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.”

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.

A correction and a map

First, a correction.  I checked in with Mike Chait at Smuggler’s Notch and learned that the actual annual visitor count for the ski resort is 450,000.  I’ve made the correction in the post.

Second, I thought that folks who aren’t familiar with the northeastern states might like to see how the four Cambridges connect.  On this map, A is Cambridge, MA; B is Cambridge, VT; C is Cambridge, NY; and D is Cambridge, Maine.

Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine are the only three of the six New England states with a Cambridge, so I can check that group off my list.  And New York gives us the full set of northeastern Cambridges.  Maine is the farthest north of the four, but Vermont is closer to Canada.  And you can see how close both New York and Vermont are to the border between the two states.

Four Cambridges

The police perspective, Cambridge, MA

Today’s post is a written Q&A with Branville Bard, Commissioner of the Cambridge, MA police department.  Though I see Commissioner Bard reasonably frequently, I had asked him earlier for the Q&A by email to help get the blog going.

Later this week, I’ll share the conversation I had with the police chief in Cambridge, NY.  As I move forward in considering what links and distinguishes the Cambridges, I hope to provide more of these side-by-side reflections, as I’ve also done with the mayors (or those at the top of the government with other titles).

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge, Massachusetts is a unique community with a strong mix of cultural, demographic and social diversity, intellectual vitality and technological innovation. It is located across the Charles River from Boston and home to world-renowned educational institutions (Harvard and MIT) and numerous high-tech and bio-tech companies.

Commissioner Bard
Photo courtesy of City of Cambridge website.

What is currently going well in Cambridge, from a police perspective?
We are currently in a time period where crime is at or near record lows, the Department is highly engaged and rooted within the community, and residents believe that the City is a safe place to live. We also continue to revamp our organization in a way that goes beyond traditional policing to best meet and serve the evolving needs of the City.

What issues currently worry you, from a police perspective?
Since 2005, the number of serious violent crimes in Cambridge has nearly been cut in half. However, the number of overdose calls for service has more than doubled, while psychiatric calls for service have increased more than 70 percent. Mental health crises are a very significant issue that need to and are being addressed in a collaborative way with our various community partners.

On a related topic, I am also very concerned about the troubling trend of officers who have taken their own lives across the country. Officers spend so much of their days assisting others, but before they can help the people they serve, they need to first help themselves. Officers need to understand that there is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources that are available inside and outside of a department.

What do you predict for policing in Cambridge 20 years from now?
The demands of policing are drastically changing, particularly here in Cambridge. It is my hope that national criminal justice reform will lead to an environment that breaks the cycle of crime for those individuals who are frequently incarcerated for substance abuse and mental health-related crimes. Ideally, we will have developed more established collaborations with public health providers and ensure those suffering receive the short and long-term services that will enable them to once again become productive contributors to society.

Cambridge, MA is a complex place

Though I still have stories from Cambridge, NY to share, I want to return to the blog’s mission to reflect on all the Cambridges and write today about my own Cambridge, MA.

Harvard GateMany people, to the extent that they know or think about Cambridge, MA, picture a scene like the photo on the right.  Leaf-covered brick buildings on a campus, be it Harvard or MIT or Lesley University.  There are plenty of spots from which you can catch a scene like this.  (The photo is of a relatively undertrafficked area where I happened to be walking one day.)

What may be less known is that, even in a small city like this Kendall Sq, 3one, there are corners with a completely different vibe.  In the photo to the left, we see what the Kendall Square area, with its IT and biotech research and manufacturing spaces, looks like from across the Charles River in Boston.  After decades of gentle change, Kendall has sprouted like mushrooms in recent years.

Cranes in Kendall

Every time I’m in the area, I see a building that wasn’t complete, or didn’t exist, the previous time.  It’s insane!  There are a zillion cranes in the area at any moment.

All that growth is also something of a mixed blessing.  The city undeniably benefits from the jobs and internships for young people that new and old companies bring.  And Cambridge is fortunate to have a broad tax base, meaning real estate taxes on residents remain low.  Plus, many companies participate in the city, beyond simply employing residents.  But that explosive growth has also resulted in dislocation.  All the new companies mean lots of people looking for housing.  Neighborhoods are changing more quickly than the residents can join forces to preserve the spaces they value.

Longfellow House

These contrasts go beyond the universities and technology sector that drive much of Cambridge public life.  While some neighborhoods feature houses like this one, many city residents lack stable housing.

When I consider how we think about U.S. Cambridges, then, I’m aware that perspectives will differ from Cambridge to Cambridge, but also from corner to corner of the particular Cambridge we live in.  There may be more opportunities for stark contrasts in a larger place, such as Cambridge, MA, but even the residents of a Cambridge, NY will hold distinct views.

(That house, by the way, is actually a National Historic Site (Washington slept here!), but some of its neighbors are almost as grand.)

Best annual event, Cambridge, MA

Taking a moment from Cambridge, NY to return to Cambridge, MA, I don’t want too much time to pass before a quick post about my personal pick for the best event of the year — something I’ll try to bring out for every Cambridge.

Though there are many annual festivals and regional events, my vote for the best event of any year is the Cambridge Dance Party.  Held each year on a June summer Friday, the 2019 party was held on the weekend before I popped over to NY.

The dance party takes place on Massachusetts Avenue (a main street through town).  It starts at 7:00 p.m., when lots of families are there and elders sit in front of the senior center, and continues until 11:00, by which time the “dance floor” has been taken over by the young professional crowd.

Here’s the scene at about 9:00, when the street is full and the lights are shining on Cambridge City Hall.

Late Dance Party, 2

The party is fun, of course, but I value it for other reasons.  It’s the gathering that best reflects the diversity of the city and that offers the best opportunity for residents of Cambridge (and surrounding communities) to come together across the age spectrum, something that happens all too rarely.

It will be hard to convince me that another event tops this one, but I’m open to suggestions.  Add your thoughts in the comments, Cambridge, MA, and I’ll write about your suggestions in the future.

Cue up the first road trip

On Monday, I’m heading out for my Cambridge (MA) to Cambridge (NY) road trip.  I’ve been studying up on Cambridge, NY, where I’ll focus on the village, rather than the town of the same name.  (More on that next week, once I figure it all out.)  For now, I started by gathering basic information (thank you, Wikipedia) to guide my conversations when I’m there.

A bird’s-eye view of these numbers could lead to the assumption that the difference between Cambridge, MA and Cambridge, NY is population and there’s not much else to see.  As I’ve read further, though, I’ve come to think there are other key forces at play.  I’m looking forward to chatting with folks there and finding out more.

Massachusetts New York
Type of community or government City Village
Zip code(s) 02138 to 02142 12816
Population from 2010 Census 105,162 1870
Area (square miles) 7.1 1.7
Population density/square mile 16,355 1151
Median age 31 40
Population breakdown (percent)
Under 18 13.3 25.7
18 to 24 21.2 7.1
25 to 44 38.6 24.5
45 to 64 17.8 23.0
65 or older 9.2 19.8
Percent white 67 98 (2000)
Median income $47,979 $31,164
Elevation (feet) 40 496
Miles to an ocean (approximately, as the crow flies) 3 124
Distance to Cambridge, MA (shortest driving distance) 0 160 miles

From the Cambridge, MA mayor’s viewpoint

Marc McGovernMy goal for Our Cambridge is to include many voices and perspectives, and I’ll be reaching out to community leaders to describe the town or city they lead. 

Cambridge, MA’s mayor, Marc McGovern, has lifelong Cambridge roots.  He served four two-year terms on the School Committee (elected) before being elected to a seat on the City Council in 2013.  Following a vote by the City Council, he assumed the position of mayor in January 2018.  In this Q&A, he shares his perspective on the city.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is a diverse community dedicated to ensuring that all of its residents live in a safe and thriving city. We are home to two of the world’s best universities and the greatest concentration of biotech companies in the world. But there is another story. Cambridge has a higher poverty rate than the state average. 50% of our public school children live in affordable housing, and we have over 500 homeless on our streets every night. So, although one story of our city is of increased prosperity, another story is that many in our community are not accessing that prosperity.

What is going right in Cambridge?
Cambridge has a strong commercial tax base that allows us to do things that other communities can’t. For example, due to our AAA bond rating, we are allowed to borrow money at very low interest. That is allowing us to build three new, net-zero public schools at a cost of half a billion dollars, without raising residential property taxes. We are also investing in climate resiliency, infrastructure, public safety and our public schools at very high amounts. Although we still have challenges to overcome, the quality of life in Cambridge is very good.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Our biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing. With Cambridge being such a desirable place to live and having such a strong job market, people are moving to Cambridge in droves. Because those moving here are being paid higher salaries, they are able to pay more for rental housing and home ownership, driving up prices. The result has been that many moderate and middle income residents, those who earn too much to qualify for subsidies, but not enough to pay market rent, are being forced out of the city.

What concerns you about the Cambridge that our children will inherit?
As someone who has grown up in Cambridge and is raising my children here, I have seen our city go through many changes. Most of those changes have been positive, but some have not. The loss of middle income residents and the challenges of maintaining our diversity is a serious concern. In addition, on a wider scale, I am deeply concerned about climate change and resiliency and what the world will look like for the next generation.


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.