Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Oh, if we’d only had “placemaking” back in the day

When I was in business school, at MIT-Sloan, there was nothing – or, more generously, next to nothing -  in the surrounds. If my recall is correct, there was a greasy-spoon sandwich place called Alexander’s, a post office, and a drug store. That and a T-stop.

This was, of course, 35 years ago. So change is, of course, to be expected.

Still, when I’m in the Kendall Square area, which happens on occasion when I’m on my daily walking rounds, I’m always amazed by what’s sprung up. There are several hotels, both chain and boutique (one of the boutiques is in an old firehouse). Plenty of restaurants and bars. A movie theater. Office buildings, some in new buildings, others (cool!) in repurposed factories. Apartment buildings – when I was at Sloan, the only apartments there were MIT grad-student housing – and condos.

To get to the action in Cambridge, you had to traipse through MIT’s numbered buildings – MIT buildings back then didn’t have names; they had numbers. Most of Sloan was in Building 52. Numbering was ditto for areas of concentration. Business was Course XV. (Electrical Engineering, which was considered far more elite, was Course VI.)

Anyway, once you cut through Building 6 or Building 10 or whatever it was, you were on the main MIT campus (which, in fact, does not really exist). Whatever the greater MIT off-campus had to offer started there, with Joyce Chen’s Little Eating Place, where I once saw famed MIT genius professor Jerry Letvin and his wife Maggie dining. Maggie was one of the original fitness gurus, post-Jack LaLanne, but pre- any widespread health and exercise craze. Maggie was spectacularly fit. Jerry was, well, spectacularly unfit. The evening I saw them was in January, bitterly cold. Jerry had no coat, and was in short sleeves. I remember wondering whether his weight was keeping him warm.

If you headed past Joyce Chen’s, you hit Central Square, which was where there was “stuff”. But most of what was there was ratty and unhip, more geared towards the actual working folks of Cambridge, as opposed to the students and the academic crowd.

Most of what mattered in Cambridge was in Harvard Square: restaurants like the Harvest, greasy spoons like Charlie’s, lunch spots like Elsie’s, shops that sold Marimekko material and funky jewelry, shops that sold pipes, tweed jackets and bowties.

Heading out of Harvard Square were the rich-people neighborhoods, populated by Harvard professors, management consultants, Edwin Land of Polaroid fame, et al. No one lived in Kendall Square unless they were stuck there for some reason.

And now…

Kendall Square, thanks to MIT and bio-tech and other-tech and location, location, location: a short walk across the Charles River and you’re practically in downtown Boston, is the place to be. (Even before Kendall Square was the place to be, it still had a pretty good location. When I was at Sloan, I was able to walk to school. I don’t think I took the T more than a couple of times while I was there.)

While Kendall Square has taken off, it’s still not what the local biz folks want it to be, so there’s going to be some sprucing up going on:

Efforts range from new walking maps and kiosks that will be launched this spring and summer to big projects such as MIT’s proposed six-block Kendall Square Initiative near the MBTA stop that will include everything from housing and retail outlets to open spaces where passersby can watch science experiments outdoors. (Source: Boston Globe)

Well, I’m kind of glad that, when I was in B-school, there weren’t distractions like outdoor science experiments. How much fun to watch a science fair volcano blow! What a nice break from worrying about the Capital Asset Pricing Model.

And we could have used some of those retail outlets. Oh, wait a minute, we didn’t need them. At least I didn’t. When I was in school, I didn’t have any money.

“We’re absolutely committed to placemaking,” said Sarah E. Gallop, who was elected the association’s president Tuesday morning.

Placemaking? Never even heard of it, but I’m all for it.

Just make sure you through a grocery store into the mix. That’s actually more important than outdoor science experiments.

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