Friday, September 03, 2004

Inman Square Still Life

Inman Square is a little patch of urban anomie within walking distance of where I live in Cambridge. Unlike that other nearby paragon of urban blight, Central Square, it isn't much to talk about. No one has written eloquently words like the following:

In the face of yuppies' plans and transients' dreams, the poor and affluent alike strive for change while Boston's Central Square finds its own purpose for them all... Any big city offers its inhabitants both magic and mayhem... a haphazard mixture of therapy and activism to thwart inner-city depersonalization... Central Square... this hauntingly rendered hibernal wasteland...
Not quite. Inman Square is the stuff of blog entries; no poems or novels here, no Thoreau, no Wordsworth not even a Packer to chronicle the lives of its denizens in these environs.

Herewith some observations from last afternoon's tableau vivant.

First start with the name. Inman Square is a misnomer at best. There is no "Square" per sé, unless you count the little concrete patch where Cambridge Public Works have been storing their building materials for the incessant construction on Cambridge Street over the past 3 years.

It should more properly be called Inman Cross with 10 different streams of traffic crossing, nay colliding, in its unruly center. It is a nightmare of uncertainty for pedestrians; one of the worst in pedestrian-unfriendly Boston. The only thing preventing monthly carnage amidst the disorder being the poor quality of the roads. The drivers' muscle memory anticipating the obligatory encrusted potholes where Cambridge Street meets Beacon Street, meets Inman St, meets Hampshire St, meets Antrim St, meets Springfield St.

Inman Square is just a block off from where Cambridge encounters Somerville at Line Street but the Square proudly clings to the cantabrigian postal code. Well proud is perhaps too strong a sentiment...

The last apartment I viewed before I found my present nest was just above a storefront on the Square. It was a most dingy and seamy affair, perhaps the worst rathole I had seen in my 6 months of apartment hunting. Its Indonesian students knowingly eyed me; they had finally saved enough money to move to a better place. I must have appeared as the desperate immigrant fresh off the boat - desperate because I was inspecting their crumbs of the American Dream. The realtor actually didn't blink as we stepped over the holes in the stairs leading up to it, nor was there any comment on the 70's decor - corduroy on the wood paneling?!! - the leaking toilet, the musty smell of the mid-summer heat, nor even the exposed asbestos in the alarmingly-wide hole in the bedroom ceiling. I soaked all this in as I listened to her blathering on about what a nice neighbourhood this was. She capped it by naming the price: $900/month, heat not included !!! (in 1996?) I replied that I would take the last place she had shown me...

I suspect, in retrospect, that this was a wonderful sales tactic: show an apartment you've been having trouble pushing, listen to the equivocations and then show them their worst nightmare and say it costs more than than the previous one.

Across from Cambridge Savings Bank at the Quick Food Mart, the "Indian" storekeeper wields his weapons: a hose and a plastic brush, and tries to scrub the recent graffiti off the side wall. Actually I think he's Bengali (or are they rather called Bangladeshi?) but anyone of his complexion is "Indian" in American. Well why not? After all, in America if you have a drop of 'black' blood, you're black aren't you?

Next to it is the proletarian's friend, Punjabi Dhaba, "arguably Boston's most economical Indian restaurant", a chop bar par excellence, that has outpaced Akbar India, that other low rent joint just a block away. Cheap eats for hungry students served in utilitarian prison-ware. You could climb upstairs and enjoy the view overlooking the square: they used to have Christmas lights on last summer, it gave flavour to the whole thing but they cut down some of the trees this spring and the lights are gone. The Dhaba is busy: authentic cuisine always wins out, especially when it's dirt cheap.

There is another "Indian" grocery a few doors down (Pakistani-run this one - no name that I can gather); the competition between the two keeps the prices down, all the better for the student population. This one specializes in lottery tickets and a sign proclaims that they had a grand prize winner of mega-millions - hmm, is that truth in advertising? But more important, I think, are the dvds they sell - especially the 'special' ones you can get from behind the counter (read: some of the most varied porn you can find this side of a grimy sex shop). Mom-and-pop shops being good capitalists as it were.

The "Irish" drunks are early today, it's noon on the Thursday before Labor Day I suppose, and five or six of them are overflowing from the Druid Pub leaning against its washed out green walls. Football season has started and noontime Guinness washes things down swimmingly. It's a hot day, their swagger befits the weather...

Next door Austin Antiques sells the kind of things that wouldn't be out of place in the 'Jews for Jesus' outlet in North Cambridge - dark, vintage furniture, cabinets made with a long-lamented craft - we only have Chinese plywood these days. Same thing with the nameless vintage clothing shop where you can get some musty and frankly outré dresses from the fifties or even the early parts of the 20th century. The Indian shopkeepers are a bit more industrious and professional than these Cambridge natives for whom these shops are little more a hobby. There's a vision of growth and progress in them that has escaped the defeatist Inman Square born-and-bred types.

At the Zeitgeist Gallery there's "Yo! What Happened To Peace?" - a Traveling Exhibition of Peace & Anti-War Posters. I should check it out sometime; its a clear reminder that I live in the People's Republic of Cambridge, where good old Massachusetts liberals mix with peaceniks, anarchists libertarians and frank Marxists. The local Trotskyite office is just a few blocks away.

Like Sisyphus, the grocer scrubs... this never-ending exertion is repeated perhaps monthly, and sometimes daily, depending on how annoying the local teenagers decide to be. Interestingly, some of the other establishments have given up on cleaning up the graffiti. Take for example that surprisingly expensive Mexican restaurant on the other side. Haven't they heard of the Broken Window theory? And how can they justify their prices when their outside walls have teenaged angst scrawled over them. Regardless, he sprays, scrubs, sprays and scrubs, scrubs and sprays... Half an hour goes by and there still lingers a faint trace of the latest screeds.

There's a group of teenagers who observe him, smirking. Perhaps they were the nocturnal sprayers? One of them is wearing a pair of brown gloves (in this weather?) and sports a big zit - a blend of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Pinocchio. The rest have your garden-variety acne, black spots basically. They're bored. And the fun they've been having doing the earphone shuffle sharing tunes from their iPods is getting a little old. They all spontaneously break out the cell phones and begin text-messaging friends trying to find the next place to hang out.

If Indian restaurants are bargain basements that will do anything for your dollar, per contra, there are local restaurants like the S&S Deli that still don't take credit cards. Similarly, the clothes shops, the antiques looteries, and that curious toy shop, Stellabella, are all strictly cash affairs.

Legal Seafoods started out in Inman Square; similarly Jaes' first restaurant was in the square, but these have flown to better pastures and restaurant-chain fame; there's no reminder of this in The Square. The Square suffers from being a no-man's land midway between Harvard Square and Kendall Square, too far from the delights of the more urbane and richer masses of Harvard and MIT.

To the east of the Square lies the mainly Portuguese and Brazilian East Cambridge. The focus being the credit union, the insurance agency, the steak restaurants serving huge chunks of beef, the butchers with 'live killed chickens', the fishmongers whose smelly Boston Scrod is sometimes dumped onto the streets, and the pinnacle, Casal Bakery that sells the sweetest Portuguese bread in the world - all of these are family establishments. These are the poorest cantabrigians who haven't improved their lot even after 40 years of working on construction, restaurants and other odd-jobs. A fair number of the older folk still don't speak english. The newer generation though are beginning to take the American melting pot to heart but it's a struggle.

Similarly there are the nearby former projects (Prospect Towers where the internecine gang roadkill of the early nineties used to take place and youthful killers did their part as the crack epidemic ebbed) and even further, the low-income housing developments, now gentrified at the surface but resisting history at their core. Lots of teenage moms walk their strollers into the Square, trying to hold on to the sophomoric dads who are overwhelmed by it all, weeks away from abandoning their screaming offspring and current squeezes.

The City of Cambridge is set on raising property values and so everywhere there are policemen overseeing public works. There isn't enough money to lay bricks down the length of the Cambridge Street but some bright beancounter figured out that you can upgrade the town by simply having brick strips and trimmings on the sidewalk. The street has consequently been in upheaval for the past 2 months. Where they have finished however, the neighbourhood is much improved. There are now these newfangled bus stops, newly installed benches and street lights all lovingly painted black.

The Stars and Stripes flutters outside the fire station. A couple of firefighters linger outside. They are still ruing the kind of play and easy sex that they got in the months after 9/11, mourning the disappearance of the young hotties who would say to themselves: "I'm going to bed me a firefighter tonight". Normalcy has returned and even Tom Ridge's and John Ashcroft's periodic "elevated warning" hysteria hasn't been enough to loosen teenage panties of late.

These days the centerpiece of the square is Ryles Jazz Club. It may not get the upper class tier of performers but it has a solid booking schedule. The Jazz Brunch on Sundays is known all over the town and even attracts the occasional hardy tourist. Tonight is samba night and there is a certain spring in the step of the Cape Verdeans who pass by. The great innovation of the past decade were the swing classes and dances that now take place bi-weekly. Demand is strong for nostalgia and a good time; white middle-class America does love The 50s of Ronald Reagan and the B-Movies so the lines are long those nights. Ryles obliges.

Argana is the closest the square has come to gentrification. A lovely blend of Moroccan cuisine (great couscous) and decors (Arabian Nights meets The Spanish Inquisition) that would compete with the stylings of Newbury Street's Cafe Sonsie, and better food to boot. Not to mention that they have Belly Dancers every now and then that walk up to your table - even that woman who teaches dance at Central Square. Guys love the place overriding their girlfriend's jealous looks. Maybe it's a sign of things to come, a leading indicator of the future. I'm a little skeptical personally but it's good to know someone is trying. All it takes is a few more visionaries and a couple of "Developments" and before you know it, the yuppies will move in. In New York's Lower East side they talk of "Trendiness Among the Tenements" these days.

Inman Square isn't quite a slum, it lingers midway between a tenement and your vanilla urban backwater. It's akin to the brackish water, treated with alum to dissolve the brown sediment before drinking that is the lot of those poor villagers in my mum's constituency, Ho West. All they got was tins of evaporated milk in the last election. All Inman Square has is unspoken promises of cashing in someday on the dot-com and biotech boom that the rest of Cambridge is spearheading.

I leave the bank and take in the scene, the 2 clean-cut Mormons returning to the mother house after a day of proselytizing. I wonder what they think of me as I enter the Haitian grocery/Voodoo emporium to try to find some ripe plantains - the Haitians like their plantain green - I believe some wires got crossed when the slaves crossed the Atlantic...

Later I pass by Inman Pharmacy to pick up a newspaper. After 8 years as a regular customer, the Portuguese woman behind the counter has finally begun to greet me. She asks how I'm doing, smiles, I smile back and mutter the typical Yankee platitude. This doesn't come easily to my Ghanaian self and yet this personal touch makes me feel part of the community. I also get beaucoup points since I helped stop that old shoplifter a couple of weeks ago who was trying to smuggle a greeting card and a cuddly toy furtively under his clothes. My involvement in that affair was to stand arms-crossed in front of the door while he received his old-world dressing down.

Heading home, I pass the Psychiatric Emergency entrance of Cambridge Hospital where a concerned family have brought a young man - presumably a student. There's a worried look in their faces but the nurses are jaded at all of this. They've seen it all before.

All in a day I suppose.

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1 comment:

Anindita said...

Well Bengalis are not always Bangladeshis as he has mentioned in his article. I am a Bengali and I am from India, not from Bangladesh. Just wanted to clarify.