The Bitter Taste of Development

What recent restaurant closures in Harvard Square teach us about our values

Harvard is a unique place because it lies at the crossroads of tradition and innovation. The University was the first founded in the United States and has a reputation that extends throughout the entire world. Yet Harvard is also at the center of global development, an institution that emphasizes civil engagement and awareness and supports researchers in fields ranging from art history to molecular biology. This mix of holding onto tradition and embracing the future is likely what drew so many of us here to this school. The two, however, can sometimes come into conflict, making us redefine our ideas of what we think is important.

Sometimes, these two attributes can work together in fantastic ways. Take the recent developments undertaken by restaurants in Harvard Square, a hub of student activity. Last semester, Felipe’s — a Harvard Square icon ever since its founding in 2004 — joined with SnackPass — a popular new app that allows for discounts and online ordering — to provide a better experience to customers. This union of history and technology has allowed for both groups to succeed, with students gaining a greater sense of comfort because of it.

Harvard Square also fosters a unique sense of community for members of Cambridge as a whole. El Jefe’s Taqueria, another staple, partners with Y2Y, a homeless shelter in the Square opened in 2015 aimed towards helping homeless youth, by donating a portion of its proceeds every month to helping the shelter keep up costs. This collaboration for a common good is something incredibly vital to this urban space, making Harvard Square not just a collection of shops but a community.

However, many times the old and the new are at odds, as historic and loved places are forced to leave because of the desire for something new. Already in the first few months of this year, so many eateries have closed their doors — such as the Starbucks in the Harvard Square Garage, loved by students for over 20 years; Sweet Bakery, which closed alongside Urban Outfitters; and others like Chipotle. In their place? Shops like Milk Bar, a pop-culture icon known for its cereal milk ice cream and cookies. Even right here in Harvard Square, we can see restaurants that are loved by members of Harvard being replaced by the costly, the flashy, the high-end.


Also, views on what makes a store valuable are at odds. Many of these closures in Harvard Square are brought on by the move to renovate spaces and increasing rent prices, which cause small business owners to struggle to maintain profit margins in order to pay their bills. For example, Sweet’s closure was due to its building being renovated, and there is still uncertainty about whether or not it will return. This purely economic reasoning leaves existing restaurants in a strange limbo, placing their success on how much money they make, and whether or not their property owners see value in investment.

After looking at what’s happening in Harvard Square, perhaps we all should consider how this conflict can shape our individual worldviews. Whether you’re majoring in economics or philosophy, each of us faces the question of how we wish to lead our lives. Do we see the importance of community or individual motivation? Do we care more about emotional attachment or inherent value? No matter how much one might try, there’s no way to separate the quantitative from the qualitative, the statistical from the holistic, or the past from the future.

Whether it’s related to urban development, college admissions, or even one’s goals for the future, every single person must realize that there is no simple, widespread answer to this question of what is valuable to us. Yet I think that students at Harvard tend to think in numbers, that success is dependent on how many connections you’ve made or how many figures will end up on your paycheck. Though things like money and finance are important, we shouldn’t just let tradition and history be destroyed in front of us as we sit back and watch, waving it off as “the way things are.” The things in life that cannot be enumerated, like the value of tradition and community, enrich society and allow us to find intrinsic meaning and value in the world around us.

Jonathan Yuan ’22 lives in Thayer Hall. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.