Café Pamplona closed this spring, and with it went one more emblem — one of the final emblems, many say — of a Harvard Square lost to time. There are landmarks that take root in the heart as well as in a city, encapsulating the essence of a place and a generation. Pamplona was such an institution: a subterranean café in a little red house where the bland tentacles of corporate sameness had yet to stake their claim.
Owner Nina Hovagimian filed for bankruptcy mainly because Harvard University students made up the majority of her business, she said. With the campus closed due to COVID-19, sales suffered, and so has she.
“I can’t talk about it. At one point, I thought I was having a heart attack. I ended up at my doctor’s office. It was anxiety,” she said. “We had to make a decision because we were bleeding, and I feel sad because it had to happen this way.”
Customers also were heartbroken, considering this closure the embodiment of everything wrong with the world today: COVID-19-induced economic chaos, fickle tastes, skyrocketing rents.
At Pamplona, “I could read my newspapers over cappuccino and eavesdrop on quiet conversations about music, art, religion, philosophy; glance over and see someone sitting by themselves in deep thought over tea, reading or writing at small tables, hearing the bells of St. Paul’s keeping the time. It stood out in a commercialized Harvard Square,” said Richard Pozniak, a regular since 1972. Even when he relocated from Cambridge to Billerica, the professor drove to Bow Street every weekend for a fix.
Here, Harvard students idled next to lifers, bound by bohemian good will. It was the last gasp of a coffeehouse culture that seems to have passed from fashion, along with Café Algiers, the Blue Parrot, and countless other independent businesses. They flourished during an era of benign neglect from landlords such as Bertha Cohen, who snapped up neighborhood buildings during the Depression and kept rents low.
Hovagimian was a relative newcomer, presiding over Pamplona since 2006. She replaced original owner Josefina Yuangas Perez, a presence in the square since 1958. Hovagimian and her husband, Raffi, came to Cambridge from Montreal aiming to bring café society to a neighborhood where such businesses already were vanishing; she kept the menu and the décor intact.
“It couldn’t run like a normal coffee shop that you have today. Things were slower, and it was table service. So people sat and talked. It was a place where time stood still,” she said.
The café catered to academics, writers, students, and colorful locals — such as Dave, a poet, who always ordered a regular coffee, a double shot of chocolate, and cups of ice and milk, which servers called “Dave’s Boat.”
“The waitresses and I wouldn’t even ask him what he wanted. He’d sit down, and we would bring it to him — he wanted everything separate. He would concoct it himself at the table, so you had to provide it in a tray,” Hovagimian recalled.
Hovagimian said her rent was “reasonable,” but even so, she couldn’t surmount a lack of business. Over time, tastes changed. People wanted alcohol, they wanted convenience, and they gravitated toward Panera and Tatte, she said.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been struggling for a while. With all the bigger chains coming in, the square is really changing. Fourteen years ago, we had a night business. People would come and sit outside, even in the summer when the patio was open, to drink coffee until late night. Then slowly, it just started to drop off. . . . The clientele of the square changed, I feel,” she said.
Some stalwart businesses remain, such as Grendel’s Den, which has been in business for close to 50 years. Kari Kuelzer took over the restaurant from her parents in 2003. Her landlord is Gerald Chan, the billionaire who now owns many Harvard Square buildings and with whom she says she has a good relationship.
“Hand-wringing about the character [of the neighborhood] has been a consistent phenomenon,” Kuelzer said. “When I moved back here in 2003, the city was conducting a study of Harvard Square and what made it good and bad. Nearly 20 years ago, people were worried about the same stuff. Sometimes people overlook what’s still here and what’s still working.”
For example, Bill Bartley continues to run Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage in a building owned by Harvard University. He took over the restaurant from his dad.
“Unfortunately, there’s going to be places that don’t make it,” he said. “But you can’t get rid of Mr. Bartley’s.”
Apparently not; it’s been around since 1960, despite the influx of chains such as Shake Shack. Down the block, Paul Lee runs the Hong Kong Restaurant & Lounge, which has been in business since 1954, its neon sign serving as a garishly comforting nightlight for the neighborhood.
Lee’s family bought the building in 1970, so he’s not in danger of being driven out by rising rents, he said. But business is slow.
“I have a bar and a dance floor. I can’t see that coming back. I have my first floor for now, which is takeout and delivery. No bar — and our profit comes from the alcohol,” he said. “My guess is that it’ll work out five or 10 years down the line. I don’t know about the immediate future.”
Businesses like Pamplona just don’t have time to see how things play out. Toward the end, Hovagimian was using private funds to cover operating expenses. It’s not sustainable during an open-ended pandemic.
“What’s different now is that a lot of people who have owned businesses for years are my age or older and are thinking, ‘I don’t want to go through this.’ They’re retiring or selling. The future doesn’t look rosy for two years,” said Rachael Solem, who has owned the bed and breakfast Irving House at Harvard for 30 years. “There’s no point in borrowing money and going into debt to keep something going for six months and a year, hoping for the best, without trust from the general public, without the airport being busy, without Harvard Square being fully busy.”
On the other hand, Harvard Square has always fallen prey to sentimental fretting, pandemic or no.
MIT professor and Harvard Square resident Catherine Turco is writing “The Death and Life of Harvard Square: Why Harvard Square Has Always Been Not What it Used to Be,” a book that examines the neighborhood’s evolution. Her grandfather was an MBTA bus driver whose route took him through the square. To her, the neighborhood’s metamorphosis — and critiques — feel deeply personal, as they do for so many.
“It’s a unique place in the sense that people do tend to come here when they’re young and forming important memories. They develop an attachment at a seminal time in their life. The memories and meaning they make at that time are foundational in many ways, so when there’s change, it’s particularly tough,” Turco said.
Locals ascribe a personal importance to the neighborhood because Harvard Square wasn’t just any square; it wasn’t a management consultant’s data-driven vision of the curated urban experience as dispensed by soulless chains. For many Bostonians, it was the first place they went on a date, snuck into a bar, got a forbidden body part pierced, or went to a concert. With the death of Pamplona, a part of them dies, too.
“This is a huge loss for the square,” said Alyssa Krimsky Clossey, a onetime Pamplona regular who grew up in Cambridge in the 1980s. “I have memories as a young child going there with my family and eating the ham-and-cheese sandwiches that were like paninis on these Italian baguettes, really crunchy. At the end of the meals, they’d come around with this little tray with desserts — little tarts. Everything felt like you were in Europe.”
Now, she said, “Harvard Square feels like an empty hole in my heart.”
Former Cambridge mayor Marc McGovern is a proudly self-proclaimed “Pit rat,” referring to the punk rockers and skaters who populated the area near the Red Line T stop in the 1980s. He’s now a member of the Cambridge City Council. He understands the worries: Some landlords have driven out smaller businesses. Real estate prices have shot up.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon, he said.
“My family has lived in Cambridge for over 100 years. The Harvard Square my mom hung out in was different than the one my grandmother hung out in. The Harvard Square I hung out in in the 1980s was different than the ones my kids will hang out in,” he said.
What that Harvard Square will look like remains to be seen, but some say the downturn might offer chances for a fresh generation of entrepreneurs.
“I think there’s a grand opportunity here for a surge in entrepreneurial creativity. There are a lot of smart, interesting people with good ideas and entrepreneurial spirit, and property owners aren’t going to want to keep spaces dark,” said Denise Jillson, president of the Harvard Square Business Association. “I know it’s optimistic, but I really believe it. Spaces will be available, and property owners are going to have to reconcile the fact that rents are going to have to come down.”
Meanwhile, the HSBA states that more than 70 percent of the businesses in the neighborhood remain locally operated.
“There are so many organizations and people who care so deeply and fight for [the square]: an active and committed business association, a neighborhood association, Cambridge Local First, students. I think there’s reason for hope. All these people care as much about Harvard Square’s future as its past,” said Turco.
But for now, the familiar cycle of mourning for the Harvard Square of yore begins once again.
“Where will I go now? It’s a damn good question,” said Pozniak, the displaced Pamplona regular. “Whether it was the brick patio with umbrella tables or the dimly lit café, it was a unique, peaceful oasis for the heart, mind, and soul. It can’t be duplicated.”