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Who’s Afraid of the Harvard Shadow Campus?

By Isaac O. Longobardi
Isaac O. Longobardi ’21, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.

Over Labor Day weekend, I ran into a friend outside a café on JFK Street. He was in town to visit some other friends and said he hadn’t known I was living in Cambridge, though I had remained here since we were banished from our dorms in March. We agreed to meet up later, and the next day, he picked me up near my apartment. We grabbed takeout from Dumpling House and drove across the river to another friend’s place in Lower Allston. On the way, we cut through Harvard Square. At the intersection of DeWolfe and Mount Auburn, we surveyed the bustle of the late Saturday afternoon — a scene of faces both familiar and not.

“The Harvard shadow campus is pretty bad,” he said. I knew what he meant. What’s the point of “shutting down” campus — or drastically reducing capacity — if all of us were living and socializing right nearby anyway?

Heading into the fall, Americans have talked a lot about the experience and ethical challenges of students moving back on campus (not to mention the obstacles facing those stranded at home), but we’ve been less attentive to students, like myself, who have decided to move back to the college towns they still call home — hanging out at all the classic spots and intermixing with students who have been granted on-campus residency.

Since that drive with my friend, I’ve begun to wonder: Is the “shadow campus” inherently unethical?

Since many of my friends and acquaintances have joined me in Cambridge these past couple weeks, I’ve felt myself drawn to certain irresponsible practices. At my most poetic, I’ve imagined myself like the protagonist of “Death in Venice.” Aschenbach, a notable and notably proper writer, takes a vacation in Venice, where he becomes unexpectedly infatuated with a young boy named Tadzio. Slipping into the delirium of obsession, forgetting his defining reasonableness, he ignores the signs, warnings, and then arrival of a great plague that kills him. If I’m Aschenbach, Tadzio is all these classmates back in town on the banks of the Charles (basically the Lido of Massachusetts). I’m caught between compulsion and reason, yearning and terror. And all the while, I worry that before I’ve realized it or chosen to accept it, coronavirus will have overtaken Cambridge again.

For most students who have moved back to Cambridge, there doesn’t seem to be much of a practical reason beyond a sort of obviousness. There certainly isn’t a good financial one. Cambridge is no cheaper than anywhere else — ranked the fifth most expensive college town in the U.S. — and though landlords have been more flexible than usual, the pandemic hasn’t done much to change that. Moreover, with students hailing from all over the country, it’s probably not the most geographically convenient either.

But it is where students have met, formed bonds, and rooted their shared identity. We are, in a meaningful sense, Cantabrigians. Many of us have registered to vote here, held jobs and paid taxes here, and provided community service here. We’ve developed a deep sense of belonging in this city, immersing ourselves in local issues, businesses, and ways of life.

And I wonder if to some extent students moving back will have a profoundly positive impact on the University and its relationship to the city — breaking down town-gown divisions, deepening their investment in the community beyond Harvard Square, and perhaps making homes here that will last beyond graduation.

So while my friend is right that our presence may exacerbate the pandemic both on Harvard’s campus and in the city more broadly (though the data has yet to point to that being the case with both antigen and PCR tests in Cambridge below one percent in mid-September), his thinking echoes a generalization about college students that has come to deeply trouble me.

In recent weeks, many have criticized universities and colleges that have invited undergraduates back to campus and then dismissed them for violations of social distancing. New York University and Northeastern are just two. They argue that those institutions have knowingly held young people to standards that they cannot reasonably be expected to keep. It’s now clear that institutions that have completely opened their gates have woefully miscalculated — both their own public health measures and the pertinence of the virus, but, critically not, the moral capacity of undergraduates.

Afterall, it’s young people who have led some of the largest scale protests in American history without exacerbating rates of COVID-19 by taking common sense public health measures.

The truth is students living off-campus have all the capacity they need to make smart social distancing choices. And they can do so while supporting the local economies that have suffered (and would continue to suffer) in their absence, volunteering in public health and other community service areas, and making important political and social change through responsible activism. The Harvard shadow campus, no doubt, bears a risk, but it need not be a deadly one.

Recently, I got together with a friend living on campus for a snack and drink. We met at a middle point between the two of us and Union Square — a place we hoped to get a better feel for. Before coronavirus, I had never been to Somerville; I hardly knew what it was, let alone where. We wore our masks until we sat, enjoyed some food and a glass of wine, paid and tipped, and then strolled back toward Cambridge.

That need not be an exception. In fact, if I had my way, that’s how Friday night in college would look even without a shadow campus.

Isaac O. Longobardi ’21, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.

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