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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Cambridge Common used to be a place that brought out the best in people.
George Washington once pitched his tent on the Common as he drilled his troops for war. Until the early 19th century, it was the site of weeklong Harvard commencement festivities. For much of its history, the Common was a place for patriotism and celebration.
But by the 1970s, the City of Cambridge had removed the Washington Elm under which George had once sat, paved over a sliver of the Common to accommodate a parking lot, and planned to erect a 15 story building on the rest.
Nowadays, more than 10,000 pedestrians pass through the park but very few pause to linger, to celebrate nature in a hectic cityscape.
It’s time to bring back the spirit of 1634—the year that the Massachusetts Bay Colony set aside common lands for the town of Cambridge. The park should still be a lively, social hub, a place to remember our past, relax our minds, and support our city.
The history of Cambridge Common is older than Harvard’s. The early Puritans who settled the area grazed their animals on what were at the time the northernmost reaches of Cambridge. At night, wolves still prowled the Common. It was civilization’s furthest frontier.
By the Revolutionary War, the Common had taken on the dimensions it has today. During the war, it served as barracks for the Continental Army. Throughout the 19th century, the Common continued to be a vibrant space, although its purposes had changed. It hosted the town fair, replete with clowns, mummies, and peep shows—a spectacle that rankled the descendants of the Puritan founders. But today, the Common is often so eerie and desolate that it might as well have been paved over.
It’s a shame that the history imbued in the Common—accumulated over centuries of use—has been forgotten and neglected. The cannons at the Common’s western edge are rumored to be the ones Colonel Henry Knox brought from Fort Ticonderoga for the siege of Boston. It is a reminder that fighting for what we believe in takes guts. Across from the cannons is the Soldiers Monument which portrays a lone soldier bowing his head in mourning. Sometimes, fighting for what we believe in means giving our lives. These monuments—as well as the Irish Famine Memorial—are heady stuff, tailored to thought and reflection.
The more recent history of the Common—as a place for fun and relaxation—should not be forgotten either. The Puritans may have founded the park, but they also contributed to the notion that lounging in it is a vice. Far from being a sin, however, lounging in an autumn breeze is a perfect time for mental rejuvenation. The benefits of basking in nature are noted and numerous. “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the geniuses behind the design of Central Park in New York City. An autumn trip to the Common can break the monotony of Lamont and Widener, Sever and CGIS.
Finally, a city is only as good as its public spaces. We can’t let them fall into disuse. Every used needle that lies strewn on the Common’s grass, every emergency resuscitation, is indicative of a broader dismantling of our civic life. Supporting the park is a way to voice support more broadly for what a city can accomplish. It is a way we can bring to life our civic aspiration for community.
Let’s all join in the reclamation effort. Last year, the Common added 120 more trees, benches, and LED lights. Taking advantage of these additions is a tacit way to appreciate the work of our city council. “It’s great to have [the Common] renovated,” Cambridge Vice Mayor Marc McGovern said. “It’s great to have it continue to be a place where people can gather, and share ideas, and walk through and enjoy the space in a city that’s ever becoming more dense and crowded.”
Now it just needs bright minds to populate it.
Christopher M. Vassallo '20, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.
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