“How to Break a Political Machine” is the title of a January 31, 1948 article about our city. The first sentence reads: "The taxpayers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, were paying far too much for far too little until a group of college professors and plain citizens got together and took on the local political machine. It was a tough and glorious scrap, but today Cambridge is one of the best-run cities in the land." So writes Joseph F. Dinnenn over 70 years ago in Colliers magazine. What he was referring to here was the joining together of academics and citizens in a plan to create “…a better form of government - one without the political corruption and continued infighting in the City in previous years. The strategy they came up with was Plan E, the system of government Cambridge still is using that was intended to balance power between the elected officials and the professionals of city government.”
Cambridge Board of Directors (1948 - photo credit Colliers)
The above photo shows the Cambridge Board of Directors, which replaced the old City Council during the reform period. According to the above cited Colliers article, this group "reduced the city debt from twelve to three million, built the highest-paid group of employees in any city of comparable size, reduced taxes and increased and streamlined all the city services." What stands out today in looking at this photo, is the prominent place of women in this important group as well as at least nominal minority representation. It is hard to tell occupation, or city neighborhood, but what is remarkable is how this group of citizen activists came together to make a difference in the city, and how effective they were. This effort was led by the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), and according to the author, “…these were not just activists: Meetings of the Civic Association are almost unbelievable. A federal judge sits between a truck driver, and a housemaid, and a professor of archaeology drapes himself over a radiator next to a cop."
Whether or not the Plan E ballot questions win or lose in the November 2 election, it is insightful to look back at its initial engagement of this Plan, who was involved, and what the core problems Plan E was seeking to address involved. The change to Plan E and for a more responsive government structure here was largely led in part by the now defunct Cambridge Civic Association. On why this matters still today regardless of the Plan E ballot questions is that as Joseph Dinnenn writes: "Good or bad government originates with the people of any community, but the fact that the people of a community want good government doesn’t mean that they’ll get it. They’ll get good government only if there is a charter and an election system in power through which they can function."
The Cambridge Civic Association was a mere three years old when this article was written - and this photo was taken. As noted in this article, CCA was "...a political association dedicated to promoting honest and efficient local government through the support of the city manager plan, working for and supporting competency in the office of city manager, working for and improving the school system of the city, and freeing the school system from all influences other than those which will provide the best possible education for the children of Cambridge, and seeking and supporting the candidacy of competent men and women in public office." CCA also had an affiliated group, the Cambridge Research Association who were charged with "...original investigations into matters affecting the welfare of the City of Cambridge and make reports both to the public and to the city government It will be financed by contributions, and contributions to the Research Association will undoubtedly be tax deductible."
Our group, the Cambridge Citizens Coalition (CCC), like the CCA in 1948, is still in its infancy - a little over two years old, and we have much to learn both about the city, the root of the problems we face, and how to effectively organize and effectively deploy a truly citywide civic group that will represent and give voice to the diverse range of city residents and concerns. We too have a research team, and regardless of the election outcomes on November 2, we plan continue our work and to remain deeply involved in the issues before the city.