The soulless new machine: How Kendall Square is killing Cambridge

John Summers takes a long, critical look at what the whole "innovation economy" thing is doing to the rest of the city - and nearby locales, such as Allston.

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Needs an editor

Started reading it but the gist seemed to be corporations bad, development bad, but no actual solutions offered, baffling indeed. What does this guy propose we base our regional economy on? Artisanal pickles and good will? Sweetheart taxes to lure companies are usually a bad idea, but this guy seems to have it in for large corporations that, shocker, want to grow.

Imagine what the BPS funding shortfall would be without the successful local tech sector helping to prop up real estate prices.

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Agreed and on point

Does the writer remember what was there before this R&D/innovation economy showed up? Vacant industrial buildings and a few greasy spoons strung out between MIT property and East Cambridge have been replaced by some of the best companies in the world. Change isn't always bad.

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Old Kendall Square

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I remember the old, deserted eerie Kendall Square of the 70s. That spacey poem written in large multicolored letters on the side of an abandoned brick building. I think it was part of a larger poem painted onto other Cambridge buildings. There was also the Terminal Barbershop, which seemed to exist in the middle of nothingness. So surreal was the sight of it that a local band, Pastiche, wrote and released a song about it. There was also the famous F&T Diner, with a sign that always said closed, even when it was open.

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Directionless blather

On and and on and on every change is bad waah. Everybody is bad except our landlord who charges us cheap rent? Is there ever even a point to this quasi-journalistic self-pleasuring?

Yes, I do remember what was there before. No, the new buildings aren't worse than the rickety warehouses they replaced. Cry all you want about Kendall Square not being enough of a 24 hour community, but there are more people living there now than there were 30 years ago, and 10 years from now there will be twice as many. The amenities are following the businesses. Soon there will be thousands of people happy to live across the street from work, with plenty of income to support the artists he fetishizes.

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As a huge fan of artisanal pickles

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this one made me laugh out loud. I'm another one who doesn't understand what the author of the article is actually recommending as an alternative to the "innovation economy."

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Sounds Familiar

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This piece seems to be a rehashing of the techbusmania of San Francisco. If you want cheaper housing, build it.

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Somebody call the Waaaambulance

Among the cries of:
"We need jobs!", "The state needs to do better of attracting business to Massachusetts!",
John Summer harkens back to a time when there were less jobs and high tech firms moving into Boston.

Hey, he's getting clicks to his blog though, so mission successful I guess.

Side bar: I acknowledge the irony, but that article needs an editor to cut it down by 50% or so.

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Back in my day

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We cut our firewood with rocks! Now everyone worships at the altar of the axe and the rock-choppers are out of business!

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The author seems to be under

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The author seems to be under the assumption that A) innovation wasn't always something we/MA/Boston have done (first in America to industrialize, first to build a subway, invented the x-ray, perfected the clipper ship, etc., etc., etc.), and B) that innovation is the only thing we're focusing on at the detriment of all else. Both assumptions are misinformed at best.

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Whine whine whine

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Mr. Summers should get out his butthurt ointment.

I covered a few Harvard-Allston Task Force meetings for The Allston Brighton Tab and let me tell you, the people were well aware that what they were trying to do was blackmail Harvard for as much as possible. They used to complain about Harvard not providing enough parking with their projects -- well, not only is there plenty of public transit through Lower Allston, but there's plenty of parking. It's one of the few neighborhoods where you don't need a residency sticker for off-street parking. They forced Harvard to let residents use their buses despite the large amount of MBTA service.

They used to complain about the appearance of Harvard's proposed buildings, even though these guys were all property owners (although it was rumored that some of them didn't even live in Allston) and they had clearly never been out in the neighborhood, which is largely rental occupied and neglected by the landlords. Not only that, whenever Harvard bought more land, their property values went up. No wonder Harvard's proposed community benefits included beautifying a stretch of sidewalk lined by warehouses and the Star Market loading dock on Holton Street.

No, the problem with Cambridge and Boston is that people like Mr. Summers are incapable of seeing past their own outdated and discredited Marxist dogma and thus don't realize that there's not enough housing and commerce is restricted to a few streets and so the demand just bids up rents. He can only screech "Evil capitalist is evil!" He probably has never heard of the terms "upzoning" and "floor area ratio."

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Hey now, what's wrong with

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Hey now, what's wrong with being able to use Harvard's shuttles? They're running on the streets, with excess capacity, and the maintenance yard is in the middle of the community. I think it's a good gesture of support. BU allows open usage of its shuttles. The 66 and the 86 are overcrowded, and more good development at Barry's corner will mean more riders. The T won't be able to increase service on its routes for years. Harvard can help fill the gap: they're already going to run the shuttles anyway.

I think you're being overly negative about the rest. Yes, there is cause for some criticism, but I think most people just want Harvard to do a nice job creating a real neighborhood. Harvard has been sitting on very large, empty plots of land for many years and blocking natural development there, to the detriment of everyone living nearby. That's not nice, and the ire about that is well placed. The community benefits of "improving some loading docks" was considered to be a bit insulting to the community on the part of Harvard. You're not the only one to feel that way.

I agree that zoning is often written stupidly but the issues in lower Allston go far beyond that, and Harvard has often disrespected the efforts to get more urban style development on Western ave.

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The Frustrated Intellectual

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I am not really sure what Mr. Summers is really saying in this very long article. I now work in Kendall Square. And in the late 1980s, I also worked in Kendall Square. I remember it being a somewhat dismal, windswept place of old factories and warehouses and not much else. And while I understand there is a very viable downside to the "gentrification" of areas, such as this, one could argue that an upside is that these companies do employee thousands of people and what they produce can provide a benefit to the general populace. Yes, corporations and the folks that run them may not be ethical. But this is nothing far from new.

Affordable housing is a scarcity in Cambridge and Boston (and many other environs) and, again, this is nothing new. Trying to compare the loss of such affordable housing solely with the rise of what the author describes as "The Innovation Economy" is just bizarre.

I am also not sure if he is mourning the loss of Harvard Square's past funkiness to its present banality, if he wants homeless folks to hang out in Central Square or not, or if he is just more concerned that the companies present and rising in Kendall Square are not doing, in his mind, their fair share in lifting all boats.

So, his solution is to hope for a "vagabond wage" where we all make just enough to live on but not to get greedy? And that we have access to a good pottery studio? Good luck with that, my friend.

Me thinks that Mr. Summers needs to warp back into reality and instead of trying to buck a broken system, trying working within the system, to effect change. MIT still exists, Mr. Summers. Aaron Swartz does not.

And in regards to that unfortunate situation, Mr. Summers should read (or reread) the following http://swartz-report.mit.edu/

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particularly bizarre is his quote on schools

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The innovator’s dogma means making all your city’s peoples and institutions attractive to corporate professionals-in-training. ... It’s why the superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools has unfurled a reform program labeled “The Innovation Agenda: Educating Students for Their Future Not Our Past,” as though understanding our past were not essential to creating their future. It’s why the Cambridge Historical Society made “Innovation: How Cambridge Changed America” the theme of its benefit in 2012. And it’s why the Cambridge Science Festival is held annually, with events in the field house of the high school.

So ... he disapproves of Cambridge students learning science, even though that will help them get jobs when they grow up? You'd think he'd be all for it --local kids getting highly paid jobs in their own city. Just because you learn science doesn't mean you are compelled to work in science --but when the time comes to earn a living it sure is nice to have options. For someone worried about local families getting priced out (which _is_ a good thing to worry about) raising the likely earning power of their kids should be a good thing.

This paragraph's my favorite though:

Now and then my family and I even catch sight of a rainbow flashing in the sky outside our kitchen window. At such gossamer moments, we don’t envy the knowledge workers slaving away on artificial intelligence in their labs up the street. Compared to them, we feel like the Little Prince, who needs only to move his chair a few feet to watch the sunset whenever he wants to. It’s not everything, but it’s enough.

Strangely enough, knowledge workers look out the windows too.

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When I think of Kendall Sq.

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When I think of Kendall Sq. in the 80's all I remember is seeing Aimee Mann at the Garment District.

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Dr. of Intellectual History indeed

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The title "global leader in not-curing cancer" might be the most ignorant attempt at vitriolic humor I've ever seen. I don't care for John Summers or his opinions in this piece, which are short-sighted and incomplete at best. Thank you Dr. Summers for this well-researched but thoroughly senseless assessment of the future of Cambridge.

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A few good points mixed with much bad writing and issue-missing

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I agree that skepticism about techno-Utopia is warranted. I say that as a technology/computer science-type person.

It is also true that a catastrophic influx of money can do very bad things to a neighborhood. (see: urban renewal).

I am also concerned about the proliferation of institutional blank walls that have a chilling effect on street life.

However, Kendall is a lot better than it used to be. There's also a lot more awareness about the effects of urban development than there was in the 70s. Things cannot stay the same, the best is if the change is done well, and with fair consideration.

The idea of a minimum income has great merit but it is a topic to be tackled at a much higher level of government.

Affordable housing interventions in the market have a place; which is to round off the sharp edges of the regular housing market, because in this society I like to think that we do care about the lives of people who slip between the cracks. But these kinds of interventions cannot be expected to supply the bulk of housing, unless we want to go all Singapore-style (I don't). Rent-control is and was an unmitigated disaster.

The article was long and rambling. I really couldn't follow the entire line of argument, and lost patience. What I did not find in the article was any mention of poorly designed zoning codes, suburban-style parking requirements, too-low FAR limits, or any of the other factors which result in the shortage of much-needed housing.

John Summers is editor in chief of The Baffler

Well, I think we've identified the problem here. Nobody wants to tell the big cheese that he's got a stinker.

Sad. I have read good article at this site, actually, but I guess they weren't written by Summers.

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Rent control

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I noticed that Summers blames western Mass for the rent control repeal vote, but IIRC the highest percentages in favor of the rent control ban were in municipalities without rent control that were nearest those with rent control (Somerville, which had repealed theirs in 1979, for example)...implying that, if you removed the "currently benefitting from rent control" factor, that those most familiar with its effects were the ones who most wanted it gone.

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Blinded by science

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The fact that this over-extended screed against the "Innovation Economy" destroying "cultural centers" like Central Square ignored awesome, local, culture-meets-technology businesses like Danger!Awesome (using lasers to make art) and Harmonix (makers of Rock Band and many other awesome games) sort of tells me that he had an axe to grind and wasn't looking to fairly assess the situation.

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Actually...

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...as a tech worker myself, I'm surprised these issues haven't come up sooner here in Boston. And I'm surprised by the defensive tone of these comments.

What he doesn't go into much is the question of digital divide. Can you say credibly that Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park have access to the same jobs, networks, opportunities? Can't blame it all on any one thing of course. But my impression is that tech seems to have clustered the same neighborhood class divisions that characterized Boston before the 90s.

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?

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Do you think the working-class/poor kids in East Cambridge have a heck of a lot more access than their peers in Dorchester? It's a post-industrial neighborhood that has the good luck to be next to two of the top universities in the country and a city government that was savvy about handing out tax breaks. The digital divide issue is a whole different kettle of fish.

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In the sense that they see

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In the sense that they see prosperity in their own neighborhood...yes, I would say that options are at least more visible to East Cambridge kids. But we are talking access. Access comes from schools. Are the schools in Cambridge better than the schools available in Dorchester?

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Marginally.

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That's probably not a fair assessment. But I'm pretty sure that if you are a project kid in East Cambridge, the halls of MIT or Novartis don't seem any closer than they do to a kid in Fields Corner.

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For someone who takes the

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For someone who takes the initiative, there's a lot at MIT that's open to the community. Lectures, IAP events, high school programs like Splash, ...

I agree that issues such as

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I agree that issues such as the digital divide need to be addressed and the time to do it is sooner rather than later. But the thing about this article is that when the author does touch upon it (see the bit I found odd about schools) what he seems to be advocating is not "let's give people more opportunities to cross the divide" but rather, "let's just get rid of the digital".

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