Make Music Harvard Square / Fete de la Musique – The backstory and why the plan to protest the June 16th, 2018 event is not being shunned by the HSBA.

The Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA) was founded in 1910; its mission is “to promote commerce in Harvard Square”…over the last decade or so, we added the tagline “while being good stewards of the public space”. 

For many years, the HSBA organized two signature events, MayFair and Oktoberfest; we now organize between 70 and 80 events throughout the year. They are all free, family-friendly and open to the public.  

The reason for organizing so many events is to encourage folks to come to the Square, build community, share experiences and support our brick & mortar businesses – support that is essential to their success. Currently the Square is home to over 350 businesses, of which, 72% are locally-owned independents.  While all our businesses rely on a steady stream of people, it is particularly important for our independents. 

With the advent of Amazon and the overall increase in on-line sales, as well as regional options from places that did not exist a decade ago such as the Lawn on D, Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Seaport District and Assembly Row, Harvard Square must remain vibrant, robust, fun, welcoming and have an abundance of “Instagrammable” moments.        

Eleven years ago, the Harvard Square Business Association hosted a young French intern who shared with us the French way to celebrate the summer solstice. It is an event called the “Fete de la Musique” which is the organic playing of music on street corners throughout the country, and now the world. Musicians perform for the sheer joy of making music.

We loved the idea and introduced the concept in Harvard Square; we call our event Make Music Harvard Square / Fete de la Musique!  Unlike in France, our event always takes place on the Saturday nearest the solstice and rather than random performances, the HSBA conceives of “stages” in locations that do not obstruct the sidewalks. We are careful about pinch points and handicapped access and take into account the needs of the performers. Therefore, we assign the stages and work hard to ensure that everyone who wants to play has the opportunity to do so. We apply for permission from the City of Cambridge DPW and License Commission. Performers are encouraged to “put out their hat, guitar case, or whatever container they have, so that folks can show their appreciation. Over the years, every genre of music has been played by performers ranging in age from 5 to 85 and each year the number of performers has grown.

It is our understanding that this year may be different.  There has been a call to action by a group of musicians to protest Make Music Harvard Square for reasons that have nothing to do with the HSBA.

Two years ago, John DiGiovanni, President of Trinity Property Management who also serves as chair of the board of the HSBA, purchased the EMF building outside of Central Square in Cambridge.  The building, which is 98 years old, has been used for practice space by musicians for about a decade. It is unsafe and in need of major repair. The tenants have been asked to vacate by May 31, 2018, so that the necessary work can take place.

To be clear, Mr. DiGiovanni’s purchase of the EMF building has nothing to do the HSBA. However, there has been a deliberate and unfair melding of the two. The HSBA is managed by an executive director and is overseen by a 23 member board. The HSBA has no role in, nor is it involved in any way in the management of Mr. DiGiovanni’s private business.     

Recently social media postings have accused Mr. DiGiovanni of being unsupportive of the arts.   In fact, he is well known for being a strong advocate for and financial supporter of the arts, including the Brattle Theater, Passim, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Longy School of Music, and St. Paul’s Boys Choir, to name a few. Additionally, it was his vision and persistence that brought the Sinclair to Harvard Square. 

Denise Jillson, executive director, stated, “Harvard Square is known as a place of celebration and protest, where public discourse is encouraged and welcomed.  The call to protest or occupy Make Music Harvard Square / Fete de la Musique, while misguided, is certainly welcomed.  My only hope is that the organizers do not malign an association whose members have a 108 year history of being good stewards of Harvard Square or a person who is known for his generosity, but rather use this as an opportunity to garner support and additional funding for the arts from city and state coffers. 

Instead of demanding that a private individual bear the responsibility to personally maintain an artist community in a dangerous and unsafe building, we should rally together to demand that the city and the state provide more funding for the arts, erect more community performance centers, and build more housing for people with low and moderate incomes. In this way, we all contribute. ”