Cambridge Needs a Giant Lava Lamp

Daily Encounters

The citizens of Soap Lake, Wash. have found the solution to their economic woes: a Giant Lava Lamp. The tiny rural town hopes the lamp will become a major tourist attraction, with neon psychedelic blobs of color undulating inside the 60-by-18-foot structure (about the height of Widener Library) day and night. The Soap Lake City Council fully supports the plan: “Wouldn’t you stop to see a lava lamp?” Councilor Leslie Slough asked the Boston Globe. “A great big one?”

For Soap Lake, the Giant Lava Lamp comes as the solution to three problems: too few tourists, too much space, and a lack of definition as a town. Here at Harvard, we have the exact opposite problems. We have far too many tourists, all of whom show up in tour buses at 7 a.m. and feed the squirrels. We have no space whatsoever; students sleep on top of each other (though nothing erotic ever seems to come of this), and there are far more cars than parking spaces. There is so little space that half of Harvard is considering leaving Cambridge altogether for Allston.

And Harvard and Cambridge have so many definitions and identities that they contradict each other. Cambridge is the glorified hometown of Harvard University, yet very angry at Harvard for taking up precious space. West Cambridge is the home of over-paid (predominantly white) people who like the intellectual environment, and yet are in denial about the Cambridge student population of 30,000. Harvard wants to take over the world; Cambridge disagrees.

I was unaware of the hostile tension of the Harvard/Cambridge standoff until I started a temporary dog-walking service over Winter Break. While pausing to allow various crazy animals to mark every stump and poll, I had time to read the multiple signs on every Riverside telephone poll announcing town meetings to denounce Harvard development in Cambridge. From the view on the street, Cambridge hates us.

Quite frankly, I’m not very sympathetic with the locals—for future reference, if you want to live in a nice suburb with affordable housing where everyone goes to sleep at 11 p.m. and there’s no fear of your river view being blocked by a new academic monstrosity, don’t live under the shadow of the world’s richest, ever-expanding university. That’s like moving to New York City and complaining about traffic noise.


But Harvard can be a big mean bully, which is a deterrent to friendly, non-confrontational compromise. Harvard and Cambridge are now so frustrated with each other that they address common problems individually; to deal with the space problems, Harvard is building a new graduate housing eyesore in Allston and stopped admitting transfer students altogether this semester. Cambridge gives more parking tickets than ever, while not creating new parking lots or improving the bike lanes, which are currently a dance with death. In recent months, the lack of cooperation between Cambridge and Harvard has reached a fevered pitch. Harvard just spent a full year fighting to build a new art museum on the river and a tunnel under Cambridge Street, and lost both battles because the people of Cambridge just want to live in peace, and are now halting Harvard plans out of residual anger.

Both sides of the standoff can learn from the creativity of Soap Lake. Faced with three difficult challenges, Soap Lake came up with an imaginative solution, one that not only bonded citizens from all parts of society, but will also, “after 14 million years, return lava to Soap Lake.” Yes, the designers are former hippies—one ponytail reaches mid-back. Such creativity seems impossible here in Cambridge, where the fifty-somethings on both sides cut their hair long ago—there’s nothing left to let down. Harvard briefly considered unclipping its mane by appealing to famous architect Rem Koolhas for ideas on the Allston campus, but when word got out that Koolhas recommended rerouting the Charles River, the citizens of Cambridge went ballistic and threatened to cut their hair off altogether. Meanwhile Harvard went into hair gel damage control, publicly stating that Koolhas had been commissioned to encourage “thinking outside the box,” while quickly jumping back inside said box.

Both sides need to come to the table open to creative ideas, while understanding the desires of their neighbors. Harvard needs to realize that campus expansion is not about bribing Cambridge residents for land, but about exploring how the campus can be better integrated into the surrounding community without taking it over. By the same token, Cambridge residents need to realize that they do live in a college town, and that shutting down expansion plans like the tunnel just because they’re angry and they can does not endear them to the university. It is unproductive for neighbors to fight each other at every turn, and a waste of effort for city and Harvard officials to spend so much of their time in debate.

Although the glowing idea of a Giant Lava Lamp may not fly in Cambridge, perhaps a monument to Harvard/Cambridge friendship and cooperation is in order: a 60-foot giant neon handshake sculpture, in the place where Harvard’s 13th house would have been. And while we’re all waiting for hell to freeze over, if re-routing the Charles is a good idea, so be it.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.