[Hpn] Slaying of street kid draws critics' eye
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.