Death Of A Destination

Harvard Square was once a durable destination with a variety of coffeehouses, bars, diners, boutiques and music venues, as well as being home to new and used book and record shops. Here was the foundation of the "Great American Folk Music Scare," as Martin Mull called it, with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at places like Club 47.

Joan Baez inside Club 47 in the early 60s

Harvard Square's celebrated notoriety grew in the later 60's as hippies, hustlers and happenings became part of the Square's milieu, and street culture spread around the area. In 1970 it culminated in massive protests against the war in Viet Nam.


Through the years, old-timers have always insisted that the Harvard Square of their day was the way it was truly meant to be. "You should have seen Harvard Square when it was a square," goes the gist of the Boomer thesis. "Today it's nothing but a corporate wasteland."

Perhaps the beginning of the end came when the Old MBTA yards were replaced with the then glittering new Charles Hotel, opened following the new MBTA tunnel from Harvard to Alewife.

Eliot Square MBTA Yard

Glittering New Charles Hotel where the Eliot Square Yard once stood 

      “Beginning in 1968,” Mo Lotman wrote in his 2009 book, Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950, “the Common was transformed every warm Sunday afternoon into a bohemian free-for-all, with drum circles, bead-sellers, tranced-out dancers, and a ton of pot.”

Photo by Nick DeWolf
Boomers love to tell tall tales of the legendary locales of yesteryear: The Idler, the Oxford Ale House, daily double bills for a dollar at the Harvard Square Theatre, foreign films at the Galeria Theater, cool used clothes at the Pennsylvania Company, The Blue Parrot, Bailey’s Ice Cream, sandwiches at Elsie’s. And of course, the venerable Tasty, taken from the Square in 1997. To this day that move peeves off many a Square vet. A perfect symbol, many say, of the perils of gentrification. 

Inside the Tasty in the 80s. Photo by David Henry

The Tasty was a one-room diner estimated to be 30 feet long and seven feet wide. Customers ate burgers and dogs on a yellow linoleum counter. With 16 stools, The Tasty on busy nights  would be stuffed with 60-80 people at a time. On these nights between 300–400 burgers and doggies were served between the hours of midnight and 4am. Its informal atmosphere and friendly staff drew in long-time residents, college students and working people and became one of the few places where locals and visitors from different social and economic classes easily mixed. Cambridge Savings Bank, the building's owner, eventually saw green as the chain store crawl moved quickly into Harvard Square. Higher rents and changing times forced The Tasty's hand and despite protests from the Harvard Square Defense Fund along with Click and Clack, the guys who hosted Car Talk on NPR, The Tasty shut it's door for good in 1997. Gone was a spot where you could fill up for cheap. Banks and ATMs, here we come. Gone are the idealists and rebels. Gone is the Harvard Square of celebrated nototiety.

18 comments

Frank

I think Oona’s still lives.

Frank
Ray

Mug-N-Muffin! Smoking, lingering with pals for hours over a coffee and a snack, restrooms used as public restrooms (if going to the Coop for them import rekkids was too far for you). Free subway entrance at the back of the Brattle stop (so called when I was there). What was the pizza place in the Garage up top in back? How many kids fed themselves slices there?

Ray
Joel O'Brien

Krackerjack’s…Nini’s Corner…Out of Town News…and nearby Headquarters East. Oh, and hawkers selling Avatar and folks offering “Dylan: The Basement Tapes” bootleg LPs.

Joel O'Brien
John

Sorry, got caught up in nostalgia. Story is about the physical change of the square, not the personal expieeence of what the square offered. Please delete my previous post.

John
John Hogan

Was fortunate to be homeless from around 1967 -1970 and got to call The Square my home. Slept over at the flag pole, kept clothes in the subway locker, and when I could, showered at the dorms. Splash some cologne on from the Coop and on with my day. We had about 100 kids that hung out on the Church Stairs on the way to the Commons. Witnessed a few heavy duty riots close up and it was violent. Great concerts in the Commons in the Summer, about 3 bands each time…J. Geils was a local and performed see real times. The stores and restaurants mentioned provided not only products, atmosphere, but shelter and warmth for us homeless kids. The Square was the scene with so much going on, and actually got to live my Hippie days there… Much Love to all the great people that were there as they made it The Square!

John Hogan
John Bergstrom

Well, the Harvard Bookstore is still there — and the Grolier, and the Million Year Picnic, and Passim -and StereoLab, or is it AudioLab? and you can enjoy an iced coffee at a sidewalk table and watch people (and wild turkeys) go by - and Blacksmith House must still be there, I hope, I haven’t been over on that side recently — and the ART.

John Bergstrom
Deb Boyajian

Great article. The ‘square was our soul, our identity, and our escape from all that was uniform conformity in suburbia. By bus, carload of frenzied friends, or a ‘hitched’ ride from the short distanced Watertown, the world opened as soon as we passed by Mt. Auburn Cemetery and then Mt. Auburn hospital. I worked in many places in the square, and made lifelong friends there. Piroschka, owned by one of the Kuelrzer brothers-Rainer? Grendel’s by the other. I worked there for 2 years. Wursthaus-worked there too, as well as Pewter Pot. My best friend’s brother worked at Nini’s Corner, so after work at next door Pewter Pot, I’d head home with great newsy magazines from Nini’s. There was Zum Zum’s, Soaghetti Emporium on Dunster, and whatvabout Cronin’s across the street from the original basement level Oona’s vintage clothing. Browse for clothes or interesting collectibles-just as the Watertown trolley exited the tunnel… right beside Oona’s. Blue Parrot a block away. I remember driving in Ellen’s red humpback Volvo and pkg near the trolley barnyard-now the wonderful Charles Hotel. There was Tourraines and Olsen’s Cards Oh so many incredible memories – Truc * Krakerjacks * and the little jewelry shop Oh and my favorite shoe shop – two actually- one next to Cardell’s. I bought great shoes there while I was in high school – and another near Holyoke Center – bought my very beautiful python heels for my never attended senior prom Church street books with mom dad and son Oh I’m sad thinking of the farewells, but so thankful I was a part of them all

Deb Boyajian
Susan

Man, these were my kind of people. I knew Cambridge was cool, I just never thought it was that kind of cool.

Susan
Marc C

The last nail in the coffin was the day The Wursthause closed it’s doors.

Marc C
Robin Taylor

No Mention of Monkey Bussiness fun antiques or the ajoining store Dazzle( clothing and paraphernalia from 30s. In the entrance way there were old Penny machines from Revere Beach also Monkey Business were antique jewelry pocket watches, Indian jewelry novelty items from the past and in Dazzle the clothes store raccoon coat they also had a Machine that you could apply studs clean chrome and glass studs of different colors put onto dungaree materials such as women’s skirts shift and jeans it was right in the middle of Harvard Square cross the street are above Cochran’s great place I work there at Monkey Bizness for about 3 years loud music playing lots of people kind of window shopping and just enjoying the inventory and the music.

Robin Taylor
Susan Barnette

Great article! I was lucky to grow up in Cambridge and the Square was where my friends and I spent most of our time there. We got to walk through the Harvard Yard to get to our High School; hang out in front of the Coop and meet on the Charles River at night when the weather was good. Good times!!!!

Susan Barnette
John McMullen

Don’t forget the venerable, old head shop, Truc!!

John McMullen
Alice Hawksworth

More, please!

Alice Hawksworth
Tim

Missing the famous egg creams from the tasty !

Tim
Maeve Spain

Love it!

Maeve Spain
Joe Gallagher

I used to sell “poems with a peal like a chime, for only a dime” all over Harvard Square in 1971. Interesting times on the streets.

Joe Gallagher
George J. Sliney

Nice nostalgic look about a place I only visited twice. First time in 1967 right after graduating HS. I then went into the Military in 1968 and Harvard Square was not a place a member of the military would visit during those years. I was back in Boston on business in 2001. Took a nostalgia trip to Harvard Square. Didn’t look at all like the memory I had from 1967. I agree with you. Some gentrification is unnecessary and ruins instead of restores a neighborhood.

George J. Sliney
steven judge

I bought my first pair of Frye square toed boots in Harvard square in 1968. My wife to be went to The Club 47 many times during the 60s and saw early performances of Joni, Tom Rush and Doc. Quite a place back then…

steven judge

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