Roxbury: A Neighborhood Fights Harvard

A Partial Victory: From Old Houses... a Modern Development

The residential area that lies adjacent to the Harvard Medical School complex in the north end of Roxbury is an inner-city neighborhood that works. The working-class Irish Catholic families who have lived there for decades co-exist peacefully with more recently arrived black and Spanish-speaking residents. Comfortable wooden houses with stained-glass windows line the quiet streets, where children play in safety. Their grandmothers watch over them while their parents are at work. It is a community in the true sense of the word, and a neighborhood group called Roxbury Tenants of Harvard (RTH) has been working four long, hard years to keep it that way.

The story really begins in 1963, when Harvard Medical School began buying up property in the area with the idea of expanding. By the winter of 1968, the Med School had acquired enough houses to send eviction notices to 182 families. But at this point, Harvard met resistance from some angry students, faculty and tenants who were determined to make Harvard live up to its responsibilities to the community. The issue became one of the major demands of the 1969 Strike, and students came into the neighborhood to knock on doors and join forces with the tenants. RTH began, committees were established, promises were made, plans drawn up. Three weeks ago, light appeared at the end of the tunnel--the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), at the tenants' request, voted to commit almost $38 million for the construction of a mixed-income housing development on Harvard-owned land in the neighborhood.

Douglas F. Levinson '69 and Jean Neville '69 were the two students most involved in organizational work in the community. Levinson is now a student at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but Neville lives in the neighborhood and is a member of RTH. In an interview last week, she emphasized that the impulse to resist Harvard expansion came from the tenants themselves, not from the students. "We wouldn't have helped facilitate the growth of RTH if, after having talked to people in the community, there hadn't been enough people angry and willing to fight Harvard," she said.

"The students did a good job of organizing the community," John Sharratt, the architect for the new housing development, said last week. "They didn't push any really radical stuff, and they did a lot of listening." Sharratt has been working closely with RTH since 1969 and now lives in the neighborhood. "The community knew something was wrong, the students knew something was wrong--so they called me in to talk to them," he said.

It was after the Strike that the tenants received some information about Harvard's plans that really angered them. First, they discovered that the proposed Affiliated Hospitals Center--a complex that would provide new facilities for the Boston Lying-in, Peter Bent Brigham and Robert Breck Brigham Hospitals--was to be primarily a research institution rather than an outpatient hospital that could service the community. Secondly, they discovered that Harvard owned a large, uninhabited plot of land in the area. Formerly the site of the Convent of the Good Shepherd, the land was now a ten-acre parking lot and was actually larger than the RTH neighborhood. Harvard's explanation for wanting to build on the inhabited land was that the Convent site was "not convenient." Thirdly, a 1965 "master plan" for the hospitals center showed that Harvard had acquired the RTH neighborhood, according to RTH, "for the speculative development of high-rise housing and for Medical School expansion."


In response to the pressure of the Strike, Dr. Robert H. Ebert, dean of the Medical School, announced that Harvard was "prepared" to build "low-cost" housing for the RTH families. On May 6, 1969, Harvard promised that "no residential displacement will occur until a similar amount of replacement housing, at comparable rents and in nearby areas, is available for those families to be relocated." Dean Ebert established a committee, chaired by Dr. Rashi Fein, Professor of the Economics of Medicine, to deal with relocation, low-cost housing, health care planning and community relations.

The Fein Committee was composed of Harvard faculty, students, and employees. Tenants got representation on the committee only after lobbying by students--but Harvard still did not recognize RTH as a legitimate community organization. The establishment of a special subcommittee to deal with RTH only made matters worse. "These committees, this bureaucratic ladder appears to have been set up solely to insulate the community from the persons with the authority to negotiate our future," RTH complained in 1970.

Dr. Jonathan Beckwith '57, professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and a former member of the Fein Committee, said lastweek Harvard used the Committee as "a way to diffuse the efforts of the tenants." The Med School was "acting as a middleman," he added, and clearly had no real power. "When the pressure got too strong, the tenants started direct negotiations with the Harvard Corporation."

The pressure built up in late 1969 and early 1970. On December 17, 1969, over 100 students, faculty, employees and tenants held a rally at the Med School and presented a number of demands to Stephen J. Miller, director of the Med School's Office for Urban Affairs. Beckwith, head of the team that had isolated a single gene the month before, said at the time, "I'm here because I believe that Harvard is trying to force people out of their homes, using the worst tactics of a slumlord." Miller conceded that Harvard did "have plans" for the land in the neighborhood, and admitted that maintenance of the Harvard-owned buildings had been "lousy."

On January 6, 1970, a group of tenants and students escorted Ebert on a "walking tour" of the neighborhood, and he said he agreed in principle with the tenants' demands for immediate repair of safety hazards and a rent cut-back. On January 18, over 40 students and faculty staged a "mill-in" in Ebert's vacant office to protest his failure to "act positively" on the demands. The next day, Ebert announced his refusal to intervene with the Corporation on behalf of the tenants.

By February, RTH had lost its patience with the Fein Committee. The group gave its unanimous approval to a relocation housing development proposal, drawn up by the tenants themselves with the assistance of John Sharratt. This proposal was included in an 86-page document, published that March, that detailed the history of Harvard's relationship with the community. The tone of the report is one of slowly building frustration and distrust, culminating in anger and determination: "We can no longer assume that Harvard can independently make any decision in the interest of the community. They have demonstrated themselves as hostile, aggressive, and insensitive to the needs of a community of people. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the tenants have a right to determine their own destiny."

The development proposal called for a "cooperative effort" that would guarantee "Harvard and its institutional affiliates...the expansion of facilities that they feel is necessary" and guarantee RTH "the security of shelter and stabilization and strengthening of the entire community that they feel is necessary." RTH called on Harvard to maintain the existing housing in good repair until the University could provide housing at affordable rents. The tenants specifically proposed that Harvard build this relocation housing on the 10-acre Convent site, with "RTH and/or their designee" as "sponsor and developer."

The proposal concluded on a note of hope: "We have a situation where Harvard can use their great resources of power and influence to solve rather than to avoid, to build rather than destroy, to be benign rather than haughty, and to be a friend rather than a predator. Harvard has the opportunity to set a precedent not only to other universities but to all men who have given up compassion for material security, respect for self-aggrandizement."

Harvard agreed, and the Corporation gave its assent to the proposal. But RTH's battle was not yet won; for the next four years, members of the group continued to meet with the Corporation in an effort to reach agreement on the final plans and on the choice of a developer. According to Sharratt, RTH rejected the first developer "on principle, because Harvard proposed him." The group also rejected the second developer because it felt that "Harvard was controlling him." The third developer, H. Ralph Taylor '39, was acceptable to both parties, but another corporation which soon went bankrupt bought the development agency he represented. Taylor joined a third development company--which then decided to get out of the housing business. Taylor is now at work on the RTH housing as an independent developer.

The development plan has undergone some modifications since 1970. The construction site has been expanded to include three acres of additional Harvard-owned property, now occupied by about 100 housing units, only about half of which are inhabited. According to Donald C. Moulton, assistant vice-president for community affairs, the extra acreage was added to provide more space for the large family units that RTH feels are necessary to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood.