Look Both Ways Before Crossing the River

Earlier this week I met a River-dwelling friend of mine for dinner at Three Aces, a pizza and sub shop on Mass. Ave. just north of the Law School. Unsurprisingly, he had never visited Three Aces before, and as we talked I discovered that, just like most of my River friends, he had also not managed to acquaint himself with anything north of Hemenway Gym. As we dined on the best steak sub north of Weld Boathouse (yes, even better than the Steak and Peppers at Noch’s) he inquisitively asked about life in Quad, given the changes announced since the beginning of the year. Was it really exile? What about that agonizing 12-minute walk to the Yard? In the middle of a question, he suddenly seemed struck by something he had not yet noticed. “Wow,” he observed, “this place is huge. It’s gotta be at least eight times the size of Noch’s…and it has TV’s…and….” I smiled, for my friend had just discovered one of the reasons why many Quadlings love life in “exile.”

Lost in the debate about the benefits of a move to Allston are the advantages that will irrevocably be lost if undergraduates leave the Radcliffe Quadrangle for Western Avenue.

While the University hopes that an undergraduate presence in Allston will, according to the University President Lawrence H. Summers’ letter to the community on this issue, “introduce a community of students into Allston who would doubtless invigorate the expanded campus,” a more pressing concern is how students will be impacted by an Allston move. The administration must first demonstrate that undergraduates will directly benefit from a more student friendly atmosphere than currently enjoyed. Mass. Ave. north of the Law School harkens to images of Harvard Square in its pre-corporate atmosphere, presenting students with a number of eclectic shops, low-price eateries such as Boca Grande and Half-Shell, several small groceries and a Hollywood Express; all within a five- to- six-minute walk from the Quad. Further north, but still within easy walking distance, Porter Square offers up the closest Anna’s Taqueria, a much less crowded Pizzeria Uno’s, Blockbuster, TAGS hardware store, Star Market, several bars, a liquor store, access to the MBTA commuter rail and, a staple of college life at every other college in the nation except Harvard, McDonalds.

The Quad’s student friendliness, however, should not be construed as being confined to Mass Ave. The actual Quad itself, a football-field-sized parcel of land in the middle of the Radcliffe Quadrangle allows students an immensely more valuable grass-covered recreational space than the MAC Quad. At any given time students can be found playing Frisbee or tossing around a football and during winter months snowball fights and snow-football games. Besides an open expanse of greenery, Quadlings benefit from the presence of Hilles Library and the QRAC. Even while dilapidated, both are slated for renovations and promise to continue to serve vital academic and recreational needs in the years to come. An Allston move without such amenities fails students, as Allstonites will be forced to walk to Lamont and the already overcrowded MAC to take advantage of such resources. Finally, the Quad’s location at the edge of the Agassiz residential neighborhood allows residents to enjoy a quiet atmosphere that River houses, in close proximity to the Square and Memorial Drive, do not enjoy. An Allston move would require undergraduate housing to be near either bustling Soldiers’ Field Drive or busy Western Avenue and would place students in a neighborhood of run-down buildings and gas-stations that pales in comparison to what is currently enjoyed.

Additionally, administration claims that an undergraduate presence in Allston “could do much to ensure that the Cambridge and Allston portions of our expanded campus evolve not as separate domains, but as integrated, interactive elements of a larger whole” should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Indeed, it is unlikely that Allston houses will lead to greater campus integration than the Quad location currently allows. While the picture of undergraduate housing along the Charles River (assuming it’s not closer to Western Avenue) would make for good photo-ops in the 2015 viewbook, the administration would do well to notice that rivers make poor catalysts for integration—they are most commonly used as lines of division for nations, states, counties and even municipalities. Barring further development, the bridge linking JFK Street and North Harvard Street stands as the only route between the main campus and Allston. Allston students would be forced to cross the busy intersections at Soldiers’ Field Road and Memorial Drive to get to class. Since an Allston campus would lay about the same distance between the Quad and the Yard, it is likely that the College will provide shuttles, which will be forced to navigate much denser traffic than Garden Street. An Allston campus would destroy the current Yard-centered orientation of the College by making Annenberg and the Science Center destinations lying at the northernmost edge of the undergraduate campus. Thus, it is unlikely that an Allston campus would shorten the travel time currently seen as problematic between the Quad and the Yard; indeed it would most likely increase it. Finally, barring the inclusion of a much-needed student center comparable to those enjoyed at other colleges, it is unlikely that small-scale student amenities will attract students across the River. The fact that Loker currently resides near the relative center of campus, but remains a miserable failure, casts shadows of doubt over expectations of integration.

Though University President Lawrence H. Summers continues to paint the prospect of an undergraduate campus in Allston as mere speculation, the fact that it remains on the table as a possibility means that current undergraduates should take a keen interest in developments across the River. While recent developments such as the creation of several ad-hoc student-faculty committees shows that the administration is at least trying to consult students, it has yet to be seen if these committees will be listened to and their recommendations made into visible change. Until then, students should not be surprised to read about more bombshells, such as the recent Hilles and QRAC announcements, dropped without much notice or student input. If the administration cannot recreate an atmosphere as student-friendly as that currently enjoyed in the Quad, students should treat the administration’s claims that Allston could be a great windfall for the College with great skepticism.

Justin R. Chapa ’05 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is vice-chair for students services of the Campus Life Committee of the Harvard Undergraduate Council and a member of the Student-Faculty Committee on House Life.