Cambridge Journal: Massachusetts City No Longer in Boston’s Shadow

By Ron Bernthal

With over 100,000 residents, and an increasing number of new hotels, restaurants, and corporate offices, Cambridge has shed its former image as a small college town across the river from Boston.

Next year Cambridge, Massachusetts, will celebrate its 370th year since it was named after the famous university town in England. Historians say that Cambridge actually dates back a few years earlier, to 1630, when the village of Newtowne was established on the west bank of the Charles River, across from Boston, by members of the original puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1638, two years after Harvard University was founded, the early settlers in Newtowne decided to rename the village to reflect its status as a university town, and Cambridge has played an important role in American history ever since, as one of the hot beds of the American Revolution, and as an important center for 19th-century writers, artists, educators, and progressive social movements of all kinds. It also became a major industrial center, and by 1920 was one of the largest industrial centers of New England.

Today, most Americans think of Cambridge as part of Boston, but it is its own big city, with a population of 101,000 people squeezed into just six square miles, making it the fifth largest city in Massachusetts, and the 5th most densely populated city in the country.

It also is home to six colleges, which account for about 31,000 students that arrive each September.

Inman Square, Cambridge. (Photo: Christine Danko)

If any other city in the country was known as the city of squares, you might think it had something to do with the collective psyche, but Cambridge residents are certainly not square. At the MIT museum, where a permanent exhibition deals with artificial intelligence, most of the robotics on display were created by Cambridge residents studying and working at MIT Mary lean is associate director of the mit museum.

“The museum is the public face of MIT, and our exhibition on robotics truly personifies the brilliant students and researchers who work in the area, and shows off our contributions as a world famous research institution,” said Mary Lean, Associate Director of the MIT Museum.

The Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences, designed by noted architect Frank Gehry, is one of many unique buildings on MIT's Cambridge campus (Photo: Ron Bernthal)

Cambridge is called the “City of Squares” because many of its commercial districts are centered around two intersecting streets, such as Central Square, or Kendall Square. Of course, since the streets here were laid out in colonial times, a square is not always square, as in Harvard Square, which is really triangular in shape.

Cambridge is no slouch when it comes to restaurants either, with more than 200 eateries within the city, ranging from student cafes to high end fine dining establishments. Central Square is a gritty Cambridge neighborhood with soul and attitude, and several scruffy, inexpensive ethnic restaurants – Middle East, Bengali, Mandarin – and one very good eclectic restaurant called Rendezvous. I came especially for the grilled Portuguese sardines, which I read about in Corby Kummer’s July/August Atlantic article, “The Rise of the Sardine.” Served with a fennel vinaigrette and roasted tomato bruschetta, with a cold Italian Aia dei Colombi wine, and the best French bread this side of Lyon, it was all quite delicious. And that was just the appetizer.

I also ordered the grilled wild sockeye salmon, hoping it held up after its frozen flight from Anchorage, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful red fish, perfectly cooked and tasting great with its accompanying olive oil-braised artichokes. I had decided to sit at the restaurant bar and found myself surrounded by regulars, including two young women who gave me a taste of their Thai Basil Cocktail (excellent), and an older professorial type who convinced me to order the mixed summer berry shortcake with toasted almonds for dessert, a good choice.

The bar at Rendezvous on Central Square: (Photo: Courtesy Rendezvous Restaurant)

The 75-seat restaurant is bright and airy, large skylights let in lots of light, and it is open seven days a week, but only for dinner. The menu is limited, but with a French Mediterranean style (striped bass and littlenecks with pesto, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers & radishes; roast chicken with preserved lemon, couscous, sherry, almonds and honey; Gascon style duck 3 ways–grilled breast, confit leg and country sausage; and braised rabbit with jam�n Serrano, chanterelles, haricots verts & fresh tagliatelle) that is so authentic and fresh, it is difficult to choose just one dish.

“There has been a trend in the city in recent years for more upscale restaurants,” said Steve Johnson, the Manager at Rendezvous. ” This has led to even better mid-range restaurants in Cambridge and in nearby communities, so residents don’t really have to travel to downtown Boston anymore to find excellent cuisine, nice surroundings, and very reasonable prices.”

Hotels have also become more numerous, and more interesting, in Cambridge these days. The Kendall Hotel, for example, was once Firehouse #7, a late 19th-century Cambridge landmark on Main Street in Kendall Square. The Queen Anne-style building was built to accommodate stables for the team of horses used to pull the fire wagons, coal bunkers to fuel the steam pumpers, and dormitories for the firemen, complete with brass poles. The firehouse closed in 1993, and was the only remaining 19th century building in this area of Cambridge, now built up with early 20th-century and more modern MIT campus buildings.

“The owners of the hotel bought the old firehouse and converted it into a wonderful B&B hotel,” said Brenda Anderson, a spokesperson for the property. “They have managed to incorporate much of the historic structure into the new design, including one of the rooftop cupolas, and the two huge front doors, which had to be big enough to accommodate the horses and fire wagons.”

The Cambridge couple that converted the fire house to a 77-room bed and breakfast hotel is Charlotte Forstyhe and Gerald Fonetti, and by leaving much of the historic architectural design intact they have managed to preserve the building, and the memory, of this 19th century Cambridge landmark.

If you go…

The Kendall Hotel, 350 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02142
Local Phone: (617) 577-1300; Web Site:
Rates: $165-425 per room, double occupancy, includes breakfast

Rendezvous Restaurant, 502 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139; (617)576-1900;

MIT Museum, 265 Mass. Avenue, Cambridge, 02139; (617) 253-4444;

Cambridge Tourism Office, 4 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; (800)


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