Two dozen Central Square residents met Tuesday, November 23rd in the function room of the Tavern on the Square to initiate a discussion of issues and develop a plan for action for the Square. Organized by Rachel Gunther and dubbed “Vision Central Square”, the group grew out of Gunther’s frustration in getting Cambridge to respond to issues she reported and was organized via Facebook, email, and leafleting.
For those who use the Square, the issues raised by the group are not new. Trash, rats, lighting, vacant storefronts, the proliferation of banks were raised by a number of attendees, as well as the sense of the Square being unsafe due to things like obvious drug dealing and the large population of homeless people. A number commented on the Square not being a great place to take your kids. Gunther told of a concert where she and her husband brought their kids to a concert at Carl Barron Square and how they had to leave because majority of listeners were apparently intoxicated people – who she said were just dancing and having a good time – did not make the environment family friendly.
Despite these issues, many talked about having intentionally chosen to live near Central Square. People liked the diversity, the grittiness, the realness, as well as the cultural resources, restaurants, shops, and how it’s a great place to get a cup of coffee or a drink. There was a common theme of enthusiasm about what Central Square had the potential to be, and a resolve to take positive actions to move the Square forward.
Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis attended and applauded the group for meeting, saying that Central Square needs advocates to keep pressure on the city. She also noted one of the unique challenges of Central Square. “It’s a bus station,” Davis noted, “and most bus stations are enclosed and the MBTA takes responsibility for keeping them clean.” While the MBTA does help with Central Square, with a dozen bus lines converging on the Square and 10,000 commuters, it’s an ongoing burden.
Attendees reported mixed responses from reporting problems to the City. While some said they had city staff responding on the same day to deal with problems, others reported long series of frustrating phone calls that achieved no results. In light of confusion of who to contact in the city, there were a number of calls for a Cambridge “311” service. This service, operated by a number of cities, including Somerville, provides a single point of contact for citizen services. Customer service professionals answer calls to 311, requests are logged and tracked, allowing citizens to know the progress of any request and the city to analyze trends and evaluate its own performance. There was talk of “SeeClickFix”, a mobile phone and web application that allows citizens to directly report, and for the mobile phone app send in pictures, of problems. While it seems that Cambridge’s Department of Public Works monitors SeeClickFix, it’s not clear what their commitment is to responding to the problems reported there.
Three Cambridge Police officers, led by Sgt. Silverio Ferreira, having heard of the meeting via a neighborhood group mailing list, took the initiative to attend the meeting, providing information on how they handle issues of public intoxication, how to report problems, and the constraints under which they operate. The Police Department has two officers whose assignment is homeless people who try to intervene with people before their behavior becomes a community problem. Vice Mayor Davis pointed out that cuts in social services, particularly day shelters, have left the homeless with few options.
There were discussions about the other Central Square planning efforts. The Community Development Department last spring organized a series of meetings and focus groups to discuss Central Square issues. Those activities have been dormant. City Councilor Ken Reeves has led a group called the Red Ribbon Commission that has begun to meet regularly. The sponsorship, charter, and membership of this group is not clear, though reports from attendees suggest minimal citizen involvement. The City also has a Central Square Advisory Committee which appears to have only 5 of its authorized 9 members, and does not have a recorded meeting since 2009.
The attendees at Tuesday’s meeting concluded that the next steps would be to have a series of topic-focused meetings, inviting appropriate city officials to attend. The next meeting, to be scheduled after the holidays, will be about the trash, cleanliness and lighting issues and the Department of Public Works Commissioner will be invited to attend.