Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

December 29, 2012

On becoming a True Cantabrigian

Filed under: Cambridge — Tags: — Robert Winters @ 8:03 pm

Dec 29, 2012 – A Facebook posting just now reminded me of the fact that on Valentines Day, 2013 I’ll be marking 35 years since I relocated to Cambridge from New York (via Flagstaff, AZ). I actually moved into a Cambridge apartment a week later and my address has not changed since then. I marked the occasion of completing my 20th year in Cambridge in a Foreword in the early Cambridge Civic Journal on March 8, 1998 like this:

CCJ Issue #6 (March 8, 1998)

I suppose it’s this way in most places, certainly in much of New England. I’m talking about the situation of moving to a city or town other than where you were born and raised and never quite feeling like one of the crowd. My birthplace was Astoria, a part of New York City, and I grew up in Whitestone, north of Flushing, in Queens County in NYC. On Valentine’s Day, I quietly celebrated the 20th anniversary of my residency in Cambridge. To some, I just arrived.

The way I see it, I’ve lived here longer than every student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. I’ve participated in civic affairs at all levels. I own a house in Cambridge. I’ve run for political office here. Yet in some circles, I just arrived.

I wonder if there is anything that one can do, an initiation rite of some sort, that will allow a neo-Cantabrigian to become a true Cantabrigian? Describe the tests of physical and mental stamina that are required and I’ll begin training. Perhaps a physical competition with someone named Sullivan, Greenidge, or Koocher. I am willing to attend all Sullivan "times" for the next decade, a small inconvenience in exchange for the right to be called a true Cantabrigian.

A former reporter for the Cambridge Chronicle once wrote an article describing the difference between a native of Cambridge or Somerville and a non-native. He said that if you ask a non-native what school he went to, he tells you the name of his college or colleges. When you ask a native, he tells you his high school, even if he has a college degree.

Robert Winters, Flushing High School, Class of ’73

Those remarks brought a few very memorable responses which I published in a follow-up article three weeks later:

CCJ Issue #7 (March 29, 1998)

On becoming a True Cantabrigian

In response to my remarks about living in Cambridge for 20 years and still being thought of as a visitor in some circles, I received some wonderful and greatly appreciated responses. Here are a few:

Peter D.: I’m reminded of a story of my father’s about small-town Vermont. It seems that someone moved to a little town from the big city somewhere else, and thought it quaint that he was always referred to as "the furriner". After a couple of decades, though, it began to bother him, especially now that he had lived in the town longer than many of the younger locals who called him that.

Finally, he flat out asked someone why they kept calling him the foreigner, and was told "well, if you put a mouse in the oven, it wouldn’t make it a biscuit, would it?"

Joanne L. offered the complete text of a City Council Order that would declare me to be a True Cantabrigian with all the rights, privileges and obligations associated with this new status (except for attending alumni parties at local schools).

Phil S.: As it is said in Charlestown: "How long does one have to live in Charlestown until you are a townie?"

"Until it says it on your birth certificate."

George M.: This point was driven home for me a number of years ago when I read about a long-time Jamaica Plain resident who was running for the City Council there. At one of her public meetings, a kid barely out of his teens asked her how long she had lived in the neighborhood. She responded by saying she’d been there for 20 or 30 years. He dismissed her experience by saying, "Well, I was BORN here."

Jamie S.: I do think I have determined another indicator of the native born and outsider, at least for those who have moved here from other parts of Massachusetts. When I turn to the obituary page in the Globe, I still first look to the town where I grew up. Perhaps when my eye is drawn to the Cambridge listings first, I will have arrived.

And the best response of all:

Glenn Koocher: Here’s how you, too, can become a lifetime Cambridge resident (a.k.a. ‘Cantabrigian’) just like some of the rest of us.

But first a caveat: not everybody can undergo the conversion from outsider to one of us. And, remember, that if you’re one of them, it’s even harder.

And the discrimination of who is what goes both ways. I’ve known lifetime Cambridge people who wanted to become one of them. They spend their lives denying their East Cambridge, North Cambridge, or Cambridgeport roots, going to prestigious colleges, and altering their dialects hoping to win acceptance (e.g., more than four #1 votes from Coolidge Hill) and CCA endorsements. It doesn’t work. When push comes to shove, they’ll always vote for one of their own as opposed to someone with an ethnic last name, a hard Boston accent, or blue collar parentage.

Moreover, if you’re associated with the Cambridge Civic Association or a left wing self-styled progressive group, your place of birth is irrelevant – unless it is Cambridge, in which case it is counterproductive to have been born here unless you fit into any five of the following:

  • your people came over on a sailing ship more than 150 years ago.
  • your name isn’t too ethnic.
  • your dialect isn’t too Boston.
  • you went to a prep school and a private college.
  • your parent(s) happened to live here because they’re on the Harvard or MIT faculty.
  • you were born here only because the Mt. Auburn maternity ward or Cahill House (the Cambridge Hospital’s maternity ward until the 1960s) was where your family’s obstetrician worked (e.g., in the case of actor Sam Waterston).
  • you’re willing to practice Catholic-bashing as the anti-Semitism of the left.
  • you are willing to practice political correctness as your substitute for organized religion.
  • you are a member of a politically correct racial, ethnic, or sexual preference constituency.

Note, just because you were "born here," or have deep roots doesn’t make you a Cantabrigian in everyone’s eyes. For example, former Assistant Superintendent Oliver S. Brown had Cambridge roots going back to the 1670s and had a grandmother on Craigie Street, but it wasn’t good enough. First, with a name like Oliver, you’re in trouble from the start. Second, his people came from the wrong part of town.

Still, you, too, can be part of the long time, good old boy/girl network, but you have to work at it. For example, Alice Wolf still hasn’t been able to break in. Back in 1975, she shot back at then-School Committee candidate, but current ESPN broadcaster/ sports talk show host, and Herald and Boston Magazine scribe, Steve Buckley (Fayette Park & Prospect Street) with, "I may not be a lifetime Cambridge resident like Steve, but I’ve lived here since before he was born." Consider the following:

1. Trace your lineage to a former (or better yet, prominent) Cantabrigian or family of the right political stripe. A lot of lifetime Cambridge people were actually born and raised in Arlington to which their parents or grandparents moved after selling the house in Cambridge for a killing. These Arlingtonians are instantly and permanently grandfathered in because their families were one of us. This works for Irish, Italians, Polish, Lithuanians, Portuguese, Armenians, and, if they have blue collar Cambridge roots, a few Jews.

2. Marry a local girl or boy. This automatically grandfathers you in. My mother’s family (and this was something of a secret) was actually from Winthrop and (even more of a secret) Chelsea. But after she married into the Koocher family in 1946, that was never an issue for any of us. Outsiders who married locals were welcomed in right away. Jimmy Tingle’s father had a southern accent, but he married a thoroughbred, blue collar Cambridge girl with strong roots in East Cambridge. He was always totally accepted and considered a native.

3. Get a blue collar city job and work it for a while. No matter what your roots are, if you’ve ridden shotgun on a public works truck, dug trenches for the Water Department, or washed the floor at the Cambridge Hospital, you can get special consideration. (Working at the library does not count). This takes a few months so you can be seen. Make sure that everyone knows you play the football card every week in season. This works fast.

4. Change your politics and practice it. Start going to times, and make contributions to our candidates. Perform your grassroots dues by standing out at visibilities, handing out poll cards, sending dear friend post cards, and….Spend some serious time at Charlie’s Kitchen, Guido’s Florida Cafe, Puglese’s, Joey Macs, the Druid, or the Windsor Cafe. If you get hungry, try the S&S, Frank’s Steak House, Cambridge Common, or any Dunkin Donuts. If you must go out of town to dine, Greg’s, an inch over the border into Watertown, is also acceptable. These tactics work, but they take a long time. Be prepared to wait as long as a generation.

5. Change your drinking habits. Switch to Lite Beer and never be seen with wine of any kind unless it comes out of a bottle costing no more than $1.99 and is consumed out of a brown paper bag.

6. Never buy anything but a newspaper in Harvard Square and, then, only from Nini’s.

7. Work hard at changing your dialect and knowing the local nuance. The Boston accent and the vaguely distinguishable Cambridge variation is a basis for discrimination by outsiders, but a sign of acceptability to us. Try to understand the very unique things that help us identify outsiders from the rest of us. For example, a real Cambridge person knows that Elm Street (e.g., intersects Broadway) is pronounced El-um, and that Elm Street near Porter Square is pronounced as a one syllable word. We also know the difference between the Kennedy School (emphasis on the first Ken) at Harvard and the Kennedy School (emphasis on the School) in East Cambridge. Refer to the Harvard Square theater as the University Theater and brag about how you don’t go there any more, but how much you miss the Central Square Theater or the Inman Show.

8. Read the obituary page daily. Know where all the bodies are buried, and who’s related to whom. Start going to wakes of people you really knew but whose family might not have been expecting you. This might not get you totally accepted, but will make you amply tolerated – even genuinely liked (e.g., Geneva Malenfant).

9. Have a basic level of political knowledge of our local leaders. Never use last names when referring to Walter or Michael and remember that it is always Edward, not Eddie, when speaking as an insider of the revered Sullivan family. Never refer to Al without mentioning the Vellucci. And, when you refer to the Maynard School, make sure you call it the old Roberts School first and then make a point to mention what a great guy Joe Maynard was (may his soul rest in peace).

10. When attending the count, hang out with us, not with them.

11. NEVER boast about how you loved the Yankees or Knicks as a kid, or how much you hate hockey.

12. And, most important, next time you’re in Charlie’s Kitchen, or Guido’s, or Puglese’s, the Druid, or the Windsor, and you see some local pundits, always buy a few rounds.

So, anyone want to meet me at Charlie’s Kitchen the 3rd week of February? You’re buying. – Robert Winters


  1. I like this blog!

    Comment by Sarah Betancourt — December 29, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

  2. Glad to know that my post got you thinking of your own history with the city. Great read.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — January 2, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

  3. Charlies is overrun with Harvard students most nights. Or did you mean just after noon on a weekday?

    Tom Stohlman
    Gonzaga College High School
    Eye Street

    PS I first met Cambridge in 1972, when I left Kendall Station and promptly got lost trying to find my way to the Institute. Not much has changed in 40 years.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — January 4, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  4. Back when Glenn wrote that in 1998, Charlies was not dominated by Harvard students, or at least I didn’t perceive it as such. I remember it mainly as a place to get a burger and a beer and to run into some familiar faces. Upstairs was also a place where local street performers and their constellations would gather at the end of the night. Most or all of them have since moved on.

    Now that they have their beer garden, I can see how Charlies would be more of a Harvard draw than before.

    Comment by Robert Winters — January 4, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  5. Perhaps it has come full circle? I had a woman spit out “townie” when she found out I was born in Cambridge.

    [Ed. note – Real names are generally required on this forum.]

    Comment by Offal Truth — January 5, 2013 @ 8:54 am

  6. Charlies has definitely changed. It was always a local place with cheap food and you got it the way they wanted you to get it. I remember being amazed when I went in and ordered a double cheeseburger special, tops, fries no salad, and the waitress asked me how I wanted my burger cooked. I knew that was the end. There really aren’t too many old places left for us townies, but, Robert, if you ever want to meet at the Cantab or the Hideaway Pub for a beer, just let me know.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — January 5, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

  7. My first brunch was the S&S, first steak was Franks, first root beer was the Tasty and first legal beer at Cambridge Common so I’ve covered the bases. I also love Gregs but Guidos sleeps with the fishes now. Not sure if it matters in politics anymore side the Townies are mostly gone and even East Cambridge is getting gentrified. The last name of Sullivan no longer guarantees a spot on the Council. Last election I can remover where the old divide was preset was Galluccio v Wolf in the 96 primary for State Rep. Clear classic town v gown division. Another old question to figure out how long and where your from instead of what school what parish?

    Comment by James Conway — January 13, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  8. I remember being called a “barnie” and having garbage thrown at me when a bunch of us college grad hippie pinkos lived in communes on the Broadway and Columbia corner in 1971-2. CRA paid us a thousand each to relocate and we carried our stuff across the street to a Chiccarelli building. At a rent control strike hearing, she yelled “THEY WANT MY BLOOD, THEY WANT MY BLOOD! ” Ah, memories. I’ve lived kitty corner to Villa Velluci in almost -East Cambridge, attended many times, and busked in Harvard Square. Now retired and living two blocks from where I did 35 years ago in my favorite spot in the universe, Cambridgeport, I know I am not worthy to be a Cantabrigian.

    Comment by Marcia Deihl — February 15, 2013 @ 11:48 am

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