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Water main break disrupts Harvard Square

Workers repaired a broken water main at Mount Auburn and JFK streets in Harvard Square.
Workers repaired a broken water main at Mount Auburn and JFK streets in Harvard Square.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

CAMBRIDGE — Adam Hirsch had seen it all in Harvard Square, until he could not see the basement floor.

Hirsch, owner of the famous Curious George children’s store, arrived at the store at about 6:30 a.m. Friday to find the basement flooded, after a major water main burst a block away.

“Part of the challenge of being in a place with old infrastructure is the old infrastructure,” Hirsch said. “It just comes with the territory.”

The water main break occurred near the intersection of John F. Kennedy and Mt. Auburn streets, and blocked traffic headed to Harvard Square from Memorial Drive.

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The break forced city workers to dig a crater in the street to investigate the damage.

Several businesses closed in the wake of the flooding, including Verizon Wireless, TIAA-CREF, Starbucks , Kaplan University, and Citizens Bank. Harvard bus routes were also being rerouted, police said.

All streets surrounding Brattle Square, a small resting area bordering Mt. Auburn Street, remained closed into Friday evening.

Throughout Friday, the crater created massive traffic jams on Brattle and Eliot streets, as Cambridge officials made makeshift detours, according to the Cambridge Department of Public Works.

Police said the congestion could last through the weekend. Cambridge officials were notified of the problem about 11:45 p.m. Thursday, city workers said.

Hirsch shrugged off the incident as another example of Harvard Square’s old charm.

“We’ll endure, that’s what we do,” he said. “We love it here, and this is a minor blip.”

A statement from the DPW encouraged drivers to avoid the area for the weekend, which upset some local business owners. Labor Day weekend is an especially busy time for foot traffic in Harvard Square.

“It’s going to ruin my business this weekend,” said Tess Enright, owner of a designer clothing boutique called Tess and Carlos. “I’m annoyed when people say, ‘Stay away from Harvard Square,’ ” Enright said. “OK, a water main broke. Is it really that big of a deal? It’s ridiculous.”

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As of 3 p.m. Friday, water still gushed down the sides of Harvard Square streets.

Matthew Modica is the manager at Hunt’s Photo & Video. He said the store experienced a noticeable dip in foot traffic after the incident.

“We have no water in our bathroom,” Modica said. “But we’ve still been able to sell some cameras.”

Mark Gallagher of the Cambridge Water Department estimated the broken water pipe was 50 to 60 years old.

On Friday, it was impossible to determine the cause of the break, Gallagher said.

“These things are a mechanical system, so sometimes they just fail over time,” he said. “It could be the age of the pipe, it could be corrosive soil.”

The Water Department isolated the break, and workers restored water for the area, according to Gallagher.

Still, city workers have to repair the break and repave the street, officials said.

“For at least 24 hours, we’ll be working round-the-clock,” Gallagher said.

The last water main break in Cambridge was during the winter, at Harvard and Portland streets, according to Jeremy Warnick, spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department.

“The location of this one is more significant,” Warnick said. “It’s at the heart of Harvard Square. . . . But in this case, [the DPW] was able to shut off the water pretty quickly.”

Hirsch said workers began salvaging merchandise at The Curious George Store at 6:30 a.m.

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The store had not seen a drop in foot traffic or sales as of late Friday afternoon, Hirsch said, fingers crossed.

Hunt’s Photo & Video was not so lucky.

Initially, Modica planned to call city officials to see when repairs would be finished. But he soon decided against it.

“I guess it’s just over when it’s over,” he said.


Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.