From my window I see the new tree that the City of Cambridge planted in the space between the sidewalk and the curb. Beyond that is the fresh pavement patch where they installed the new gas line. Across the street is the refurbished Glacken Field complex of playground and little league fields. My city is a place of constant upgrade. Why don’t I feel so good about it?
I first lived in Cambridge in 1978, but my true appreciation for our city began thirty years ago, when I bought a house in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood. I’ve lived here ever since. Cambridge circa 1992 was neither the industrial soap-and-candy city of the nineteenth-century, nor the hippy-dippy People’s Republic of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was a well-run city with outstanding services anchored in an ethos of citizen participation.
Two events from my early years made me a devotee of Cambridge.
The first was a well-attended neighborhood meeting where a representative of Traffic and Parking reviewed the city’s parking strategies. During Q&A, he listened to each person’s query and delivered a response based on deep knowledge of on-street parking. “There are two permit-only spaces in front of your house.” “There is a bus stop and a fire hydrant at your corner.” The audience gasped when I requested the city eliminate the parking restrictions in front of my house: the only homeowner asking for looser rather than stricter parking. The staffer took my question in stride. “You have three on-street spaces that face Huron Avenue. That entire street is permit-only. But you also have three spaces along Fountain Terrace. We could remove restrictions on those.” To this day, anyone from anywhere can park in front of my house for as long as they like. I believe most of my neighbors have forgiven my generosity. Probably not all.
The second event was an invitation to participate in the Strawberry Hill Planning Study. Back then, the Community Development Department facilitated year-long studies in which local residents learned how various city functions worked, and offered local ideas for improvement. Each neighborhood was addressed on a seven-year rotation. The process brought neighbors together, gave us insight into municipal operations, and provided a forum for dialogue. At the end of the process, the city prepared a report. I was happy to see many of our suggestions included, and subsequently implemented.
Thirty years later the City of Cambridge continues to provide excellent services. What has changed is the commitment to real citizen input. Or even useful communication. I appreciate that the city installed a new tree in my planted divider. I don’t appreciate that they did it without notice: I would have transplanted the ground cover I planted and maintain. I appreciate a new gas line in the street. I don’t appreciate no notice when they made the connection to my house. One day, for a few hours, there was simply no gas.
When it comes to the recent restoration of Glacken Field, I find little to appreciate, except how much money the city spent with so little listening. Glacken Field was a large open space with a softball diamond that doubled as a soccer field and dog run and frisbee spot. Like all threadbare places, it did not perfectly suit any particular purpose, but served many uses moderately well. For reasons unexplained, the city decided to put two of our three little league fields on Glacken Field.
At the public meeting, a cadre of staffers and consultants showed us bubble diagrams of where they planned to put the new fields and upgrade the tot lot. Anyone who asked a concept question – like why was our neighborhood getting these very specific-sized fields—was told those decisions were firm. If we asked specific questions—like could the outfield fences retract so during the 99% of time the fields weren’t little leaguing, we could still use them as dog runs—we were told those details were still in development. In short, the meeting was nothing more than the city checking a box of citizen input. They did not really want our input, and none was heeded.
The city’s bubble diagrams evolved into a construction of, frankly, outrageous proportion. Towering lights illuminate sodded, sprinklered fields for ten-year-olds. Dugouts. Bull pens. Bizarre pavement of end-grain wood that will surely rot out within two years. And then there is “the Guggenheim.” The moniker neighbors have given to the mound of circular ramp that exists for…who knows what reason. Up and over that hillock are even more bizarre elements, which we irreverently call the “Holocaust Memorial,” so much do they resemble the actual memorial in Berlin.
Perhaps I should have stayed involved in the design: there were probably other ‘neighborhood’ meetings. But when a taxpayer’s already been dismissed by the people he salaries, why continue? A bunch of consultants with a gigantic budget don’t care about the observations of someone who’s spent thirty years of living near and using Glacken Field.
What’s happened to Cambridge over the past thirty years is a fitting microcosm of the dilemma that plagues our nation. We assume that more and new is better. We are confident of being right, so we don’t need to give notice, let alone actually communicate. We talk past each other rather than to each other. The people who run our city have become bureaucratic oligarchs: they decide what’s best and they provide it. The only input required of it us: pay our taxes.
Cambridge is a very wealthy city, capable of executing all sorts of public works. But just because we ‘can’ do something, doesn’t mean that we ‘should’ do it. Glacken Field used to be a big open space where all kinds of activity occurred. For a modest sum the city could have reconfigured the existing diamond to little league scale, and added a second backstop and set of base paths on the opposite corner. We could have accommodated little league as well as soccer and dogs and frisbees. Instead, untold dollars later, we have a precious, highly specific space that fewer people use than before. Why?