The Evolution of Cambridge

Christopher Schmidt
8 min readJul 5, 2019


I’ve been looking at the transitions of Cambridge from 1865 to the present day, through a variety of maps. Focusing on today’s large parcels in Cambridge has given this a number of really interesting revelations about the evolution of our city. The first is that many large parcels in Cambridge today were underwater in 1865!

View of an area near Harvard Square, using maps and aerial photography from 1865 -> 2018.

This stretch is centered on what is now the Charles Hotel, next to the Harvard Kennedy School. In 1865, like much of the southern part of modern Cambridge, this was swampy marshland. By the late 1870s, this was filled in, with growth in new buildings up near Harvard Square and Eliot St.

1877 map of the area, centered on the same area: this orthoview shows hand drawn buildings at an angle, like an old school Google Earth.

In the 1916 map, we can see that the former infill—where the swampy marshland had been filled in but not yet built out in 1877 — has been taken over by two large parcels: both car houses for the Boston Elevated Railway Company and the West End Street Railway Company. These streetcar companies would eventually form the backbone of what is now the MBTA.

Insurance parcel map in 1916 showing the area around the now Charles Hotel, with two large areas labeled “Car House” for railway stations.
Streetcar map of 1925 showing the city criss-crossed with streetcar lines.

In 1925, public transit via streetcar was common, and the core of the underground rail system that now makes up the MBTA subway system had also been built. The underground system (shown here in dotted red lines) was extensive in downtown Boston and reached out to Harvard Square, but much more widespread was the network of streetcar lines that reached as far south as Milton and as far north as Stoneham and Melrose. These car houses were large rail storage lines for the streetcar system, dotted throughout the region in much the way that bus depots would be today.

Large railyards, and rail switching areas, were common throughout Cambridge through the 1947 aerial imagery, largely matching the 1916 maps: They were a core part of the infrastructure feeding Cambridge’s growth as an industrial town.

1947 aerial photo of the same area, showing the large rail switchyards south of Harvard Square.

By the time of the 1969 aerial imagery of Cambridge, we start to see these railyards and large train switching areas vanish throughout the city.

1969 aerial photography map shows the left train storage yard swapped for car parking.

In many cases, they were replaced by large highway exchanges — likely the side effect of the building out of the interstate system. The Interstate system was originally created via the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and was under construction throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with the original system declared “complete” in 1991.

In the aerial photo from 1969, one of the large rail yards that previously occupied this site has been converted to parking for cars in place of trains, while one remains.

As these systems connected cities — and as cities began to move through a phase of de-industrialization — the rail lines were replaced with roads. Streetcar storage and switching, as well as freight switching, were removed in favor of new uses: the street car system was largely replaced by busses and some expanded subway service. A significant reason for the shift away from streetcars was the shift towards personal car ownership: a relative rarity in the early part of the century, by the 1930s, personal cars were enough of a problem in Harvard Square to be a routine topic of discussion at the Harvard Square Business Association.

1978 aerial image shows both large rail switching yards removed, in favor of large parking lots throughout the area.

In 1978, these large rail areas and warehouses had largely been replaced by surface parking lots: the area had become a home for cars, and cars alone, replacing trains and even what appears to be housing to the northeast along Mt. Auburn St.

Between 1978 and 1995, we see a massive revitalization of the entire area: Surface parking lots replaced by large buildings featuring hotels and restaurants; and the transformation of a second property which was formerly used for rail storage into the modern home of the Harvard Kennedy School.

1995 aerial photography shows many surface lots replaced by large building complexes, including the now-Charles Hotel and the Harvard Kennedy School complex, as well as a large park south of both.

This transformation is common throughout Cambridge in the era from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s: in many places, we see the transition from industrial to commercial, retail, and residential in this time period. In this case, we can also see the transformation of part of the site to what is now the JFK Memorial Park: a large open green space just north of Memorial Drive near JFK Street.

Interestingly, this site was originally intended for the JFK Library, but due to “civic opposition” in Cambridge, the library was built in Dorchester instead.

If you’ve never been to the JFK Library, I do recommend a trip: it’s a very pretty spot.

Pictures taken at the JFK Library show a large internal glass atrium with steel frame infrastructure, and a view of the Boston skyline from the South.

Looking at the same Cambridge parcels in 2018, the scene is mostly the same: the Kennedy School appears to have shifted to a pedestrian friendly center, and crosswalks are more distinctly marked, but for the most part, the buildings in this part of Harvard Square and the surrounding area haven’t changed for more than 20 years.

2018 aerial imagery of the Charles Hotel and south Harvard Square area shows few changes from 1995.

This is the first time in the history of these images — dating from the 1830s all the way through today — that Cambridge has been anything like ‘static’. Unfortunately, this stagnation in the changing landscape across the city: while previously, we saw regular change citywide, that appears to have come to an end after the 1990s: We no longer see the change we used to see routinely in the city.

Instead, we see development only along the edges of town. No longer do we see commercial redevelopment near our core transit or business districts, but instead, see it pushed further out to areas like North Point and Alewife, pushing those new buildings out of the core lives of many people in Cambridge. Up until the 1990s, the city was marked by constant change, across the city, but we no longer see it.

1835 map of Cambridge shows a dozen or so buildings, with large parts of what is now MIT completely underwater.

In 1835, the city was largely a blank slate, with barely a sketch of the town that was to come. While Harvard has a few buildings, most of the town is simply sitting empty, though the early sketch of core streets has begun to be visible: Modern day Massachusetts Ave. is shown as Main Street, and Cambridge’s connective tissue to the rest of the region is somewhat visible.

1877 map shows the underdevelopment of Cambridgeport, and the Grand Junction railway line as the eastern riverfront of the city.

In 1877, the entire neighborhood of Cambridgeport was largely still a blank slate: as recently filled in land, it was not yet built out, waiting to be filled in with both homes and industrial development that would be the norm for decades to come. At this point, the land that is now MIT was largely not yet turned into land.

1895 street map shows a number of planned streets in the newly filled land east of the Grand Junction railway.

In 1895, we see a planned outline for what is to come along the eastern edge of Cambridge — what is now Area 2. What we see is planned to be a series of traffic circles, styled in a way that is reminiscent of the angles and circles of Washington DC, but at the time is only “partly filled flats”, as the entire area was still being filled in.

By the time of the 1922 maps of Cambridge, we see the eastern edge of Cambridge change shape again: centered around MIT as a focal point, the entire plan for Area 2 changes, while the heavy industrial nature of the area north of Broad Canal continues to expand.

1922 maps of the East Cambridge area along Harvard and the area of modern East Cambridge redevelopment.

None of these photos is more than 25 years apart, yet we see massive changes throughout Cambridge, affecting not just the areas these developments take place, but the entire city. In 1920, Cambridge saw more new buildings built that still stand today than almost any other year in the city’s history!

After the introduction of Cambridge’s zoning code in 1924, a lot of the new buildings came to an end, but the city continued to morph and change even under the more restrictive rules enacted via zoning: transitioning rail yards and industrial buildings to university buildings and parks; narrowing old canals and making them waterfronts.

The Broad Canal, pictured here as a kayaking dock.

We’ve transitioned from a largely empty area in the 1830s, brought a massive amount of the city into existence throughout the late 1800s, survived the depression, and saw changes across the city in the post-WWII industrial boom, and later on both suffered from and recovered from the post-industrial lull of the 1980s and 1990s.

We’ve converted our heavy industrial city into a thriving biotech and technology hub, creating an innovative city that folks want to be a part of. Now it’s time to figure out how to bring more of that changing nature of Cambridge back to life: letting the city continue to develop and expand!

One of the best ways to do that in my opinion is probably to simply make it possible to bring more of the city forward. What we see today is that Cambridge’s core is still stuck in the past: our central business districts are in some cases still missing stories that were removed during the Great Depression, when property owners literally tore down floors to save on taxes!

Properties where buildings have been built since 1968: new buildings in green, old buildings in purple. This map makes it clear how little Cambridge has redeveloped, with the vast majority of the city dating back more than 50 years.

A map of properties where buildings have been built in the last 50 years in Cambridge shows that we have left the core of our city behind. While we have revitalized East Cambridge and developed Alewife, moving beyond our industrial history, we have let even our core business districts languish, as we push all new development out to the edges of our city.

I believe we can do better than that. I believe that we have the ability to move to a world where we can expand our commercial corridors with new homes for modern businesses which better match our role as a technical innovation hub. I believe that we have the ability to build modern, energy efficient homes for the people who work in our city and want to live there. I believe that we have the ability to house more people, and we have the ability to bring our city to new levels of success.

We’ve done it before. We can do it again.

Maps in this thread were either provided via the courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library (…) or via @CambridgeGIS’s excellent web map service.



Christopher Schmidt

Local political evangelist and tech guy.