Building Bridges Between Harvard and Cambridge

In his inaugural address as the new Mayor of Cambridge in January 2018, Marc McGovern laid out a case for unity to a city that has struggled for years to achieve it: “[D]espite being surrounded by world-class universities, being the innovation capital of the world and our AAA bond rating, we have far too many in our community who are not accessing the prosperity that surrounds us.” Mayor McGovern is a life-long Cantabrigian, and his vision for the city’s future takes its name from his former youth soccer team: Cambridge United.

We’re a city of dichotomies. Cambridge's population include 450 millionaires and 517 people experiencing homelessness. The Massachusetts Department of Education recently downgraded Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s Accountability and Assistance Level ranking to Level 2 for “[n]ot meeting gap narrowing goals.” This means that while the overall number of students scoring above proficient met state standards, gaps in the results on the basis of race and socioeconomic status were too great. Crimson columns highlight the juxtaposition of homelessness and extreme wealth in Harvard Square. We have three Whole Foods locations, each in a census tract adjoining one of our three food deserts.

The division between Harvard affiliates and Cambridge residents is one of the most pronounced and entrenched. Former Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci once famously said, “When Harvard’s for something, I’m against it,” and proposed turning Harvard Yard into a parking lot. In my 19 years living in Cambridge—two of them as a Harvard student—I’ve found that this animosity can be personal as well.

Frustration and anger at Harvard is common among many of my lifelong friends. People who are generally reasonable describe Harvard students from Cambridge as sellouts and shills, or say things like “Harvard is the worst institution in America.” The gap between these two mindsets is so stark that I frequently find myself talking to my local friends about being “away at school” or making plans to meet up “when I get home,” even if I’m meeting someone in Central Square, closer to Harvard than my home. My new home in the Quad feels separated from the Graham and Parks School, where I spent nine years, by a gap much wider than Walker Street.

I frequently tell people on both sides of this divide that they should be more open-minded. Cambridge residents should meet a few Harvard students before writing them all off as irredeemable. Harvard students should say less problematic things about Cambridge and its residents. I still believe this, but I’ve also learned a lot about the issues that affect all of us. Harvard expansion and Cambridge zoning may have created the economics that drive gentrification, but its effects hurt lifelong Cambridge residents and Harvard graduate students alike. Many Cambridge businesses rely on both students and resident customers to stay afloat, so these customers rely on each other to protect their communities and lifestyles. Both the Phillips Brooks House Association and the many beneficiaries of its Cambridge programs want the organizations to provide their services as effectively and respectfully as possible. Even on issues that seem clearly oppositional, like PILOT, the amount that Harvard sends to the city each year as payment in lieu of taxes, building bridges of understanding enables Harvard to provide effective non-financial benefits to the city where they are needed.


Many Cantabrigians refer to our city in passing as “the 'Bridge.” While it’s not much shorter than just saying “Cambridge,” the moniker conveys a lot about our pride. We’re the Cambridge, with a unique history, proud culture, incredible people, and transcendent high school basketball team. But our city wasn’t built in a vacuum. Harvard has shaped Cambridge just as Cambridge has shaped Harvard, and both communities need to understand this in order to move forward.

I hope that “the 'Bridge” can take on another meaning. There are many issues that connect Harvard and Cambridge in their origins and their impacts, and each has concrete action items that both communities can take. To start the process, Harvard students should read at least two articles from the Metro section of the CRLS Register Forum and one from the humor section. In turn, Cambridge residents should read at least one article from the Issues section of Fifteen Minutes and one from Flyby. Harvard's responses to five questions from the City in their annual Town Gown Report also offer some insight into both perspectives.

Some town-gown tensions might be entrenched, but they aren’t all inherent. The gates of Harvard Yard are almost always open, and people from every neighborhood and every house cross its paths heading to work, class, school, libraries, restaurants, and more. People on the way to CRLS or the Main Library and those leaving Sever or Widener pass by wordlessly; while the communities that they navigate are distinct, we can do more to acknowledge where they overlap.

Will H. MacArthur ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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