A New Citizen of Allston

When it comes to the largest expansion in Harvard’s history, where are the active minds and voices at your university? Where are the urban scholars passionate about creating thriving cities and the educators doing pioneering work to close the “achievement gap” in America’s public schools? Where are the housing experts with ideas about how low-income, workforce, and Harvard-affiliate housing can be symbiotically integrated? Where are the members of the Harvard community who fiercely believe in justice, equality, and corporate responsibility? Where are the negotiators who seek innovative ways to achieve mutual gain and write best-selling books advocating “win-win” collaboration? Where are the people who say “Yes we can” when they look squarely at the challenges we face in today’s society?

Is Harvard inviting these talented people with much to offer into the conversation, or are you being told, implicitly or explicitly, to mind your own business?

There is no doubt that these people and many others who could contribute greatly exist somewhere inside the campus. But it is a shame that so many of you remain inside the campus, away from the Allston community, and relatively uninvolved with the monumental transformation of Harvard and Allston that will come as Harvard plans for and develops the 300 plus acres that it has purchased over the last decade.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In January 2004, President Summers called on a variety of talented people from a wide range of Harvard’s schools to form the Allston Life Task Force. Focused on culture, housing, transportation, and retail services, the reports of these subcommittees displayed an impressive depth of thought and consideration. But the Task Force met for only four months and has since ceased to exist, despite their acknowledgement at the time that “many critical decisions depend on further study of particular problems and, most importantly, on coordination with Harvard’s internal planning process and the broader community and City planning process.”

Obviously it is easier for Harvard to avoid multi-directional conversations and collaboration with yourselves and with your neighbors in Allston. The questions of land use and the distribution of the benefits and impacts of development may not have simple and obvious answers. But, like in many other aspects of our lives, avoiding a complicated problem doesn’t make it go away. To the contrary, the longer we try to avoid the discussion the harder it can become when we eventually decide to solve it.

During the past several months, the national political debate brought attention to a variety of seemingly intractable problems in areas such as energy use, health care, and the foreclosure crisis. To many, the election of Barack Obama proves our willingness as a nation to confront and solve these challenges. To Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the citizens of America spoke with their votes and “rejected these narrow notions of the common good.” He told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, in a November 5 column, that this expanded notion of the common good “must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”

So what does it mean for Harvard University to be a citizen in Obama’s America? There are many answers to this question, and one of them could be for Harvard to come together with its fellow citizens to discover how an expanding Harvard campus and an urban neighborhood can live side-by-side in harmony and to their mutual benefit. But before any of this can happen, Harvard must turn from its aloof stance and willingly join its fellow stakeholders in honest and open discussions about the goals and challenges posed by this expansion.

When President-Elect Obama spoke at Chicago’s Grant Park, he asked all Americans to “join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years—block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” If you walk down Western Ave in Allston, past some of Harvard’s vacant or under-utilized buildings, it is clear that Harvard owns a lot of property that needs some “block by block” rebuilding. Many of these buildings were active and productive before being purchased by Harvard, but in many cases Harvard’s real estate acquisitions have brought the opposite of what one might expect from having the world’s wealthiest university move in next door.

True, Harvard isn’t as wealthy as it was last year. Its endowment in 2009 may be no more than Yale’s endowment was in 2007. But it is not money alone that makes a partnership and developing land that Harvard already owns could be at least a break-even venture. Schools much smaller, with far fewer financial and intellectual resources, have formed true and productive partnerships with their local neighbors. The University of Pennsylvania’s deep commitment to local engagement described in its “Penn Compact” and the University Park Partnership between Clark University and Worcester, Massachusetts are two worthy examples.

To be a leader and partner in a “remaking” of Allston—one that creates new jobs, that develops an Allston neighborhood attractive to Harvard students and faculty, that generates taxes and other revenue to support the City of Boston, and that can proudly serve as a model for joint decision-making and collaborative development—is a challenge worthy of Harvard. To shirk from this opportunity, to leave buildings hollow and the planning process insular, would be a failure that you should not accept.

Harry Mattison is an Allston resident and founding member of the Allston Brighton North Neighbors Forum.