Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 28, 2013

The Strange Symmetry of Cambridge History

Filed under: Cambridge — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 4:16 pm

June 28, 2013 – A recent controversy over a proposed residential project at 93 Kirkland Street for which a curb cut was sought was recently settled via a June 17 City Council vote. This was followed by a motion to Reconsider the vote at the June 24 City Council meeting. The motion to Reconsider failed and the granting of the curb cut was made final. The proponents seeking the curb cut were Mark Boyes-Watson and Muireann Glenmullen. The primary opposition came from the Dewire Family Trust representing the wishes of James and Thomas Dewire of 2 Holden Street whose families have a very long history in the neighborhood and just across the border in Somerville. There was also a petition campaign to block the curb cut initiated by some nearby residents.

To those of us who have a passion for Cambridge history, there was a magnificent symmetry in this controversy that pitted longstanding residents against what was characterized, perhaps unfairly, as an unwelcome intrusion into this established neighborhood. Indeed, in an historically significant incident 127 years earlier, it was the arrival of a saloon across the street at the site where Savenor’s Market now stands that triggered a firestorm that would help to shape the civic battle lines in Cambridge for the next century. The proprietor of that saloon was a Mr. Dewire who had recently moved his business there from just up the street in Somerville. The story of "the Dewire incident," and much of what it inspired, is told in the book "Ten No-license Years in Cambridge: A Jubilee Volume" published in 1898 by the Citizens’ No-License Committee.

The full story of this period is fascinating, especially when understood in the context of the civic reforms that it inspired which ultimately culminated several decades later in the adoption of the Plan E Charter (1940) and the establishment of the Cambridge Civic Association (1945) that owed its existence, at least in part, to the controversy triggered in 1885-86 when the saloon arrived across the street from Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton. The letter from Prof. Norton that sparked the movement follows. – Robert Winters

Cambridge, 27 April, 1886

Editor Cambridge Tribune:

I desire to call the attention of the citizens of Cambridge to a recent proceeding of the majority of the committee on licenses supported by a majority of the Board of Aldermen which seems to me to deserve the serious consideration of every one interested in the good government and the moral condition of our city and to warrant severe condemnation.

For a considerable number of years a man named Dewire has kept a grocery, and sold liquor in a shop at the corner of Washington and Beacon streets in Somerville, close to the boundary of Cambridge. Washington Street is the continuation of Kirkland Street in Cambridge. In 1884, when Somerville voted that no licenses should be granted for the sale of liquor in that city, Dewire, finding his chance of profit diminished, bought a lot over the line in Cambridge at the corner of Lynde and Kirkland streets, a few hundred feet from his original shop, and proceeded to erect upon it a double house of some pretension, fitting up the lower story in a showy and attractive manner, with large windows and other arrangements suitable for a drinking saloon. His more modest establishment in Somerville had been a nuisance to the neighborhood; his new one in Cambridge promised to be still more objectionable. He applied to the committee on licenses in 1885 for a victualler’s license, and a license to sell liquor. A protest against the granting of the license, numerously signed by residents on Kirkland and the neighboring streets, was laid before the committee; and Dewire’s petition was rejected. He, notwithstanding, proceeded to open his new establishment, and, if evidence which seems trustworthy may be relied upon, to sell liquor without a license and against the law.

Soon after the beginning of the present year, he made a fresh application for a license to the committee. A remonstrance similar to that of last year was handed in. The remonstrance was signed by such well known citizens as Professor Child, Prof. B. A. Gould, Prof. J. P. Ames, ex-Alderman C. H. Munroe, the venerable Eben Francis, Mr. L. E. Jones, three ladies, householders and residents in the immediate vicinity of Dewire’s saloon, myself, and numerous others. The remonstrants asked a hearing of the committee in case there should be any question as to the granting of the license, which they did not expect. To their surprise, they were summoned to a hearing on the 10th inst. Professor Child was prevented by illness from appearing, but ex-Alderman Munroe, the Rev. Eben Francis, Jun., Mr. F. L. Temple (the proprietor of the nursery gardens on the corner of Kirkland and Beacon streets), Professor Ames, Mr. Arthur E. Jones, and myself attended, and presented clearly the reasons against the granting of the license. The main objections we made were, – the lack of any legitimate ground for the existence of a drinking-shop in the neighborhood; the injury done and the nuisance created by it; the difficulty of keeping strict police supervision over the establishment on account of its position on the line of division between Cambridge and Somerville; the want of due regard to the express wish of the majority of voters of Somerville in case a license should be granted for the sale of liquor on its immediate boundary. We urged that the petitioner for a license ought to show cause that the granting of his petition would be for the public advantage, or, at least, would enable him to supply a legitimate public need. We pressed upon the committee the fact that the remonstrance of well-known respectable citizens of the neighborhood against a license ought to be a sufficient ground for rejection of any such application; that the committee were primarily bound to consider the moral interests of the community, and to protect it from the grave injury resulting from a practically indiscriminate granting of applications for licenses. We urged that an excessive number of licenses had been granted in previous years; that intemperance had thereby been promoted in Cambridge; that this was a case plainly of a sort in which no just ground whatever for the granting of the petition could be shown to exist.

The chairman of the committee, Mr. J. J. Kelley, avowed with a cynical frankness that did credit to his honesty, that a majority of the voters of the city of Cambridge having voted for license, and the estimates for the expenditure of the city having been made upon the basis of a receipt from licenses of at least thirty five thousand dollars, the committee proposed to grant licenses in sufficient number to secure that sum; and that they did not regard the moral interest of the community as a matter which deserved their consideration in the administration of the license system. Further, upon being questioned, he with equal frankness admitted that the number of licenses, nearly two hundred and twenty, granted last year, was in excess of any legitimate need of the inhabitants, leaving it to be inferred that, by the granting of a number so excessive, the habits of intemperance and drunkenness in the community were inevitably encouraged.

In spite of the views held by the chairman of the committee, the remonstrants against Dewire’s petition could not believe that their arguments would not, in this case at least, prevail with the committee. They could not believe that the reasonable desires of such a number of the respectable citizens of the neighborhood, most of them old residents, all of them known well as having the real interests of the city at heart, most of them payers of large taxes, would not be heeded as against the petition of a recent inhabitant, one who had taken up his residence in the city for the avowed purpose of carrying on traffic injurious to the morals of the community and condemned by every good citizen.

It was with astonishment, therefore, that they learned a few days after the hearing that the majority of the committee on licenses, consisting of Mr. Kelley and Mr. P. A. Lindsay, had, in spite of the earnest opposition of the third member, Dr. E. R. Cogswell, himself a resident on Kirkland Street, voted to recommend to the Board of Aldermen that the petition of Dewire be granted.

The remonstrants still believed that the Board of Aldermen, upon learning the facts of the case, would refuse to adopt the report of the majority of the committee.

But, on the contrary, the Board of Aldermen, at their meeting on the 21st inst., in spite of Dr. Cogswell’s presentation of the objections to the granting of the license, voted, by six to four, that the license should be granted. The names of the majority ought to be known to the citizens of Cambridge, that their course in the matter may be remembered against them. They were E. W. Hincks, G. Close, J. J. Kelley, J. Cogan, C. W. Henderson, and P. A. Lindsay.

The personal interests involved in this special case may be of small moment; it may be of little matter that the desires and arguments of a weighty body of the best citizens of Cambridge have been unceremoniously disregarded. The interests involved are not local or personal. They are those of the whole community. An outrage to the moral sense of every good citizen has been committed by those to whose guardianship not only the material but the moral interests of the city are committed. A great wrong has been done, not to the residents on Kirkland Street alone, but to every inhabitant of the city. It is a matter in which the fundamental principles of good municipal government have been brutally violated. I trust that the voice of other citizens, who have the interests of the community at heart, will be heard concerning it. I am, sir,

Your obedient servant,

Charles Eliot Norton

1 Comment

  1. I was stopped on the street today by someone who told me that this historical article was interesting but “not helpful.” Apparently, if any factual or historical account is presented which doesn’t take the side of the advocates for some position or other, this is characterized as “not helpful.” Neutrality and objectivity apparently are not welcome.

    I love everything about Cambridge – except the snobbery.

    Comment by Robert Winters — July 7, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

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