In the shadow of large-scale developments, East Cambridge small businesses brace for impact

A walk along Cambridge Street in East Cambridge can feel like taking a stroll back in time. The neighborhood’s commercial strip features squat buildings that are home to decades-old family businesses — two fishmongers, a butcher shop, a Portuguese bakery, a local plumber, an electrician.

The enclave endures, even as in recent years many other small businesses throughout the Boston area have been driven out — or under — by soaring rents and the relentless push of new development. But this section of Cambridge Street has for the most part resisted such displacement. A big reason: Most of the neighborhood’s proprietors own the buildings they occupy. Not having to worry about rent increases or eviction threats is priceless, they say.

“It’s peace of mind,” said John Levantakis, who has owned Aram’s #2 House of Pizza for more than three decades and runs it with his two sons. “If you don’t own the building, you don’t own the business.”


East Cambridge, once a rough-around-the-edges first stop for new immigrants, has not been completely immune to the development pressures and gentrification that have transformedother neighborhoods. Some rents have risen, some older family businesses have closed, and just a few blocks off Cambridge Street in Kendall Square, sleek high-rises that house biotech companies have spurred high-end residential and retail growth. Moreover, East Cambridge soon will be bookended by two of the largest development projects in the region — the 14-acre former Volpe Center parcel and the 45-acre Cambridge Crossing — which will bring nearly 4,000 new housing units, along with retail, office, and lab space.

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But it’s by no means a crisis situation, as some characterize what’s happening in HarvardSquare, said Patrick Magee, president of the East Cambridge Business Association.

“We are buffered by the ownership interest,” said Magee, co-owner of Atwood’s Tavern on Cambridge Street, in the abutting Wellington-Harrington neighborhood. “I’m not trying to minimize the fact that there are people who are trying to use the neighborhood and make money off of it. . . . [But] we have not dealt with the mass gentrification [of businesses].”

Many of the family-owned East Cambridge businesses started the same way: The first generation, usually immigrants, worked the shop downstairs and lived upstairs. That mix of retail and residential is still crucial to keeping some of the business owners afloat, said Carl Fantasia, owner of New Deal Fish Market on Cambridge Street, which was started by his great uncle in 1928. Renting out space above shops generates much-needed steady income for business owners who might otherwise struggle.

Fantasia, who left a job in the energy industry in 2001 to help run the family business, lived above the fish market, just as his great uncle and great aunt once did. He has since moved out, but continues to pay the shop’s rent to his landlord — his father.


“And my rent is not going up,” said Fantasia, who founded the East Cambridge Business Association about a decade ago to galvanize local owners against development that might threaten the neighborhood’s affordability and character.

Many East Cambridge households have shifted toward younger, affluent newcomers who are more likely to shop on Amazon and in stores like Whole Foods. People ages 25 to 34 make up the highest concentration of residents, according to city data. Nearly half of all residents have graduate degrees. The median family income is $112,130 compared with $99,642 citywide.

To cater to those changing demographics, new businesses have moved into the neighborhood, including the popular Lone Star Taco Bar in the former Pugliese’s Bar spot; the Loyal Nine restaurant, which focuses on regionally sourced, sustainable food; and City Liquors, which carries a large selection of locally brewed craft beer.

But the influx doesn’t necessarily mean the death knell for established shops, nor is it unwelcome. In fact, New Deal Fish Market, Mayflower Poultry Co., and Central Bakery are all supplying goods to some of the newer restaurants.

Still, some wonder how long this balance can be maintained. The lure of a hefty check from investors jockeying for a spot in one of the last underbuilt neighborhoods in the city already has persuaded some commercial property owners to cash in or retire, said Julian Lewis, broker and owner of Associated Brokerage Group LLC located in the neighborhood.


“The numbers that are being offered are hard to resist,” Lewis said.

Some evidence of that can be seen in the empty or nearly empty storefronts along Cambridge Street, including those that once housed Sew Low Discount Fabrics, Daly’s Curtain Store, Rosely’s Boutique, and religious gift shop Byzantino.

Work has also started on a development on the site of a former Citizens Bank on Cambridge Street across from the Middlesex County Registry of Deeds building.

So far, CVS is the only chain store that neighborhood activists have allowed in — and that was after more than two years of negotiations with the developer. Neighborhood advocates say this kind of activism, along with strict zoning regulations, helps explain why East Cambridge — which is between CambridgeSide Galleria and Twin City Plaza in Somerville — is not under threat of being overrun by retail chains. Nor are its modest structures likely to be razed to make room for glass-walled towers.

The neighborhood has fended off attempts by developers to open a Subway restaurant, and a proposal to add two more stories to the two-story building that houses City Liquors.

“We won’t see a Starbucks,” said City Councilor Tim Toomey Jr., a lifelong neighborhood resident who is known in some circles as Mr. East Cambridge. “People don’t want the big chains like in Harvard Square.”

Jason Alves, executive director of the East Cambridge Business Association, says that whether the neighborhood can keep corporate forces at bay is largely up to the people who live there.

“The only way to keep a business open is make that decision with your wallet,” Alves said. “You have to go in there and spend money. People don’t open a business to make you feel good.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the development on the site of a former Citizens Bank on Cambridge Street.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.