With streetcars, electricity, and more, Cambridge was already a modern city by the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, it was in for a number of significant changes over the next several decades. MIT moved in, immigration continued but trends in sources of immigration changed, the Great Depression and the First World War made their mark, and the people voted in a new system for electing the city council and school board. Life in early twentieth-century Cambridge was characterized by factional tensions, discussion and debate, both cultural and political.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded in 1861, but for its first fifty years, it was on the other side of the river, and many people called it Boston Tech. Appropriately enough, it was a technological change of sorts that caused MIT to decide to move: the land that had been created and groomed when Cambridge built seawalls on the Charles sat undeveloped. The school had been looking for a new campus, and while some MIT affiliates didn't like the proposed Cambridge location, the loudest protests came from Harvard. The older school's president, Charles William Eliot, had tried to absorb or buy MIT three times, and had failed. By the time the Cambridge move was in the works, the president was A. Lawrence Lowell, who worried that MIT would add to the city's tax burden. Since its inception, Harvard had not paid taxes on its ever-growing amounts of land, and Lowell feared that MIT would be the tipping point at which the city started asking for taxes. It wasn't until other cities started showing interest in enticing the school that the city of Cambridge made an offer to MIT. The university started construction in 1911 and moved in 1916. Cambridge never did start asking the schools to pay taxes, because they decided to pay the city an annual lump sum instead.1
Of course, many Harvardians saw MIT as competition for their monolithic status. Harvard did not stop producing important scientific and technological advancements, but ask any Cantabridgian today and you'll know which school has the reputation for that type of innovation. On the other hand, a Harvard-centric literary scene began to bloom in the early twentieth century. Writers from e. e. cummings to T. S. Elliot to Thomas Wolfe attended the school, and many had lasting connections to the area.2 Both schools also educated modern architects like H. H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan, and in fact, Cambridge was one of the meeting grounds of several modern architectural styles.3
While Old Cambridge was dominated by Harvard and East Cambridge gained its own university presence, the rest of the city was very much working class and populated by first and second generation Americans as well as immigrants. Early twentieth-century immigrants included Swedes, Russians, Portuguese, Poles, Armenians, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs.4 The Irish population that had once been marginalized in Cambridge became a significant force in local politics by the turn of the century. In 1901 Cambridge elected its first Irish mayor, John H. H. McNamee, and the city's government was dominated by the Irish for the next forty years.5
Immigrants in Cambridge did not form distinct, homogeneous neighborhoods like Boston's North End or Chinatown. East Cambridge and Cambridgeport were settled by a potpourri of cultures, but a sense of community by national origin did exist, as could be seen in houses of worship (mostly Catholic, but separated by national group) and in voting patterns.6
The newer ethnic groups faced serious prejudice from their neighbors. Russian Jews were particularly targeted, often by the Irish. In certain areas of Cambridgeport, Russian Jews could never be sure of their physical safety, and the police, who were largely Irish, didn't do enough to help. The Jewish community formed their own protective agencies to make up for the neglect.7
While not a new group in the area, Cambridge Blacks probably suffered the worst discrimination. Many White factory workers refused to work alongside Blacks, so no one would hire them for fear of losing their other employees. Most Blacks commuted to Boston for work. While public schools in Massachusetts had been integrated since before the Civil War, and Harvard had been integrated not long afterwards, many poor Black families didn't feel it was worth it for children to finish high school because they would have so few opportunities to use their education.8
During the First World War, Cambridge men from all walks of life enlisted, and some of the tensions between classes and races were very temporarily eased.9 Local factories produced materials for the war rather than for civilian markets. MIT taught engineering, aviation, and other skills that were essential to the war.10 The federal government established a Naval Radio School at Harvard and, once again, military barracks on the Cambridge Common.11 The war provided a short-lived sense of unity in the city, but the one common belief that Cantabridgians held for several decades was that civic life and daily living conditions should be handled differently. How exactly they were handled was up for debate.
The trend of Progressive-era social and community organizations continued steadily in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Groups such as the Cambridge Home Information Center ran cooking and housekeeping classes for women, and the Mothers' Club of Cambridge started vacation schools and built playgrounds.12 Women took the lead in many movements for the betterment of society, from public health and good housing to education to prison reform.13 In part, this activism set the stage for women to push for the right to vote, with many claiming that voting would empower women to further their role as society's caretakers. Many other progressive-era trends, including campaigns to end corruption in government and in party politics, continued well into the twentieth century, and some people even called these and related reforms “The Cambridge Idea”14
Spurred by discussions of the “political machine” and corrupt government, Cambridge debated a number of different changes to its political system in the early twentieth century. In 1911, voters shot down a proposal that included nonpartisanship (removing party names from local ballots), the right of referendum, initiative, and recall, and a new structure of voting.15 In 1915, the state legislature offered cities four options for structuring their local governments, called plans A, B, C, and D. Cambridge opted for Plan B, which included nonpartisanship and restructured some city administration with the hope of making it more transparent and representative.16
For the next fifteen years, people debated less about the structure of government, but the underlying issues of the previous campaigns stayed on people's minds. Rising property taxes, more corruption, proportional representation, tenement housing, and other issues became the platforms for a plethora of groups, such as the Cambridge Housing Association, League of Women Voters, the Cambridge Charter Association and the Socialist Party.17 During the Great Depression, many concerns about wealth and housing in particular became much more dire. The city's population declined during the 1930's as industry stagnated. It was the first time Cambridge had shrunk since the early seventeenth century.18
In 1938, some of the more radical of the reformers pushed the city to adopt Plan E, which included more administrative restructuring and also a voting system called Proportional Representation (PR for short, also called instant-runoff voting). Many people supported it, and many people called it Communism (although depending on who you asked, that wasn't necessarily a slur). The mayor and city council claimed that Plan E was concocted by Harvard's new School of Public Administration, and that they were using Cambridge as a testing ground. Papers reported that the city council planned to turn Harvard into its own municipality, an idea that generated more satire than change.19 Plan E was defeated that year by 1,300 votes.20 In 1940, after aggressive campaigning on both sides, Cambridge voted on the plan again, and this time, PR and the rest of the plan were approved. A modified system of Plan E is still in place today.
All of these changes in Cambridge took place before the Second World War. During and after the war, Cambridge's economy launched into the modern world, and even more changes were in store for the people.
1 Simha, O. R.“'Town and Gown in the Twentieth Century.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 165-166.
2Kenney, Michael. “Literary Cambridge: The Passage from the Past.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 245.
3 Fixler, David. “Cambridge Modern, 1930-1970: One Architect's View.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 60.
4Sutton, S. B. Cambridge Reconsidered: Three and A Half Centuries on the Charles. (Camgridge: The MIT Press, 1976) 96.
12 Moseley, Eva. “'The Absolute Majority of the Population': Women in 20th Century Cambridge.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 95.
14 Sullivan, Charles. “An Overview: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 4.
15Koocher, Glenn. “The Never-Boring Political History of Cambridge.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 130.
17Cunningham, Bill. “A Hundred Years of Activism – Or Was It?” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 151.
19 Sullivan 6.