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Cambridge to Cambridge

I live in Cambridge, MA, a city I really like. I moved here from the New York metro area after I got married and it’s hard to imagine another hometown I would enjoy more.

One day, a random thought popped in my mind — that reaching out to other U.S. towns and cities called Cambridge might be a useful framework for considering the ways that we are similar to, and different from, Americans across the country.  It’s an artificial framework, for sure.  Why not look at other communities in Massachusetts or cities with populations around 100,000?  Those would likely be more meaningful comparisons, but not as fun as looking at all the towns and cities named Cambridge.

It turns out that there are quite a few U.S. Cambridges. Nearly 30, including a ghost town and some unincorporated townships or counties. The states that house a Cambridge stretch from the Atlantic (Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland) almost to the Pacific (Cambridge, Idaho) and many stops along the way.

I’ve been reaching out to folks in all these places to ask about their Cambridges, and I’m going to share their responses here. I hope you’ll tune in.

Robyn, Cambridge, NY alumna

Robyn

In honor of the cold weather, I’m remembering back to the summer, when I was in Cambridge, NY.  Walking around one morning, I ran into Robyn and her son near the Round House Bakery Café).  Robyn lives in Los Angeles now, but she and her son spend some time each summer with her parents, who still live in the village.  We had a nice early-morning chat about her old home town and how she enjoys giving her son the Cambridge summer experience, so different from their life the rest of the year in LA.

How would you describe Cambridge?
I would just say Cambridge is really small and everybody knows each other.  We all go to the same school.  My parents went to the same school.  My niece is now going to the same school.  It’s just really small.  It’s like a small, little family.

The publisher, Cambridge, MA

Not having time (or cooperative weather) to travel right now gives me a chance to think about themes that have come up as I’ve visited Cambridges, as well as about my own.  A few weeks back — after Election Day but before Thanksgiving — I sat down in a coffee shop with Marc Levy, the founder and publisher of Cambridge Day, an online newspaper that covers government and beyond in Cambridge.

Marc LevyI was interested in talking to Marc in the context of building community.  Increasingly, Cantabridgians have embraced Cambridge Day as our local newspaper.  I once even noticed a reference to it as our only newspaper, which regardless of what one thinks about the Cambridge Chronicle, is not true.  I assumed that the opportunity to build community was an aspect of Marc’s motivation to create Cambridge Day, though, I learned, it may be only a small part of the story.

Marc started Cambridge Day (CD) in 2005 with a print edition and had registered a web address, which he kept even during a several-year hiatus before he restarted CD online in 2009.  The archives go back to 2005 and beyond, including some previous content Marc wrote for a blog.  The site includes a detailed description of CD:

“Cambridge is in large part politically progressive; embracing of science and reason; and welcoming – and protective – of the diversity of humanity, and Cambridge Day tends to reflects the mores of its community. Its writing may represent context and analysis of a situation based on fact-based reporting. A separate section is set aside for (also fact-based) expression of opinion, and all voices are welcome in its pages.”

Marc told me that he has worked as a journalist, most recently as executive editor for a group of newspapers in central Connecticut, where online news was an afterthought, but he was “surfing a wave of layoffs, buyouts, and shutdowns,” while “the newspaper industry has suffered.”  When that job ended, he decided to come back to Cambridge, where he has a day job, to look into online news and “see if there were better ways to do it.”  Sharing news online seemed to him to be a solution to “news deserts,” and CD would be a “learning laboratory.”

Marc describes CD as “a form of civic engagement for me and a way to have a seat at the table, which everyone who is civically engaged wants.  You get to ask questions and transmit that in a way that other people can see.”  He continued, “It’s a way to know your community and a way to be involved.”

Cambridge Day siteEven as I see growing dependence on Cambridge Day as our local news source, Marc says that “it’s difficult to assess the day-to-day value, despite the analytics [on the site], because of the nature of civic engagement,” where income isn’t the sole metric of success.  And yet, there’s a small community of folks who want to write for Cambridge Day, and he sees CD’s archives as an ongoing contribution.  “There’s a lot of information there that no one  is paying attention to now, but that someday may be important.”  Marc also appreciates the opportunity of “leveraging the resources of Cambridge Day to try to nudge things.  I can ask questions,” that prompt further conversation among city leaders and members of the community.

In addition, Marc said Cambridge Day “can provide community in a more abstract sense.  We haven’t done much ‘solutions journalism,’ but having news is good…For a place that’s transient and where people dip in and out of the news, the virtue I can point to is that there’s context,” within the website.  He continued, “If you read the site enough, you’ll see a throughline — that we need to stop treating our neighbors as our enemies and we need to have a government that will guide us through a peaceful evolution,” which he said he believes will require city charter reform.

Having established Marc’s motivations for starting Cambridge Day, I asked him about our shared city.  He takes a nuanced view of Cambridge, as one would expect from a journalist/resident.  For example, when I asked what he sees as going well here, he turned pretty quickly to concerns, including housing, green space and the tree canopy, and the arts, and said that “When it feels like a crisis, that’s when people start doing something.”  With regard to housing, for example, rent control was voted out in 1994 and “We could have started taking action then.”

Marc also points out that Harvard has announced that it will be moving the American Repertory Theater to Allston, taking millions of dollars in local business with it, but the city has not responded as forcefully as he would expect.  He said, “Less reason to come to Cambridge for an arts community means people won’t think of it as an arts community.”  In some ways, he notes, “Cambridge is reactive,” even while the technology sector in Kendall Square is innovative.

The city takes a “happiness survey every two years,” he said, “but there’s a different crowd every two years.  The survey could show that Cambridge is on some kind of right track, but actually it shows that the people now like Cambridge now.”  Still, he noted that he always “knew there were bad things going on in the world, and at times my heart broke at how blessed our existence is here.  There are ways in which that will go on in Cambridge forever, but a lot of people would ask ‘for whom,’ and that’s going to be largely for people who move here to take a job at Harvard or in Kendall Square.”

Despite the forum it creates for civic engagement, Marc worries about the future for Cambridge Day.  There’s no money in it now and he thought it would have become more of a collaborative site by this time.  He’s not overloading the site with ads, though a new weekly newsletter might provide a setting for them and there’s already a link on the site to “Support Local News.”  But whatever funds have come in have gone back out to developers to improve the website and for memberships to the AP and other news sources, as well as some small payments to writers.

Marc is optimistic that “2020 is the year that everything starts to click,” including the newsletter, text alerts, and even (retro) print.  “There is always a light just ahead and I keep following it.”  But he also cautions that Cambridge Day will “have a horizon to it” and will need to “evolve or die.”  Or, as the CD site says, “This site is a work in progress.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
“Cambridge is like America — a paradise up until the second that things go terribly wrong.  I chose this place.  I wanted a place that was small but exciting, a place where MIT was building our future and where the social discourse was being made by Harvard.  It’s a place that people come to to engage in ideas and build things.

As an environment, this is a very fun fancy place to live.  I still get occasional blissed out moments.”

The Brewmaster, Cambridge, Maine

My admittedly brief visits to Cambridges in NY, Vermont, and Maine have, nonetheless, left me feeling very connected to these communities.  I’ve already written about how I was happy about the opening of East Outlet Brewing in Cambridge, Maine, so naturally I needed to speak with its founder.

East Outlet logoImagining that someone who just started a new enterprise would be busy, I wasn’t sure we’d find a good time to talk by phone.  But with relatively little fuss, on a recent afternoon, I was chatting with Nathan DiMeo, who started the brewery and restaurant, which he said is “Doing a really good business.  This will be the fifth weekend coming.  We’ve got the wood fired pizza, our own homemade beer, and live glass blowing.”

Nathan isn’t originally from Cambridge, but he said he’s lived there for about 13 years, after a move from New Hampshire (which I understand is also the path followed by the town’s founders in the 1800s).  “We just happened to be driving through, looking for houses in Maine.  We started looking at a house in Cambridge in the center of town, and we ended up liking it.”  What did he like about Cambridge?  “We were just looking for a smaller community, a little less craziness.  Cambridge is just a really laid-back town.” Moultonborough, New Hampshire, where Nathan started, would still be called a small town, but one with more summer tourism.

For most of the length of his residence in Cambridge, Nathan said he has worked from home.  He also blows glass, which explains the inclusion of that theme in the restaurant’s weekly offerings, though he told me, “I mostly have other glass blowers coming in.  I’m manning the oven at the moment.”

As for how he got into this business, Nathan said, “I had done home brewing for eight or nine years now.  I never worked in a commercial brewery.”  And East Outlet doesn’t yet reach the scale of a significant commercial brewery, given the size of the equipment he uses.  “I purchased the system two years ago.  It’s still a small system.  It’s a home brew/commercial version, so it was easy for me to convert over to use it.”  He said they’ll upgrade to a larger system soon, but, “We’re mostly going to be selling in this area of Maine.  We probably will never make it past Portland with this size system.”

The restaurant is open on Friday and Saturday and Nathan is able to rely on friends for staffing.  “We have a family friend doing the waitressing and we have one worker in the kitchen making pizza, and then there’s me doing the brewing and all that.”

East Outlet comedy nightRegarding his motivation for starting the restaurant and brewery, Nathan said, “Our whole goal was to bring a little bit of city vibe, Portland vibe, but keep it country.  We love artwork so we have spray painting around the walls, the glass blowing, the live music, a comedian coming on Saturday.  We’re trying to do something different, not the same thing that’s always here.”

I asked Nathan about his customers, and he answered, “I would say it’s a half-and-half mix.  We have an older crowd who comes and a younger crowd.  Not everyone is from Cambridge, some people travel to Cambridge.”  Is he seeing a lot of friends at the restaurant?  “Yes, a lot of them are people I’ve just kind of met as I opened the place, and I do have a good number of friends who are rooting me on in there.”  But even some folks who weren’t looking for a brewery are being supportive.  “There are people who have lived here for a long time, and they don’t want to change very much, but they have accepted this.  We do have them coming here.”

Not long before we spoke, I had been reading that there was an extended power outage in Cambridge, so it seemed worth asking about the challenges that Nathan was facing with a fledgling business.  In addition to the power outage — about which he didn’t say much more than “We have a generator now” — Nathan noted, “It’s not easy to become a brewery.  There’s a lot of licensing, a lot of figuring out if we can do this in this building, if the town will be okay with this.  We weren’t sure if people would be okay with it, but we’re not rowdy here, we’re not a bar.  There are no complaints yet, that we’ve heard of.”  And he noted that the the town selectmen have been there.

Looking ahead, aside from increasing the capacity of his brewing equipment, Nathan anticipates continuing with a busy restaurant.  “We’ll always have the live glassblowing and we’re going to try to have live music here each weekend.”

To me, it sounds like East Outlet Brewing will continue to provide a fun social setting for folks who want a weekend dinner without leaving Cambridge.

How would you describe Cambridge
I would definitely say it’s a quiet peaceful town that’s great for hunting, snowmobiling, getting away from the city life.

 

Mary and the Cambridge Village Market

When my conversation in the Cambridge, VT town offices with Marguerite and George had concluded, I asked them to point me toward the center of the Village of Cambridge.  The truth is, I was staying in the Village of Jeffersonville and, though both villages are part of the Town of Cambridge, I wanted to be sure that I had soaked up as much Cambridge-ness as possible.

Cambridge Village MarketWith that, my destination was set.  I was heading for the Cambridge Village Market.  I nosed around a bit, before deciding to buy a loaf of maple bread, which would give me the opportunity to chat with the woman staffing the cash register, Mary.

It would be hard to be more of a Cambridge native than Mary.  She was born in a one-doctor/one-nurse hospital that used to exist in town, and she has lived in Cambridge ever since.

Mary describes Cambridge as a “small community.  Everyone helps each other.”  She said that she used to feel that she knew everyone in town, though the town has grown.  Her perspective is that “most everyone who likes living in the town is friendly” but she expressed concern that some newer residents are coming from other regions and “can’t stand the smell of a farm.”  That said, nearly every customer and Mary knew each others’ names, and she frequently anticipated a request they would make for a product kept behind the counter.

Mary, Cambridge StoreMary told me that she has traveled all over, but “this has been home and always will be home.”  Her mother’s family also comes from the area, though her father’s family moved south from Newfoundland.

I mentioned I had visited Smuggler’s Notch the day before, and Mary told me she worked there for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was one of many local employees.  She notes Cambridge’s ongoing connection to Smuggs and said that folks staying at the resort are often sent over for groceries.

I stood aside each time Mary needed to help a customer, and the market’s owner, Bruce, checked in to see if I needed anything.  I assured him I was fine, but it did make me feel a little guilty for taking Mary’s time and I thanked him on my way out.  My conversation with Mary came near the end of my visit to Cambridge, VT, but her deep knowledge of the area gave me context for my previous chats and a few landmarks to visit as I headed home.

Politics in Cambridge, Vermont

This is my final post on my conversation back in September with Marguerite Ladd and George Putnam, of the Cambridge, VT government.  (You can read the first post here.) On my first trips to New York and Maine, the subject of politics came up in subtle ways, but I never raised it myself.  In Vermont, I decided to dip a toe in, and found it was a good place to do so.

First, I needed to be brought up to speed on the Vermont Town Meeting tradition, which George explained takes place once each year, in March, on a declared state holiday.  The agenda for a town meeting includes the election of officers, the town budget, and questions from the town.  In Cambridge, the election of officers is conducted through open discussion, not by secret ballot.  The regional newspaper offers coverage of the meetings and those who can’t attend can watch the livestream from home.  (You can, too.  Check it out.)

George said that “One of the good things about town government is there’s very little politics in it.”  There are no traditional political parties involved when folks run for the selectboard, which can include three or five members.  In 2019, George said there were four good candidates for open positions.  They didn’t campaign ahead of time but, instead, “stood up and explained their positions.”  George, himself, has written quite a bit about town government, as he has learned about it from the perspective of a selectboard member.

Marguerite noted that the candidates’ positions don’t necessarily line up with the national parties, and George said that local views in town are “a mix, where it comes to state and national politics.”  Still, it seems that Cambridge, Vermont is a place where civility can rule.  Note that the two candidates for an open seat in the Vermont House made news in 2018 with their respectful campaign and the fact that they joined together for a musical duet following a debate.  (Lucy Rogers ultimately prevailed.)

Finally, Marguerite answered my last question from our conversation.  Perhaps her description of Cambridge’s residents gets to how the politics remains civil.

How would you describe Cambridge?

MargueriteTo me, it’s a unique mix — and maybe by unique, I mean the actual ratio — of traditionalists and people who are forward thinking.  And maybe that’s the magic ratio.  They’re all passionate about their beliefs but also share that common goal of a high standard and quality of living that’s equal for all.  What that means to them is different for different people, for sure, but somehow it merges into a good median of what needs to happen to keep Cambridge sustainable and keep it growing, with moderate growth being key there.

In the end, everyone is searching for that quality of life.  Being able to live in a place you love, do the stuff you love, and have neighbors who aren’t crazy.  Somehow it shakes out that, even with all the different viewpoints, that’s what makes Cambridge what it is, and also that it can thrive.  Even if they wouldn’t say out loud they’re working together, I think that common denominator is there at the core of it.

Ranked Choice Voting in Cambridge, MA

Thanks to Maine’s adoption of ranked choice voting (RCV) in 2016, the congressional representative for Cambridge, Jared Golden, emerged victorious in 2018 after an extensive counting process.  Though it may have taken about two weeks for the results to be certified, the process was nonetheless straightforward.  Voters could rank their votes and Rep. Golden, who didn’t receive enough votes to win in the first round, picked up second- and third-choice rankings of independent candidates who were eliminated in the tallying process.  It was contentious, but tidy, and a good example of why RCV is sometimes called instant-runoff voting.

2019 BallotWe, the residents of Cambridge, MA, also use ranked choice voting in our municipal elections, and we’re gearing up to vote on Tuesday for City Council and School Committee.  There are six at-large School Committee seats, and 11 candidates, including three incumbents, are running.  The City Council is made up of nine at-large councillors, and there are 22 candidates, including eight incumbents.  I have a pile of flyers on my counter, as high as you’d expect from a total of 33 candidates.  We don’t vote directly for mayor, who will instead be chosen by the city councillors from among their ranks.  The mayor also chairs the School Committee.

A person could decide to vote for only one candidate in each race, but why limit one’s self?  We have the option of ranking each of the candidates, with a cap of 15 selections.

The big difference between what we’re doing and what happened (and will be the system from now on) in Maine, is that we’re voting our preferences for all nine city councillors (or six School Committee members) on the same ballot.  While I’ll carefully make my selections for numbers one through however many, the truth is that I can only be absolutely sure that my number one vote will count.

RCV video

A current city councillor who has decided not to run for re-election, Jan Devereaux, offers a cute video explanation of the system.  Click here to view itOr read this, instead.  And if you want to know what the actual count looked like in 2017, you’ll find the tally here.  As you’ll see, two councillors surpassed the vote quota of 2253 in the first round; the next didn’t clear until the 15th round; and the Council was finally complete in the 19th round, when all candidates who had received the least votes had been eliminated one-by-one and the last two candidates were selected without meeting the initial quota.  (The PDF was prepared by a local voting guru, who maintains a website filled with all sorts of city governance information.)

This year, a major focus of the candidates has been housing, with subsets of the full 22 forming slates of like-minded fellow aspirants.  The idea is that, regardless of my #1 vote, if enough people join me in voting for all the candidates in a slate, that slate’s views will be well-represented on the council.  There are slates supporting a particular housing plan that was considered this fall, and slates opposing it.  Other issues aren’t getting the attention they might in a different year.

Is Cambridge’s model of RCV a model for the nation, as this commentary from a few years back argues?  I can’t say.  It can be confusing for new residents, of which we have many, but it’s easy enough to get used to.  And there are campaigns to bring ranked choice voting to more elections.  A group is working to put a referendum on RCV on the Massachusetts ballot for 2020.

For now, I believe that Maine and Massachusetts include the only Cambridges that use RCV, but soon, towns and cities throughout Massachusetts and beyond may be offered the option to rank more than one candidate for an elected position.

Cambridge, VT town government

ML and GPThis post has been long in coming, which I regret since Marguerite Ladd, the administrator of the Town of Cambridge, and George Putnam, the selectboard chair, were incredibly generous with their time.  Marguerite has been in her newly created position for about a year, coming from finance work in New York but with her roots in Vermont.  George is a long-time Vermonter and has retired from a career with the farm credit system.  The Switchel Philosopher is his blog that asks, “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”  (Not familiar with switchel?  I wasn’t either.)

The elected selectboard meets twice each month, and goes deep into the running of the town.  (Minutes from a recent meeting can be found here.)  There’s also an annual town meeting each March, attended by the citizenry.  (Minutes from last March’s meeting can be found here.)  Marguerite and those in other permanent staff positions follow through on and carry out decisions made by the selectboard and town meeting.  As I noted right after my visit, the Town of Cambridge, Vermont includes two incorporated villages, Jeffersonville and Cambridge.  This sounds like a similar arrangement to what we found in Cambridge, NY, but there the village didn’t fit completely within the town.  The administrative lines are more clearly drawn in Vermont.

My conversation with George and Marguerite was wide-ranging, including what folks in Cambridge call themselves.  Though the town is believed to have been named after Cambridge, MA, there’s no special name for the town’s residents.  Nonetheless, George said that “most people identify with the town rather than the villages.”  He said that towns are Vermont’s common administrative unit, and some towns include incorporated villages while others don’t.  An incorporated village can assess taxes and create municipal services.

Freedom of Speech, Rockwell
From the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell created a series of four paintings in 1943, collectively called the Four Freedoms. The picture to the left shows “Freedom of Speech,” based on a Vermont town meeting. A print of the painting hangs in the Cambridge town offices.

I started our conversation by asking what is going well in Cambridge.  Marguerite immediately summed it all up by saying, “Everything.”  She continued, “Cambridge is trying to do all the ‘right things,’ and looking for an equitable quality of life for everyone.”

George added, “There is a great mix of people here.  There’s good volunteer engagement, both in town government and other organizations, like the rescue squad.  The population is growing slightly, and moderate growth is a nice place to be.  Many towns in Vermont are shrinking.”  He further pointed out the unmissable.  “There is great scenery, with mountains and rivers.”  Marguerite said there’s a very active bike culture, along with paddling, hiking, and snowmobiles.  “Vermont needs that four-season utility of its resources.”

Something I’ve enjoyed while talking to Cambridge leaders is when our conversations wander to critical municipal issues that I know little about.  Marguerite noted, for example (and I hope I have this right), that Cambridge has the most road mileage out of all the towns in the county.  This is a big issue if snow removal is part of the annual routine.  There are several state roads that the state plows, and then the town plows the rest, including in the villages of Cambridge and Jeffersonville.

I’ve mentioned before that I have had more discussions of wastewater treatment on these trips than I ever would have imagined.  In this conversation, I learned that the village of Cambridge has a public water supply, the Village of Jeffersonville has a public water supply and a sewer system, and the rest of the town offers neither.  Unless they live in one of the villages, everyone is dependent on wells and septic systems.  Unlike in Cambridge, NY where wastewater treatment was a major issue, George called it a small issue, though he said that “sewers aren’t the bottleneck [to development], but the water is.”  The Village of Jeffersonville needs to expand its water sources and, they said, find ways to protect those sources.

I also raised the topic of broadband.  George said that “Some towns around Cambridge have broadband committees.  We’re in the process of organizing an economic development committee and looking at bringing broadband to town.”  The telephone company provides DSL access but Cambridge is “not served by any of the large cable companies.”  There are two smaller companies — Stowe Cable, and Mansfield Community Fiber — and the town wants “to work with those two companies to wire up the town with fiber.”  He continued, “A lot of people want to work remotely and can’t do that,” though he pointed out that there is “better cell coverage than in many rural towns.”  Marguerite added that realtors report that potential buyers routinely ask about internet access before they consider buying a house or property.

I told Marguerite and George that I had spent the previous afternoon at Smuggler’s Notch, the ski resort, which George called “good neighbors.”  He said, “They employ a lot of people seasonally.  Some retirees work there in the summers, leading hikes.  And all the tourists lead to spin-off business, like lodging.”  Marguerite explained that Smugg’s helps Cambridge’s “grand list,” the list of property in town that may be assessed taxes, especially because many of the condos at Smugg’s are second homes, used in the summer or during ski season.  In Vermont, “If it’s not your main residence, it can be taxed a little higher.  It helps the town have those services that other towns might not be able to afford with this population.”  She also noted that “A lot of people who work there are on our committees and volunteer here.  It’s clear they value the town.”

I still have so much to share from my conversation with Marguerite and George that I think it will be best to finish my report in a second post.  I’ll be back soon.

Town Office sign, VT