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The promise of the city can have a magnetic effect on children of the suburbs like myself. Repelled by what I perceived as the insulation of my quiet home town—nestled amid the rolling hills of Tennessee—I leapt at the opportunity to attend college in Cambridge, a real center of civilization. Upon arrival, though, I quickly realized that the city that, to a large extent, had drawn me to Harvard was not the glorious hub of humanity that I had envisioned. Instead, I found it to be a place marred by the most disconcerting of sounds, sights, and activities. I found that Harvard’s urban setting is not an asset, but one of the institution’s most notable weaknesses.
In Cambridge, I no longer wake to the chirping of birds. Their songs have been replaced by the Harvard shuttle’s boorish droning. The shuttle, like a persistent suitor, returns to its place beneath my Mather window every ten minutes from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, offering up its garbled, biodiesel-tainted entreaties and refusing to take no for an answer. Worse than that, however, is the lumbering of the heavy machines across the way, which thunderously churn and bruise the earth in the name of construction. Layered upon the regular rumble of city traffic, these sounds combine to form an impenetrable sheet of noise. Such are the melodies of the city.
Here, too, pollution haunts our neighborhoods and threatens our collective health. Woe unto the man who drinks from the River Charles, a stream whose contents are about as wholesome as a visit to About Hair, the city’s best known salon-cum-den-of-prostitution. Recent research suggests that our college town hosts thousands of tons of chemical toxins and carcinogens, making it one of the most environmentally disastrous parts of the Commonwealth. Clearly, my naive belief that the grass would be greener on the other side turned out to be entirely without merit. There is actually very little grass left in Cambridge.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of urban life, however, is crime. Through the joint efforts of bicycle gropers and the armed bandits who periodically rob Harvard undergraduates, an evening in Cambridge has become an adventure suitable only for the brave. The recurring patterns of criminal activity around campus have nearly numbed me to the frightening reality of these offenses. Upon recently reading of Harvard’s high rate of crime compared to the rest of the Ivy League—with 466 burglaries in 2004, even if our definition of “burglary” does seem to be somewhat liberal—I wasn’t so shocked. Indeed, when I stepped into the hallway outside my bedroom last month to see the police arresting a level three sex offender, I hardly batted an eyelash.
One might infer from all of this that I regret my choice of schools, but that is not the case. Though I may not have fully realized it when I decided to enroll, Harvard’s opportunities for undergraduates are unbeatable and easily compensate for the terrors of urban living. Thus, the deceptive lure of the city drew me to my ideal school. I will no longer claim that Cambridge is a reason to come to Harvard, but I’m glad that I once believed it.
Nikhil G. Mathews ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Mather House.
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