[Hpn] Slaying of street kid draws critics' eye

wtinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Fri, 23 Nov 2001 09:01:52 -0500

       Slaying of street kid draws critics' eye to 'Pit'

       Young outcasts flock to Harvard Square site

       By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 11/23/2001

      CAMBRIDGE - City Councilor Michael Sullivan never much liked the
 ''Pit,'' the sunken amphitheatre at the Harvard Square T stop that has long
 attracted the body-pierced and leather-clad.

       But when a Hawaiian runaway was slain on Nov. 3, allegedly by youths
 who frequented the gritty gathering place, Sullivan decided the time had
 come to take action: shut it down, change the way it is policed, and
 ultimately change the physical layout of the 80s-era space, to make it less
 of a magnet for outcast types.

       ''It's a lousy design, and it's not clear what it was designed for in
 the first place,'' Sullivan said, with a skepticism reminiscent of recent
 critiques of Boston's City Hall Plaza. ''It doesn't suit any activity for
 the larger community. It locks you in. It steps down. It's not easy to
 traverse. It's hard to monitor.''

       Sullivan's call for a reassessment of the Harvard Square T stop area
 was approved by the City Council Monday night. But the focus on the Pit
 following the killing of Io Nachtwey, who hung out there often, has taken
 all the attributes of a classic Cambridge exercise in self-analysis, as
 Harvard Square once again puzzles over its identity: scholarly or
 street-smart, grimy or clean, exclusive or open to all.

       ''The Pit is part of this community,'' declared City Councilor
 Marjorie Decker. ''It has musicians, rebellious teenagers, honor students.
 The murder has reminded us all of the dark side that exists there and in
 city, but closing the Pit down and shifting the kids to another part of the
 square isn't the way to address it.''

       ''It's a gathering of people, and it's not scripted,'' added Jinny
 Nathans, president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, an association of
 property owners and preservationists. ''There are bad things that happen
 there, but you wouldn't want to sanitize it.''

       On any given day the area around the Harvard Square ''headhouse'' -
 the entry point for escalators to the station below and the Red Line - is
 indeed a lively and eclectic scene, a concentrated display of urban life. A
 woman calls out constantly for spare change. A young man with purple hair
 and a metal-studded leather jacket crouches by an empty fifth of liquor.
 Professorial figures leaf through the New York Review of Books at
 Out-of-Town News. Someone has set up a table for the fringe political
 Lyndon LaRouche, at a spot usually reserved for a one-man band.

       ''I don't remember it being that bad,'' said Walter Rivers, ringing a
 bell by a Salvation Army kettle, and recalling how he used to hang out
 there. ''There were great a cappella performances. Maybe this (killing) was
 an isolated incident.''

       Though the space is firmly in the collective memory of the city - not
 only Rivers, but Decker and Nathans said they hung out at the Pit as
 youths - it has gone through several permutations, and another revamping is
 in store.

       Harvard Square was just a triangular intersection of streets when the
 subway came through in 1912, according to Charles Sullivan, head of the
 Cambridge Historical Commission. With the underground station came the
 ornate headhouse, which is now used by the Out-of-Town newsstand. In the
 1980s, when the Red Line was extended to Porter Square and ultimately
 beyond, the new station and headhouse were built, designed by Skidmore,
 Owings and Merrill; the process began in the mid-1970s and took 10 years.

       The idea was for the Pit to be an amphitheatre for spontaneous
 street-music performances, said the lead designer, Peter Hopkinson. The
 sunken area gave a sense of protection from busy streets, he said.

       ''We cared about every brick. It was very consciously designed,''
 Hopkinson. The idea of the Pit was to create a space for street musicians,
 insulated and separate from Massachusetts Avenue, on land that itself used
 to be a street: before the Red Line extension, cars could go straight
 to Brattle Street, right in front of Cambridge Savings Bank.

       Hopkinson also created more car-free space in front of Bertucci's at
 Brattle Square - a space that is perceived to be much more inviting and
 successful, filled with street performers and musicians following in the
 steps of Tracy Chapman.

       ''I have no idea why one place is a great success and the other
 out to be so problematic. It is peculiar,'' Hopkinson said. ''As architects
 we try to design spaces for an intended purpose. I've thought about it for
 many years.''

       While Hopkinson sought to create a tranquil place away from cars, the
 Pit turned into a place to crouch down in, rather than a stage on which to
 juggle or strum guitar, business owners say.

       ''It's an interesting, eclectic group of people. But it brings a lot
 of noise and trash,'' said Nelson Goddard, senior vice president for
 administration at Cambridge Savings Bank, which directly overlooks the
 ''It's sort of a no-man's land in terms of jurisdiction.''

       Long before Nachtwey was slain, the city of Cambridge started a
 process for redesigning Harvard Square, said city spokeswoman Ini Tomeu. A
 citizens' redesign committee is being formed and a new design firm is being
 sought, she said.

       The focus of that effort is on such matters as the width of the
 sidewalk along Church Street and access for deliveries on Winthrop Street,
 as well as lighting and ''street furniture'' - benches, newspaper condos,
 public toilets, and the like. But the Pit will be closely scrutinized as
 well, Tomeu said.

       For Sullivan, the city councilor, the design of the physical space
 had the ultimate unintended consequence.

       ''Apparently this was a good place to do recruiting'' into gangs, he
 said, adding that troublemakers such as those accused in Nachtwey's slaying
 ''go in there and prey on other kids,'' using the walls and crannies of the
 space for cover.

       Crime, in the Harvard Square station and above it, is up in several
 categories, according to Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the Massachusetts
 Transportation Authority. There have been 17 assaults so far this year
 compared with nine last year, for example, and 16 larcenies - typically
 pickpocketing - compared with four last year.

       David Hirzel, a principal at Sasaki & Associates, said that even
 public spaces created for a specific purpose can ''end up being used in
 that surprise us.''

       He recalled the decision to locate the Copley Square park a step down
 from Boylston Street, to put distance between the park and the roadway.
 That, however, gave the appearance of isolating the park, and people hid in
 the space between the park and the sidewalk, making the area more

       However, Hirzel warned against trying to scrub urban spaces too
 Unwanted characters may be shooed away from privatized areas, he said, but
 public spaces are the last bastion of the uncontrolled and spontaneous, the
 embodiment of what it means to live in a city.

       Urban designers seek to ''create a public space that is wonderful and
 elegant and has a signature, but that sets a stage for a variety of things
 to happen,'' Hirzel said. ''That's as opposed to saying, `This is what has
 to happen.'''

       The Pit, he said, is ''part of the color of Harvard Square, in a city
 that has a tradition of letting people express their ideas. I would hate to
 see a response that turned it into more Abercrombie and Fitch-ville.''

       Genuine and real and spontaneous, sure - but up to a point, said
 Councilor Sullivan, who intends to keep a close watch on the redesign
 process for Harvard Square.

       ''It has to be done for the safety of the general public and the kids
 that are there,'' he said. ''I'm the father of two young kids. I can't
 imagine my kid being shipped home in a body bag.''

       Anthony Flint can be reached by e-mail at flint@globe.com.

       This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2001.
        Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.