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Ten Years Later, Simplex Issues Remain Unresolved


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Agnes Borszeki -- The Tech

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Wolf and Princess knew the area well: They'd been sleeping on the streets in and around this neighborhood for years. The neighborhood Wolf and Princess lived in was a fully functioning society unto itself. Its residents worked hard to survive, helped each other, got married, and had kids. Sometimes fights broke out, but their leaders had ways of resolving conflicts. The community even experimented with a currency of shells and smooth stones. Most of them dreamed of having a roof over their heads; for now, they were glad to have their tents.

Wolf and Princess Sullivan were among the 35 or so residents of "Tent City," a makeshift encampment in a vacant lot on Blanche Street up near Central Square. Tent City lasted only a month, but it was a month when the powerless dreamed they might beat one of the state's biggest institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1987, the land Tent City occupied was known as the Simplex site. MIT had acquired the property from the Simplex Wire & Cable Company and had cleared it all off except for a handful of derelict houses. In order to develop the land, MIT needed to rezone the area. And that meant dealing with the community.

In 1987, Cambridge was already one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Housing was scarce, and much of the community was of small means. The city was also home to two large and prosperous universities, and those universities wanted to expand, taking more of Cambridge for their own. And once taken, Cantabridgians surmised, the land would never be a part of the community again. As far as Cambridge was concerned, their town's line was at the railroad tracks, not the at the Charles River.

When MIT proposed its rezoning plan, an activist group named the Simplex Steering Committee swiftly began agitating against the idea. They pointed out that MIT's plan would raze more of Cambridge's precious low-income housing. (By low-income housing the protesters meant the three uninhabitable houses on Blanche Street.) They wanted MIT to replace the "lost housing" with at least 250 units of low-income housing. And, on October 20, 1987, they staged a heavily attended protest on the site to vocalize their demands.

Ironically, the protesters had never intended their protest to last more than one night. Nearly 100 homeless had attended the event, however, and they showed no sign of leaving. In their enthusiasm, the protesters donated tents and cooking equipment, and they themselves left the site. That was the beginning of Tent City.

Over the next month, the protests grew and became more complex. MIT threatened to dislodge the homeless people on its land. The city council threatened legal action against MIT, and even proposed taking the three useless houses by eminent domain. Several MIT students joined the fray, including famous student activist Steven D. Penn '85. The protests themselves became the source of controversy. Some wanted to fight MIT to keep the homeless on the land, possibly repairing the empty homes to house them. Many of the original protesters, however, did not approve of the occupation and merely wanted to bargain with MIT over new affordable housing.

In its recent history, MIT has not suffered protests gladly, and the Simplex protest was no different. On November 20, one month after the original protests, Campus Police officers raided the camp on orders from Campus Police Chief Anne P. Glavin. The officers forcibly extracted people from their tents and dumped their articles by the side of the road. The CPs arrested 10 of those in the camp, including the indefatigable Steve Penn. Tent City was at an end.

This spring, one would have had a hard time telling the difference between the Simplex site of 1987 and the University Park properties in the same area. Except for a few trees and parking lots, the land was still vacant. Now, just a few months later, cranes and derricks have exorcised the physical memory of the Simplex protests.

MIT hopes it can eliminate the political memory of Tent City as well. The Institute has gone a long way to placate community groups who want new housing on the site. Some of the commercial space will interact positively with the surrounding cityscape. MIT has already put up 200 units of low-income housing near University Park, and 200 more units are in the works for the near future. That's 400 total housing units, 150 more than demanded by the Simplex Steering Committee ten years ago.

Make no mistake about it, MIT intends to continue expanding into the Cambridge area. After University Park there are plans for new development on the currently vacant East Cambridge lots. And yes, some existing housing is slated for removal. But is MIT doing enough for the surrounding community?

Many people in Cambridge, including myself, believe MIT is not doing enough. Even as we throw up more low-income housing in our area, our long-term plans are for gentrification. Just as the Simplex protesters feared, we are building a wall of high-tech industry around the Institute.

I will grant that MIT has made a great deal of progress. Yet our vision of our campus remains at odds with that of Cambridge. At some level, we want to segregate ourselves, to maintain our own technocratic empire on Cantabridgian turf. The housing demands may be sated for now, but the underlying incompatibility between MIT's vision and the community we live in remains.