Growing up in Cambridgeport has been idyllic, but Gen Zers see the area changing around them
Above image: Nora Sokolovska, left, and Katrina Pallais contributed this photo of them now.
By Gretchen G. Adams, 2023
Neither Nora Sokolovska nor Katrina Pallais can imagine a better place to grow up than Cambridgeport. And the 17-year-olds don’t just mean in comparison to other Cambridge neighborhoods. They mean on the face of the earth. Both have lived in Cambridgeport their entire lives and feel immensely grateful that their parents settled there.
What makes Cambridgeport such an idyllic spot in which to be a child? Katrina and Nora shared their views during a recent conversation. They agree that the large number of parks and playgrounds are key, enticing people of all ages to come outside and bump into each other. From the time they were small, their parents toted them to the Morse School playground, a “child hot spot” in Katrina’s words, to push them in bucket swings. Once they could stand, the girls tried out their unsteady legs on the squishy playground surface, then began exploring the climbing structures and learning to propel themselves on the big kid swings.
In spring and summer, they joined crowds of neighbors to watch (but not really) Little League baseball. Instead of sitting in the bleachers and rooting for friends and relations, they frequented the snack shack and Mr. Frosty ice cream truck, pumped back and forth on the high swings, and moved in and out of groups playing basketball, zipping around on scooters or playing tag. But by far the most appealing pursuit on those summer nights was trying doggedly to hoist themselves up onto the top of metal storage units in which the baseball teams stashed supplies. When they were tall enough and strong enough to succeed, they felt elated, poking fun at annoying smaller children, just as older children had teased them in the past. Katrina remembers, “We would literally talk down to them. ‘There’s no room. Sorry you can’t come up here.’” It was a cyclical thing. There wasn’t anything to actually do on top of the units – it was just satisfying to make it up there, to distinguish themselves from the younger children.
The girls next set their sights on the roof of the Morse School. When they were in seventh grade, older children showed them the ways up and down. Both remember the adrenaline rush they felt upon first summiting the school. As the years progressed, they ventured farther and farther back on the roof, eventually climbing a forgotten ladder to the highest portion above the gym. They enjoyed watching the sunset from this perch. But their favorite days on which to scale the school were the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, when the height provided an excellent vantage point for viewing Boston’s fireworks. Occasionally police patrols noticed the kids and shouted up to them to climb back down. The officers were generally kind. They seemed more concerned about safety than the fact the kids were breaking a rule.
The pedestrian bridge over Memorial Drive made it easy to get to the riverfront with its huge beautiful trees, and most importantly, the Veterans Memorial Swimming Pool at Magazine Beach. They trotted over barefoot, scurrying when their feet encountered heat-absorbing asphalt. While neither girl minded being barefoot outside, they donned flip-flops before going into the moldy, off-putting locker room, where they spent as little time as possible. They often whiled away five or six hours in the water; by the time they were ready to go home, their fingers and toes were “shriveled-up prunes.” Because buses filled with day campers disgorged hordes of rowdy children to share “their” pool on scorching hot days, Nora often opted to swim when it was cloudy. The crowds were smaller and the water felt extra warm in comparison to the air.
On nice evenings, the girls collected their pals, ringing doorbells as they proceeded up Pearl Street, to come play Sardines, Capture the Flag or Manhunt. They enjoyed a delicious sense of freedom as they scampered through the twilight hiding themselves in trees and bushes, or wedged themselves into shadowed playground structures, hoping to avoid discovery by the child who was “it.”
Whole families gathered. Like their children, parents conversed and struck up friendships in the playgrounds. Impromptu summer potlucks ensued. Sometimes at Morse, sometimes in Hastings Square (“grass park”), which was conveniently near Dimitrio’s pizza.
Katrina attended the bilingual program at Amigos and Nora, the Morse School and later the Putnam Avenue Upper School. Two neighborhood friends, Eddie and Grant, drew children from the two schools together on snow days. Wanting to be certain they had the best possible sleds, they roamed the neighborhood mustering other children. Packs of children would congregate to whiz down mountains of snow that plows had deposited in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and at Fort Washington Park.
Both young women are keenly aware that Cambridgeport’s demographics are changing. Residents are whiter and wealthier than when they were small. Nora and Katrina lament the fact that multifamily dwellings are being renovated to house single families. Many are being bought by wealthy couples without children. Other houses in which their friends used to live are now home to college students. While neither Katrina nor Nora have anything against college students – hoping, in fact, to attend universities in a few years themselves – they note that these young people are transient and generally don’t make connections with their neighbors. Some apartments that were rentals are now Airbnbs. This, too, reduces the number of long-term residents, decreasing the number of children.
Most of their friends who remain in Cambridgeport are white, but often what they call “spicy” white, meaning one parent is from a foreign county. Both teens fall into this category: Katrina’s father was born in Nicaragua, while Nora’s father is Macedonian. Nora has always called her father “tato,” the Macedonian word for “dad.” Her friends, thinking his name was Tato, began calling him that too. Nora’s dad found this very amusing, remarking, “I have so many children!”
When the girls entered ninth grade at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, they made friends with children from other Cambridge neighborhoods. They began exploring sections of the city they hadn’t realized even existed (The Coast, West and East Cambridge). While many were pleasant, none rivaled Cambridgeport! No other neighborhood provided the same easy access to nature, had as many lovely parks, as dense a concentration of children or the sense of community as their beloved Cambridgeport.
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Gretchen G. Adams is a volunteer for History Cambridge.
This article was originally published in our “Did You Know?” column in Cambridge Day.