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Digging Foundations

By Anthony S.A. Freinberg

While it will be years before Harvard starts the construction work that will revolutionize the University’s presence in Allston, one extremely important piece of building began there last week. Last Thursday, University President Lawrence H. Summers stood alongside Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Rep. Michael J. Capuano, D-Mass., to break ground on a new project in Allston, intended to provide affordable housing for 50 local families.

For current Harvard undergraduates, the benefits of this development may not be immediately apparent. It is far from unreasonable to question why the University is willing to finance 20 percent of what is essentially a public works project with little tangible benefit for the members of the Harvard community. In fact, at the same time Harvard is shelling out money for families in Allston, it claims it cannot find the funds needed to renovate the Malkin Athletic Center, the centerpiece of the University’s recreational athletics program.

Yet, on closer examination, the decision to help fund the Brian J. Honan Apartment Complex demonstrates a commendable institutional logic—and should be recognized as such by the student body. Of course, showing a financial commitment to help out your (significantly less well-off) neighbors is always noble, but it is important to see the wisdom as well as the generosity of Harvard’s move. By committing the University to help in the building process, Summers has provided local leaders with a strong indication that Harvard cares about the communities into which it is moving. And it is the support of these leaders—and not just of the residents who live near University land holdings—which will be vital if development in Allston is to prove successful.

In particular, it is extremely difficult not to see this latest move as a blatant attempt to curry favor with Menino. The mayor, who enjoys widespread support and wields tremendous amounts of influence on the other side of the Charles—and under whose jurisdiction Allston falls—has had something of a fractious relationship with the University over the past few years. Just last May, when Harvard completed its purchase of 91 acres of land from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Menino angrily told The Crimson that he was “upset” about the lack of consultation with the city.

The comment brought back memories of Menino’s previous spat with Harvard. When the University announced in 1997 that it had secretly purchased 52 acres in Allston as a safety valve to allow for further expansion, Menino furiously denounced Harvard for launching “a full-scale attack” on Boston, and doing so with “the highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.” In June, fearful of the popular (and populist) mayor turning up the rhetoric again, Alan Stone, Harvard’s vice president of government, community and public affairs, scrambled to say, “We’ll work hard at our relationship with the mayor, we’ll work very hard.” This latest project can be seen as part of Harvard’s continuing—and important—effort to placate the mayor.

It is, after all, vital to remember that Harvard’s need to expand in Allston only came about because of Cambridge’s harsh zoning restrictions and Harvard’s poor relations with the city’s politicians. Ultimately, it was not the strident opposition of locals—like the fool who said of Harvard’s proposed modern art museum in the Riverside neighborhood, “if you build it, we’re going to bomb it”—that drove the University from pursuing further expansion in Cambridge; it was the unwillingness of many city council members to reign in those radical elements and work to help find meaningful solutions to Harvard’s space crunch on this side of the river.

Whether Harvard’s strategy of buttering up Menino will ultimately prove successful is hard to say. Certainly, Summers seemed to recognize in his remarks last Thursday that the mayor drives a hard bargain, claiming that the housing development was a testimony to Menino’s “capacity to twist arms.” Nevertheless, Summers went on to explain exactly what it will take for Harvard and Boston to get along. The answer, it seems: money. As Summers put it, “It was once famously said that it takes a village to raise a child. I would say also that it takes capital to build a village.” Obviously, Harvard has that capital, and Allston is that village.

University officials have shown refreshing candor in admitting as much—by, for example, donating $475,000 in July to fund summer programs for Boston school children. It may be bribery, but it also seems to be effective. Indeed, at the ceremony where Summers presented the city with that check, a somewhat mollified Menino said, “There will be some rough spots, but Larry and I are committed to moving forward.” Mission accomplished—for Harvard and for Boston.

Harvard, of course, does not have enough money, even with its sizeable endowment, to erase all of Boston’s financial woes. It is, therefore, inevitable, that the University’s vast but much-needed expansion across the river will encounter bureaucratic difficulties. By pursuing policies such as partially funding this housing development, however, Summers has suggested that Harvard will be committed to doing the work necessary to overcome any such obstacles. As a result, although most undergraduates cannot immediately point to Everett Street on a map, we should all recognize the importance of the University-funded work that is going on there—work that will one day help to improve the lives not only of 50 families in Allston, but also of subsequent generations of Harvard students.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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