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Standing before a meeting of his neighbors and staff from Cambridge’s community development agency, a bearded man in a green flannel shirt picked up his accordion and sang a song.
Tom O’Leary had made up the lyrics to “More Veritas, Please” sitting on his porch in Cambridge’s Riverside neighborhood. It’s a song of protest against the university that has slowly been taking over the place where he lives.
“We want no more tall buildings, nor houses torn down,” O’Leary sang. “We want green space and sky, and a parking place now and again.”
Riverside is where, over the past 40 years, Harvard has put up some of its largest and least-loved buildings. Neighborhood residents live in the shadow of Peabody Terrace and the Mather House tower.
And now that Harvard is planning to tear down the popular Mahoney’s garden store and put up an art museum, the residents have mobilized with renewed vigor.
O’Leary’s song brought levity to a meeting this winter—even the Harvard representative laughed and clapped—but for the most part opposition in Riverside is fierce and very serious.
Over the years, Harvard has moved deeper into the three neighborhoods where it dwells—and residents there have fought every step of the way.
The battles have been fought on three fronts. In the well-heeled and well-organized Agassiz neighborhood, the discussion is slow and focused. In Mid-Cambridge, the location of the city’s hospital, high school and public library, the approach is methodical. And in Riverside, a traditionally working-class area, the anger boils over.
In all three places, residents face the same threats of encroachment by an ever-growing institution. But rarely do the ringleaders of neighborhood activism work together—by and large, each group is on its own.
This is the story of how three people from Harvard’s three neighborhoods deal with the behemoth in their midst.
In Agassiz, Slow and Steady
As Miriam Goldberg sips coffee and discusses her opposition to Harvard expansion, other patrons of Broadway Espresso overhear her and spontaneously voice their agreement.
Unfazed by eavesdroppers in the Mass. Ave. coffee shop halfway between Porter Square and Harvard Square, Goldberg shakes hands and makes introductions.
“This is a pretty close-knit community,” she says.
Her daughter, a nursing student, walks by the coffeshop and Goldberg excuses herself to wish her daughter a happy birthday.
She likes the feel of this neighborhood, of the quirky store fronts that line Mass. Ave. They’re low to the ground and allow people to mingle.
For nearly 20 years, she has been fighting to preserve the flavor of the quiet place she calls home—a place with tree-lined streets and old-fashioned houses.
A member of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council (ANC), Goldberg is a very well-spoken woman. She speaks with all the precision and diplomacy of her profession (she’s a school psychologist).
Her experience and her skillful diplomacy make Goldberg easy to work with, says Agassiz resident Dave Wood.
“She brings a very unique perspective,” he says. “She has a very good way of putting things very emphatically, very directly, just sort of a very pleasant.”
Wood works with Goldberg in a neighborhood advocacy group. Agassiz is a well-organized community, with its own monthly newsletter and an up-to-date webpage.
Residents know what they want but, by comparison with other Cambridge advocacy, the effort in Agassiz is an understated one.
At the website, residents can sound off on a discussion board about Harvard—so long as they don’t use swear words. The board’s moderator recently removed one post with foul language.
Goldberg and other ANC members meet monthly to talk about community issues in the basement of their neighborhood school. Their meetings nearly always end by 9 p.m.
The slow-and-steady Agassiz approach has proved itself in past battles with Harvard. Goldberg recalls an effort more than two decades ago to keep the University from tearing down homes in the neighborhood. That struggle came even before she herself became involved in Agassiz activism (at the time, she explains, she had young children).
Community activists in neighborhoods around the city still talk about that victory, when Agassiz forced Harvard to pay for a new community center. And Goldberg said the neighborhood has not let down its guard.
“There was a lot of political lobbying. City councillors are responsive when large groups of citizens are involved,” she says. “We leaflet the neighborhood, we call, we make city councillors aware. It’s a real effort.”
These days Goldberg and her neighbors are upset over Harvard’s proposals to expand science buildings in Agassiz and remove the Peabody Museum and the Museum of Comparative Zoology from their neighborhood. They’ve started a petition drive this spring to keep the museums.
“The idea of turning those beautiful, historic museum buildings into office space—there’s something wrong with that,” Goldberg says. “You have to have some respect for cultural institutions, for the past.”
She balks at Harvard’s need to expand at all. And even though she acknowledges that the University needs more space for sciences, she does not want new laboratories in her neighborhood.
“In my day they used to talk about the military-industrial complex,” she says. “I think what you now have to talk about is the whole patent-corporate culture.”
Recently she joined several other ANC members to form ACID—the Agassiz Committee on the Impacts of Development. The new group aims to counter Harvard’s ongoing efforts to clear space in Agassiz for more science offices.
“They’re going to have a huge mass of buildings,” she says. “They’re going to be very unattractive for everybody.”
In fact, Goldberg contends, Agassiz is the wrong place altogether for Harvard to put up its new science buildings.
Better, she suggests, would be to put the labs on Harvard’s extensive and undeveloped land holdings in Allston.
“If they wanted to build a science city, this is not the place for that,” she says.
In Mid-Cambridge, Quiet Determination
Sitting on a bench in front of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, John R. Pitkin remembers a long career dealing with Harvard.
Pitkin is a quietly determined man, a leader for more than 25 years in the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood association (MCNA). He helped found the MCNA and later became its president.
The city’s high school, where he sits as kids trickle out in the afternoon, has been the site of many MCNA meetings—including one this winter where all but a couple residents reaffirmed their opposition to a major new government center Harvard has in the works.
He represents a large and diverse neighborhood that sprawls from Inman Square to the edge of Harvard Square, full of houses and small apartment buildings.
Mid-Cambridge is the site of the longest and most divisive town-gown battle of recent years. The struggle over the government center made its way to the Cambridge City Council this month and shows no signs of letting up.
The neighborhood has kept up its battle for five years. Residents have gone to meeting after meeting, hoping—even if they can’t defeat the project—either to delay it as long as they can or make it as palatable as possible.
For Pitkin that has meant packing his schedule with meetings and publishing a newsletter for neighborhood residents.
Pitkin became so identified with the Harvard struggle that his campaign for city council last fall—a deliberately understated effort that began late—came within 59 votes of defeating an incumbent councillor.
The Harvard battles that have come to define his name in his neighborhood came only within the last dozen years. In earlier years Pitkin worked on neighborhood projects such as the controversial integration of the city’s technical and traditional high schools.
When he speaks of past struggles, he remembers a time when he spent less time fighting Harvard and devoted more time to other community issues.
Not given to overreaching claims, Pitkin deals in specifics. If there’s any person in Mid-Cambridge who shows up at every meeting and knows the details of every project, it would be Pitkin.
Hugh Russell ’64, who founded the MCNA with Pitkin, says Pitkin is an effective leader whose style is based on extensive research and thought.
“He’s like a lot of us who are professionals who sort of rebuilt our houses, raised our families and have lived here for a very long time,” Russell says.
“I think he listens to everybody, he’s a very thoughtful person,” hel adds. “He tries to really understand why things are going on and what the very biggest picture is of things.”
Pitkin recalls that his first experience with controversial Harvard building projects involved a museum—the Sackler—which Harvard wanted to connect to the Fogg with a bridge over Broadway Street.
Describing a loud and contentious meeting about the Sackler-Fogg bridge proposal in his typical understated manner, Pitkin says the issue “stirred people up.”
But Harvard’s growth didn’t become a focus of the MCNA president until around 1990, when Harvard tore down a former Gulf gas station and put up the Inn at Harvard, Pitkin says.
Pitkin recalls that controversy surrounding the inn brought about a meeting of neighborhoods who put together an action plan.
“That really put [Harvard expansion] on the city’s screen in a different way than it had been before,” Pitkin says.
More than perhaps any other community activist in Cambridge, Pitkin remains aware of what’s going on beyond his own neighborhood. Of Riverside, for example, he says that the neighborhood along the Charles, which is home to many of Harvard’s dorms, has been “hardest hit” by Harvard expansion.
But though they face the same threats, Pitkin says, neighborhood efforts are largely disjointed.
“The neighborhoods have a sense of identity. There is a sense of territoriality,” he says. “I think that each neighborhood is fighting their own issues, fighting their own fight.”
In Riverside, Anger Boils
Saundra Graham has represented her neighborhood on the city council and at the state house—and in its day-to-day, decade-to-decade struggle against Harvard.
Riverside is a traditionally Irish and black neighborhood that sweeps along the Charles River from Harvard Square to Central Square. Some of Harvard’s tallest building projects of the last 50 years were constructed here.
The residents here, who cope with the noise of undergraduate dorms and see Harvard’s presence whenever they look up, vehemently lash out against Harvard as an invader.
“Harvard has been preying on Riverside since the late ’40s and ’50s,” Graham says.
Graham began advocating against Harvard in the 1960s, as a response to the construction of Peabody Terrace. Currently she co-chairs the Riverside Study Committee, a group of neighborhood residents, city planning officials and a Harvard representative.
Like committees in the other neighborhood, this one meets about once a month to discuss a longer-term plan for the neighborhood.
But the Riverside meetings often turn testy—especially when the topic moves to Harvard’s plans for an art museum on the Mahoney’s site.
At the meeting this winter when O’Leary sang his song, Graham chastised a city consultant who offered several scenarios for how the Mahoney’s land could be used.
The consultant had suggested three approaches to accommodate both Harvard and neighborhood needs—each one a combination of Harvard buildings and open park space.
But Graham said that wasn’t enough and demanded that he return at a future meeting with a fourth option for residents to consider—all parks and no Harvard.
The fight has only intensified since the winter, when Harvard announced that it had secretly negotiated the purchase of a 120-unit housing development in the neighborhood adjacent to Riverside.
“It just brings you right back to the 1970’s,” she says.
That decade saw the peak of Graham’s visibility as a neighborhood activist. Despite all the years she represented their neighborhood in City Hall and on Beacon Hill, what residents are quickest to say about Graham is that she once took over a Harvard Commencement.
In the spring of 1970, Graham and other Riverside residents wrote a letter to the Harvard Corporation to request a meeting with the University’s highest governing board. But they received no reply.
So when the Corporation came to Cambridge for graduation exercises, the activists marched to campus to demand a meeting.
Graham and her allies were worried Harvard would encroach deeper into their neighborhood. They had been aiming to elicit a promise that the University’s expansion would not cross Putnam Avenue—a major thoroughfare that runs through Riverside two blocks in from Memorial Drive.
But the Corporation refused to meet with them.
Graham recalls that it was only as an “afterthought” that she and 50 others interrupted the Commencement exercises. They brought their own megaphones and even seized the microphone from the graduation speaker.
“Some of the students had signs saying ‘Get out of Vietnam’ and also ‘Get out of Riverside,’” Graham says.
Although then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 took the microphone away from her, Graham says her tactics worked.
“From that point on, Harvard talked to us,” she says.
Much has changed for Graham and for Riverside, but the hot issue—Harvard growth—has not lost its heat.
Residents have not forgotten what the University has done in the past—“Peabody Terrace blocks everything,” Graham says—and the latest developments have kept the anger alive.
When Harvard announced its intention to replace Mahoney’s, the community reacted with “serious fury,” recalls resident Cob Carlson.
The Riverside neighbors took their fight to the city council, where they requested and received a moratorium on building until the neighborhood has figured out how much of Harvard it will tolerate—and for the time being, residents’ anger is only simmering.
“It hasn’t felt like a crisis situation yet,” Carlson says. “They’ll come out of the woodwork and unleash some of that fury and anger if a shovel is planted into the ground.”
—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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