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Lights automatically buzz to life along a seemingly infinite hallway. Somewhere at the end of the liminal stretch, a stairwell leads to the Leverett House kitchen. On the opposite side, an underground catering area is wedged between Kirkland and Eliot Houses, branching off to Winthrop and Lowell. Opening the metal doors at the end reveals colossal soup vats, shelves of preserved food, and cramped production spaces.
The Harvard University Dining Services tunnels are an open secret in Kirkland, occupying an infamous place in the oral tradition of late-night dining hall dwellers. During River Run, wide-eyed first-years are ritualistically shepherded through them so that they can take shots in other houses. On other nights, curious upperclassmen might venture into them to explore, while seasoned veterans use them to beat the rain on their way to Leverett or Winthrop. The mystery, mystique, and misinformation surrounding the tunnels undoubtedly contribute to their appeal.
For students, the tunnels are mythologized, becoming an alluring unknown that entices us. This romanticization, however, distracts from and depersonalizes them, ignoring their problematic aspects and the people who traverse them daily.
Past the rose-colored lens, pale yellow sludge smears down a peeling wall, melting into a putrid pool of indeterminate liquid. Crushed cockroach remains clump around an empty mousetrap. The stagnant stench of garbage suspends itself in the air with nowhere to escape, and grimy walls oppressively close in on either side of the fetid swamp. Down a ways, a decaying dining hall cup rests on a pipe with torn insulation. Exposed wires, suspicious molds, and scuttling insects are visible in every direction.
The rank catacombs are a reflection of the disregard with which HUDS workers are treated by the University.
A Crimson article from 1938 described the tunnel walls as once being “immaculate,” “white,” and “spotless,” noting that the workspace was scrubbed annually, mopped constantly, and repainted in alternate years. Today, the lack of attention and resources from Harvard has let the space fall into a gloomy disrepair, and the present couldn’t be further from what the article described. Despite repeatedly asking administrators for better spaces, our dining staff have been consigned to uncomfortable, potentially unsafe conditions that call into question the tunnels’ compliance with health codes.
The culpability is as much on the tunnel-goers as it is on Harvard.
During River Run, students have repeatedly damaged HUDS spaces, showing a callous disregard for the staff who make their lives better. The moldy cup perched on the pipe was almost definitely discarded by an adventurous undergrad who didn’t give a second thought about what would happen to it or who might have to pick it up. Each additional piece of trash or dirt we bring in with us can contribute to the permeating dumpster-like odor hanging in the corridor and the indescribable slimy residues pooling on the floor. Students who go down into the tunnels while people are still there also interfere with workers’ jobs by causing unwelcome distractions.
We forget that they’re not just “the tunnels” — they’re HUDS tunnels. While we are understandably attracted to the unknown, we should also strive to better understand it and thoughtfully consider who and what goes unseen in the unseen. Every underground space at Harvard exists for a reason, and re-evaluating our relationships with those spaces is an important step to treating service workers with the respect they deserve.
The University, too, fails to consider the unseen. Harvard should likewise take steps to ensure that they’re treating both the tunnels and their users with respect. By listening to their employees and allocating resources to improve working conditions, the whole community would benefit. Until then, the liminal hallway is a gray reminder to do better.
Adam V. Aleksic ’23 is a joint concentrator in Government and Linguistics in Kirkland House. His column “The Harvard Beneath Our Feet” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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