Put Substance Over Style

Round Town

IMAGINE A John Harvard facsimile on wheels which would stand up at the flick of a lever and hand out fancy invitations to Harvard Square shoppers.

Or picture a huge inflatable rainbow bridge spanning the Charles River from Allston to Cambridge. Lots of colors. Lots of children. And the Veritas logo splattered everywhere--all part of a plan to share Harvard's big 350th birthday bash next September with the Cambridge community.

Nothing's final yet, but the university has hired a well-known Boston consultant to plan a day-long river fest along Memorial Drive--complete with a laser light show projected on misty water, veritable barges of floating musicians, and maybe even a birthday cake, courtesy of local hotels.

The perfect way to make the surrounding city feel a part of Harvard and its upcoming 350th festivities, right?

IF YOU ask me, the whole thing sounds, well, pretty schlocky.

Somehow, I just wouldn't get all that excited about a 350th party in my honor if I were a Cantab living in working class East Cambridge or Riverside. Year after year, lots of headaches from drunken preppies parking their tailgates on my lawn for the Head of the Charles. Lots more tourists in my backyard for the Olympics. And the interminable Yale Game traffic jams.

Even when Harvard does try to do something constructive for Cambridge, it's usually more of the same old let-them-eat-cake mentality coming out of The Big H. This time around, it's 350th birthday cake.

If Harvard really wants to let Cambridge share in its 350th revelry, then the university should strive to make a substantive--rather than stylish--contribution to the local community.

And I think I've got the perfect gift idea.

THERE'S A LOT of talk around town these days about that parking lot at the corner of DeWolfe and Mt. Auburn Streets which St. Paul's Church plans to lease within the next year to some lucrative real estate developer. And if that prime piece of property behind Quincy House goes the way of other juicy lots in the Square, you can bet your T token that Harvard's going to build student housing there.

Of course, as a gesture of 350th good will, the university could always construct something on that site that would benefit both Harvard and Cambridge.

Last week Adams House Co-Master Jana Kiely met with President Derek C. Bok to ask the university to join in a scheme to construct just that: low-and middle-income housing and a community center to be funded by the city, the Archdiocese of Boston, and--you guessed it--Harvard.

On the whole, Kiely's proposal isn't all that bad for the university, considering its recent posture on the homeless situation in Cambridge and its lack of an institutional response to the Leverett House heating grates fiasco. Harvard would get a few more dorm rooms for its students while Cambridge's neediest citizens would get a roof over their heads.

Without a doubt, the first 350 years weren't exactly the smoothest between Harvard and Cambridge. Wouldn't it be nice if Harvard decided to change its longstanding and well-known indifference toward the surrounding community with a little 350th beneficence?

Then again, a quickie visit by Prince Charles in The Stadium is a little more enduring than a mixed-use housing project.