WHAT’S NEW?: Public art heads to The Avenue

the avenue after 1906

The neglected stretch of sidewalk between Cambridge Common and Porter Square is set to receive an extensive and badly needed makeover.

On Saturday, the newly formed Arts Committee for “The Avenue” – referring to the above-mentioned section of Massachusetts Avenue – issued a call to artists, requesting proposals for public art to be installed on the Avenue’s sidewalks as they undergo expansion and improvement in the coming months.

The so-called Avenue abuts two neighborhoods, the Agassiz Neighborhood to the east and Neighborhood Nine to the west. Several years ago, a group of residents of both neighborhoods submitted a document to the City of Cambridge saying, in so many words, that the state of the sidewalks along the Avenue was unacceptable. The last full refurbishment, which happened in 1956 along with the removal of the trolley, actually made the sidewalks smaller, uprooting the large trees that once lined the street and making Mass Avenue into a four-lane roadway. So on top of going mostly unrepaired for over half a century, the sidewalks are also built according to a scheme that privileges motor traffic over pedestrians. The concerned residents proposed that the sidewalks be rebuilt – and, where possible, widened – to better suit the bustling neighborhood.

The City agreed, and hired designers to work with the Neighborhood Advisory Board to prepare a proposal detailing the work to be done. The planned project proved too extensive to be carried out all at once, so the City resolved that one area, the western side of the three-block road segment extending from Shepard Street to Garfield Street, would serve as a “Demonstration Block,” meaning that the proposed improvements would begin there and continue on to the rest of the Avenue once the City raised the necessary funds.

One member of the Advisory Board, architect and Agassiz resident Stephen Diamond, secured a grant from the Cambridge-Agassiz-Harvard Community, Culture and Recreation Fund to install public art on the Avenue’s expanded sidewalks. The grant includes $500 for each of the three finalists, whom the Arts Committee will choose from among the artists who apply in the coming weeks, as well as a $20,000 commission for the winning proposal and funds for an historical plaque. The deadline for application is March 24 and the winner is set to be announced on August 16.

“It’s a hodgepodge,” says Diamond of the Avenue, which is home to several important Harvard Law School and Lesley University buildings as well as a slew of stores, restaurants, businesses and residences, “It’s a mess, and that’s what we like about it.” Diamond has great affection for the chaotic jumble of this neighborhood, where he has lived for many decades, and is eager to see it finally receive pedestrian walkways befitting one of Cambridge’s most vibrant urban centers.–Nick Cox