Tales from Jordan

Life on the Margin of Radcliffe/Harvard

They sit inconspicuously at the corner of Walker and Shepard Streets, just across from the Quad, two low-slung brick buildings. Are they apartments? offices? passersby will ask. A single metal letter set on each bright orange door gives away the contents: W, K and J, which stands for Wilbur K. Jordan '28, the University official who decided in the late '50s to supplement the Radcliffe education with the practical skills every woman needed--cooking, cleaning, family life--by building some cooperative houses near Radcliffe. These are the Jordan coops.

Almost all undergraduates live in the Houses or the Yard. If you live on campus, you're forced to buy the meal plan too. There are few alternatives. Cambridge housing is expensive, and hard to come by. Some schools, faced with a similar squeeze but aware that their students may prefer to cook for themselves or adopt a different diet, have built an extensive system of cooperatives. At Berkeley, for example, hundreds, if not a few thousand students live in coops. The total number of people in coops at Harvard is around 100, 40 at the Dudley coop (off-campus) and 20 each at the three Jordans, which are on-campus but off-board.

The Jordans have changed a good deal from Wilbur's original idea. For one, men moved in when Radcliffe and Harvard decided to opt for sexual integration in 1971. Before that, men rarely got farther than a small room next to the front door where they waited for their dates to come downstairs to get them (the "beau" room). That room has since been turned into a TV room, or an extra private room in over-crowded years. The Jordans were designed to hold 25 people each, but either students were smaller then or had a lower standard of comfort: at least half of the "doubles" are used as singles, and the coops put up stiff resistance when the Quad housing offices try to assign any extra bodies to a Jordan.

The Jordans remain, however, a world apart. They are small enough so that everyone knows everyone, a pleasant alternative (for most people) to the anonymity of House life. The coops buy their own food and prepare their own meals, and are de-facto self-governing, with administration handled by a food proctor, treasurer, work-list proctor, and a token tutor. Vegetarians can get good nutritious meals, a rare find at Harvard, and even the carnivores are generally pleased with the diversity of the fare, although calls for more meat periodically arise (tough on a low budget). Fresh-baked bread appears every so often. Milk and cookies is a weekly ritual, and people may sit around the living room for hours, unlike the get-a-cookie-and-run strategy prevalent in the Quad Houses. Jordanites can eat at the Houses on a meal exchange program (since you can eat at the Jordans) and pay less for the same meal as an on-board student--so there.

I've lived in Jordan W for three semesters so far, more if you count the year. I spent sleeping on the floor in friends' rooms there because I preferred it to my own dorm. Some people have been there almost four years, survivors from the pre-Fox days when freshmen lived at the Quad. Even after that, a couple of freshmen transferred in, virtually unique among their class for escaping both parents and the Yard. Many people there are on the six-year plan of studies: not college and law school but six years as an undergraduate, punctuated by leaves spent in Colorado and Guatemala and Saudi Arabia.

Each of the Jordans acquires a personality of its own. J. South Houses's coop, used to be filled with religious fanatics including a tutor from the divinity school leading prayer services every morning, or so the rumor filtered back to W. Half the Radcliffe crew lived at one of the Jordans. K, the North House coop, is relatively sparsely populated this year, as befits the coop of Harvard's smallest House. W is...well, there are musicians and photographers, writers and political activists, homebodies and serious students, scientists and druggies. And somehow it comes together to form a community, at least part of the time. I assume the same holds for J and K, but although they are next door, there is little inter-coop communication.

Mostly, Jordan is a very human place. It's not just having Sven, Clyde, and Cheeba, the three kittens, puttering around, or the permanent dispute over just what the names of last year's cats were. It's more than the fact that our pair of tutors, recently married, spent last term courting in the coop. It's only partly explained by the feeling of being part of a stream of coopers, of having Jordan alums living in Central Square and Somerville drop by for meals or birthday parties or just company. It transcends the craziness, found in the graffiti sheets in the second floor bathroom or on the walls in the basement study room (the dungeon) or in dinner table conversation ("I'm in this course, see, history of psychology, and the main text is by a guy named Boring. No kidding. And when Boring taught the course 30 years ago, he used a book by Dull and Dull." A voice from the other table says, "What was that, I didn't hear." "Well I'm in this course, see...). It goes beyond having to cook for 25 people, a feat that can terrorize the neophyte (as it did me) and even occasionally end in a culinary fiasco. It's the spirit of cooperation, of shared work and records and dope and lives. Maybe it's the spirit of Wilbur K. himself, checking on things.

It's quiet here, and much calmer than at the River, and there are real houses and neighborhoods with little kids and old people and benches and parks just down the block. You have space, and a little perspective. Life at Jordan is life in, but not of, Harvard. I wouldn't have it any other way.