It’s not surprising to hear that Cambridge has a rich history of counterculture—it is, after all, one of the most progressive cities in the country. But when you dive into it, the extent of Cambridge’s role in the movements of the ’60s and ’70s can be astonishing.
That’s what librarian and artist Tim Devin found when he started researching Cambridge’s role in the counterculture movement. According to his findings, roughly one-third of Greater Boston’s counterculture organizations called Cambridge home.
He put together a trio of zines—a nod to the subversive format that was popular among his subjects—called “Mapping Out Utopia: 1970s Boston-Area Counterculture.” The zines detail his findings, displaying the legacies of local spaces, and he gives tours of the spots. The Committee for Legal Research on the Draft met at Harvard. A Quaker anti-war journal ran out of 48 Inman St. The Bread and Roses Restaurant—a co-op run by the feminist group of the same name—served only women at 134 Hampshire St.
While many of the groups have disappeared, others still call Cambridge home, like the Women’s Center, which has stood at 46 Pleasant St. since 1971 and serves all people who identify as women and their children.
We sat down with Devin to discuss Cambridge’s role in the counterculture movement, and how that legacy continues today.
Did you always have an interest in history, or in counterculture?
I just think that community groups are very interesting, because most people have day jobs, and so they’re willing to commit some of their precious free time to a cause.
There’s this whole wealth of information out there, about the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of the stuff was here in the Boston area, which kind of floored me. Inman Square was this hotbed of progressive, left-wing, countercultural groups. Union Square was too, to a lesser extent, but Inman Square was one of the focal points, and so it’s just kind of interesting to think about, these neighborhoods that I see on a daily basis were completely different. It changes your perception of your neighborhood, and also makes it more tangible, I think, that this stuff actually happened in physical spaces that I see.
Were there certain issues that the area was really organizing around?
Feminism; collective, cooperative workplaces; food; infrastructure. In terms of American counterculture, Boston was known for those things. There was this organization called Bread and Roses, which was this feminist supergroup. It was this loose-knit group of women in the late ’60s who went to this conference and then decided, “What are we going to do next?,” basically. So from that discussion group came the Women’s Center in Central Square—a women-only space that has classes and safe space for people to crash if they’re in an abusive relationship, things like that—which is still around, and all these other groups.
These folks were exploring different ways of living and fighting the patriarchy, taking control of their own health, taking control of their own businesses. There were all these experiments.
A lot of that stuff was in Inman Square. So 186 Hampshire St., the guy who owns that now inherited it from his parents, who in the ’60s made the decision to provide progressive groups, mostly feminist groups, with space to do their thing at drastically below-market-value cost. A lot of the feminist groups were based in that building over the years.
Boston was also known for groups that organize their structure in a non-hierarchical fashion, so everybody was a worker, everybody was a co-owner, everybody made decisions, maybe rotated jobs, maybe you had the same job but you had a more of a say in the direction of your organization. A lot of those were anti-profit-driven, so if you made money then you would lower prices, to keep your services affordable to people.
There’s a lot of overlap between these groups. They were experimenting with their daily lives as a way to change society. They had their outward issues, but they were trying to change their own lives, too, because they thought part of the problem with society was just how people interacted with each other.
What primed this area for this kind of counterculture explosion?
It was a lot cheaper back then. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is that now the whole area is so expensive. So what are we losing? Because these folks could rent stores, they could work part-time and then dedicate their off-hours to the community groups.
Another thing was the high student population. It’s always been a college town. There were a lot of groups centered at MIT and Harvard. But that’s not to say that the school itself was supportive of it.
One thing that was actually a huge part of the counterculture, which I didn’t know about and I found out about by doing this stuff, is Quakers. The model of Quaker meeting—non-hierarchical, everyone gets a say. The Quakers were hugely involved in a lot of these organizations. They hosted space, or they were Quaker offshoot groups. Quakers are anti-war, a lot of Quaker values were really appealing to the counterculture, and there’s a lot of Quakers around here.
One thing that I thought about a lot was where did all of this stuff go? They changed society in some ways, but the other cool things they were doing in terms of interpersonal relations kind of died out. Like with food co-ops, Harvest [Co-op] was a food co-op, and originally it was just you’d go to someone’s house and you’d pick up your Brussels sprouts, or whatever … then that became so popular that they had to rent a storefront for people to do drop-offs, and then they felt it was unfair to be private, so they made it open to everybody, so it became a store. But in the process, the thing that got lost was the communal bonds.
Do you think there are any other factors at play there?
A lot of people got burned out. A lot of the collectives didn’t want to share the jobs anymore, they wanted to make better wages. A lot of the stuff was low-paying, which makes sense when you first get involved in it, but maybe not when you have a kid, or whatever.
Cambridge and Somerville are some of the most liberal places in the country, so I feel like some of this is still here. We talked some about the ways in which it’s died out, but in what ways has it continued?
This stuff is part of our local history, part of our culture, for sure. A lot of the organizations are still around. Like Resist, which started [near Union Square], which funds left-wing groups—they funded the Black Panthers, back in the day—they’re still around, they’re in JP.
Recently, the Somerville Yogurt Co-op, that’s the same model, that’s the same goal of building community while also having healthier food. For sure, that’s still part of our culture, and that’s why Cambridge and Somerville are so desirable to live in: There is this emphasis on community, there are so many progressive groups around.
There’s a lot of fight back against the EPA right now, and maybe we can seek inspiration from these community groups that were part of the original green movement.
When I give the walking tours, my shpiel is that I was always taught that ’60s were where the ideas happened and the magic happened, and the ’70s was when it fizzled out. But I think that is kind of an ignorant view. I think the ’70s was when everything was tested out and used, implemented, and then it changed society.
To get a Mapping Out Utopia zine, visit timdevin.com or Practice Space at 1307 Cambridge St.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.