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Allston's Ambivalent Metamorphosis

By Brian J. Rosenberg

It is almost exactly a mile from Harvard Square in Cambridge, the center of our University’s past, to Barry’s Corner in Allston, the heart of its future. But the contrast between the two couldn’t be greater.

Harvard Square is occupied by four banks, a high-end watch retailer, and a few other stores capable of paying the astronomical rent that the location demands. Professors and students sit in genteel cafés, gesturing animatedly while discussing the merits of Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” or the latest breakthrough in quantum mechanics. Tourists wander the Square’s brick-paved sidewalks, catching glimpses of Harvard proper over the tall wrought iron fence. But the area has little local flavor of its own, resembling an upscale mall more than it does a neighborhood marketplace.

Barry’s Corner, the neighborhood at the intersection of Western Ave. and N. Harvard St., harbors no such pretensions of grandeur. Anchored at one end by a low-income housing complex and on the other by two gas stations, it is a gritty and crumbling ribbon of asphalt where two major bus routes meet to form a bowtie-shaped intersection hazardous to pedestrians. But in its modesty there is a sense of community that Harvard Square lost long ago. Inexpensive housing rings the crossroads; in the mornings, residents, many of them optimistic immigrants hoping to grab a piece of the American dream, greet each other in the Dunkin’ Donuts, on the way to work. Unused warehouses and office space line some streets, but far more are filled with identical row houses, with children playing in cramped side yards. Neighbors hold conversations from their porches in good weather, fanning themselves to stave off the heat.

As Harvard expands its Cambridge campus across the Charles and across Western Ave., the Allston cityscape, and the city’s people, will change. Harvard’s planners deny the latter point, as does the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but the people in the street know it. When Harvard moves into Allston, the Barry’s Corner community, as it now exists, will cease to exist. This is not to say, as Harvard widely touts, that the physical landscape will not change for the better. Trees will be planted, roads repaved, decrepit buildings demolished, and new buildings erected. But the neighborhood’s denizens will not be the same.

“Just being near the University facilities will create economic pressure,” says Bill Marchione, the president of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. “It’s hard to protect a neighborhood from an expanding university. Things are bound to change, especially in terms of appreciation of land values.”

Linda Kowalcky, the deputy director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a municipal body involved in the planning of Harvard’s expansion, has a different perspective. “We are not building a new neighborhood, we’re transforming an existing one,” she says.

But at what cost will that transformation be reached? What will happen to the neighborhood if higher rents force out lower-income residents and smaller-scale businesses? Kowalcky claims that the city understands these concerns. She says that the city will work with Harvard to mitigate these effects by making sure “that housing targeted at a range of income levels accommodating the community, not just Harvard affiliates, gets built.”

This may turn out to be the case, but regardless of Harvard’s construction efforts, it seems that a commercialization of the surrounding neighborhood, to serve the needs of a suddenly swollen daytime population, is inevitable. Even those who are able to stay in subsidized housing will no longer feel that the Allston community that has developed is their own—it will become a place to work, as much of Harvard Square has become, instead of a place to live. Allston’s current personality may be a little gritty, but it’s a community nonetheless. After the expansion, Allston’s residents may be able to walk through a beautiful campus, but they’ll be competing for space with tourists and students. They may be able to window-shop at shiny new storefronts, but those very same storefronts will have marginalized their homes, inexorably pushing them away from the center of town. As Allston slowly improves economically and physically, it will, in a more intangible sense, become a Harvard annex, a tourist attraction, another Brattle Square.

Ray Mellone, the chairman of the Allston Task Force, a committee largely composed of Allston residents involved in negotiating with Harvard on the extent and specifics of its expansion, expressed an ambivalence to these changes that I’ve heard from many residents. “People think that Harvard can do them good or do them evil—it could be either one.”

But the inevitable gentrification is neither good nor evil—it’s both. The question is: Does the good outweigh the evil?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” Harvard is planning to make Allston a center for cutting-edge science, and Allston will likely become a profoundly important place for scholarship in other disciplines as well. Perhaps there’s not really more to be done than build as much housing and cultural facilities as possible, which Harvard seems to be making a good-faith effort to do. “It’s something that always need to be considered and calls for us to strike the appropriate balance between creating the future and respecting the past,” says Kevin McCluskey, who is Harvard’s director of community relations for Boston.

But there still seems something wrong with staging what amounts to a hostile takeover of a community. Ultimately, the working-class people who live there, including many recent immigrants, are no match for the sheer purchasing power of the University and its constituents. The fragile ecosystem of the Allston community will get crushed underfoot no matter how gingerly the 800-pound gorilla that is Harvard places its steps.

Just as the physical Allston, the panoply of buildings, streets, and greenery, will undoubtedly change for the better, the real Allston, the community of people and relationships, will slowly atrophy, replaced by an ever-metastasizing Harvard. Though Harvard hopes to create a synergy between the communities, they will not mix, if Cambridge is any indicator. The intruding university and the existing community are irreconcilable worlds—at different ends of the socioeconomic scale, with different priorities in life and different backgrounds. No matter how many community-friendly “cultural facilities” Harvard builds, it will be very difficult indeed to bridge that gap.

Brian J. Rosenberg ’08, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a biology concentrator in Lowell House.

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