The Square, Revisited

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the refrain visitors to Harvard Square may be humming this spring as they cruise its...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the refrain visitors to Harvard Square may be humming this spring as they cruise its mix of new and old faces and places. The Square has seen numerous changes--national stores like Pacific Sunwear and Abercrombie & Fitch have opened outlets here--but old favorites from the Coop to Out of Town News still serve as familiar landmarks. And, as always, entertainment and education offerings abound as both Cambridge and Boston come alive with spring.

With the effervescent economy, a number of new ventures have found a home near Harvard. Many of these fit the beloved Square mold of originality, with quirky new shops like Gnome and Rose (1110 Massachusetts Avenue, at Arrow Street),

which offers everything from beautifully crafted birdhouses to antique luggage labels among its "eclectic necessities for home, garden, and soul," and L.A. Burdick Chocolates (52 Brattle Street, insidiously convenient to the Extension School), which has added its signature rich, hot chocolate to the area's coffee and tea as a refreshment option. Some old favorites have relocated--music-lovers seeking Briggs & Briggs must head north toward Porter Square (to 1784 Mass. Ave., near the corner of Arlington Street)--but many remain.

Meanwhile, across the Charles…

Spring blooms in Boston as well, and there, too, walking tours have flourished in recent years. Most of these strolls aim to combine a strong sense of the past with a good deal of present-day scenery. Try WalkBoston's Shawmut Peninsula Walk, for example. This self-guided tour, designed by the nonprofit organization, traces Boston's original shoreline from Charles Street, through Quincy Market, and finally up to Washington Street, the site of the original 100-foot-wide Boston Neck--the only entrance by land to what was once a city on a peninsula. (For more information, visit www.walkboston.org or call 617-451-1570; maps, with detailed description, are available for $3.95.)

Those who fancy bricks and brownstones might consider one of the daily, regularly scheduled walking tours offered from May through October by the volunteer guides of Boston By Foot, a nonprofit educational corporation that promotes public awareness of the city's architectural heritage. Even people who think they know Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, the waterfront, and the North End may never have visited "Boston Underground" or seen "Boston By Little Feet." Anyone who gets hooked and wants to become a volunteer guide can register for the organization's annual training sessions, which begin in April. (For more information, call 617-367-2345 or visit www.bostonbyfoot.com.)

Despite the city of Cambridge's smoke-free policy for most restaurants and other public places, the wide doorway of Leavitt & Pierce (1316 Mass. Ave) still emanates the sweet smell of pipe tobacco, as it has since 1883. And for those seeking an altogether different sensory experience, Colonial Drugs (49 Brattle Street) continues after half a century to live up to its proud motto: "The people with absolutely no common scents." The neighboring Billings and Stover Apothecaries (41A Brattle), established in 1854, evokes nostalgia with its soda fountain. Factor in other originals like Woolcott & Co. (61 J.F.K. Street), with its many varieties of yarns; The Million Year Picnic and its global selection of comic books (99 Mount Auburn Street); and the 20-plus bookstores listed by the Harvard Square Business Association, and visitors may find the heart of the Square remains the same.

"There's a great sense of community," says Robin Lapidus, executive director of the 89-year-old association, which is one of the oldest such associations in the country. "People are very conscious here."

Once the browsing is done, the area continues to offer adventures and explorations of many kinds. The Harvard University Art Museums, for example, provide respite for the eye and the mind-- and programs for children as well. In conjunction with the Sackler Museum's ongoing exhibition of Ben Shahn's socially conscious photographs and artwork (see page 52), the art museums' Family Day, on April 2, will host a range of intergenerational activities that include storytelling and an introduction to games of the 1930s, an era highlighted in Shahn's work. The following weekend, a photography workshop for 14- to 18-year-olds will invite young people to try their own hand at the art, with camera and film provided. (Call 617-495-9400 or visit www.artmuseums.harvard.edu for additional information.)

Other Harvard museums have special educational programs for preschool up through junior high students this spring. Curious about becoming a "Dino for a Day"? On March 4, 11, and 18, children from three and a half to five years old (accompanied by an adult, please) are invited to the zoological collections of the Museum of Natural History to look through the fossils on display and see how the great beasts lived. Older kids (from 12 to 15) may prefer to check out the "Predator Workshop." Admission fees to the programs vary, and some may be sold out, but a call to the museum education office at (617) 495-2341 is bound to turn up appealing possibilities.

Younger visitors and their families should also consider the Museum of Science. This urban resource, which straddles the Cambridge-Boston border along the Charles River, hosts a variety of programs, including the popular "Discovery" series, for children in the first through fourth grades, in addition to its many ongoing exhibits that are designed to appeal to a wide variety of ages. This spring the 169-year-old museum (which is open daily and has its complete schedule posted at www.mos.org) also presents the "evolutionary success story" of lizards in Reptiles: Real and Robotic, a traveling exhibit running through May 29 that features larger than life-sized moving mechanical models of some of the best known representatives--a snapping turtle, a rattlesnake, and a crocodile--of an often fearsome class of critters. The enveloping Omni Theater, meanwhile, will dive into the world of Dolphins in March.

For those who choose a stroll through history--or simply crave a little fresh air--Mount Auburn Cemetery beckons. This 174-acre expanse of lawns, pools, trees, and many striking monuments remains an active cemetery, and visitors are therefore asked not to bicycle, rollerblade, or picnic on the grounds. Instead, the hilly paths that provide beauty as well as peace have been tempting strollers away from the hubbub of the city even before the cemetery itself was founded in 1831. Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.B. 1821, LL.D. '66, wrote of walking through the woods there while the land was still part of a farm, says Janet Heywood, director of interpretive services for the cemetery.

Today's visitors are invited to take advantage of maps and the plan for a self-guided tour that are available at the front gate. Those who find it easier to ride (cars are permitted on certain avenues) may also rent ($5) or purchase ($12) an audiocassette that can be played in a car's tape deck and provides commentary for a one-hour tour of the grounds. In addition, the Friends of Mount Auburn offer a variety of programs and walks at nominal fees (ranging up to $8). Because of the notable figures at rest here, many of the walking tours revolve around biography and history. A guided walk on March 23, for example, will lead to the gravesite of noted and long-lived architect Eleanor Raymond, in honor of her birthday. April 20, the birthday of nineteenth-century Harvard geologist Jules Marcou, will be the occasion for a tour that spotlights his arresting monument--two feet tall, in the shape of a giant fossil shell. (For more information, call 617-547-7105.)

Of course, no formal excuse for a visit may be necessary. In March and April, as spring is returning and new leaves, early flowers, and blossoming trees begin to come into their own, strollers can enjoy the park as an arboretum and as a great spot for sighting migratory birds returning to New England. Birders may check the blackboard at the front gate to learn what others have seen; for those who like birding in company, the Brookline Bird Club (www.massbird.org/bbc/), among others, offers opportunities for walks through the cemetery with experts.  

All that walking can leave a visitor both hungry and tired. Once again, the Square comes through with both old and new. Those seeking a quick (but filling) bite may choose to try Finagle a Bagel, which has set up shop near the corner where the Wursthaus and the Tasty once reigned, or One Arrow Street Crêpes, which wraps up its sweet or savory, non-veg or vegetarian offerings at the eastern edge of the Square. These newcomers have joined the panoply of ethnic and regional restaurants--from Alsatian (Sandrine's) to Vietnamese (Pho Pasteur)--that have always made this section of Cambridge a diner's delight. Meanwhile well-remembered establishments from Bartley's Burger Cottage to Up Stairs at the Pudding continue to reward their patrons' palates, chacun à son goût.

Finally, to rest. The Harvard Square area offers varied hotel options, but for those who seek a sense of history, or simply a sense of home away from home, local bed and breakfasts may provide a more intimate experience. Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast, for example, can welcome up to 30 people a night to its North Cambridge location on Massachusetts Avenue. When Ellen Riley and her husband bought their 1890s house and the accompanying carriage house 15 years ago, they were only its third owners; they have worked hard to maintain its beautiful architecture while adding such amenities as a private bath for each room. (For more information, call 617-491-6300 or visit www.acambridgehouse.com.) In mid Cambridge, the Harding House, in a Harvard Street building that dates back to the 1860s, and its sister establishment, the Irving House on Irving Street, also welcome visitors with traditional B&B hospitality. (Both can be "visited" at www.irvinghouse.com, or call 617-547-4600 for Irving House, 876-2888 for Harding House.)

Relaxed and refreshed after a full day of rediscovery, visitors are likely to agree that there's a lot that's new to Harvard Square and its surroundings, and that even recent additions may become old favorites with time.

Freelance writer Clea Simon '83 admits to finding Harvard Square dangerously distracting.

 

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