Welcome to Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138! We’re a college town, home to Harvard, MIT, and a very large branch of Whole Foods. We’re one of the most “liberal” cities in the country, and our coffee mugs bear the slogan “02138: The World’s Most Opinionated Zip Code,” but all our opinions are the same.
In the 2016 election, 89 percent of Cantabrigians voted for Hillary Clinton. Another 4.5 percent, judging her insufficiently environmentalist or redistributive, voted green or socialist. In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, signs of the end times were everywhere. Otherwise sane people insisted to me that Trump’s victory was the result of African Americans having their votes suppressed, that the annulment of Roe v. Wade was imminent, and that It Can’t Happen Here really was happening here, even though no one had actually read the book.
After a year of living Trumpily, the sky has not fallen, at least not where I live. Here in west Cambridge, the only thing falling from the sky is money. It showers down upon my property-holding, stock-optioning, tech-investing, organic-eating, trash-recycling, Democrat-donating neighbors. Property values in Cambridge have risen 10 percent since the Tweeter-in-Chief downsized from Trump Tower to the White House, and we expect them to rise another 5 percent this year. The Dow Jones surpassed one record after another in Trump’s first year in office. The government still underwrites the health insurance industry, which is now the largest employer in Massachusetts. The fund managers pour money into biotech and software start-ups. The winners scramble to cash out into the limited pool of west Cambridge houses. The sounds of our urban jungle are the laughter of Hispanic yard workers, the purr of the Tesla, and the howl of distant sirens.
We let money stand for virtue, and we pay off our consciences when they trouble us. Apart from the odd superannuated Yankee, no one here believes that poverty is noble, not even the poor. They live in Cambridge, too, but in the other Cambridge, the post-industrial, post-working-class east Cambridge that has yet to be repurposed for start-up incubators and live-work loft apartments. The rest, especially the black ones and the Muslim refugees, are stacked in the projects at Alewife, in the northwest corner of the city.
The neighborhood known as Area 4 is the Alamo of the old east Cambridge, the last stand of the people we can really do without. Area 4 is notorious for street crime; drug-dealing; shiny new high-rise office buildings for Novartis, Google, and Twitter; and artisanal pizzerias where tech people eat lunch. The glass walls of these buildings are a mirror to the longtime residents, reminding them every day that the only way they’ll get into these companies is with a mop and a bucket.
None of the tech people are black. Not many of the servers in the artisanal pizzerias are, either. Cambridge is super liberal, but black people do not serve the food. We believe that this is because we have a labor pool of graduate students, hipsters, and other people who embrace the “gig economy.”
The projects, named Rindge Towers, are three brick oblongs of twenty-two stories apiece. We built them in the late sixties on the island of land between the railroad, the parkway to the suburbs, the electricity substation, and what is now the Whole Foods car park. The towers were designed in the style of Le Corbusier, which sounded pretty cool back then, though we choose to live in colonial-style houses with yards. Rindge Towers turned out to be a great investment. When we got rid of rent control in 1995, the city had somewhere to put all the people who had to move.
Under rent control, there was a black neighborhood at ground level, off Huron Ave. in west Cambridge. The area is now called Huron Village. There’s a deli where the Harvard professors buy French and Italian cheeses, a branch of Marimekko, and a pooch parlor for when our labradoodles need their claws trimmed. Property prices in Huron Village have gone up 26 percent in the last year. If someone would only open a café that served real espresso and a handmade croissant, our happiness would be complete.
There have been problems at Rindge Towers—drugs, crime, the usual. But the police have a substation at the Towers, so the problems stay on their island. The blocks are said to be subsiding. Though the city has built a garden for the residents, the elevators keep breaking. The towers are obviously a fire hazard. One day, we may be surprised to find ourselves watching helplessly as hundreds of people are immolated alive. Then again, the residents are lucky to be living there. The whole country wants to live in Cambridge, and Alewife is being regenerated. A dozen low-rise apartment developments have appeared on the other side of Route 2 to accommodate all the single people who work in biotech. Some even have swimming pools.
You might not feel good about the way Cambridge is going. We don’t feel good about it, either. We believe in diversity, so it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve allowed an ethnically and racially mixed city to become the preserve of white people with hereditary wealth and Asians with degrees from MIT. Teachers, policemen, firefighters, and nurses can no longer afford to live in the city in which they work. We cycle and walk to our offices. They sit in traffic on the way home to Medford and Waltham. But it wasn’t us who did this. No, it was the market. We are the generation that grew rich through the outsourcing of production. We outsource this kind of problem to the government.
We know that most Americans consider people like us to be barely American at all, but we are profoundly American in our trust that our wealth is index-linked to the quality of our intentions. It’s Max Weber by way of Ayn Rand. We didn’t invent America’s divisions of class and money. Compare us to our rival college town, New Haven, and we’re doing pretty well. New Haven is one-half mock-medieval finishing school for the winners of the educational steeplechase, and one-half post-industrial ghetto for the losers of the drug wars and globalization. At Yale, people tell you to take a taxi to the station, without saying why. At Harvard, the streets are safer, because we’ve let the market clean things up. Soon, even Area 4 will be safe at night.
And whether you like it or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re building the economy of the future here. Do you have any idea how much money you can make in this town? Our taxes are subsidizing people like you. So don’t go making us feel bad about ourselves. We’re not the ones with the alt-right and an opioid epidemic.
We know we are good people in west Cambridge, and not just because of the money. We care about our children, and about the environment and the planet. True, we don’t care so much about the people in the circles of affiliation that lie between our children and the cosmos. But most of those people are Republicans. We don’t want conservatives here. They’ve already got the rest of the country. They’re angry, they have no money, and they’re behaving badly. The economy that has enriched us so splendidly has impoverished them. It is hard for us not to think of them as bad people. They’re losers, and we cannot help but feel they deserve it.
The other America begins at the Stop and Shop parking lot. From there to San Francisco, this country is a vast desert of unenlightened attitudes, with the odd oasis of high fructose corn syrup. Watertown is your first stop. Watertown people are Irish, Italian, Greek, and Armenian. They hang the Stars and Stripes from their porches. They buy American-made cars. The cars have bumper stickers reading “Watertown Strong.” This is because of the Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In the manhunt that followed the bombing, the police told everyone to stay indoors. They turned the car park of the Watertown Mall into their center of operations. It had plenty of parking space and a we-never-close branch of Dunkin’ Donuts.
The police ran the Tsarnaevs to ground in Watertown and shot them both, killing one and badly wounding the other. Hence “Watertown Strong.” But here’s the thing, as the locals say: The Tsarnaevs were from Cambridge. Not west Cambridge, of course. Our homegrown terrorists lived in another disputed territory, the district north of Central Square. Still, apart from the Affleck brothers, the Tsarnaev brothers are Cambridge’s most famous sons.
We try to keep thoughts like that out of our bubble. We have the right, because we’ve paid for it, though many of us have quietly inherited it, too. But we are less and less comfortable. We know that the country is on the wrong track, and that while we have gotten richer in the last year, the other America has not. But we can’t bring ourselves to push the country onto a different track. The good times are still rolling, and when we voted for Hillary, not Bernie, it was because we wanted them to keep rolling. But we hate Donald Trump.
He’s making us even richer, even faster, but he’s embarrassing us in front of the whole world. He’s given us the most enormous tax break, but we know that the Russians won him the election. We’re educated people, but we believe that he paid women to degrade him in a suite at the Moscow Ritz, just because Obama slept there. We know that Trump is bad, but we know that money is best. We will never thank him for giving us more of it. We pretend not to notice that middle-class wages are starting to rise. We cannot admit that we, the elites who got rich and thin when the rest of the economy fell to pieces, are now getting richer and thinner when it’s coming back together. At night, we lie awake, worrying about our children’s future and the fate of the republic.
Dominic Green is an historian and critic. He is the author of four books.