A neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts that also has a T stop on the Red Line.
Central Square is not, in fact, the geographical center of Cambridge. Such an honor is reserved
for Harvard Square, which effectively divides the city's thymic shape into the northwestern, more
backwater lobe of the Huron, Alewife, and Porter Square neighborhoods, and the southeastern,
more urbanized lobe of Central Square, Kendall Square, East Cambridge/Lechmere, Inman
Square, and Cambridgeport. But enough of that.
Having established that Central Square is not actually "central" (though its name is derived from
the presence of City Hall, further investigation shows that the
neighborhood is roughly aligned along Massachusetts Avenue, aka MA 2A, from the northwestern
fringes of MIT to around the DMZ with Harvard Square, roughly in the neighborhood of the Hold
Everything by Dana Street. The neighborhood extends a block or two southwestward from Mass Ave.,
overlapping with the more ambigiously-defined area of "Cambridgeport". The main thrust of the
neighborhood is several blocks northeastward from Mass Ave., including Bishop Allen Drive (formerly
Austin Street), Harvard Avenue, and even Broadway. At that point, you're getting into Inman
Unlike Harvard Square, or any other traditional "square" where there's a nexus-type meeting point,
Central conforms more to the British high street or New England non-sprawled Main Street model,
with major businesses following the beam of Mass Ave. Let's start with MIT (the side closest to
Boston and work our way inwards.
Driving up Mass Ave., we immediately cross Vassar Street, which teasingly reveals the cubist
angles of the Stata Center and the gleaming biotech area of Kendall beyond. If we're driving
(or biking, as many Cantabridgians fanatically do), we are immediately beset by Cambridge's low-fi
traffic calming: ridiculous potholes. We proceed gamely onward, our car/bike/what-have-you
jouncing along unhappily. The streetscape is not all that impressive: low, crumbling buildings. On
the horizon we can see the main area of the neighborhood, like a distant oasis: newer buildings and a
few jutting apartment towers. Central. We keep going, passing the old Necco factory by on our
left. No, they don't use it anymore--they're in Revere now. Note the newer,
shinier building glommed onto the side. That's part of the newly-refurbished business area off
Landsdowne Street (not to be confused with the Boston Lansdowne Steet of Avalon fame), and is,
strictly speaking, part of Cambridgeport. We stop at the interminable light as Main Street shunts in
traffic from Kendall to our right, in front of the out-of-place Qwest Diagnostics building and the
Cinderella restaurant. We go by the Star Market and Albany Street, and enter the main part of
Immediately notice the gentrification. There's a Gap, on one side of the street, jarring greatly with the Checks
Cashed store on the other. There's a lot of diversity in this neighborhood--more on that later.
For now, note the Middle East at the corner of Pearl Street. TT the Bear's is down there, too.
We're now passing the T stop and the core intersection with Prospect Street, which would take you
close to Inman and eventually the dreaded Union Square of Somerville,
and Western Avenue, which would take you to Memorial Drive and across the Charles
to Allston. But on we go, up Mass Ave., still passing by many different shops and restaurants, all
After Prospect, though, it suddenly dies down. Less crowds, less pedestrians. We pass by the
1369 Coffeehouse and City Hall. Now we cross the People's Republic
of Cambridge and get into the quieter, apartment-riddled areas. There's Hold Everything, though,
and a block or two further and we've entered Harvard Square.
Central Square is very diverse, and would probably be described in travel books as "vibrant" or
"multiethnic", or worse, "funky". There is a significant African-American population, particularly
off to the southeast of the neighborhood. Of course, where there's a "vibrant" environment, there's
gentrification, and sure enough, there are many yuppies (myself unwittingly included) and
grad students who have immigrated in droves over the past couple of years, driving the rent up for
everybody. On top of this, there is a sprinkling of homeless individuals, who usually hang out near the T
station, as wells crazed bikers (bicyclists, that is, not the hawg-riding kind) and other
Things to Do
There are tons of things to visit in Central Square. Clubs like the Middle East and TT the
Bears, the latter club being something that apparently every alumnus/alumna of my high
school has visited at one point or another. There's also the Cantab, which was mentioned in
Mystic River, of all things, an excellent little bar with live bluegrass every Tuesday night.
There's restaurants, especially Middle Eastern restaurants like the Middle East, the Enormous
Room, and the one next to the 1369 Coffehouse that I forget the name of. There's also Mexican, Chinese,
Japanese, and more, including a Wendy's, which is truly one of the City of Cambridge's culinary
highlights. There's also Hi-Fi Pizza and Subs, the etymology of which must somehow be distantly
related to MIT. In addition to this, there's a myriad of bars, alt. book stores, furniture stores,
coffehouses, music stores, and the like. Plus a couple of banks, a YMCA, a YWCA, and a
post office. It's quite a place, and there's plenty to do.
How to Get There
As previously mentioned, the primary thoroughfare of Central is Mass. Ave., the backbone of
Cambridge. There are several ways to get there, the easiest and best being to take the MBTA Red
From the south: Take I-93/US 1/MA 3 north into Boston. At this point you have
several options. To go as the crow flies, take the exit for MA 2A/Mass. Ave. and keep going westward,
past the South End and Back Bay. If you'd rather not deal with that horrific traffic nightmare,
just take Storrow Drive west and take the 2A exit. For some reason the MDC marks this as "2A N", but in fact it's 2A west. You should cross the river and be
there in no time at all.
From the east: Take the Memorial Drive exit from the MA 99 Viaduct in
Charleston, and cross MA 28/Messenger O'Brien Highway just north of the Museum of Science. Keep
following Memorial Drive. You have two choices: following Memorial all the way to 2A and taking the
exit for 2A west, or taking a right onto Binney Street, rip through the biotech district/Kendall, and
keep going straight, past the Stata Center. Binney becomes Vassar at this point, and is definitely
the coolest way to go.
From the west: Take I-90/Massachusetts Turnpike eastward, taking the "Brighton
Cambridge". Take a right at the end of the ramp and cross the river. Keep following this street
(River Street), and keep going. It'll take you right to Central Square. Alternatively, take
Soldiers Field Road until the exit for Western Avenue, follow the signs, cross the river, and you
should be all set.
From the north: This is a much trickier proposition. Not in terms of traffic,
but difficulty. You have a couple of options: go the quick way and brave Somerville, or take one of several long ways around. If you want to go through Somerville,
take the way I usually go for my reverse commmute: I-93 to the MA 38/Mystic
Avenue exit. Take a left at the end of the ramp (for MA 38 south). Take MA 28 south, passing by
Foss Park. After the Medford Street lights, take the ramp for Washington Street. Take a right at
the first set of lights onto Washington Street, into Union Square. At Union, take a left onto
Webster Avenue until it ends off of Prospect Street. Take a right onto Prospect, pass into
Cambridge, and keep going until Mass. Ave. Or if you're not up for that, take I-93
to Storrow and take the 2A exit, or I-93 to Sullivan Square to Memorial Drive, or I-95 to MA 2 to
Alewife and then take MA 2A east. Don't bother trying to get to the Mystic Valley Parkway from the
north; it's just not worth it.
Anyway, in conclusion Central Square is a kickass place to live. There's plenty to go and it lacks the utter gentrification and crowding of Harvard Square and is, in my opinion, superior to Davis Square (which I think is a case of the emperor's new clothes, if ever there was one). Come down and check it out when you get a chance.