About Porter Square

Porter Square is a flourishing neighborhood in Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston, combining cozy streets with a vibrant shopping and food scene, and one of the Boston area's best (albeit tiniest) live music venues, Toad. Porter Square's Porter Exchange houses a collection of predominantly Japanese eateries, while the Porter Square Shopping Center, dominated by a large suburban parking lot, is a center of local commerce. A large part of the Lesley University campus is located within the Porter Square area, as well.

The Porter Square station serves both the MBTA Red Line and the Commuter Rail Fitchburg Line.

History of Porter Square

Zach Porter's Hotel
Porter's Hotel

Previously called Union Square, Porter Square was renamed in 1899 for Zachariah B. Porter, the larger-than-life owner of the Cambridge Cattle Fair Hotel (later: "Porter’s Hotel"). Porter also gave his name to the hotel's specialty, the cut of steak known as "porterhouse." (1. More on Porter and his hotel. 2. A bit more on some of "Old Zach's" legal issues.) The hotel was demolished in 1909.

The square, formerly flanked by cattle yards that used the square's rail head to transport their beef throughout the country, was an important center for commerce and light industry as early as the late 18th century. A tunnel for moving cattle to and from the railroad without interfering with street traffic, known as the Walden Street Cattle Pass, was built in 1857. The tunnel survives under the nearby Walden Street Bridge, and in 2007–08 was preserved and restored.

The Rand Estate
The Rand Estate

From 1821, a two-acre park-like estate of the Rand family was a landmark of the area, and featured well-tended wide lawns, gardens, and winding footpaths for the neighborhood. In 1950, Mabel Rand, last of the family line, bequeathed the estate to the city as a park but the city refused the bequest, and in 1952 executors sold the property to developers. In 1952 the Porter Square Shopping Center was opened, eventully replacing the old business district near the corner of Mass Ave and Walden Street.

The Porter Station in 1911
The Porter Station in 1911

In 1984 the MBTA Red Line was extended from Harvard through Porter and Davis Square to its present terminus at Alewife. Susumu Shingu's 46-foot painted steel and aluminum kinetic sculpture entitled "Gift of the Wind", sits at the MBTA entrance.

Katayama/Smith design, 2006
Katayama/Smith design

In 2004–06 the city, along with consulting firms Earth Tech, Inc. and Halvorson Design Partnership, re-designed Porter Square's principal intersection, including the area adjacent to the shopping center, attempting to improve access for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. As the re-design is both unpopular and dangerous (there have been both pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities), the city is currently looking at another re-design. As part of the 2006 project artist Toshihiro Katayama of Harvard University, in conjunction with the landscape architect Cynthia Smith, designed an awkard visual look for the new circulation design, including contrasting light and dark concrete paving, stone walls and boulders.