Homes Before Harvard

Julia V. Guren

On an uncharacteristically warm fall afternoon, hundreds of students partied up at this year’s official Harvard-Yale tailgate. But something was different about this year’s festivities, and it wasn’t just the police state: Tailgaters were dancing, partying, and puking in someone else’s backyard.

Namely, the backyard of 213 families living in the Charlesview Apartments, the low-income housing complex that currently stands in the way of Harvard’s plans for expansion across the river into Allston. Charlesview has been the backyard of approximately 600 residents for 35 years, but whether we’re getting down at the Game or imagining where a “Welcome to Harvard-Allston” sign would look best, it is easy to forget that Charlesview, like the rest of lower Allston, is a place where people live.

While Harvard touts its expansion into the nether regions of Allston as a veritable triumph for modern education, many residents, students, and community members see the University’s trek as something more sinister: a Harvardian version of manifest destiny. To them, Harvard’s expansion asserts that if the price is right and the buyer well-endowed, then the homes, histories, and communities of poor people can be bought up, bulldozed, and replaced with shiny new classrooms, biotech labs, and commercial start-ups.

Charlesview is a place where families live, where children have been raised, where community has been forged, and a generation of people have made lives for themselves and their loved ones. Surely, it is also a place in need of renovation after years of neglect by its owners. Harvard could simply be a good neighbor and help them renovate the complex.

Instead, Harvard’s expansion proposal, as it currently stands, will scatter the Charlesview families and disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the tenants by forcibly relocating them to areas farther away from jobs, neighborhood life, and public transportation. Harvard has the money and power, and so it feels entitled to the homes of poor Charlesview residents. But these residents don’t have the money or power to stand up alone to a multi-billion dollar corporation eyeing their little plot of concrete and community. That is why they have asked for student support.

As students, we are in a unique position. We have a certain power within the University. We can either use it to our advantage, at the expense of the poor people around us, or we can use it to challenge the injustices carried out in our name and with our money. The forced relocation of hundreds of poor families is one of the most egregious of these injustices.

And this is a student issue, not just a community issue. We will not see the end of these problems if the Charlesview families are relocated out of sight of the new campus. Such treatment of the tenants is sure to generate more anger and resentment, and that will last for years to come. Is this the kind of relationship we want to establish with our neighbors in Allston?

They will see Harvard’s expansion into their neighborhood as an invasion. And if we continue to act this way, they may have a point. If Harvard does not respect the surrounding community, we cannot expect them to respect us. If Harvard creates insecurity for our neighbors, we should not expect security for our own community.

Indeed, if Harvard can get away with bulldozing the homes of 213 poor families, what else can it get away with? And if administrators cannot be accountable to our neighbors, how can we expect them to be accountable in any way?

For the past three years, Harvard has refused to listen to the voices of the Charlesview families. Administrators have consulted with the board of directors, but never with the tenants whose lives are affected by their decisions. While they claim they have given the tenants a chance to speak, they have never given them a chance to be heard when those decisions were being made. Tenants say they feel like they have talked to a brick wall.

We’ve seen it before, and we’re seeing it now: Accountability and transparency is missing in action at Harvard.

In the past, Harvard students have stepped up to the plate where Harvard’s “leaders” would not. They have stood up for the rights of the least privileged, the ones excluded from the benefits of Harvard. They have stood up with workers. They have stood up with victims of discrimination. They have stood up for oppressed people in foreign lands. It’s about time we stand up for the people in our own backyard. Because, really, it’s their backyard, not ours.

As we go home for the holidays, let’s remember what home means to us—and what it means to the Charlesview families.

Kelly L. Lee ’07 is an African and African American studies concentrator in Currier House. Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. They are members of Student Labor Action Movement.