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Not Everyone in Cambridge Likes Harvard As Change Comes-Agonizingly-to the City

By William R. Galeota

Though Cambridge's city fathers print "Cambridge-The University City," on their information brochure, they may often wish that, back in 1636, the Great and General Court had decided to plant its new college somewhere else-where, for example, Malden or Dorchester or another of the communities ringing Boston now stands.

If truth be told, Cambridge is a city with universities, not a university city. About 100,000 people live here, and it's a good bet that over half of them-those who sometimes proudly term "lifelong residents of Cambridge" -have muttered the words "Harvard" or "M.I.T." with the incantations proper for a Druid curse at least once in their lives. The universities are here; Cambridge can do little about that. Living with them is, however, not always easy.

For a long while-ever since the first waves of Irish immigrants began pushing into the City-there have really been two Cambridges. The first is composed of University students and Faculty, plus middle and upper class Cantabrigians associated, if only sentimentally, with Harvard or M. I. T. The other is made up of the remainder of the City-which has lower incomes, less education, and generally, a slight edge in political power.

In the earlier part of this century, Harvard was viewed, in large measure correctly, as a bastion of Yankee privileges. Town-gown clashes took on the added dimension of ethnic squabbles. An Irish mayor named Sullivan would denounce a Yankee president of Harvard by the name of Conant: Boston newspaper headlines would recount the clash the next morning. For the most part, Harvard reacted to the Irish influx much as the Boston Brahmins had: the University made itself into a citadel and generally stood aloof from the rest of Cambridge.

The University did not stand completely aside; it would sometimes take note of the rest of Cambridge, but for the most part, only when it wanted to get something. Often, the contact was one which the other parts of Cambridge did not remember with any particular fondness; in the 1930's, for example, Harvard decided to build its Houses. They were constructed on the site of the Kerry Corner neighborhood, where a clan of local Irish politicians had grown up. Today, only one frame house at Plympton St. and Memorial Drive remains of this neighborhood.

At first glance; it might appear that the antagonism between Harvard and the rest of Cambridge should have lessened since the 1930's. Harvard no longer buys up massive tracts like Kerry Corners; the total land area of the University has expanded by only one-third since 1939. The old ethnic antagonisms have abated, indeed almost disappeared; Yankee Harvard no longer faces off against Irish Cambridge. Over the years, a series of Cambridge politicians and civic leaders have grown up to bridge the gap.

Yet the split remains; there have probably been more local denunciations of Harvard and M.I.T. in the last 18 months than in the ten previous years. The universities have once again been attacked by a significant minority of local residents as bastions of privilege insensitive to the plight of the rest of the City.

In large part, the resurgence of anti-University sentiment is only significant of a deeper problem: Cambridge is now undergoing a period of agonizing change, a period which will almost certainly create a city substantially different from today's or that of twenty years ago. The universities are usually only indirectly responsible for the changes, yet since they are the bodies most in the public view, criticism has been concentrated on them.

None of the changes threatening the old Cambridge have as yet been fully realized, but their effects are already being felt. The most visible changes include:

Construction of a new NASA center and accompanying in development of technological firms in Tech Square.

The Kennedy Memorial Library which, although still delayed by problems of site clearance, will someday bring large numbers of tourists and scholars into the City.

Several planned expressways, primarily the Inner Belt, which will destroy substantial amounts of Cambridge's housing stock; about 1200 families will be displaced by the Belt alone.

Beyond these highly visible changes-and probably more important than them-is a shift in the composition of the population of Cambridge. In recent years, young professional people, students from various Boston universities, and enthusiasts of various varieties of hip culture have flocked to the City-attracted to it by the presence of the universities.

What all these changes mean is that the older Cambridge-the collection of cohesive, often ethnic neighborhoods-is being threatened. Little by little, the old balance between separate communities of University and non-University people is shifting. The new residents are not necessarily normally connected with the universities, but their life styles tend to make them look toward Harvard and M.I.T..

The measure both of the changes Cambridge is now experiencing and of the agony which those changes are causing is what has come to be called the City's "housing crisis." The crux of the problem is simple: Cambridge's housing stock is not large enough to accommodate all the people who want to live in the City. Generally more affluent than the older residents, the newcomers have bid up the price of housing.

Cambridge is already densely enough developed that land for new housing is not easy to find: zoning laws, moreover, appear to have lagged behind the times and are now a further discouragement to construction of new housing. Thus, despite the increase in demand, the supply of housing has not increased appreciably.

Given the rising rents, many of the low-income, particularly the elderly, residents of the City are faced with a dismal choice-stay in Cambridge and pay high rents or move away, breaking ties which often extend over several generations.

Needless to say, this choice has not been accepted meekly by many of the older residents. Since a survey in the summer of 1968 by the local antipoverty agency showed that 57 percent of the 2000 elderly residents contracted paid over half their income for rent the "housing crisis" has become a prime issue in local politics.

Two organizations-the radical Peace and Freedom Party and the moderate Cambridge Housing Convention-have been organizing lower income residents around the housing issue. This organizing is in itself notable, since lower-income residents in Cambridge-as in most other cities have seldom generated many or effective voluntary organizations. The depth of the housing crisis has provided a spark for such organizing; the Peace and Freedom radicals, on one hand, and young anti-poverty staffers on the other have been rushing to fan it.

In both organizing campaigns, the universities have become primary targets-because they are at least indirectly responsible for the housing problem: because they are large, visible, and because of the bitterness, which has always been focused on the colleges by the rest of the City.

Slowly but inevitably. Harvard and M.I.T. have come to realize that the aloof attitude which sufficed for quieter eras in Cambridge will not do in this turbulent period. As the Wilson Committee, a top-level committee appointed by President Pusey, said in its report of last January on "The University and the Community:"

If a false sense of neutrality were ever possible, it is no longer so in an era of intense community and neighborhood self-awareness. Through elected and self-appointed leaders, by petition and by protest, singly and collectively, the citizens of our urban environment expect the university to act as a responsible and enlightened landlord, employer and neighbor. Little more than a legitimate concern for its own self-interest will lead the university to reflect seriously and act positively on the obligations of its urban citizenship...

Saying this is easy: implementing it is infinitely more difficult. The patterns of administration and the attitudes of students, faculty and administrators built up during decades of ignoring the City have not proved easy for Harvard to change. Indeed, just before last April's upheaval, the Wilson Report was notable chiefly in the limbo into which it had slipped: virtually no one in Harvard thought it worthwhile enough to spend even a few hours discussing community problems.

During April, all that changed-at least on the surface. SDS members pushed a set of demands to "Stop Harvard Expansion which-although they made good reading for Marxist Leninists-probably wouldn't have helped the housing situation all that much. More than two thousand "moderate" students. in the course of a mass meeting at Soldier's Field passed a different set of demands: for construction of low-income housing in the City and then went back to their rooms little if any wiser about Cambridge than when they had come."

The Harvard Administration for its part moved to defuse the agitation-both within and outside of the University-by agreeing to lessen the pressure on the local housing market by developing a program of housing for Harvard personnel and low-income community residents. The details of the program are due to be released early this Fall.

April, then, marked a decided shift in Harvard attitude toward the City-recognizing it, almost for the first time, as a subject which merited some attention. It was a beginning, one which can either be carried further with appropriate changes in University priorities or be allowed to lapse through neglect.

If Harvard and M.I.T. do follow up on their new found concern for the City, however. the problems facing Cambridge will still not necessarily be solved. The City will find it difficult to cope with the deluge of change without the co-operation of a host of civic units-the universities, the neighborhoods and local businesses alike. The task of getting this co-operation-and of providing a leadership to direct the course of Cambridge for the next decades-falls primarily upon the political system of the City.

Look at the construction of low-income housing for an example. Though Harvard may want to build 300 units of housing on a given site, the neighbors of that site may not want low-income housing there. Given the right political atmosphere, they can block the zoning changes needed to build the housing. In fact, during the past five or ten years, proposed public housing sites have been turned down again and again after meeting with neighborhood opposition.

That this should happen is not surprising. Cambridge politicians are always most closely attuned to the desires of small groups of their neighborhood supporters. The whole political structure of the City drives them in this direction.

Cambridge is the only City in the country which elects its councillors through Proportional Representation (PR). Under this electoral system, voters list their choices for council seats in descending order of preference. (1, 2, 3, etc.) From the total number of votes cast, the exact number a candidate needs to win is calculated. When one candidate meets this quota from his "number one" votes the remaining ballots with his name on them are given to the "number two" candidate marked on each ballot. The ballots of candidates who have the fewest "number one" votes are also given to the "number two" candidates. The system is not simple; it usually takes the better part of a week to calculate the nine winners of council seats.

PR places a premium on "number one" votes and the surest way to get them is by appealing to a small but solid block of voters-often the residents of one particular area of the City. Though the City's elections are non-partisan, attempts are sometimes made to arrange electoral coalitions. The Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), for example, encourages its supporters to give all their votes to endorsed candidates pledging to follow its "good government" politics. Yet each of the CCA councillors-who always number four-can be identified, without too much difficulty, with one or more particular blocs of CCA type voters. The specific backing of each "independent" (non-CCA) councillor can be even more easily identified.

Thus, PR-and the lack of any real political parties in local politics-produces a council with little cohesiveness. Each councillor tends to look after the affairs of his own particular turf. "What about the children of East Cambridge? Don't they have a right to play too?" Councillor Alfred E Vellucci-a vocal foe of the universities-has many times roared when a playground for another section of the City is under discussion.

In the past, informal coalitions-either along CCA-independent lines or split by personalities-have lessened somewhat the centrifugal forces inherent in the council. But during the past four years, fights over the firing of two city managers have broken down most of these coalitions. Now, more than ever, the council is a fragmented group of nine individuals; it is never easy to get five of them to agree on any given issue.

In many respects the council's power is more negative than positive. It can block projects initiated by the City Manager. but it has relatively little authority to begin them on its own. Only the manager can propose appropriations: he also retains the power to appoint most of the important administrators in the City.

The council's negative power stems partly from authority granted it by the City Charter, such as a veto over most appropriations. More important, however, is a fact of Cambridge political life of which any City Manager is aware: the council can fire the manager at any time and, indeed, has done so twice in the past four years. This makes a City Manager receptive to policy guidance from the council on crucial issues: at least informally, he wants to make sure he has five council votes backing him before he proceeds on an important question.

In sum, the structure of politics which evolved under Cambridge's PR-Council-Manager system was one admirably suited to its chief problems of five, ten or twenty years ago, which were to maintain peace among the sometimes antagonistic groups making up the City to give each its fair share of services, and to make sure that taxes did not increase over-much.

Though many of these tasks still remain important in City politics, the current period of change is making new demands on the political system. The housing convention, for example, has in essence been asking the council to take some decisive action against the forces which appear to be transforming-Cambridge into a new, predominantly middle-class city. Such demands for more active political leadership are something new in Cambridge.

The council has been grappling with this question for some time now, but the outcome is not yet clear. The remedies needed to case the changes now threatening the old Cambridge are not obvious: they may not even exist. Finding out if they do exist, and mustering the unity needed to implement them remains the most difficult job the City's political system has faced in memory.

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