Thursday, February 24, 2005

Barriers and walls: Iraq and elsewhere

When I turned on the news today, first thing I heard was that there had been another car-bombing of a police station in Iraq, with the death of 15 brave policemen. It seems the bomber got past the guard at the gate by wearing a police uniform.

I'm glad they have gates and guards there, although in this case the bomber managed to foil them. But I think they also need concrete barriers between the road or parking lot and the police stations themselves, to contain the concussion of such explosions. Not that a determined bomber still couldn't get in, but it would help make the task much harder, I assume, although I'm no engineer.

Thinking about that made me think of the old Cambridge Trust Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, that may seem an odd juxtaposition--and it is, to be sure--but there is a small connection. This story may seem frivolous, but the place I'm trying to get to with it isn't.

I lived in Cambridge for about seven years back in the late 60s through the mid-70s, back when a person with normal finances could actually live there and have enough money left over to eat every now and then. When I first arrived, the bank in the middle of Harvard Square had a huge glass window in front, light and airy. During some sort of demonstration or demonstrations (Cambodia bombing? after Kent State?) the window was repeatedly broken by stones heaved by angry demonstrators or vandals, or perhaps a combination of both.

And so the bank decided to brick up the entire front. It created a gloomy fortresslike facade that was a sad and tangible reminder of the anger and discord in our society (and, although I wasn't throwing any stones, I went to a few antiwar protests in my time).

And then one day, many years later, perhaps in the 80s (I was in the Square on a visit), I noticed a change. The glass front was back again. And it remained that way last time I looked, several years ago. For all I know it's that way still--I'll have to check next time I go there.

The reinstatement of the glass facade coincided with the transformation of the Square into a consumer haven. The old Design Research morphed into Crate and Barrel, and the much older Wursthaus became Abercrombie and Fitch (or is it Banana Republic? Oh dear; sometimes I confuse the two.) And El's, wonderful El's, dead and gone, although Bartley's remains.

So, the barrier went up, and it worked as long as it needed to. Years passed, the situation became calmer, and some higher-up decided the solid brick front was no longer needed.

The same process of building barriers is happening now in Iraq, for far more urgent reasons, against a far more vicious and implacable foe. The barriers will have to go up, lots of them. But it's my fervent hope that some day, even if it takes many years, they will come down again, because they will no longer be necessary.

Same for all those protective walls, I say (although here in New England we also say--or, actually, Robert Frost says we say, "Good fences make good neighbors.")

And some day soon when I visit Harvard Square again, I'll take a look at that bank building. Maybe it's not even a bank anymore, I don't know; maybe it's a Dunkin Donuts. But I like Cambridge and I like the Square, even though now I'm the oldest person strolling around there, except for a few fusty old professors, and even though I have to keep my mouth shut about politics lest I become the target of at least a few stony glances.


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