In immigrant-rich Cambridge, arrest baffles locals

People visit the Tsarnaev home in Cambridge, Mass. Brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings.
(Dominick Reuter, European Pressphoto Agency)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The brothers’ American experience was rooted here, a city of Ivy Leaguers and immigrants across the Charles River from Boston. In almost every way, it was unremarkable.

They lived in a weathered neighborhood of Brazilians and Portuguese. Attended a public school. Joined sports teams. Prayed at a nearby mosque. In a city where more than 50 languages are spoken, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Chechen heritage would have made them neither outsiders nor outcasts.


So when a former classmate saw the brothers on television, accused of setting off pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon and spraying police with bullets days later, he reacted as many locals did.

“I was like, is this a joke? Is someone trying to play a joke on Cambridge?” said Samuel McCollin Skelton, a 25-year-old Marine reservist.

The home of Harvard University and MIT, Cambridge considers itself close-knit and open-minded. Since Puritans settled here in the 1630s, it has welcomed batch after batch of immigrants. Today, the city boasts 105,000 residents and a school system with pupils who hail from more than 80 nations.

“Cambridge is probably the most tolerant patch in these United States. It is a sanctuary city for immigrants,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.

“If Tamerlan Tsarnaev nursed murderous grudges because it was so hard to grow up and live in Cambridge, then he was indeed, as his uncle put it, a loser,” Cullen said.

On Saturday, many locals spoke to each other in questions: Why them? Why here? Even the morning greeting between customers and cashiers at the Family Dollar discount store was a query: “Did you know them?”

The scuttlebutt was often secondhand — from a friend of a friend or a relative — and hardly the stuff of scandal. The brothers were nice, quiet, normal. Recognizable but not distinctive.

Tamerlan, the former boxer with a wife and child, may have started following what officials called “radical Islam.” He was killed in the early Friday firefight. Dzhokhar, a laid-back former high school wrestler, evaded capture until late Friday in a dramatic, televised manhunt.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Troy Aiguier, who cut Tamerlan’s hair — “neat and clean” — for the last decade at his Cambridge barbershop. About six months ago, they chatted in Tamerlan’s car. “He was talking about life, talking about his kid, talking about boxing, how he’s doing good. Everything was fine. Same old happy-go-lucky, polite guy.”

The Tsarnaevs, who are ethnically Chechen, arrived in Cambridge in the early 2000s from Dagestan.

Home was a dingy, caramel-colored building on Norfolk Street that had been chopped into rental units. On the third floor, where neighbors said the brothers lived, printed sheets and towels served as makeshift curtains. The shabbiness clashed with a surrounding condo boomlet, which residents pointed to as a sign of a gentrifying neighborhood.

Mary Silberman, who lives behind the building, said the Tsarnaevs kept to themselves. But the closeness of the homes offered her a glimpse into their lives, particularly during the sweltering summers.

“I’d have my windows open. They’d have their windows open. At odd hours, you’d hear screaming,” she said. Then a female voice yelling, or a baby wailing. “It wasn’t enough to call the cops,” she said.

A few blocks away, the neighborhood lapses into grittiness. A used-car lot. A bottle-and-can recycling center. Warehouses. Some abandoned shopping carts. The boys’ father, who said he’d worked as a soldier and lawyer back home, was hired at a nearby auto body shop, said his former co-worker, Joe Timko.

“He was a really tough guy — as tough as they come,” said Timko, who once saw Anzor Tsarnaev change a transmission by himself in the snow. At some point, he also repaired cars along Norfolk Street, drawing the ire of neighbors.

Anzor, who eventually returned to Russia, apparently envisioned a different future for his sons. Both attended Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, a sprawling campus about a mile from Norfolk Street with the credo, “Opportunity, Diversity, Respect.”

Classmates remembered Tamerlan as possessing a quiet toughness, and Dzhokhar an easy humor and sharp mind.

Anzor told a Russian television station last week that he’d recently asked Tamerlan to make sure Dzhokhar finished his degree at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “Because this is life — those who don’t study work a lot and work hard. That’s why I was telling them, study,” he said.

Within the last year, neighbors noticed something: a shift in Tamerlan’s once-mundane behavior. He made an offhand comment to one about being upset with America. Another noticed he’d grown a thick beard, though it was gone by last week.

And he was also drawn to another building in Cambridge: a small, split-level mosque on Prospect Street. Its exterior proclaims: “And we have sent you as a mercy to mankind and all that exists.”

Times staff writer Andrew Tangel in Cambridge contributed to this report.