Cover Image: Harvard Square

Harvard Square

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Member Reviews

In this wide-ranging, well-researched and eminently readable account of the history of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, author Catherine Turco explores not just this iconic marketplace but also the changing face of all our main streets, high streets and downtowns and the businesses that inhabit them. She examines how businesses begin, develop and often ultimately fail due to changing market forces. She explores with empathy and insight how we relate in a very personal way to these places and find their demise so upsetting. Many anecdotes and stories pepper the text, with vivid portraits of both people and businesses, making this an entertaining, illuminating and thought-provoking work of social history. Although the book focusses on Harvard Square and will have a particular resonance for those who know it, the book offers much more than a purely localised chronicle, as the issues Turco raises have a universal application, not least in our era and its increasing reliance on online shopping and consuming. Something here for everyone.
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Harvard Square: A Love Story examines two central notions. First, it looks at the idea that for decades people had been complaining that the Harvard Square wasn’t what it “used to be.” Every generation bemoans changes in the marketplace that make the beloved world of the Square seem different (usually in a bad way) from what people remember. Of course, one person’s “not what it used to be” is another person’s well-loved present, with the cycle continuing every few years. Second, the book examines how people rely on street-level markets to create a sense of community, stability, and continuity on a deep psychological level, even though they are places full of change.  If you’re interested in Harvard Square particularly, or if you are interested in how marketplaces become meaningful parts of peoples’ lives, you should pick up this book.

Likes: the book credibly merges economics, history, a dash of psychology, and lots of on-the-ground observations and interviews into an interesting blend that’s highly readable.  Picking unconventional “characters” to follow, such as a neighborhood merchants’ association or a single block of one street, allows the reader to see the book’s arguments develop with plenty of humanizing detail.  The book is great at illustrating how the marketplace constantly changes in response to many different factors, whether local, national, global, or some combination. The economic parts were easy for me to understand, despite my lack of expertise in that area. And the depth of the research warmed my history-loving heart.

Dislikes: at times the argument became a bit repetitive, which I think is common in non-fiction books of this type.  And I would have liked a more examination of racial and ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the marketplace; the book nods towards this but doesn’t explore it in depth.  At times as a reader I felt that there was a bit too much of the same kind of anecdote (especially the speeches from the merchants’ association).

FYI: a bit of strong language. There was also a short quote from a historical source that contains a derogatory word referring to people of short stature.
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Harvard Square by Catherine J. Turco explores the development of Harvard Square, from its colonial founding to its transformation into a bustling commercial hub. Turco examines the various historical and cultural figures associated with Harvard Square, from quirky business owners and Harvard faculty to the many diverse communities that have called it home. The book is filled with interesting stories, colorful anecdotes, and engaging descriptions of the people, places, and events that have shaped Harvard Square. If, like me, you’ve been shaped in some way by Harvard Square, you’ll find this book to be a unique and engaging exploration of the area’s past and present, revealing the richness of the area’s history and its influence on American culture. Highly recommended.
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I was interested in reading this book because I remember going to Harvard Square as a child, as a teenager, and then much much later as a senior. So I expected a trip down memory lane and was interested to see how the author viewed the changes and her own relationship with Harvard Square.
If you, too, have a relationship with Harvard Square then you will enjoy reading about it through Turco's eyes and research. 

Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of this book.
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Harvard Square: A Love Story, by Catherine J Turco, uses a specific case of change to a marketplace (buildings, businesses, consumers, place broadly speaking) to look at change in public marketplaces in general. With this comes as many questions as answers, though a better understanding all the way around.

Most of us have probably watched a cherished area change or, even more startling, gone back to such a place years later and been stunned. Usually we think the phrase Turco uses in the book: it isn't what it used to be. But what is it exactly we are lamenting? The actual businesses that have changed? Buildings that may have been replaced or simply removed? The different people who are using the space? Or just the fact that it has indeed changed and by doing so reminds us we have aged and changed too?

It is likely a combination of all those things, and Turco looks at them through a historical account of Harvard Square. From its beginning through various controversies over change to the present COVID recovery issues. As a longtime resident of the area and frequent visitor to the Square (as in every weekend for years) Turco brings a personal touch to the analysis. As an economic sociologist she also has the tools to take a more objective (to the extent possible) approach.

While I felt she was a little easy on one of the current figures in the current changes (I don't like big corporations in small town squares, especially as landlords) she did so out of fairness. And thanks to that fairness I did come to understand his stand better. I still disagreed and thought it was more self-serving than necessary, but the presentation allowed me to see a bit beyond my personal viewpoint.

For anyone interested in street level marketplace change, especially in smaller communities, this will be an excellent read. If you have gone or are going through a period of marketplace change, or even community change, this may help you to better understand both the others involved as well as your own feelings. Those interested in histories of place will also enjoy this book.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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