Harvard's Sign of the Times


The new structure in front of Holyoke Center is a bad sign not just because it is gaudy obstruction in a public plaza but because of what it says about the institution that put it there.

What it says is that Harvard is willing to make waves to attract passersby into the Holyoke Center arcade in the hope that they will patronize the shops, the shops will prosper and Harvard, as landlord, will make money.

Harvard's vigor in this case contrasts sharply with its so-far lame response to the need for signs in another part of Harvard's domain. I am referring to the need for signs to guide the constant flow of visitors and newcomers walking to and over the broad, featureless overpass by Memorial Hall safely toward their desired destination.

In my capacity as President of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association and as a member of the Cambridge Board of Traffic and Parking, I brought this need to the attention of appropriate Harvard and Cambridge officials some five years ago. I was concerned not only about the visitors' convenience but about their safety, for I have seen numbers of pedestrians navigating across the vehicular underpass.

Cambridge traffic officials told me that although the overpass is a public right-of-way, it is under Harvard's control and that Harvard would have to agree to any signs placed there. They then proposed to Harvard a number of designs for signs.


After I prodded and lobbied Harvard for more than two years, signs finally appeared. These are knee-high and parallel to the direction of pedestrian traffic. Though an improvement on no signs, they are so unobtrusive that they are hard to find and give scant direction to visitors on east-west routes.

I am hopeful that recent discussions between Harvard and residents of mid-Cam-bridge and the Agassiz neighborhood about the plans for improvements to the environs of Memorial Hall may lead to effective signage and other aids to navigation on the overpass. New signs may also reduce the number of hazardous conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians on the overpass.

This tale of two signs reveals an institution willing to act decisively and even boldly in pursuit of profit but only sluggishly if at all to meet its obligations as the holder of a public trust. This imbalance raises a question about governance at the highest level and suggests a need for local public representation on the Board of Overseers. John Pitkin