For the last three years, Suzanne Preston Blier has been teaching a course close to home with an unusual requirement.
Students who take “Harvard Square: Social History of Cambridge, MA” must speak at a local government meeting. “My real goal is to urge students to become active wherever they end up living,” said Blier.
That same passion for local involvement and Cambridge history led Blier to her most recent writing project: a children’s book titled “The Streets of Newtowne: A Story of Cambridge, MA.”
Geared toward readers ages 9 to 11, the book weaves together the histories of Indigenous peoples, Puritans, the American Revolution, slavery and the Civil War, industrial growth, immigration, and the growth of Harvard. It features colorful illustrations by artist Jim Blake, a 1979 alumnus of the Graduate School of Design.
“The key thing was to bring this history from its Indigenous origins up to today, and showcase not only the well-trodden pathways of Boston-area history, but also many of the people that we’ve left out of that history: African Americans and women and Indigenous people as well,” said Blier, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of African and African American Studies.
Newtowne was originally built to be the capital of Massachusetts. Established in 1630, it was the first planned city in the U.S., laid out on a grid with straight streets intersecting at right angles. But in 1638, after the capital was moved to Boston and Harvard College was established, the city was renamed “Cambridge,” after the university city in England.
“In a way, it’s a story of our larger country,” Blier said of her first foray into writing children’s literature. “While it takes place here, there are many elements that have resonance elsewhere, particularly on the Eastern coast.”