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Harvard's Tug of War in Allston

By Elizabeth X. Guo
By Shanivi Srikonda, Crimson Opinion Writer
Shanivi Srikonda ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Quincy House. Her column “Nooks and Crannies” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Harvard’s new Science and Engineering Complex is an expansive, beautifully constructed building. From the useful makerspaces to the new furniture and appliances, the building is a testament to the innovation and ingenuity that engineering can accomplish. Situated in Allston — a Boston neighborhood located a 20 or so minute walk from Harvard’s River Houses — the SEC represents a visual symbol of Harvard’s expansion into Allston, complete with the near-constant commute of Harvard shuttle buses. This project has been decades in the making, and Harvard has had a long, sometimes contentious, history of expanding its presence in Allston.

Originally the home of the Massachusett people, the land that is now Allston was soon colonized and called “Little Cambridge” until 1807, and in 1868, Allston was divided from Brighton and given its current name.

In 1997, it was announced that Harvard University had been quietly acquiring 52.6 acres of land in Allston, and in 2000, the University acquired another 48-acre parcel of land from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. In 2003, Harvard further extended its reach, buying an adjacent land parcel of 91 acres for $75 million, bringing the total area of land the University owned in Allston to 341 acres, significantly more than the 219 acres it owned in Cambridge at the time.

In addition to just acquiring land, Harvard has also acted as a landlord to different businesses and organizations in Allston, with one of the most notable being WGBH, a public radio station in Boston. Though WGBH had a lease until 2044, it opted to move out of Allston as Harvard was eyeing the neighborhood for further expansion in the early 2000s; the area that WGBH previously occupied is now where the SEC’s campus sits.

Many are concerned about the University contributing to gentrification in Allston, worried that Harvard’s expansion into the neighborhood may hurt local residents who now find themselves amidst a busy satellite campus for one of the most prestigious universities in the world. For Meredith Zielonka ’25, Harvard’s expansion into Allston is more personal. “My parents used to work at the old location of WGBH,” Zielonka said in an interview. “I have very specific memories located with that neighborhood, what it used to look like, and now there’s this giant building there.”

Harvard’s expansion into Allston with the SEC represents not only a tug of war between the University and the community it is building into, but also between the historic engineering buildings near Oxford Street and the new SEC. Built in 1901, Pierce Hall is one of the oldest buildings in the historic complex in Cambridge, and it has been a home to many a Nobel Laureate, such as Nicolaas Bloembergen, who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in laser spectroscopy and nonlinear optics. A University task force announced in June that it planned to vacate Pierce Hall.

Thus, many began to contemplate the contrast between the historic engineering campus in Cambridge and the sparkling SEC in Allston. As Rachel Zhou ’24 put it in an interview, “It’s really strange to see how these buildings have been almost just abandoned, even though they’re still usable.”

Pierce Hall’s buildings are now emptier than usual, but still usable and full of historic charm, which seems at odds with expanding into a neighborhood that the University historically has not been very connected to. This begs the question: Although students and Harvard affiliates are benefitting from the University’s Allston expansion, how can the University work to make sure that Allston’s residents themselves are also seeing benefits? What is the need for such expansion when there are already buildings to be used? If there must be expansion, how can the University be a good steward unto its new communities and ensure the livelihood of those communities’ residents?

Most importantly, whose comfort are we prioritizing? Is our comfort, of having beautiful new spaces, more important than the comfort of Allston’s residents, many of whom may have lived in the neighborhood for generations? In prioritizing one group’s comfort over another, what does that say about us, when we want to break down the stereotype that the University is simply just an ivory tower.

It is hard to reconcile how the University’s developments threaten to gentrify Allston, while historic brick buildings sit empty in Cambridge. In this tug of war, we’re at a standstill, with the new SEC now bustling and the old SEAS complex being slowly emptied. The University must engineer better solutions to amend this paradox and become a more positive influence on the Allston community it has expanded into.

Shanivi Srikonda ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Quincy House. Her column “Nooks and Crannies” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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