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Northwest Cambridge

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Now a varied landscape of three-decker housing and commercial development, Northwest Cambridge grew more slowly than the rest of Cambridge. This section of the city is actually composed from parts of three early settlements—Watertown, Charlestown, and Newtowne (Cambridge). The area remained purely agricultural throughout the colonial period, primarily inhabited by yeoman farmers and a small number of country estate owners. After the Revolution and the construction of the new bridges to Boston, the local economy began to turn from individual, self-sufficient farmsteads into commercial farming to serve the Boston markets.

The construction of railroad lines through Cambridge from the 1840s on made the inexpensive land here attractive for urban fringe development of those industries not tolerated elsewhere. Tanneries, brickyards, slaughterhouses, carriage factories, and the city almshouse found homes in Northwest Cambridge. To serve these activities, new waves of immigrant workers were attracted to nearby housing. The cattle market, slaughterhouse, and related industries developed first from Porter Square north along Massachusetts Avenue. By the mid-nineteenth century, carriage builders also inhabited this district. Fresh Pond became an active site for the harvesting and transporting of ice in the early nineteenth century and then a part of the Cambridge water system after 1852. Ample deposits of clay east of Alewife Brook and Fresh Pond generated substantial brick industries from the eighteenth into the twentieth centuries. After the demise of these brickyards, this industrial landscape was easy prey for highways and strip commercial development.

Beyond the industrial infrastructure, Northwest Cambridge experienced residential development tied to the rail lines, trolley routes, and automobile corridors. The colonial farms were divided from the 1840s on, without a comprehensive plan for subdivision. Housing for the middle and working classes evolved as land became available. The ubiquitous three-deckers joined workers cottages and boardinghouses in the later nineteenth century. After World War II, public housing projects entered the neighborhoods; these reached their greatest density in the public/private financing of the three twenty-two-story Rindge Towers (1968–1970, S. J. Kessler and Sons). With single-, two-, and three-family residences combined with town houses and apartment buildings, Northwest Cambridge now offers a diverse range of housing options.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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