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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

After Troubled Past, Barry's Corner in Allston Poised for Development

By Nathalie R. Miraval and Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writers

Today, Barry’s Corner—located at the intersection of North Harvard St. and Western Ave. in Allston—has an air of emptiness, housing an abandoned car dealership, a vacant Citgo, a 7-Eleven, and a large parking lot. But Allston resident Irene S. McCall remembers it as the location of her childhood home.

“We had what they called the backyard, all the houses in a ring, one big backyard that everybody played in and used as children,” McCall says.

But in the 1960s, the location where McCall spent her “beautiful, beautiful childhood” was bulldozed over by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which seized the land with the intent of building more luxurious housing.

“They just took homes from the people that were well-kept, some of them weren’t, but people had lived there all their lives,” Allston resident Rita M. DiGesse recalls.

In time, the City built the Charlesview Apartment Complex—a concrete cluster of housing for low-income families—that turned the former neighborhood in a ”cement city,” DiGesse says.

Barry’s Corner’s transition from what residents say was a family neighborhood to a lifeless intersection left residents suspicious of the BRA. When Harvard purchased the land decades later, their mistrust shifted to the University.

Today, residents say they feel that Harvard’s newly-approved recommendations for Allston represent a chance for the University to reinvigorate the neighborhood. Still, they say that they are worried that history will repeat itself in what they characterize as a perennial exclusion of community members from neighborhood planning.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE FUTURE

Last month, Harvard approved the five recommendations of the Harvard Allston Work Team—a 14-person group commissioned by University President Drew G. Faust to help plan the University’s next steps in Allston. In a letter to residents last month, University Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp outlined Harvard’s intentions to move forward with their plans in two stages. In the first phase, the University will begin planning mixed-use structures in Barry’s Corner, including housing for faculty, graduate students, and other Allston residents, as well as retail outlets. In the second phase, Harvard plans to hire third-party developers to build and maintain the housing and retail units.

Specific plans outlining the University’s next steps in Allston are still in the works. Harvard has spoken casually with many local and national companies, including real estate investment trust Boston Properties, but no deals have been set in stone, according to Mahmood Malihi, who is an executive vice president of Leggat McCall Properties, the firm that advised the Work Team and helped shape the recommendations.

“The idea is to create housing that is similar between graduate housing and neighborhood living, and have a mixture of the two,” says Malihi. “Co-developers enable us to create housing for the market as well, therefore activating Barry’s Corner in the near-term.”

In the past year, Harvard says it has advanced significantly in achieving its goals, leasing land to Stone Hearth Pizza Co. in the heart of Barry’s Corner, and turning the former Citgo into a commercial bakery, Swiss Bakers.

A TROUBLED PAST

The transition of McCall’s cherished home to what DiGesse characterizes as a “cement city” began in the 1960s.

In 1961, the BRA announced its plan to rebuild a neighborhood with luxurious housing, according to “Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970” by Boston College Emeritus Professor Thomas H. O’Connor.

But in order to create these improved facilities, the “blighted” neighborhood—as the City characterized it—had to be torn down, O’Connor writes.

But Allston residents maintain that the homes were well-kept and unjustly demolished.

“Literally there were old ladies sitting on their chairs in the front porch trying to fight it,” Allston resident Leonard W. Kelliher says. “They forced the elderly people off the porch and bulldozed it in front of them. Nobody was happy with the way this was all done.”

O’Connor’s book confirms Kelliher’s description of residents’ forcible removal.

“The final act in this human tragedy came in October 1969, when BRA officials and more than 50 Boston policemen arrived on the scene to forcibly evict the last three families who still remained in their homes and refused to leave” O’Connor writes.

McCall remembers helping her sister move her belongings before her house was taken by the BRA.

“That was sad,” McCall pauses. “That was sad. It was just terrible.”

But the City didn’t build a “$4.5 million, three-hundred-unit, ten-story luxury apartment complex,” in Barry’s Corner, as they had promised, according to O’Connor’s book. Instead, it built an “ugly gray monster,” Kelliher says, referring to the Charlesview Apartment Complex located near Harvard Business School.

“The event is scarred into the memories of people in this neighborhood ... This is what the city can do to you,” Task Force member Brent Whelan ’73 says.

HARVARD ENTERS BARRY’S CORNER

In the 1970s, Harvard began surreptitiously buying 250 acres of land in Allston under subsidiary companies of a different name.

After holding land adjacent to Charlesview for decades, the University in 2007 made a land swap agreement with the apartment complex’s board of directors, so that Harvard could consolidate its Allston land holdings by taking ownership of the Charlesview site. By agreeing to move its complex, the Charlesview board could provide residents with much sought after housing and amenities.

In 2008, the BRA presented Allston residents with a plan to transform Barry’s Corner into a community hub, which would house restaurants, cafes, and a park. At the time, the University’s 50-year master plan included academic and institutional buildings flanking two sides of Barry’s Corner.

But in Dec. 2009, financial constraints caused by the economic crisis caused the University to halt construction on the Allston Science Complex, deferring hopes of a vibrant Barry’s Corner along with it.

As a result, some residents say they are hesitant to believe that Harvard will follow through with the new plans for Barry’s Corner.

“There’s an awful lot of secrecy. We don’t know what’s in the back of their mind and what they plan on doing,” says Kelliher. “The neighborhood doesn’t trust Harvard, which is a shame because they’ve done a lot of good, but they put that element of doubt in our minds.”

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

After decades of frustration, some residents say the reason they are hesitant to believe that Harvard’s plans will finally be realized is because many questions remain unanswered.

“Will [Barry’s Corner] just be a dormitory type structure where relatively short-term people stay? Or will it be an extension of the community, an opportunity for new people and families to come together and be part of the Allston community?” Whelan says.

Kelliher echoed Whelan’s sentiments, saying, “They [representatives of the University] constantly came back to us, but they haven’t paid much attention to our suggestions. It’s still up in the air about what’s going there.”

Residents also say they do not want to see high-rise buildings, and hope that any new construction will be neighborhood friendly.

Looking at what Barry’s Corner is today, some residents say they feel any developments on the two-acre plot of land will be an improvement.

“Anything is better than an empty lot,” DiGesse says. “I think that the land is not totally utilized, it’s under-utilized and it’s been that way for a long time.”

But despite hardships in the past and fraught relations with the University, some residents add they feel the housing developments will benefit the community.

“I just hope everything will be good,” McCall says. “I just hope for the best for everyone.”

—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at nmiraval@college.harvard.edu

­—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu

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