Cambridge: where Bohemia meets big bucks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

You see it in the "Embrace Diversity" bumper stickers and the plethora of used-book shops. In Noam Chomsky lectures and the yard signs touting Green Party candidates.

Cambridge is supposed to be the embodiment of everything that is Intellectual, that is Liberal, that is Hip, Quirky, and Countercultural.

It is also, it turns out, home to quite a few millionaires.

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When the Census Bureau recently released its list of US cities with the highest percentages of million-dollar homes, there was Cambridge - or, as it's sometimes known across the Charles River, the People's Republic of Cambridge - in the No. 1 spot. By a lot. Over in Boston, some people had to be chuckling.

To be fair, Cambridge's top position is a bit skewed. The census considered only cities with a population of 100,000, and Cambridge just barely squeaked by. It also looked only at owner-occupied single-family homes - ruling out the majority of Cambridge residences, which are rented, multifamily, or both.

But with a whopping 12 percent of those single-family homes valued over $1 million, the census ranking still highlights the difference between the image and reality of Cambridge. As housing costs soar, the city seems in the throes of an identity struggle. The quirky coffee shops and women's centers haven't disappeared, but the ranking shines a light on that less visible Cambridge of stately homes and wealthy urbanites.

"It's ironic," says Richard Peiser, a real estate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. But the ranking, he adds, is not surprising. "Cambridge has been a bipolar city income-wise for longer than I can recall.... There's an argument to be made that its liberal tendencies have exacerbated the income split."

Rent control, for instance, existed here until 1994. Mr. Peiser and others say that diminished the incentive to build new housing and improve rental properties. Antigrowth policies played a part, too. "Protection policies [such as rent control] ... tend to reduce development of new housing that might cater to the group that aren't poor but aren't very, very rich." Peiser notes that, even as a Harvard professor with a doctor wife, he couldn't afford a house in Cambridge. They bought a place in nearby Newton instead.

If Cambridge is a magnet for the wealthy, however, many of its residents are at the other end of the spectrum. Michael Sullivan, the city's mayor, notes that 17 percent of the housing is affordable. "Yes, we're the highest percentage in the country [of million-dollar homes]. We're probably the highest in the country also [in terms of] contributing local tax dollars to affordable housing." Still, he admits, the ranking disturbs him. "What it really shows is the difficulty we have with regard to middle-income housing."

In fact, unsubsidized housing in Cambridge - as in most of the Boston area - is exorbitantly expensive. Even the term "million-dollar home" is misleading. A million dollars might buy a mansion in most of America; here, it buys you about 1,800 square feet.

To Fred Meyer, owner of University Real Estate and a 44-year resident, it comes down to Cambridge allure: two prestigious universities and a plethora of artistic and intellectual venues, all a few subway stops from Boston, but with a less urban feel. "It's a lifestyle," he says. "You can walk to concerts and museums; you can audit courses at Harvard."

In recent years, though, even Mr. Meyer admits costs have gotten out of hand. He points to one home, between Harvard and Porter Squares. In 1993, it went for about $400,000. Now it's listed at $1.5 million.

The house - an unassuming blue clapboard on a shady street - has bright rooms, hardwood floors, and a home theater. But even the owner says it's not fancy. "Fancy starts at $2.5 million in Cambridge," says Neal Burnham, a software developer who lives there with his wife and daughter.

Mr. Burnham, who attended MIT in the '70s, says Cambridge has changed enormously, in part because of its fast-rising technology sector: "That's upset the town-and-gown balance." But, he notes, people often overlook the old, upscale parts of Cambridge - Julia Child's house and the walled-in homes of William James and e e cummings, all of which are nearby. "Cambridge is a city of many identities," he says.

In the cramped Grolier Poetry Bookshop, where shelves of Latin American poets spill into Brits and Scandinavians, owner Louisa Solano mourns the old Cambridge, in which John Ashbery and Robert Creeley dropped by to talk shop with Robert Bly and Frank O'Hara. She remembers when the Beats hung out at the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria - now gone - and when the Tasty diner was where Abercrombie & Fitch now stands. "You met Cambridge eccentrics there," she says sadly. "Now Cambridge lacks color."

Still, many Cantabrigians are shocked at the ranking. Marlene Wicherski, hurrying home with bags of groceries in the tony Agassiz neighborhood, sums it up: "It's supposed to be such a liberal community, and it turns out so many rich people live here!"

Mansion meccas

Cities with highest percentages of owner-occupied single-family homes worth $1 million or more. The US average is 0.6 percent.

Cambridge, Mass. 11.6%

San Francisco 7.0

Pasadena, Calif. 4.7

Los Angeles 3.8

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 3.3

Berkeley, Calif. 3.2

Stamford, Conn. 2.7

Honolulu, Hawaii 2.6

Atlanta 2.6

Fremont, Calif. 2.6

Source: US Census Bureau

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