Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

The Road to Harvard

Burying Ground of First Parish Church, Cambridge. Looming in the background is Memorial Hall, Harvard, just as Harvard looms over much of the route described in this entry.

Old Burying Ground of First Parish Church, Cambridge. Looming in the background is Memorial Hall, Harvard, just as Harvard looms over much of the route described in this entry.

In a couple of previous entries I described the original road to Cambridge from Boston which passed along the Neck and through Dudley Square, winding its way to Brookline and what is today Allston and Brighton, crossing the Charles River at what is today the Larz Anderson Bridge and ending at Cambridge Common. I wrote that this was the route of William Dawes, I noted that this route receives the lion’s share of the attention as a Post Road compared to the other routes to New York, and I discussed the milestones which are to be found along the route. I have not, however, actually described the route as it is today and this entry is an attempt to fill in the details of the walk (or many walks if truth be told) from the Parting Stone in Roxbury to the Eight Mile Stone presently found inside the fence of the First Parish Church of Cambridge Burying Ground, directly across the street from the main gate into Harvard Yard.

This road is dominated by Harvard. This was the original road to Cambridge, the home of Harvard. The road as it enters Brookline from Boston becomes Harvard Street through Brookline, then curiously it becomes Harvard Avenue in Allston, then becomes North Harvard Street in Brighton. The road passes the Harvard Medical School campus as it winds through Brigham Circle, then passes both Harvard Stadium and Harvard Business School in Allston/Brighton (more on this later), before reaching Harvard Square. And, full disclosure, I was a graduate student at Harvard Medical School. I also walked this route recently with a friend of mine I first met at Harvard. Harvard is probably the reason this road gets more attention than the other roads as it literally passes through Harvard on the way to New York. George Washington even set up his headquarters on Cambridge Common at the end of this walk, directly opposite the Harvard campus during the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776. It is the ‘glamorous’ road.

I have a fascination with the curious effect Harvard has on its neighborhood and further afield. But first a brief parochial science Harvard joke. I attended a lecture on the history of the Harvard Medical School some years back given by an éminence grise of the Harvard faculty and he began by bringing up the eternal rivalry between what he called the “cis-Carolian and trans-Carolian” versions of Harvard which elicited lots of wry smiles and chuckles from the audience. Don’t worry if you don’t get it- it’s not that funny, just ‘clever’ in a Harvard way.

There is no doubt Harvard is a(n ivory) towering presence in Boston and is the primary fact people know, if they know anything, about Boston. The image of Boston as Athens to the Sparta of New York derives in no small part from the presence of Harvard.  It is the primary piece of evidence used by those who argue that Boston is a “World Class City” (definitely more on this subject in future entries). It is always at or near the top of any list of the world’s most important academic institutions.

It is also the standard by which other universities are measured. I am always amused by the attempts of other institutions to be the geographical version of Harvard e.g., Duke, the Harvard of the South, Beida, the Harvard of China, Texas Tech, the Harvard of Amarillo (perhaps I exaggerate). The best rebuttal I have seen is the t-shirt “Harvard, the Stanford of the East.” Even that presumably ironic t-shirt gets at an incontrovertible fact: Harvard is the standard for comparison, not just in Massachusetts or the United States, but the entire world. (Has anybody created a t-shirt that says “Harvard: the Harvard of the World” yet?)

Speaking of t-shirts, it is a curious fact that it is bad form to wear Harvard paraphernalia when on campus, or indeed in the Boston area, unless you are involved in a sport or going to a game. So a note to any readers who are wearing any Harvard paraphernalia: if you are a student you look silly and people are making fun of you. If you are not a student people will think you are a wannabe and are making fun of you, and if you are a tourist we know you are a tourist because your stuff is new and you are conspicuous, but we will give you a pass because you don’t know the local code (also, thank you for your business).  My observations over the years lead me to conclude that the only acceptable way for one to wear Harvard gear and not look ridiculous is to have a very beat up old style H hat, or a beat up 20 year old sweatshirt that says Harvard Swimming in faded crimson letters on a grey background. Anything brand new is basically a crimson flag to construction workers. For the record, I have not one piece of Harvard clothing, although I do somewhat pompously have my diploma framed on a wall in my office and I have a rubber Harvard Dental School tooth meant to be used as one of those balls you squeeze to relieve tension.

There was a fellow student who was extremely excited to be at Harvard; every day he wore a piece of clothing with a Harvard logo on it, and was somewhat mercilessly abused for doing so. One day he arrived at the lecture hall and apparently had no Harvard logo visible on his body. “S, you must be wearing Harvard underwear!” At which point S smiled triumphantly and turned to show his denim jacket which, you guessed it, had a Harvard logo. We all know what his family members got for Christmas that year.

It is a funny thing about Harvard that it does not do to mention that you attended this august institution; it sounds like bragging. Speaking with a Harvard alum is like asking somebody if they have an STD: I have noticed when in conversation regarding their background a Harvard graduate will often say that they went to school in Boston, and only reveal the name of the school upon further inquiry. I have had curious experiences “dropping the H-bomb.”  I find its effect is much stronger the further removed one gets from Harvard Yard.  I was once in a train compartment in Thailand with a lovely family from Bangkok. We chatted as one does in these confined settings and inevitably the question arose about what I did back home. I was at the time transitioning out of my graduate career but was still on the books as a student so I said I was a graduate student. “Where?” “Harvard,” I replied sotto voce. “Harvard!!!!!!!!!!!! Can you put in a word for my daughter? Can I have your card? You have no card? Please then write your address and phone number here on this card, and here is my card….” I was treated as a minor celebrity for the remainder of the journey. This experience has been repeated on a number of occasions, always at some distance from Boston.

On the other hand, a Harvard degree and $3 might get you a cup of coffee in Boston. I know at least a half dozen Harvard graduates on my block alone at home. I often joke that if you shot a gun at random down my street you would very likely hit a Harvard graduate.  Indeed, Harvard graduates are so thick on the ground in Boston that they are occasionally likened to a plague of locusts and are inevitably the object of ridicule or the butt of local jokes: How many Harvard students does it take to screw in a light bulb? One. He holds the light bulb and the universe revolves around him. Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes.

Harvard also gets a lot of negative publicity for the amount of land it owns in the Boston area and the small amount of voluntary payment it makes to the cities in which the property is located (the so-called PILOT payments, or payment in lieu of taxes). The central issue in Boston is that the “non-profit” institutions are tax exempt and hence every time Harvard or another college, hospital, church, or other tax exempt institution buys a piece of property the city collects less revenue in property tax despite the fact that more services such as water pipes, electrical wires, road improvements, public transit improvements need to be provided to support the institution. Yet on a property value basis, an institution like Harvard pays ridiculously little money relative to a typical homeowner in Boston, like myself. Harvard has land holdings in Boston in FY 2015 valued by the city of Boston at over $1.5 billion. Were the university to pay the actual assessed taxes on that land they would owe the city $47.4 million, a net rate of about 3% tax (business rates in Boston are 2.952% in FY2015). By comparison I paid a rate of about 0.9% tax on the full value of my house. Harvard and other colleges are also given the option of contributing “community programs to the unique benefit of Boston residents”. In all, Harvard was asked to contribute $10.2 million, half in actual cash and half in “community benefits.” In other words, they were asked to contribute in cash a little more than 10% of the money they would pay if the land were taxed at market rates. In the event, according to the city of Boston report, PILOT FY2015 , Harvard paid a total of $2,260,099, half of what was requested, and less than 5% of what the property would fetch if it were taxed at full value. The net rate is about 0.15%, about six times lower than my own personal rate. Apparently my property is six times more valuable than Harvard’s property.

Harvard and others argue that they provide invaluable service to the city, not least employment to thousands, but many feel they do not pay their fair share. Indeed so much is made of Harvard’s massive endowment (no snickering) and the vast amount of wealth it has accrued that it may be the source of the original town and gown friction. In a city of under 50 square miles, the continual conversion of taxable property to tax exempt land by “non-profit” institutions like Harvard squeezes residential property values, raises taxes for long time residents and forces some people to sell out. It is understandable that Harvard might not be everybody’s favorite institution.

I have mentioned the name Harvard over 50 times at this point. I am sure there is a bean counter on staff at Harvard whose job is to tot up the number of mentions of WGU (World’s Greatest University, the oft-used monicker applied to the school by the Globe columnist Alex Beam) on the internet, so hopefully that rigs the search engine enough to get this entry to pop up on a search for HARVARD. But I digress…

One of the pitfalls of this project is that almost every road I travel has a personal connection. It is therefore easy to be tempted to linger at a particular point on the road. I spent more than five years at Harvard. It is impossible to avoid Harvard in a project of this nature, and doubtless Harvard will appear many times in future entries both because of its importance in the history and development of Boston, but also because it continues to be an important facet of contemporary life here in the Hub.  In fact I have rambled on about Harvard at such length I fear it has overwhelmed the putative subject of this post, the actual road to Harvard.  As much as Harvard dominates this road, it is not the only interesting subject of this ramble. Therefore, I will divide this entry into two parts and follow the road in the next entry, dropping the H-bomb as little as possible. Veritas.


2 Responses to The Road to Harvard

  1. Was a very good read born and raised in Roxbury /Dorchester I’ve been studying reason for the sudden decline of such a promising place which lead to former urban renewal I would love to chat with you about this topic and history in general I love information i ve known for some time now that the same streets where youth lose there life’s are the same streets where famous presidents traveled and visited !

    • Thanks for the comments David. It has been a goal of this project to “recover” these old roads. By that I mean that often the roads in question have either been bypassed in favor of more direct routes from point A to point B (in this case downtown Boston to Harvard Square), or the roads have a modern (often negative) image which ignores the long history. As you rightly point out, the “decline” of some of the neighborhoods through which the road passes is a small part of the long history of many of these old roads. To focus exclusively on the problems associated with these neighborhoods sometimes marginalizes the rich history that continues to define the city and its diverse neighborhoods. I choose to celebrate the diversity and the complexity and the depth of history I find when I walk from Dudley Square to Lower Mills, to give one example. There continue to be problems in many of the neighborhoods through which that particular road passes, but there are many things to celebrate and enjoy as well. I hope to take a hard look at some of the problems in the neighborhoods through which I walk, but my ambition is to try to paint a more complex picture which looks at the good and the bad, preferably emphasizing the positive and interesting aspects. I hope you enjoy my future entries: I am working on entries about the rise of turnpike building in the early Federal period, which include what are today Dorchester Avenue, Blue Hill Avenue, and Washington Street in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and beyond.


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