Carl Barron uses a cane to get around these days, but the 94-year-old Central Square businessman doesn’t let that get in the way of his mission to improve his neighborhood. Barron, who owns the building at 620 Mass. Ave. that bears his name, has been instrumental in helping shape the square since he moved his business, Putnam Furniture Leasing Co., to the square 45 years ago. Barron, who until two years ago served as president of the Central Square Business Association, has no shortage of stories and his zest for Cambridge is obvious — his conference room showcases 168 plaques and awards on the wall and, he says, 131 in various drawers. Barron sat down with Chronicle editor David Harris last week and talked about the history and future of the square as well as what keeps him motivated.
I started in business in 1939 in Putnam Square and I had a new concept: leasing furniture, which had not been done before. And within the first 24 hours, I lost all the money I borrowed because I had no actual experience. The concept without the experience was a bad combination because I didn’t know what really to do. I grew rapidly because there was a tremendous demand for that, so after being in Putnam Square, I built the Crate and Barrel building [at the corner Trowbridge Street and Putnam Square]. I had a good tenant. He needed more space (Crate and Barrel) and I needed more space. So I decided I would evict myself. The whole building has been occupied by Crate & Barrel ever since and I moved to Central Square — that’s about 45 years ago.
When I came here, about 53 percent of all storefronts were liquor-related. I was told that Central Square was a bad place in which to do business. It was dangerous, it was a slum area. We also had the problem of the Expressway that was planned to go through and property owners were afraid their property would be taken, they didn’t want to spend money on it. So, shall we say, it deteriorated physically as well as all other aspects. The business people got together in the city and that Expressway did not go through.
I liked it because it was midway between Harvard and MIT, the locale of the city government; on the Red Line, which has good points and bad points. Bad points: [the Red Line] could take customers out of Central Square, into Boston, as well as bring them in. In those days, it was mostly family-oriented, retail business.
Over a period of time, we changed quite a bit. For example, we asked for a cap on the number of liquor establishments. I’m responsible for that. Same for fast-food operations. And then we found that the city was very, very pleased to cooperate as long as they had a responsible group of people who would represent the business community. And instead of going to 50 different people, they went to one entity.
About 20 years ago, there was a joint committee formed from the neighborhood and the business community. There were two co-chairs: [current Central Square Business Association President] George Metzger. I’ll never forget there was one night we went into the City Council, we asked for $3.5 million to do physical alterations to Mass. Ave. No argument. The result was replanning of the street, upgrading of the sidewalks, which was very beneficial for all parties.
The Central Square Business Association became very active and we found a good partner in the city. We found by giving and cooperating, we received back. That philosophy works, right down to today. I praise the police department, for example.
One of the problems that every city in the country has is homelessness. The perception is not good, but the perception is nowhere near the actuality. One of the police officers out here, Eric Helberg, knows most of the homeless personally. They’ve grown to respect him, not fear him, but respect him. They have placed a lot of the homeless into homes. There are only around 10 or 11 hardcore ones out there.
We are graffiti-free and most communities today, that creates a blightening effect, that creates fear. We have a young man named David Goldstein, who owns the [Clear Conscience Cafe]. He has worked out with the Public Works Department so that all the graffiti is removed. Central Square has changed during the time I’ve been here. The demographics, for example, from Mass. Ave. down to the Charles River, was primarily blue-collar workers. With the passage of time, those homes have been purchased by staff and faculty members of the university, those involved in high technology, so the income has very substantially increased. I think the average is about $101,000 per household. Now, that’s had a definite impact on the retail portion, because those people with higher incomes want in many cases either higher quality or different kinds of goods and services. That has created a flux in the retail, with some places moving out. Unfortunately, right now, nationwide, big chain stores are not re-opening at a very fast pace, so that’s some of the vacancies that we have in Central Square, all the way up into Arlington, Lexington, same situation. I think that we are doing as well as any part, possibly better.
The part that I happen to consider very highly is the tremendous amount of cooperation between the city officials and our association. They hold events such as cleaning the sidewalks, cleaning the streets. We now have a group trying to get the property owners and the real estate industry — they’ve already met twice in my conference room — to see what we can do to promote renting the empty spaces. We’d like to promote the good aspects, instead of just the negative ones. George Metzger does an extraordinarily good job, but there’s been a group of younger people who are willing to work and this takes a bit of self-deprivation. And that’s good.
DH: So what keeps you motivated?
I have a saying, it’s one of my own devising: if you like what you do, it’s not a hardship. And I do like what I do. I like most people, I like solving problems. At age 89, I started teaching [at Cambridge College] and at age 94, five years later, I like it even more.
What I convey to them is based completely on my experience, no theory. I also offer one hour of my time by appointment to solve any problem they have, providing it’s a business problem. Anything pertaining to their love life, I exclude.
Central Square to me is also a challenge. I remember back when I first came here and I was told I was absolutely insane. It was undesirable. The only tenant above the first floor was the Cambridge Chronicle under Bill Dole, who had the front part of the second floor, overlooking Mass. Ave. There used to be three jewelry stores in Central Square.
There are none today. If you take Central Square. If you use Central Square as the center and draw a circle, within a radius of 1.5 to 2 miles, you have an area that’s one of the most densely populated in the whole country. So how do you use that to an advantage? What kinds of people live there? Are they college professors, are they middle-class workers, are they blue-collar workers?
It has the location. There’s ready transportation, so many different forms.