back and do it again or make the upgrade that didn’t happen, or etc. It also gives the new homeowner knowledge and wisdom about maintaining their home.
That didn’t happen when I moved into my home. I have spent the last 37 years trying to restore the mess that was made and the Contractor person who made the mess totally abdicated responsibility. His allegiance was to the person who hired him – who owned the house before I purchased it – and he and his company totally absolved themselves of having to correct the quick, short cut methods they used under the circumstances which caused us lots of grief. Years of grief and lots of money to make the needed restoration back to where the house was before it was sold.
One serious weakness of our society and probably of others also is the greed wrapped into its institutions. This area of “house flipping”, house renovation before being sold using the realtors money, and more is so riddled with greed it is destroying the housing stock – particularly in Harvard Square, but probably also in other areas where the same thing is happening.
It is time for the Cambridge City Government to get its spine strengthened and add to the outside requirements of homes in historical districts the requirements that the insides also be treated in the same way. Instead, they seem to be losing spine strength and allowing even the outside to be seriously altered and “renovated”, “modernized” and more. After all, that is the reason for the existence of Historical areas. They are not areas set up to show off those Temples of Wealth and Money. Those temples can be built and renovated and rebuilt in other places where they are a better “fit”.. Those historical designations have meaning and a reason for being and it is time we respect that.
The “too much money” people love the idea, the prestige, the loveliness of living in a historical district. They need to make sure that they abide by the spirit and the letter of why the districts were so designated and stop living as though such things are put in place for the “hoi poloi” and not them.\
We need stiff ordinances and/or laws which come down hard on those who burn down their houses to build others because they couldn’t get through the historical commission. I could list many such habits, but you all know them before I even try to enumerate them.
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