By Alexander Stevens
Posted Nov 17, 2010
It may be a bit surprising that if you want to talk with one of the
experts on Harvard Square, you have to chat with a guy who grew up in
Philadelphia, and now lives in Somerville.
Mo Lautman spent 4 1/2 years researching, writing and editing
"Harvard Square: The Illustrated History since 1950," a must-own
coffee table book for anyone who's had a love affair with Harvard Square.
It's a 240-page wonder, packed with photographs, and peppered with
short, punchy, readable pieces that inform and entertain. He even
garnered contributions from John Updike, William Weld, Amanda Palmer,
Tom Rush and others. He takes readers through 60 years of the square
from the key decade of the 1950s when many of the Square's landmark
businesses (The Brattle Theatre, Club 47, Out of Town News) were
hatched to the recent rise of chain stores, and everything in between.
"That's why I wrote the book I thought [Harvard Square] was
unique," says Lautman, who was surprised that the definitive Harvard
Square book hadn't already been written. "There are colorful places
in the United States, but Harvard Square has a unique combination of
things the mix of people and places, and then you add Harvard
University, which means there's this tremendous traffic of the
smartest people in the world mixing with this countercultural,
Lautman first visited Harvard Square as a teenager, in 1983, and he
lived in Cambridge for only a few years in the 1990s, so his
firsthand exposure to its long history is limited. But, like many
outsiders, he was soon seduced by its oddball charms. "I always
marveled at its vibe and bustle," he writes in the book, "the sense
that I was in a place where really cool importantly cool stuff
could happen at any given moment."
He was surprised by some of his research.
"All the riots of the early 1970s were pretty shocking," says
Lautman. "Ground-floor windows of every commercial business were
broken, there were fires in streets, riot police marching down Mass.
Ave. It's hard to picture that for those of us who live here in a
much quieter time period."
It's also hard to imagine the concerts on the Common that began in
the late 1960s "a bohemian free-for-all," as Lautman describes them
in his book. Although that music series lasted only a few years, it
was part of the city's legendary music scene, which hosted
performances from people like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez
and Muddy Waters, during the most vital years of their careers.
Lautman knows that Harvard Square continues to change, and that
progress sometimes means chipping away at the square's living
history. But he points out there's plenty of proof that the square
can evolve in ways that honor its quirky past. He notes an
interesting pair of neighbors: the Brattle Square Florist, 100 years
old, sitting next to the wonderful new Crema Cafe, "the kind of place
that made Harvard Square great 50 years ago," he says.