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Deal Making

The Evolving Relationship Between Harvard and Cambridge

Deal Making
Deal Making
By Nathalie R. Miraval, Crimson Staff Writer

In 1938, the Cambridge City Council voted to secede from Harvard. The relationship had been souring for years as Harvard continued to expand into the city, buying Houses and other properties and depriving Cambridge of once fruitful sources of tax revenue.

Neighborly tension turned into outright vitriol, though, when the dean of Harvard Law School pushed to reform the Council, calling for a reduction of its size and a democratization of the election process.

Ultimately, the dean’s initiative failed (although a similar measure would pass a few years later) and the Massachusetts State Legislature did not move to sever Harvard from Cambridge.

This moment—which saw students and Cantabrigians literally standing along Mass Ave. defending their turf, and which featured allegations of Harvard Lampoon violence against City Council members—may represent a ferocious outlier in the sometimes tenuous relationship. But over the past 375 years, this marriage by circumstance has seen its ups and downs: in the beginning the pair was inseparable, eventually their feelings grew chilled, and in modern times, if they fight, more often than not, it stays behind closed doors.


Newly graduated from Emmanuel College in Cambridge, England, Reverend Thomas Shepherd found himself filled with a desire to promote “the fruitation of God’s ordinances” in the recently established New England. The “firm but gentle leader” found his way to Newtowne—a small, fortified settlement inland, near the Charles River, and today the heart of Harvard Square. Upon arriving, the inhabitants were drawn to his “vigilance” and soon ordained him minister of the already-established First Church of Cambridge, according to historian Samuel A. Eliot, Class of 1817.

In a nearby town, Salem, there was talk of erecting a college to maintain the colony’s Puritan beliefs. Shepherd’s popularity among the first Cantabrigians, however, drew interest to Newtowne so that he could oversee the school and maintain its theological purity. On Oct. 28, 1636 ,the court granted 400 pounds toward establishing a school in Newtowne, which would be renamed Cambridge the following year.

“The founding of Harvard College by the little colony was one of the most heroic, devout and fruitful events of American history,” Eliot wrote in his “History of Cambridge, Massachusetts 1630-1913.”

For a time, college, city, and church life were inextricably intertwined, according to Stephen P. Shoemaker, an expert on the history of the College. The heart of Cambridge was First Church. Those overseeing Harvard—Henry Dunster, Charles Chauncy, and Urian Oaks—were also ministers at First Church. Shoemaker characterized the dynamics between the church and Harvard as “almost incestuous.”

But almost 200 years after the College was founded, the relationship between the “little colony” and what would become one of the most esteemed universities in the world would irreversibly change: in 1805, Harvard appointed its first Unitarian professor after a heated debate.

In 1814, the University shifted its theology from First Church’s Trinitarian beliefs to Unitarian. Then, Harvard funded the establishment of the First Parish Cambridge Church.

“After that, virtually all faculty appointments went to Unitarians until the end of the 19th century,” Shoemaker wrote in an email.

Before the shift, Harvard and the broader Cambridge community shared a common religion, but “after the split the relationship was fundamentally changed forever,” Shoemaker says, giving birth to the legendary and grizzled disputes between Harvard and Cambridge.


The face of Cambridge changed

dramatically throughout the decades, and Harvard along with it. New political figures took office and demographics shifted as immigrants—particularly Irish families fleeing the potato blight—began to fill the city. And in the 1800s, theological priorities changed to industrial ones for both the city and the School.

But while a tax exempt Harvard looked to expand, Cambridge needed to cater to residential neighborhoods and communities.

Tensions came to a head in 1938, when an insular group of 13 city councilors was governing Cambridge.

It was then that Law School Dean James M. Landis pushed for Plan E—the proposal to reform the City Council.

Plan E charged that the number of councilors be cut to nine. The proposal was, in part, designed to decrease the councilors’ power and introduce a system of proportional representation—in which residents of Cambridge could vote for more than one candidate—creating a more open election process, the Crimson reported at the time.

In response, Cambridge undertook a war of words against Harvard and passed a proposal that would make Harvard a separate municipality from the city.

“Harvard hopes to use the City of Cambridge as a guinea pig for its laboratory experiments” until it is controlled by the University’s “disciples of Karl Marx,” Councilor John J. Toomey said at the time.

Members of a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine joined the fracas, carrying their club banner down Mass. Ave. in their own march for independence.

When city councilors tried to prevent the protest, members of the Lampoon allegedly struck them. No charges were filed.

Any hopes of peace would be found in the ballots. In November, councilors kept their power and residents voted against the Law School’s Plan E. But a few years later Cantabrigians voted to incorporate the proportional representation system after all.

In 1942 Cambridge Mayor John Corcoran ’18 instituted an annual series of dinners with Harvard and Cambridge City Council members. University President James B. Conant, Class of 1914, and the Harvard Corporation supported and hosted the gatherings. The dinners were said to be a symbol of the mutual interests shared by the University and City.

In an interview with The Crimson, City Manager John B. Atkinson said in 1950, “It is the small things that have helped cement relations between the town and the College.”


The dinners continued throughout the 1980s. But by then, Harvard was in the middle of buying land in another community across the river, changing dynamics with Allston, subduing relations with Cambrdige.

“Land use, zoning, and building, the University’s desire to expand into neighborhoods has always caused complicated negotiations,” said Henrietta Davis, vice mayor of the Cambridge City Council. “Harvard’s focus on building now is on the Allston-Brighton area,” she said.

The University and Allston—Harvard’s newfound, though often scorned lover—have a relationship all of their own. It started in the 1990s when it was revealed that Harvard was surreptitiously purchasing property in Allston under a subsidiary of a different name. In Dec. 2009, reversing course in the face of the financial crisis, the University indefinitely halted construction on the Allston Science Complex, bolstering tensions between residents and the University.

As Harvard moves forward to implement the recently-approved Harvard Allston Work Team recommendations—an outline of the University’s plans for development in Allston—and as it sets its priorities for the upcoming capital campaign, it remains to be seen how Harvard treats its two romantic partners.

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375th Anniversary