A View from Across the Charles

During the four exuberant years I spent at Harvard at the start of the 1970s, I knew that Allston was there, somewhere, out beyond the football stadium. I just never went there. That seems odd, now that I’ve lived in Allston for nearly 30 years, because it’s actually a very short walk. I frequently visit the libraries, the museums, and the film archive. But from the Allston side Harvard can be a forbidding presence. The fields are fenced, the Harvard Business School turns a cold shoulder toward us, and the river houses are locked tight. Back offices and parking lots are Harvard’s face to the Allston neighborhood.

Now as Harvard plans to become Allston, the University has claimed it wants to do it right: no more locked gates, no superiority complex, no unilateral decision-making. Harvard, we were told, wants to be our partner in creating an “urban-scaled village,” wants to rejuvenate our commercial center, and enhance our infrastructure. In short, we understood that the University wanted to join with us to build a community.

Unfortunately, things haven’t turned out that way. Harvard’s first project proposals were unilaterally conceived and abruptly presented. They violated design principles endorsed by the community in the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Framework for Planning. The University’s Allston Development Group compounded the problem with its dismissive response to objections posed by the neighborhood’s Harvard-Allston Task Force. Now widespread opposition to the sitting and scale of Harvard’s proposed art building has caused that project to be put on hold—and gives both sides a chance to reconsider ways to repair what has become at best a rocky relationship.

Rapprochement can only happen though, if Harvard adopts a different attitude toward its neighbor to the south. Calls for Allston folk to wise up and appreciate the magnificence of Harvard’s plans will not help. Invitations to the community to participate in the drafting of those plans before they harden into proposals would be a lot more useful—we do, after all, share the space and infrastructure—and would encourage us, Allston residents, to reenter the review process with an open mind. No one wants Harvard’s Allston plans to flounder, but many of us in Allston think it’s a shame that the University has been so reluctant to follow the collaborative principles it articulated at the outset.

The shame of this is not just that bad buildings may get built. The proposed art center, packed into a too-small site, its public purpose largely undefined, is such a building. For all its environmental rectitude, Harvard’s Allston Science Complex is too tall for the neighborhood, and new roadways threaten to make our already congested traffic unbearable. But the greater shame is the lost opportunity to really create what Harvard said it wanted: a new sort of campus community.

For all its modest ways Allston/Brighton offers quite a lot to such a project—a solid, stable, working people’s neighborhood, home to many groups and cultures, a slice of the world more vibrant and real than much of what’s left in 02138. I like to picture a future Allston with some recherché café, a Pamplona or a Paradiso, right down the street from our neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts—now that’s true diversity!

More seriously, I wonder if Harvard students wouldn’t like to volunteer as tutors in our community and meet our kids. Would the staff of the proposed Science Complex really object if our children share the daycare center with theirs? And when their staff use the fitness center, would it be so bad if the person at the next machine was an Allston resident? Can’t we all take the shuttle together to Harvard Square?

And why are folks at the Education School so desperately clinging to their cramped quarters on Brattle Street—no kids there—instead of leaping at the chance to cross the river and help us reweave the fascinating fabric of our Allston community? Wouldn’t students and faculty at the School of Public Health enjoy the challenge of working with our often underserved population? While Harvard’s sages ponder how to ground the general education curriculum in knowledge of the real world, Allston is that world, just down the street.

Harvard has unveiled to much acclaim the proposed Institutional Master Plan for its Allston campus. But I wonder where the community master plan is. Harvard has to its credit begun to plan a “green campus” in Allston. Where is the planning to make Allston/Brighton a “green community”? So much good could come of a real partnership, where Allston extends to Harvard a neighborly hand, and Harvard helps create the urban fabric and the open space, the properly scaled campus and the cultural resources that will make Allston attractive to residents, students, and staff alike. Harvard’s sad history of community relations could turn to glory if it could bring itself to join Allston in a marriage of equals. But will it take the chance?

Brent Whelan ’73 is an Allston resident and a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Harvard Allston.