Are you a Cambridge resident? Go online and vote for your favorite empty storefront art by March 8, 2019.
What do Americans buy with our affluence? Privacy. Single-family houses in gated communities, automobiles for every driver in the family, entertainment streamed into our large screen TV’s, consumer goods delivered to our front door.
As Barbara Streisand sang so very often, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Which makes us singularly unlucky. People who have money rarely have to see other people. We aspire to a world of diminishing interactions, and in large part we succeed. (It’s no coincidence that this also yields maximum consumption and corporate profit.)
I live in a city that often defies national trends. Cambridge is pedestrian friendly. It’s wicked tough to park your car, but subway and bus service is good. Our six-square-mile metropolis sustains a population of 100,000, yet this epicenter of biotech boasts even more full time jobs than that, so our tax coffers are deep.
Cambridge keeps trying to grow our population; it makes sustainable sense to increase the number of humans in an area with such robust infrastructure. Yet, although we build and build and build, the population doesn’t much budge. Because Cambridge is so desirable—and so affluent—we rich folks gobble up space just as fast as developers can create it. My household of three occupies a dwelling that, a generation ago, housed a family of ten. My neighborhood is littered with two and three family houses that have been purchased by empty-nesters and turned into single family houses. The amount of square feet per resident in this city keeps ballooning. The volume of private space we construct, furnish, heat and cool keeps growing, but the total population: not so much.
Yet Cambridge, like virtually very other city, has one particular type of space it cannot fill: retail. In the 46 years since I’ve arrived, I’ve never seen so many empty storefronts in Harvard Square; the other squares as well. Why shop anymore? It’s time consuming, the online selection is greater, and besides, in stores, you have to interact with people. Or at least you will until Amazon perfects cashier-less convenience.
All across America, empty storefronts are the missing teeth of our communal life. Places of chance encounter, places thick in the fundamental pursuit of trade. We are a nation of empty malls and eyesore parking lots. Cambridge, with all of our money, won’t put up with that sort of blight. So the City is sponsoring a contest to create art to fill empty storefronts. In typical Cambridge fashion, residents can vote for their favorites online.
The finalists, including the graphics in this essay, represent some very good street art, Good enough that, once they embellish a vacant window, I can imagine discussing them with other pedestrians passing by. Which may not be the same as interacting with a shopkeeper or other customers, but it’s better than nothing.
Once upon a time an empty storefront meant a neighborhood in decline. Now, it can also represent a neighborhood so rich, we don’t need stores. Which is, ultimately, just another form of neighborhood decline.