Let Them Eat Cake

Correction Appended

Ever since Harvard University began drilling in Allston, there has been a rat problem in his neighborhood, but Jake Carman, a ferociously eloquent community leader from North Brighton, still lives on the same street where his great-grandmother lived when she emigrated from Lithuania. The area has always been an entry point for immigrants from around the world, and Jake’s neighbors hail from Brazil and Guatemala, among other places.

Recently, Jake and his neighbors have watched helplessly as their community is changed by outside forces, as Harvard expands into Allston-Brighton. Although the university promises visions of a refurbished neighborhood, residents must suffer through the 50-year process of producing an unafforable, gentrified neighborhood.

Near Jake’s house is Western Avenue, a street where Harvard has been hungrily buying up properties and displacing businesses. The once-thriving town center has vacant buildings and the occasional survivor, like the local pub. But even those still in possession of their lease have experienced a drop in business,. Harvard’s expansion has left the residents of Allston with little more than a panoply of empty storefronts and dying businesses.

Harvard should lease out the properties that it owns, but the buildings are left empty. Some of the vacant properties can’t even be found in Harvard’s 50-year plan. When Harvard does lease out sites, they do so to businesses that foreshadow a wave of gentrification that threatens the neighbourhood’s low-income residents.

For example, Harvard has allowed a new Finale—an expensive dessert shop with branches throughout metropolitan Boston—to open on its Allston properties. The irony could not be richer: The world’s wealthiest university is saying “let them eat cake” to a working-class neighborhood recently deprived of a grocery store in the name of progress and science.

Although Harvard has decided to slow down its plans for Allston, the university continues to buy property there, even when Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences reports that it must cut jobs and reshape programs in order to compensate for endowment losses. While Harvard demarcates a certain amount of money to go to the FAS budget and an entirely different sum of capital for real estate and property development, essentially all of the capital comes from the same pool: the endowment. Harvard should not continue to buy million-dollar properties that will stay empty in Allston and Brighton for years to come as the university slows down construction projects. Instead, it should reallocate real-estate funds to FAS and other schools that are cutting jobs in order to eliminate budget deficits.

The cost of construction is a part of the FAS budget, and thus the four omnipresent cranes that tower over the new Allston science complex will remain idle for the indefinite future. They are behemoths hanging over residents and a constant reminder of the project there, which, for residents like Jake, has recently taken a particularly insulting turn. Not only did Harvard rush through the approval process to build the center, but the university also blasted a huge hole into the ground, displacing the rat population of the entire area.

But Jake has too much on his plate to spend a lot of time worrying about insults. Instead, he passes me a flier that offers information to residents of Allston-Brighton on dealing with the escalating rat population. “There used to be bunny rabbits in our neighborhood,” Jake remembered wistfully. Now there are rats that rummage through the trash and spread disease.

Yet, in many ways, as I sit here with Jake, I have to consider him one of the lucky ones. His neighborhood is eerily empty, there are rats where bunnies once thrived, and the future promises extreme gentrification, but Jake still has a job and home and is fighting the good fight.

Just next door live residents whose voices, unlike Jake’s, do not get heard. They are the massive immigrant, non-English speaking population who have been left out of this process. Harvard did appoint an Allston-Brighton “task force,” but it filled it with better-off homeowners. Moreover, because meetings are almost exclusively in English, Allston’s poorest residents are left literally voiceless.

Just down the road, people living in the Charlesview apartments—some of whom who have lived there for the last 40 years—know that they are going to be “moved” by Harvard because their land is a part of the 50-year plan. But these people who will be evicted have no idea of when. In the meantime, the building they currently live in has been deteriorating because no one is willing to fix a place that will soon be razed to the ground.

The problems are complicated, but Jake’s requests to Harvard are simple—answer our questions, inform our people, and turn over the vacant buildings to the community so that they can be used. Would it hurt Harvard so much to prioritize these demands?

Megan A. Shutzer ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dudley House.

CORRECTION: Last Tuesday’s op-ed “Let Them Eat Cake” incorrectly stated that the Harvard Allston Task Force had been appointed by Harvard. In fact, it was appointed by the Mayor. In addition, the piece claimed that the Allston community had lost a “grocery store,” when in fact no such establishment has closed. Also, it asserted that Harvard’s cranes in Allston are idle, when in fact they are still operating. Finally, it implied that the branch of Finale that recently opened in Allston was a vender, when it was actually a production facility. The Crimson regrets the errors.