Monday, August 26, 2013

What is Cambridge, MA known for?

Cambridge has been reinventing itself for four hundred years. It's a former farming village that became a major industrial town (New England Glass Co., Carter's Ink Co.) that became a seat of the 80s and 90s computer industry (VisiCalc, Lotus) that became a diverse intellectual and biotechnology capital.

It hosts Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the National Bureau of Economic Research (the outfit that, among other things, declares the start and end of recessions in the U.S.), the Broad Institute, the Whitehead Institute, and the Draper Laboratory, as well as Cambridge College, Lesley University, the Longy School of Music of Bard College, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, two culinary schools, and about half of the Boston Museum of Science.

Cambridge has corporate offices or manufacturing facilities of Novartis, Biogen Idec, Vertex, Pfizer, Takeda Millennium, Genzyme, Amgen, Alnylam, Momenta, Microsoft, Google, Akamai, VMware, Oracle, HP Vertica, Raytheon, Forrester Research, and HubSpot. The Cambridge Innovation Center boasts "More Startups Than Anywhere Else On The Planet." The city sees a large amount of venture capital investment ($305 million during the third quarter of 2012), especially in the biotech industry.

Cambridge has been home to many poets, writers and other artists, including Longfellow, Robert Frost, James Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, e.e. cummings, Junot Diaz, Henry Louis Gates, Julia Child, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Mindy Kaling, John Malkovich, Lois Lowry, the Reys (who wrote the "Curious George" series), Errol Morris, and Click and Clack of "Car Talk" (both graduates of MIT). (

Cambridge is a well-run and wealthy city. It is one of about 40 municipalities in the United States to have a AAA bond rating from the three major credit rating agencies, thanks in part to sound fiscal management and the corporate property taxes it gets from large companies. It is one of about 30 municipalities in the nation to have a Class I fire department, as determined by the Insurance Services Office, or what used to be the National Board of Fire Underwriters.

Cambridge has its own water supply through Fresh Pond and does not use water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (except in emergencies).

Cambridge, like the rest of the Boston area, has been nursing an inferiority complex to New York City ever since they eclipsed us as the largest port in North America, which happened some time in the 18th century. Recently that has been partly supplanted by an inferiority complex aimed at the San Francisco Bay Area.

Until two months ago, the city was largely run by one guy (Robert Healy) who served as City Manager for 32 years straight. The city is now run by his former deputy, Richard Rossi.

Cambridge was the first city in the world to regulate recombinant DNA and genetic manipulation, starting with the famous recombinant DNA hearings before the City Council in 1976. The certainty that came from having these regulations helped make Cambridge a mecca for the biotechnology industry, which depends on recombinant DNA and wanted a well-understood regulatory environment to manufacture biologics.

Like neighboring Boston, much of Cambridge is artificially-constructed. The Charles River was dammed in 1910 to form an inland lake (the lower Charles River Basin) and allow the filling-in of the former tidal swamps that defined much of southern Cambridge from the river basin up to Central Square. MIT is built on this filled-in swamp. The height of the Charles River Basin is maintained at 7.2 feet above mean low tide by the locks near the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge -- the widest cable-stayed bridge in the world.

For the true obsessive, every summer for the last five years the Cambridge Historical Society has run what it advertises as "the largest archives tour in America." During this five-day Open Archives free-for-all, local archives (archiveses?) open their doors to the public. In the last two years this has included the Cambridge HIstorical Commission, the Cambridge Room of the Cambridge Public Library, the Cambridge Public Works Department basement archives, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Harvard Property Information Resource Center, the Harvard University Archives, the Houghton Library and Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Mount Auburn Cemetery, the Cambridge Historical Society's own house and collection, the Longfellow House–Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site, the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Christ Church, First Church in Cambridge (Congregational), the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, the MIT Rotch Library, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the MIT Museum, and the Freemasons' Lodge Collection. No other city's archives week even comes close.

In a hotel in Helsinki, I once introduced myself to a couple that shared the elevator with me and were speaking English with each other.

"Where are you folks from?" I said, which were my first words in the conversation.

"Boston," the husband said.

"Oh yeah?" I said. "I'm from Boston too!"

"No you're not," the man said. "You're gonna be from Cambridge or someplace like that. Where are you really from?"

Me: "Well, uh, I'm from Cambridge."


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