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The area surrounding the interesection of Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not far from MIT, a little farther from Harvard University and the location of the Central Square subway stop on the Red Line of the MBTA. Once home to things like marxist feminist bookstores, Central Square has been undergoing a process of gentrification since the end of rent control in Cambridge, and is now home to franchises of Starbucks and the Gap.

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 Square country.


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 Central Square.

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 cool stuff.

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 associated characters.

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 Line.

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.

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