Overflowing—But Not With Joy

Writes and Wrongs

A few weeks ago I found something surprising in my door box. Amidst the usual Coop advertisements and coupon specials was a blue stapled packet, a facebook for the residents of the apartment buildings at 10 and 20 DeWolfe Street. At first, the facebook struck me as odd. I had already received my House facebook, which dutifully listed me as a resident of Dunster and called my room number DeW 31—as though truncating the “olfe” from my address would make it appear as though I lived somewhere between D and F entryway. And, despite the fact that I rarely step foot in my House, I did receive e-mail reminders of the “community” of which I was a part—what tutor was on call, where to buy formal tickets, when the dining room was closed for SCR dinners.

Thus, I wondered, quite seriously, to what kind of community this facebook was referring. To the 174-odd people who live behind Quincy, crowd the Leverett dining hall for meals and once a week wander back to six different “residential” Houses in order to check their mail? Surely, that wasn’t the case.

Or maybe it was. DeWolfe is overflow housing. Like other buildings with a similar function—Jordan and Claverly Hall, for example—DeWolfe brings together students exiled from a variety of Houses that do not have enough room for all affiliates to live onsite. With full kitchens, cable television and underground parking for those with cars, DeWolfe apartments are a considered by many to be a sweet deal; DeWolfe is not the Jordan “projects” by any stretch of the imagination. But the problems of overflow housing still affect residents of DeWolfe. Many students in DeWolfe feel isolated from their House communities, both physically and socially. Kirkland House residents have to walk past the dining halls of four other Houses if they wish to return “home” for a meal. Sophomores—often placed in DeWolfe without their consent because they can be crowded four to a suite—miss out on the integration into a residential community that is supposed to accompany the transition from the Yard.

Since Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 issued a report earlier this year calling attention to overcrowding in the Houses, the Harvard campus has been abuzz with discussion about how to free up extra student living space. This summer, the kitchens will be removed from Pforzheimer’s Wolbach building to make room for more student bedrooms. The administration’s recent push to increase study abroad options is undoubtedly related to the overcrowding problem as well. And some have even suggested cutting the number of resident tutors living in Houses so as to provide students with much needed breathing space. Yet, while each of these proposals deals with the issue of overcrowding, none specifically deals with the issue of overflowing. As Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 notes, the intention of these policies is not to free up enough space so that all students can live in their main House buildings. Rather it is to alleviate the more pressing space issues that have caused students to sleep in common rooms and triple-bunk beds. Even with the 50-100 beds that College hopes to add this year, students will still find themselves farmed out to Claverly, Jordan and DeWolfe.

This situation is far from desirable. Overflow housing undermines the premise on which Harvard’s House system was founded—the idea that the College should provide close-knit residential communities in which students and scholars can live and work together for an extended period of time. Thus, administrators should be interested in eliminating not just overcrowding, but overflowing as well.

In the case of Jordan and Claverly, the solution is simple: both buildings could easily be fully integrated into a single House. Jordan is close enough to PfoHo and Claverly to Adams that each could be thought of as just another House entryway, and the number of Cabot and Lowell residents living in these buildings is minimal enough that the extra students could be absorbed by PfoHo and Adams without difficulty. DeWolfe is a different story. Currently housing 174 students, 13 tutors and 16 faculty members, DeWolfe is too large a facility to be absorbed by any single House. Nearby Leverett and Quincy are already bursting at the seams. Moreover, the lack of common space, dining space and recreational facilities make DeWolfe unsuitable to be a House in its own right.

What, then, is a College to do? I propose ending DeWolfe’s affiliation with the exclusively undergraduate Houses altogether. DeWolfe provides desirable housing, and undergraduates should be allowed to live there, but the buildings should become an independent residential complex, rather than an annex for the river Houses. Like the co-op, which currently falls under the umbrella of Dudley—the non-randomized House with which GSAS and off-campus undergraduates are affiliated—DeWolfe should become a location where upperclass students can elect to live. Every year there will be students who prefer not to reside in a House setting, students who wish to prepare their own meals and enjoy the relative quiet and privacy that the DeWolfe apartments provide. For these students DeWolfe provides an excellent fit. But every year there will also be students eager to maintain close ties with their Houses—students eager to live amongst their House masters, tutors and fellow housemates, to dine regularly in their dining hall, to conveniently utilize House common spaces at all hours of the day. For these students, DeWolfe is not a good fit and it never will be. An isolated block of six apartments in DeWolfe can never mimic the intimacy and tradition that living within an actual House provides. Making DeWolfe housing purely elective will end the days of forcing Harvard students into overflow when a traditional House setting is what they desire and what they’ve been promised.

Harvard prides itself on its unique House system and for many students House life is integral to their undergraduate experience. It is high time that administrators work to make the brochure descriptions of residential House communities a reality. Overflowing, not just overcrowding must be remedied.

Lauren E. Baer ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.