Warm summer night. Harvard Square. The Pit.
Thousands of memories begin here.
A few weeks ago, that’s where I was – along with about 100 others wishing The Pit farewell. This iconic hangout for punks, misfits, street people, and artists will soon be gone. Cambridge city officials plan to make the Pit into a plaza, destroying the visual reminder of what this place has meant to many for decades.
In response, The Pit’s people said goodbye in a celebration that included meaningful words, live music and dancing. The farewell party helped me think about why this space was important to me.
I don’t remember the groove that made the woman in the rainbow dress sway in her seat on one of those long, stone benches that have seen so much. Watching her, my boyfriend and I started to dance, joined by a few others. Next, Introspective OG, a local breakdancer, busted some moves, riffed with a fellow breakdancer in the crowd who was about twice his age, and then included all who cared to join in a spontaneous dance lesson.
During the open dancing that followed, when New Order’s “True Faith” came on, many more hit “the floor,” where people had sat, skateboarded, danced, smoked, and jostled each other for many a day and night, all seasons, going back to 1982. Each danced alone, but we all felt the rhythm. The sweaty, shirtless, man with long, blond hair and eyes half closed. The dreadlocked woman with the friendly smile. Another young breakdancer, peer to Introspective OG. A stranger and I mouthed the words to each other. I raised my hands Heavenward. On the steps at the dancing’s edge, two young women smiled at the crowd. They reminded me of parents watching their kids play. Most of us in the dancing crowd could have been their parents.
This wasn’t a rekindling, however, of what used to happen to me in this space. My involvement with the Pit was always tangential.
I probably hung out there a handful of times toward the start of 8th grade. I remember sitting shyly with two friends, slightly outside of the sacred space. The people looked like they had worn their studded leather jackets since childhood. They tied plaid shirts around their waists, smoked and laughed loud. They scuffed the ground with their Doc Martens and glanced out appraisingly at all that was happening.
On a fall Friday in 1986, it was our turn to sit on the edge and be welcomed in – or not. We perched, in our black skirts and leather boots and heavy eyeliner, our hair bleached and buzzcut. Someone asked us for a cigarette, maybe, and the conversation moved on. I should quit, but oh, well. Skateboards appeared, more common ground. Where can you skate without getting kicked out? Then, the stories. Guess what happened to me on the train? Dude, that guy, one time he…
When we came back, people recognized us. So it began.
On the night of that recent, final celebration, after we finished dancing and needed to get home to our own teen, a young couple approached us.
“Did they really do that back then?” they wanted to know, their eyes shining.
My boyfriend recalls that yes, spontaneous dance parties would erupt. I wasn’t there for those, having moved to California. But whenever I came back, The Pit was still The Pit, although the scene started dying down over the past 10 years or so.
Today, young people have other places to go. Maybe it’s post-pandemic social lives, or more generally, the fragmented nature of social scenes today, when it’s easier to curate your experiences using the Internet, rather than just showing up to a seemingly random public square and seeing what happened.
Back then, that’s how we did it. My friends and I were on a mission to find our people, and The Pit was part of our discovery process. For many others, The Pit was a refuge, a chance to escape a dangerous home, to find a new family when yours wasn’t working. That wasn’t my experience. But I did hang out for a similar reason – to move beyond what had been chosen for me, by my schooling and my family, and to see what happened when young people out on the streets came together for laughs, to learn how to carry themselves, for comfort, for acceptance. I like to think that each of us, as we gathered in that space, was most interested in the act of showing up.
There was probably a code of sorts. Maybe your punk band tees, your leathers, your ratty skate clothes, signified you were a “cool,” person, fun to hang around. Maybe, though, if you sat out long enough in your Benetton and Esprit, supplied a few bummed cigarettes and laughed at a few jokes, you’d be welcomed, too.
Am I naïve to think this? Possibly. I know others were scared of The Pit and had negative experiences there. As a YouTube narrative eloquently states, “we must acknowledge that in addition to the positive, energized community of The Pit, not all was perfect. Some of the rats [regulars] were victims of violence and sexual assault, and their experiences are the dark side of this otherwise positive experience.”
For me, The Pit was a tiny, short-lived gift. I moved on to other scenes. Yet each time I passed by, I couldn’t forget the little part I’d played, as one of those kids, on a handful of days, hanging out. The fact that others have these memories, more extensive or less than mine, connects us. We all built something together in this space. It will remain, however that space changes in the future.