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Bernays and the Sycamores--An Intricate, Happy Affair

By Douglas Matthews

Spring weather seems finally to have caught up with the calendar and once again the stately Memorial Drive Sycamores are cautiously displaying their yellow buds to commuters, strollers, lollers, and all the other riverbank passers-by.

Two years from now this scene would have been transformed into a vista of sterile concrete and whizzing lines of smoke-spuming automobiles. It would have been, but for the intervention of a chorus of protests, some fortuitous political guillotining, and, mostly, the galvanic public relations wizardry of the man Time calls "U.S. Publicist Number One," Edward L. Bernays.

L'affaire sycamore started in 1962, when the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Francis X. McCann (D-Cam.) instructing the Metropolitan District Commission to construct underpasses along Memorial Drive at River St., Boylston St., and Western Ave. The following spring, when the MDC began to take test borings, the somnolent Cambridge community finally became aware of the heinous goings on at Beason Hill. But the apparent falt accempll threw everyone into a dispairing hair-pulling tizzy. Although local residents resolved to oppose the project, it looked like a classic case of post felony barn-door locking.

Enter Bernays

Bernays' involvement in the fray began in, the fall of 1962, when he attended a meeting of Organization Ten, a Brattle Street area property-owners association. At this time he was a newly emigrated New Yorker, come to Cambridge to write his memoirs after a long, succesful caroor in public relations. One might say that the 73-year-old Bernays is to public relations what his uncle is to psychoanalysis. His uncle's initials are S.F. and he lived in Vienna.

The Organization Ten meeting heard an MDC engineer explain what a boon to mankind the underpasses would be. Yes, the riverbank would be incorporated into the roadway and yes, the trees would have be removed, but...

Bernays became outraged, denounced the chief MDC engineer, Benjamin, Fink, as a stooge, and urged the launching of a massive anti-underpass campaign.

"I seldom get subjective about a cause," Bernays recalls, "but this was like throwing sand into the face of the public. I resolved right then, and there to try to make this a national issue."

Bernays attended a meeting of friends and legislators to adopt legal strategy in the battle. They decided to file three bills to foll the project, each slightly weaker than the one preceeding.

Now the time had come to publicize and muster support for the cause. And this is where Bernays briskly rubs his hands, rolls up his sleeves, and jumps in.

Rallying public opinion behind the anti-underpass cause is an exercise in what Bernays refers to as "the engineering of consent." In order to do this successfully in a democracy, Bernays explains, one must view society as a sociologist views it.

"You have to know about power structures, motivation, symbols, sublimation, projection, and folkways," he asserts.

Watch those Connections

Bernays knew that the frame of reference in which the battle was to be shaped in the public eye was of supreme importance. Resentment against Harvard or trees as a symbol of the upper class, or of fighting against progress, for example, must be avoided.

Rather, Bernays tried to project the reality of embattled humans fighting the encroachment of the ravenous machine, of a group of public spirited citizens bravely battling the power structure.

The semantic associations of the name "Citizens' Emergency Committee to Save Memorial Drive" perfectly ilustrate this. "Citizens' Committee:" an image of public spirited opposition, the common man. "Emergency:" connoting the burying of petty hostilities and a rushing to rally around the cause. "Saving:" an appeal to the New England tradition thrift. And oven the word "Memorial:" a suggestion of the taboo on violating the sanctity of the dead.

Bernays had no intention of actually locking horns with the opposition. "Instead of staging a battle between US and THEM, we decided to make the equation PUBLIC plus LEGISLATORS equals SAVING OPEN SPACE."

But appealing to the public at large was only one prong of the campaign; there was another sharper one, aimed right where it would affect the legislators most strongly. That is, in the ballot box. Legislators had to be convinced that feeling was deep enough on this issue to cost them votes. And for this, Bernays uncorked what he refers to as the "Segmental Approach." He takes a minor aspect of one general cause and projects it to the major interest of particular group. Or as Bernays explains it, "if you project the Save Memorial Drive movement in terms of money, the bankers will obviously support it. It is their business to be concerned with the sound handling of money."

Bernays got the bankers, along with the engineers and city planners, the doctors, the mothers, the academic community, the Secretary of the Interior and the national news media all interested in the cause.

The Vote and the Groups

For the bankers the underpasses very quickly became a multi-million dollar unjustified expense, costly to them as taxpayers, which would further the states' super-saturated bonds, and result in still more expense when the drive was eventually widened.

For the doctors, the underpasses were gobbling up needed room to exercise in our decrepit society.

Mothers were determined that the drive was recreation space for their children; and they made the power of the perambulator heard in subsequent MDC underpass hearings. Conservation groups were alerted.

In the news media, publicity spread faster than cracks in a Massachusetts highway. Time ran a half-page feature beginning "Stretching its wheelbase, spreading its strack, strapping its concrete hands across the land, the automobile inches humanity back and back...." Life supported the anti-underpass campaign in an editorial decrying poor urban planning.

This interest of national media especially delighted Bernays. "Often, the greatest news value occurs outside of the areas concerned," he says.

Letters began to pour into the legislators' offices, and people in Pough-keepsie, Pensacola, and Palo Alto began to hear of Harvard's sycamores.

R.H. Stearns department store began in their own ads to promote "the sycatook hold, Bernays says, it was an indication public opinion was backing the idea."

Undergraduates joined the fun by staging a Save the Sycamore "protest" which held up Memorial Drive traffic for an hour and caused the MDC to bring on the canines.

Bernays arranged for Peter Blake, editor of the Architectural Forum and author of God's Own Junkyard to come to Cambridge. He opposed the underpasses and explained the technical sides of the city planning.

The Citizens' Emergency Committee declared June 21 National Recreation Day and wrote the governors of the 50 states asking support of "play rights" and "grass rights" (words which struck a certain sensitive chord among those interested in civil rights) and arranged for an outing on the riverbank that day.

Governor Peabody was contacted and he pledged his support, but only after the election, since he was courting the support of McCann and Rep. John I. Toomey (D-Cam.) then chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee an ardent underpass advocate.

The question arose as to whether the sycamores were London Plane Trees or perhaps Oriental Plane Trees imported from Indochina. Bernays rejoiced, "Maybe this will stir up more interest in saving the trees" and invited representatives from the British Horticultural Society and the Thal embassy to Cambridge to examine the trees.

He wrote to Secretary of the Interior Udall asking that Memorial Drive be declared an historical site. Udall said he was powerless to do this but congratulated Bernays for his efforts.

Bernays was asked to be chairman of a one-day symposium on natural resources at Boston College (itself a very influential institution around Boston) and invited Udall to address it.

Udall was interested in the subject that the underpasses represented. Many of the ideas which had been presented at the symposium appeared in the natural resources and beauty portion of President's Johnson's annual message to Congress.

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