The Mayor of Central Nowhere

A lot of the people who said that microblogging or Twitter was the Big Thing of 2008 or 2009 are saying that location or Foursquare is the Big Thing of 2010 or beyond.  I don’t know if Foursquare is played yet, or if Twitter already has jumped the shark, but I’m starting to worry that the actual, physical concept of location might be on the way out as businesses evaporate from downtowns, especially in my own Central Square.

Earlier this week, I noted a bit in xconomy singing the praises of Central Square as a new startup hub, singling out a particular office building and featuring a couple of its startuppy tenants.  I’m all for it, having previously noted Beta House and OpenCoffee among others.  Plus, Central is home to Harmonix Music.  Good news, to be sure.

But the day before that article, Hollywood Express closed their Central Square store, adding to a distressing list of businesses vacating Central Square and its environs.  In fact, I was both pleased and saddened to discover an entire blog devoted to the disappearance of businesses along Cambridge’s Massachusetts Avenue.  Compare for example my February 2009 post on the decline of the furniture cluster to Empty Mass Ave’s post on the same topic in February of this year.  Apparently, we’re all in this together.  Empty retail space around Central now includes the long-gone Gap, Pearl Paint, all those furniture stores, the space next to the Central Square Theater, and I’m sure more.

The other good news is that restaurants seem to be thriving even as retail suffers – Rendezvous, Four Burgers, Craigie on Main and Garden at the Cellar are all great –  but I can’t help worry that we need a bit of everything to make a neighborhood that all those fancy startup types will actually want to inhabit.

We can blame the economy for some closures, especially the furniture stores.  We can blame changes in technology and media for the demise of record stores, video stores and maybe even bookstores. We can blame landlords, that’s always popular.  I think we often forget to blame ourselves for not shopping, working and doing business enough in our own neighborhoods and cities.

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4 comments

  1. Nabeel hyatt

    If you think Central has a lot of closed businesses, you should check Newbury St. There are indeed bright spots retail for Central, such as the restaurants, but on Newbury there are blocks with 50% vacancy and not a new store in sight. The economy has certainly hit retail in particular hard, here’s hoping it bounced back soon.

  2. David

    Hi Nabeel, thanks for contributing. As a Cambridge guy I wasn’t initially sympathetic to emptiness on the Newb, figured it was just an overripe real estate bubble, but Back Bay is a neighborhood too, and I hate any decrease in the walkability of an area. You’re an entrepreneur – do you think there’s opportunity in this situation? Theoretically these landlords of empty spaces should be willing to host all kinds of interesting temporary tenants for cheap or free – pop-up galleries, open houses, craft markets…?

  3. Monica Velgos

    David,
    There’s a way that you, and anyone else who wants to get involved, can help brainstorm ideas about revitalizing Central Square. Contact Estella Johnson, Director of Economic Development for the Cambridge Community Development Department (estellaj@cambridgema.gov), and ask to be put on the email list of the Central Square Retail Mix & Vacancies Working Group. Our last meeting was April 7. Cambridge Day published my random notes from it here: http://www.cambridgeday.com/2010/04/07/small-group-finds-barriers-to-central-square-retail-growth/

    The group needs more input from 20 and 30-somethings—all those new tenants in the Barron Building, for example. Making the Square vital day and night for those who work there as well as those of us who live in the area (students, too!) is a top priority, but we need to hear from everyone, especially young entrepreneurs who are never short of big ideas. Come make your pitch!

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