a collection of red bricks on a wood floor

Setting up a Neighborhood History Center provided a physical connection with the past

By Beth Folsom, 2024

History Cambridge embarked on a new model of programming in January 2023 centered on the deeper exploration of one city neighborhood each year. Beginning with Cambridgeport and continuing in 2024 with North Cambridge, the Neighborhood History Center model has enabled us to delve more deeply into the people, places and events unique to each neighborhood and the stories that connect them. Our year of Cambridgeport brought us to many local parks, houses and businesses for events and guided tours, but Cambridgeport’s largely residential character meant we were not able to establish a physical footprint in the neighborhood.

During this past April and May, History Cambridge was fortunateto be able to create a pop-up Neighborhood History Center on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge. Located between Frank’s Steakhouse and Le French Club (formerly the Association of Notre Dame), this storefront space was our first foray into a temporary location in a neighborhood, and our short-but-busy two months there resulted in a number of community events and opportunities to share local histories. Although we were in residence only a short time, being in a physical space in the neighborhood was an invaluable experience for us, and one whose lessons we will take with us as we continue our year of North Cambridge and plan for our next neighborhood in 2025.

Josie Kuchta speaks at the May 8 History Cafe on the rise of the brick industry in Cambridge. (Photo: History Cambridge)

In mid-April we held a grand opening in the space to welcome those with whom we had already connected and to introduce ourselves to neighbors we had not met. Having created themed stations around the space, we displayed images, newspaper articles and advertisements, census records and other information about the neighborhood’s rich history in the areas of industry, religion, immigration and ethnicity, food, business and more. Many who attended the opening shared their stories with us. We learned about cattle bones and pottery shards uncovered in residents’ backyards (remnants from a tannery and a pottery works, respectively), heard tales of strict punishment and extraordinary kindness from teachers at the neighborhood’s religious schools, and found out that one local couple has more than 10 hours of as-yet-unedited footage from the last days of Verna’s Donuts.

Over the next weeks, we held a History Cafe in the space, focusing on the rich industrial and cultural history of brickmaking in North Cambridge; solicited items on loan from the public for a community exhibition; and held an ’80s Night party at which we looked at the neighborhood in the 1780s, 1880s and 1980s to see its extraordinary development. Members of the community brought items for the exhibition that help tell the story of North Cambridge, including grammar school diplomas, a spelling bee trophy, books, photographs, pottery and – of course – bricks made by the neighborhood’s own New England Brick Co.

A 19th century pharmacy bottle discovered in a North Cambridge yard and included in the May community exhibition. (Photo: History Cambridge)

At our closing party Thursday, we invited attendees to add their voices to our archive by commenting on proposed North Cambridge history swag, drawing their own version of the North Cambridge border (no wrong answers!), telling us their favorite neighborhood places and casting their vote for “Jerry’s Pit” vs. “Jerry’s Pond” (it was an even split).

Although our time at our pop-up Massachusetts Avenue space has come to a close, History Cambridge looks forward to continuing to explore North Cambridge throughout the rest of 2024. Our staff, board members and volunteers will be at a number of events, festivals and block parties throughout the summer months, and we have some exciting tours and programs coming up as well. To stay up-to-date on all of our news and events, sign up for our newsletter. We look forward to continuing to make Cambridge history with you!

Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.

This article was originally published in our “Did You Know?” column in Cambridge Day.