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NewsApr 21, 2020

Denise Jillson ’07 works to sustain Harvard Square through pandemic

Alumna tirelessly supports neighborhood and Cambridge community amid challenges of COVID-19

 Denise Jillson, the Executive Director of HSBA, posing with Cambridge police.
Denise Jillson on Brattle Street with members of the Cambridge Police Department.

Even in ordinary times, Denise Jillson’s job as executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA) is a challenging one.

The 44-acre district includes over 360 different businesses including restaurants, retail and offices. Despite some grumblings that Harvard Square has lost its quirky feel, over 70 percent of the businesses in the square are still locally and independently owned. 

Though many mourn the loss of the square’s legendary newsstands, bookshops and record stores, new shops and eateries have joined iconic businesses such as Brattle Square Florist, Cardullo’s, the Grolier Poetry Bookshop and Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Harvard Square fixture since 1960. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has indefinitely shuttered local businesses and universities such as Lesley, has brought unprecedented new challenges and an unfamiliar silence to the once-bustling square.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Jillson says wryly. 

Like other brick-and-mortar destinations, Harvard Square has struggled with economic ups and downs, increasing costs and the advent of online shopping, which has pitted iconic local merchants against the likes of Amazon.

Jillson has been the executive director of the HSBA since April 2006 and has helped shepherd the neighborhood and its businesses through countless changes. Her personal history in Cambridge runs deep. She raised her family in the city and graduated from Lesley in 2007 through our Center for the Adult Learner while working full time at the HSBA.

“I think it took me seven years to get my degree,” she remembers cheerfully, noting that she maintained a 4.0 grade average. ”It was a wonderful time.”

Harvard Square

When it comes to Harvard Square, Jillson is both nostalgic and practical about the challenges that businesses face.

“You have to be accepting that there is always change. Over the past several years, we’ve had major construction in the square and the advent of regional options that didn’t exist before — the Seaport, the waterfront, Assembly Row,” she says. “It used to be that on a Saturday morning you went to Harvard Square — now people have a lot more options.” 

Helping small businesses and educating consumers

The impact of the pandemic on a destination that relies heavily on a population of students and visitors has been devastating. The closures of local universities including Lesley, Harvard, and M.I.T. have left the streets near-empty and even the essential businesses like pharmacies, hardware and grocery stores are eerily quiet. Arts events, festivals, tours and graduation ceremonies have been postponed or canceled, and the steady stream of international visitors has vanished, seemingly overnight, with no fixed end in sight.

“We usually welcome 8 to 10 million tourists a year. This year we’re not going to see buses lined up — it’s going to be a tough year,” she reflects. “My job is to make sure we stay relevant and robust as a destination.”

Her immediate concern has been helping small businesses access loans and financial assistance to help them survive the closures, but she is also looking ahead to the future to make re-entry easier when businesses re-open. She is continuously updating lists of restaurants offering takeout service and working with the Cambridge City Council to create a task force to help ease regulations and reduce paperwork so that restaurants can re-open more quickly once restrictions were eased. She is also working on a Harvard Square gift card program that would allow customers to buy electronic gift cards that could be used at a wide range of local shops and restaurants. 

She has rallied local businesses and organizations and worked with five local shelters to provide hundreds of meals for local citizens experiencing homelessness.

“We’re fortunate to have forward-thinking, compassionate leadership here in Cambridge. And we have the ability to do it because we’re a 110-year-old organization with a directive to care for the Square and the people in it.”

Jillson is optimistic that Harvard Square will survive as a shopping and dining destination, that someday soon the cafes and boutiques will re-open, that moviegoers will flock to the Brattle Theater, and undergraduates will pack the Hong Kong late at night to enjoy dumplings, karaoke and scorpion bowls. In the meantime, she is doing all she can to keep Harvard Square running.

“There are so many iconic businesses here in the Square that we hold with such reverence.” 

“My greatest challenge, at the moment, is to continue to educate consumers — to beat the drum that every person makes a difference and that every purchase matters,” says Jillson. “There is a positive economic impact when people shop locally. The survival of their hometown business district and the unique shops, restaurants and services that dot their neighborhood depend on their patronage and support.”