How Is The BioBoom Changing The Community — And Culture — Of Cambridge?

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The Cambridge Innovation Center at 1 Broadway is home to 25 biotech companies, according to one tally. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Cambridge Innovation Center at 1 Broadway is home to 25 biotech companies, according to one tally. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Without a doubt, the biotech industry has disrupted Cambridge — or at the very least, added a major new element to its mix.

In this segment, we speak with a panel of Cambridge stakeholders about the implications of the city’s biotech explosion on its community and culture — from swelling rents and school achievement gaps to the corporatization of a once-edgy cultural hub.

Below are selected highlights from the segment, lightly edited.

Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, on keeping Cambridge affordable:

"I think the biggest thing that the city could do is try to create more housing units, so that the market helps to stabilize itself so we catch up with demand to some degree. But part of it is also to create more, and more deed-restricted, units, which we do through a couple of different avenues. One is through all new residential development. We ask for 20 percent of the square footage to be dedicated for housing that's affordable…”

“And on the commercial side, when somebody develops commercials space, we also have what's called incentive zoning. For each square foot that they develop, they have to pay a certain amount that goes to the city's affordable housing trust fund, and those funds are utilized for creation and preservation of affordable housing. That number changes with CPI, and is slated to increase in September 2018.”

Kenneth Salim, superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools, on the changing demographics of the school district:

“There certainly have been some significant changes in terms of the makeup of the school system. Overall, about 45 percent of our student population is eligible for free and reduced lunch. But that in some ways masks the distribution that we have seen, which has become wider over time. And that, I think, is because there is really a shrinking middle class […] Certainly, there continues to be families from low income backgrounds. There are housing developments that exist in Cambridge. At the same time, there are certainly families from wealthier backgrounds, [and today] we see the tails of that bimodal distribution even further apart.”

Salim also touched on the role of partnerships with local biotech giants in promoting access for students to the area’s unique learning opportunities.

“We're looking at what we've done to try to create a focused vision around narrowing opportunity and achievement gaps. Circling back to the beginning of the conversation around industry and Kendall Square, [we are] thinking about how our partnerships with different companies support students that may not otherwise have access to those resources. When we have partnerships with the Biogen Foundation, [we are] looking at how we provide STEAM and STEM opportunities for students in and out of school time that provide exposure, as well as internships and mentorships, and allow students to see professionals that look like them, which is something that we don't have enough of in public education. “

Longtime resident John Summers, founder of the nonprofit Lingua Franca Media and former editor of The Baffler, on what he feels is a disturbing cultural trend:

“This is my eighteenth year [here]. Cambridge is my second home. And there are many aspects of the city that I like very much. At the same time, in the period that I've been here, the cultural trend has accelerated in one direction only, and that is the decline of scruffy or edgy cultural enterprises: mom and pop culture shops, art galleries, bookstores, theater companies, musical venues, and independent magazines. One would encounter these expressions on the streets of Cambridge more so 15 years ago than one does anymore. That is a subjective impression, but one that most of your listeners will nod their heads to if they’ve been here long enough.”

Farooq was quick to counter claims that Harvard Square has developed a “sanitized, corporate feel”:

“I would attribute what you’re describing not so much to biotech and the pressures that that brings— I think that may be a false correlation—but certainly to the fact that there are these macro trends in the world right now in terms of where people shop and how they choose to invest their time […] I have that similar romantic recollection of Harvard Square. But the truth of the matter is we all need to be supporting those enterprises that we want to see remain in the city, because there is more competition for the same amount of space. It's all private property and so it's transactional in its nature.”

Summers snapped back:

“The idea that city planners can do nothing about it is not true. […] I think it’s important to remember what we lose when we lose [culture]. You lose a vision of the future.”

This segment aired on June 6, 2018.


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