The organizers of Pit-A-Palooza are aware of the irony. They’re putting on an organized, permitted event to celebrate the impending demise of Harvard Square’s longtime home of anarchy, spontaneity and youth culture: the Pit.
The sunken area behind the entrance to the Harvard MBTA station was originally designed with the intent of showcasing street performers — and at times it did. But within months of being unveiled as part of the 1982 Red Line extension, the Pit became a gathering place for punks and outcasts. With renovations about to replace the Pit with a plaza, a group of self-described “Pit Rats” are gathering for a reunion and celebration called Pit-A-Palooza on June 25.
“I first started hanging out there in 1983, and already there was this vibrant culture in a place that previously hadn’t even existed,” says Marc McGovern, a Cambridge city councilor and former mayor, who has fond memories of hanging out with kids who wanted to be “outside the norm, who wanted to be seen as rebelling … And you had the dichotomy of these anti-establishment rebellious people right under the shadows of the most prestigious university in the world.”
Another Pit-A-Palooza organizer, Brookline-raised author Jen Deaderick, didn’t much enjoy family outings to “eat hermit bars in hippyish Harvard Square” when she was young. But in 1983, one of her friends was getting into punk rock. “I always thought punk boys were cute, so I thought if I could come to Harvard Square and catch the eye of a scruffy Pit punk rocker, we could go to the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ” which along with the late-night Café Pamplona made Harvard Square an easily accessible place with evening options for public transit-dependent teens too young to be in bars.
“There was a whole circuit — you could go to Newbury Comics, then see if any of your friends were in the Pit,” says Deaderick. (The Harvard Newbury Comics location is itself in another landmark slated for an extensive makeover, The Garage.) “This was before cell phones, so if you wanted to talk to someone, you knew they would be going through the Pit.”
Although McGovern remembers the mid-‘80s Pit as being too crowded to host performances — “we’d just bring boomboxes” — in later years, it became one of Harvard Square’s prime street entertainment spots. “We would get there around 7 or 8 a.m. to hold the spot,” remembers E. Mackler, who often played in the Pit with a group called That Band around 2002. “We’d get going around noon and tear down at midnight. To me, it was the apex of street performing in Boston. The kids there would help us pass the [tip] bucket around.” The Caribbean jazz band King’s Highway, which still performs today, got its start in the Pit. “The cabbies would stop and honk and vibe with what we were doing,” remembers band leader Alex Beram.
Both McGovern and Deaderick say the original Pit Rats they hung out with were a mix of kids who, like themselves, had beds to go back to after they hung in the Pit, as well as those without housing and at-risk youth. Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson says at some point, the type of people hanging out in the Pit changed. By the turn of the millennium, earlier generations had become adults “and they left behind a group that had a lot more needs. [Agency] Bridge Over Troubled Waters became a regular presence, and there were kids who needed food, condoms, clean needles and things like that to stay healthy and safe.”
In his 1995 Boston Phoenix profile of the kids of the Pit, Geoff Edgers observed “their stories all seemed to overlap at one point — broken homes — and stretch into drugs, sex, and everything teenagers like to experiment with. Only these kids explore that world without a safety net.”
The darker side of the Pit made headlines in 2001 when Io Nachtwey, a 22-year-old homeless woman from Hawaii, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by gang members who, according to police and prosecutors, had tried to lure the street kids in the Pit into an organized robbery ring. Calls to either police or simply demolish the Pit were sounded in the local press. Jillson says a HSBA study showed that when passengers exited the Red Line, they’d walk out of their way just to avoid the Pit. “Around 2011, we put chairs and chess tables and pieces there, and that way, chess players and families felt more comfortable. So it wasn’t excluding the kids who were in need, it was making it more inclusive.”
But while changes to Harvard Square — especially those that seem to gentrify the neighborhood — are often bemoaned, Jillson says there was no opposition to turning the Pit into a plaza, which will also house a tourism and public programming kiosk in what used to be Out of Town News.
“The Pit is not ADA compliant, and people understand and care about that kind of injustice,” says Jillson. Pit-A-Palooza will feature not just entertainment and a beer garden, but will also include a fundraiser for Bridge Over Troubled Waters and NARCAN training.
“If a new wave of punk rockers decided to start hanging out, it’s not like they couldn’t hang out in a plaza,” says McGovern. “You want to create a place that’s welcoming and inviting to people, but just because the Pit itself is not going to be there doesn’t mean that energy can’t exist.”
The City of Cambridge has declared June 25 Pit Rat Day. Pit-A-Palooza will take place in Harvard Square from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free.