Documentary | Filmmaking | Interviews

Main Street or Mall Street?

1 Dec , 2005  

Written by Ellen Mills | Posted by:

The Tasty Diner was a fixture in Harvard Square for over 80 years before being evicted from its spot in an historic building. In 'Touching History,' filmmaker Federico Muchnik documents the struggle to preserve this local institution and highlights similar debates across the country over historic preservation and support for local businesses.

Generations of college students, Cambridge residents and visitors who passed through Harvard Square knew and loved "The Tasty," a diner that was open late and was rarely empty. In a room not much larger than a decent walk-in closet, a cross section of society sat elbow-to-elbow every day. As filmmaker Federico Muchnik describes it "You could walk in anytime of day and on your left would be a Harvard professor and on your right would be a homeless person and you had to talk because you were so close together. There was no judgment. You could just go in there and lead your life and that’s what I loved about it."

Muchnik frequented the diner with his friends during his high school days in the 1970’s and then after he moved away he would stop in during his visits back. In 1997, he returned to the Cambridge area permanently and heard from the owner of the Tasty, Peter Haddad that the Cambridge Savings Bank had bought the building and there was talk of evictions and demolition.

"I thought, ‘someone should document this’ so I started hanging out with my Hi8 camera," Muchnik says. At the beginning he only intended to capture for posterity the unique atmosphere inside the cramped quarters of The Tasty.

Before long however, the battle between the diner and the bank began to heat up and Muchnik started attending the community meetings where the issue of historic preservation and preserving the identity of Harvard Square was being debated.

"The people of Cambridge were very vocal about keeping something unique there," says Muchnik. There was strong opposition to demolishing the building (one plan proposed by the bank) and there was equally strong support for retaining longtime tenants like The Tasty.

"It led me to interview the president of the bank [Pete Ingram] and Charles Sullivan, the head of the Cambridge Historical Commission."

As the debate went on and various plans were proposed, Muchnik just kept filming. "I shot everything until the last day," he says

Muchnik, who is a veteran producer, director, actor and faculty member at the Center for Digital Arts at Boston University, had hours of footage and a story with a narrative arc and relevancy beyond just one city in Massachusetts. He says he wondered at the time if he could "cobble something together" but "the project went into hibernation until last year." Muchnik returned to the footage, edited it, and "Touching History" appeared in the New England Film and Video Festival in the fall of 2004.

The film captures the charm and hometown appeal of The Tasty Diner. Viewers can almost smell the bacon cooking as chef Charlie Coney efficiently serves up orders from the grill as he dispenses opinions and advice. The regulars on the counter stools keep the conversation flowing and everyone gets involved.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Savings Bank has plans to demolish the building and construct a similar, but modernized building which will accommodate large, chain store tenants.

Muchnik intercuts footage of residents imploring the Historical Commission to preserve the building known locally as the "Read" building, which got its distinctive rounded facade when streetcars were introduced to Harvard Square and they needed space to turn around.

Muchnik calls the film "a labor of love" which he shot and edited himself. "I shot 75 percent of it on Hi8," he says. "Then during the hiatus, everything went digital and in the spring of 2005 I filmed an epilogue using the VX 1000." He edited the film on Final Cut Pro. Aside from a modest donation from the Harvard Square Defense Fund, he financed the project as well. "I’m really not a fundraiser," he says, "I’m a craftsman."

Muchnik says he doesn’t expect to make money from the film but he does hope that it will be an inspiration to individuals and a guide for municipalities. "I want audiences to know it is important to speak up. There was some victory, the building was landmarked. The people’s voice was heard."

He sees "Touching History" as "a teaching tool for municipalities who must deal with the private sector. It shows what kind of power government has."

"Touching History" will have its Cambridge premiere on Dec. 10th at a benefit screening for another Harvard Square institution: the Brattle Theatre. Muchnik says the screening will feature a version of the film with new artwork and re-mixed audio. A panel discussion including Muchnik and Charlie Coney will follow the screening.

Generations of college students, Cambridge residents and visitors who passed through Harvard Square knew and loved "The Tasty," a diner that was open late and was rarely empty. In a room not much larger than a decent walk-in closet, a cross section of society sat elbow-to-elbow every day. As filmmaker Federico Muchnik describes it "You could walk in anytime of day and on your left would be a Harvard professor and on your right would be a homeless person and you had to talk because you were so close together. There was no judgment. You could just go in there and lead your life and that’s what I loved about it."

Muchnik frequented the diner with his friends during his high school days in the 1970’s and then after he moved away he would stop in during his visits back. In 1997, he returned to the Cambridge area permanently and heard from the owner of the Tasty, Peter Haddad that the Cambridge Savings Bank had bought the building and there was talk of evictions and demolition.

"I thought, ‘someone should document this’ so I started hanging out with my Hi8 camera," Muchnik says. At the beginning he only intended to capture for posterity the unique atmosphere inside the cramped quarters of The Tasty.

Before long however, the battle between the diner and the bank began to heat up and Muchnik started attending the community meetings where the issue of historic preservation and preserving the identity of Harvard Square was being debated.

"The people of Cambridge were very vocal about keeping something unique there," says Muchnik. There was strong opposition to demolishing the building (one plan proposed by the bank) and there was equally strong support for retaining longtime tenants like The Tasty.

"It led me to interview the president of the bank [Pete Ingram] and Charles Sullivan, the head of the Cambridge Historical Commission."

As the debate went on and various plans were proposed, Muchnik just kept filming. "I shot everything until the last day," he says

Muchnik, who is a veteran producer, director, actor and faculty member at the Center for Digital Arts at Boston University, had hours of footage and a story with a narrative arc and relevancy beyond just one city in Massachusetts. He says he wondered at the time if he could "cobble something together" but "the project went into hibernation until last year." Muchnik returned to the footage, edited it, and "Touching History" appeared in the New England Film and Video Festival in the fall of 2004.

The film captures the charm and hometown appeal of The Tasty Diner. Viewers can almost smell the bacon cooking as chef Charlie Coney efficiently serves up orders from the grill as he dispenses opinions and advice. The regulars on the counter stools keep the conversation flowing and everyone gets involved.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Savings Bank has plans to demolish the building and construct a similar, but modernized building which will accommodate large, chain store tenants.

Muchnik intercuts footage of residents imploring the Historical Commission to preserve the building known locally as the "Read" building, which got its distinctive rounded facade when streetcars were introduced to Harvard Square and they needed space to turn around.

Muchnik calls the film "a labor of love" which he shot and edited himself. "I shot 75 percent of it on Hi8," he says. "Then during the hiatus, everything went digital and in the spring of 2005 I filmed an epilogue using the VX 1000." He edited the film on Final Cut Pro. Aside from a modest donation from the Harvard Square Defense Fund, he financed the project as well. "I’m really not a fundraiser," he says, "I’m a craftsman."

Muchnik says he doesn’t expect to make money from the film but he does hope that it will be an inspiration to individuals and a guide for municipalities. "I want audiences to know it is important to speak up. There was some victory, the building was landmarked. The people’s voice was heard."

He sees "Touching History" as "a teaching tool for municipalities who must deal with the private sector. It shows what kind of power government has."

"Touching History" will have its Cambridge premiere on Dec. 10th at a benefit screening for another Harvard Square institution: the Brattle Theatre. Muchnik says the screening will feature a version of the film with new artwork and re-mixed audio. A panel discussion including Muchnik and Charlie Coney will follow the screening.


Generations of college students, Cambridge residents and visitors who passed through Harvard Square knew and loved 'The Tasty,' a diner that was open late and was rarely empty. In a room not much larger than a decent walk-in closet, a cross section of society sat elbow-to-elbow every day. As filmmaker Federico Muchnik describes it 'You could walk in anytime of day and on your left would be a Harvard professor and on your right would be a homeless person and you had to talk because you were so close together. There was no judgment. You could just go in there and lead your life and that’s what I loved about it.' Muchnik frequented the diner with his friends during his high school days in the 1970’s and then after he moved away he would stop in during his visits back. In 1997, he returned to the Cambridge area permanently and heard from the owner of the Tasty, Peter Haddad that the Cambridge Savings Bank had bought the building and there was talk of evictions and demolition. 'I thought, ‘someone should document this’ so I started hanging out with my Hi8 camera,' Muchnik says. At the beginning he only intended to capture for posterity the unique atmosphere inside the cramped quarters of The Tasty. Before long however, the battle between the diner and the bank began to heat up and Muchnik started attending the community meetings where the issue of historic preservation and preserving the identity of Harvard Square was being debated. 'The people of Cambridge were very vocal about keeping something unique there,' says Muchnik. There was strong opposition to demolishing the building (one plan proposed by the bank) and there was equally strong support for retaining longtime tenants like The Tasty. 'It led me to interview the president of the bank [Pete Ingram] and Charles Sullivan, the head of the Cambridge Historical Commission.' As the debate went on and various plans were proposed, Muchnik just kept filming. 'I shot everything until the last day,' he says Muchnik, who is a veteran producer, director, actor and faculty member at the Center for Digital Arts at Boston University, had hours of footage and a story with a narrative arc and relevancy beyond just one city in Massachusetts. He says he wondered at the time if he could 'cobble something together' but 'the project went into hibernation until last year.' Muchnik returned to the footage, edited it, and 'Touching History' appeared in the New England Film and Video Festival in the fall of 2004. The film captures the charm and hometown appeal of The Tasty Diner. Viewers can almost smell the bacon cooking as chef Charlie Coney efficiently serves up orders from the grill as he dispenses opinions and advice. The regulars on the counter stools keep the conversation flowing and everyone gets involved. Meanwhile, the Cambridge Savings Bank has plans to demolish the building and construct a similar, but modernized building which will accommodate large, chain store tenants. Muchnik intercuts footage of residents imploring the Historical Commission to preserve the building known locally as the 'Read' building, which got its distinctive rounded facade when streetcars were introduced to Harvard Square and they needed space to turn around. Muchnik calls the film 'a labor of love' which he shot and edited himself. 'I shot 75 percent of it on Hi8,' he says. 'Then during the hiatus, everything went digital and in the spring of 2005 I filmed an epilogue using the VX 1000.' He edited the film on Final Cut Pro. Aside from a modest donation from the Harvard Square Defense Fund, he financed the project as well. 'I’m really not a fundraiser,' he says, 'I’m a craftsman.' Muchnik says he doesn’t expect to make money from the film but he does hope that it will be an inspiration to individuals and a guide for municipalities. 'I want audiences to know it is important to speak up. There was some victory, the building was landmarked. The people’s voice was heard.' He sees 'Touching History' as 'a teaching tool for municipalities who must deal with the private sector. It shows what kind of power government has.' 'Touching History' will have its Cambridge premiere on Dec. 10th at a benefit screening for another Harvard Square institution: the Brattle Theatre. Muchnik says the screening will feature a version of the film with new artwork and re-mixed audio. A panel discussion including Muchnik and Charlie Coney will follow the screening.