Monday, October 26, 2009

the importance of urban design

Today I was walking down Vassar St. and Mass Ave and I was struck for the zillionth time how ugly the MIT campus is. My parents were visiting this past weekend, and they thought MIT was very impressive, but that Harvard was much more beautiful. Not only do many buildings have that this-was-trendy-in-the-70s architectural aesthetic going on (mine, of course, excluded), the campus is very badly laid out. I associate college campuses with cute cafes, a wide variety of cheap international food, hippie stores selling nag champa and tie-dye that couldn't survive anywhere else, and lots of culture. MIT has one crappy diner that no one goes to (maybe cause it closes at 4 PM) and a gay dance bar*. Seriously. That's it. These are the businesses in the center of campus. Oh, aside from the parking lot and Bank of America ATM.

I don't understand how this happened! Is this because they moved to Cambridge in 1916? It takes 93 years and counting to develop a proper urban landscape? We have over 10,000 students. 1,000 faculty. There are countless biotech firms in the area. Don't you think we could support a cafe closer than Central Square? Berkeley has Euclid and Telegraph (among others, I'm sure). Harvard has the entire square, even Dartmouth had a lot of great stuff in Hanover (I actually miss Dirt Cowboy Cafe and Rosey's was a great place to hide away).

I'm not really sure what to do about this, since I'm not about to get into the cafe business. But if you are, and you are thinking about opening something new, put it near MIT! I feel like a late-night source of caffeine would be totally packed. Better yet, a cafe that turns into a bar at night, European-style. Raze the BoA ATM. My last-ditch hope is that Clover ends up closer to campus. I think they are amazing and their truck is a really great addition to the area -- food that is healthy, organic, tasty, and fun.

* i have no issues with gay dance bars. I have a lot of issues with crappy diners serving boring food.


  1. sounds like a business opportunity! are there seriously no cafes or coffee carts on campus?

  2. What?...who needs a cafe when you have food trucks and a nice, wooded, Gehry designed amphitheater?

    The thing with MIT is that all life turns inwards. The infinite corridor. East Campus 5th East. Etc. Frank Gehry and Steven Holl, try as they might, could do little to change that. Hence, little life occurs on the street. This is besides the fact that the river and the tracks do amazing things to isolate the campus.

    To create "street life" you need to offer what the student's need. Which is everything that they don't have. Not hard to do! E.G. Quality food (a break from student food). Open 24 hrs. Relaxed and sociable environment (not for study...and not, by all means!, tucked away in some god forsaken floor of a creepy student center). Preferably, a place at ground level and that can spread tables outside when the weather allows.

    If you are ever in Charlotte, visit Amelies ( would be a perfect business for MIT. Amelies did what what was unthinkable for a bakery. It decided to stay open 24 hours and, being the only business of its kind to do so, instantly became everybody's favorite hangout. It catered to a latent demand. No one knew where to hang out after two that wasn't strip club downtown. Amelies had the strange clarity to seize on that fact and create a business model.

  3. In my experience, the typical MIT undergrad didn't care much about life outside. We spent most of our time in lab or at home, hacking on something. We usually didn't have time to leave and hang out, so we ordered late night food from places that delivered, or we cooked. We would complain about the food, but I don't think good cafes would be enough to get us to pull ourselves away from work on a regular basis. When we did get a break from work, we'd usually just escape campus altogether and get decent food at the same time.

    That said, the student population seems to be changing, and things might be different now.

  4. @hqe there is an out of the way starbucks and a couple of other places with no ambiance. they basically serve just to supply caffeine

    @eric amelie's sounds absolutely lovely.

    @alex i love to work in cafes.