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Cambridge: where Bohemia meets big bucks

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You see it in the "Embrace Diversity" bumper stickers and the plethora of used-book shops. In Noam Chomsky lectures and the yard signs touting Green Party candidates.

Cambridge is supposed to be the embodiment of everything that is Intellectual, that is Liberal, that is Hip, Quirky, and Countercultural.

It is also, it turns out, home to quite a few millionaires.

When the Census Bureau recently released its list of US cities with the highest percentages of million-dollar homes, there was Cambridge - or, as it's sometimes known across the Charles River, the People's Republic of Cambridge - in the No. 1 spot. By a lot. Over in Boston, some people had to be chuckling.

To be fair, Cambridge's top position is a bit skewed. The census considered only cities with a population of 100,000, and Cambridge just barely squeaked by. It also looked only at owner-occupied single-family homes - ruling out the majority of Cambridge residences, which are rented, multifamily, or both.

But with a whopping 12 percent of those single-family homes valued over $1 million, the census ranking still highlights the difference between the image and reality of Cambridge. As housing costs soar, the city seems in the throes of an identity struggle. The quirky coffee shops and women's centers haven't disappeared, but the ranking shines a light on that less visible Cambridge of stately homes and wealthy urbanites.

"It's ironic," says Richard Peiser, a real estate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. But the ranking, he adds, is not surprising. "Cambridge has been a bipolar city income-wise for longer than I can recall.... There's an argument to be made that its liberal tendencies have exacerbated the income split."

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