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Economy

Harvard Square: A Love Story

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What if meeting someone for coffee happened in the metaverse rather than at a local cafe? How would you feel if the only marketplace for shopping was Amazon?

In her new book “Harvard Square: A Love Story,” MIT Sloan associate professorexplores the history, impact, and future of street-level markets through her own experience visiting the iconic Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood as a young girl, living there as a university student, and later advocating for the community as a resident.

“Do we want to recommit to our dear old friend the marketplace?” Turco writes. “How much of our social and economic lives do we want to spend separated from one another by our screens instead of meeting in person in our town centers and neighborhood markets?” 

Starting with the 17th century open-air market that sat atop the sloping hill off the banks of the Charles River, and taking readers through the height of the pandemic, Turco reveals what a central, and centrally important, social institution street-level markets like Harvard Square have been in American life.

Throughout the book, Turco weaves the story of her own strong attachments to the Harvard Square marketplace — home to the Leavitt & Peirce Tobacco shop since 1883, as well as institutions like the Brattle Theater, Grendel’s Den, and Club Passim. She recounts riding through the square with her grandfather, a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority bus driver, as a child, and admits to being “overly emotional” decades later when she spoke up in a basement meeting where stakeholders were discussing a New York real estate investor’s plans to redevelop the square. Turco concludes her book by asking the question: What relationship do we want to have with our street-level markets going forward? 

In the following excerpt, Turco examines the personal attachments people have to “their” markets while she simultaneously lays out the argument that change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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One issue with resisting market change is that we are often, in the process, defending some boundary around the definition of community. Because our attachment to markets is about our attachments to one another, whenever we fight to preserve a market, we are ultimately fighting to preserve a particular set of attachments — often a particular collective and collective sensibility. And, like it or not, collectivism is not always the saint to self-interest’s sinner. Like George Wright in the early 1900s, who saw immigrants as a threat to the community of merchants he had worked so hard to unite, or members of the Neighborhood Ten Association, who in the 1960s and 1970s worried that Middle American tourists would invade the marketplace and render existing residents strangers in their own land, attempts to stop change are often attempts to keep a beloved market to ourselves.

The problem is, we are never the only ones in a relationship with “our” market. There are always other people who see their interests, their attachments, their sense of collective identity in it as well. Even our own community, however we may define it, is never as uniform or stable as we feel it to be. Part of why markets are so rife with conflict — so capable of provoking love and outrage — is because they mean so much to so many.

It is not crazy for people to come together to defend a particular shared way of life to which they have grown attached — to defend their definition of community, the bonds that define it, and the sense of security they derive from it. It’s human. But it can make us do crazy things if we do not also find some way to make peace with perspectives beyond our own. I’m sure I sounded crazy to the Equity One investors when I took the microphone in that basement meeting and told them in my own “overly emotional” way that they didn’t understand the relationship people had with Harvard Square. Crazy, like love, is in the eye of the beholder. My problem was, I had forgotten for a moment that my special relationship with Harvard Square was just that: mine. I was speaking from my heart but not necessarily for others’.

It is unrealistic to expect us humans to stop drawing boundaries around ourselves. We derive too much meaning from the collectives around which we build our lives. But perhaps we can stop driving ourselves so crazy (and stop seeing one another as crazy) — perhaps we can accommodate more change with fewer calcifications and less friction — if we remind ourselves that we are all a part of an even larger collective. That larger human collective is the one that’s always evolving and changing. It’s the one in which our standpoint is just one among many. The one in which our precious attachments exist alongside so many others’ precious attachments. After all, that’s the collective the market is in a relationship with. If we don’t appreciate that, we are just setting ourselves up for a lot of hurt.

This more expansive notion of community may help us meet change with greater equanimity, but, of course, it will not eliminate all instability from our lives. The market, fueled by the individual pursuit of self-interest, will still be forever changing on us — because we will be forever asking it to. As consumers, we will pull away from once-cherished offerings when new ones serve our evolving tastes and needs better. As entrepreneurs, we will seize opportunities to profit by doing things differently or serving new groups of consumers with new preferences and habits. As property owners, we will seek new tenants to reinvigorate old spaces. As investors, we will spot new markets in which to deploy our capital for higher return. This is the nature of the system we have devised for ourselves. This is the crazy, complicated love story we have written for ourselves. What is our market society, after all, if not one big, giant collective enterprise we have created and continually re-create together to serve our individual interests?

When we take the time to really reflect on ourselves and our markets, it becomes so obvious why we have such a tricky relationship with them. Our relationship with our markets reflects the unresolvable tensions that define us and our relationships to one another. Our markets are collectivizing and atomizing; they help us attach and they tear us apart; they offer a sense of security amidst the terrifying uncertainty that lies beyond comforting boundaries, while encouraging us to push boundaries and see what else there is to explore and create and claim for ourselves. In short, they give our lives stability and instability, security and insecurity, and, when we stop to think about it, we wouldn’t really want it any other way.

Excerpted from "Harvard Square: A Love Story," by Catherine J. Turco. Copyright 2023 Catherine J. Turco. Reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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