Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Close to the 'Pike

When we settled in Allston many years ago, we thought its proximity to Harvard Square was one of its best features. Close to St. Elizabeth's (where my wife was working), close to Brookline and the Charles River, close to downtown--those were all things we liked about it.

But we seldom really thought of it as "close to the 'Pike." and when we did, it was not normally in praise. Which is why I was taken aback the other day when one of my neighbors, an old-time Allstonian, remarking how fond he was of the neighborhood, cited "close to the 'Pike" as his first reason.

But why?, I wanted to ask, but didn't. To make a quick getaway? The thought of going somewhere, anywhere, else? Or was it just another facet of Allston's many-splendored romance with the car?

But finally I have to confess that I too have always loved something about the 'Pike: the relentless forward thrust of its traffic at all hours, the energy, the speed. Before we had kids I would wander up to the Cambridge Street overpass at rush hour and ... rush, gazing wide-eyed not only at the commuters whizzing along the 'Pike but the long red and white chains of lights whisking up and down Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive or stalled in blurry lines, even the lone headlights along Lincoln Street and the occasional clank of a freight train through the Beacon yards. All that motion and power and flux made me feel like I was looking into the open heart of a monstrous organism. Later on I would wheel a restless child in a stroller to the same spot in the hopes that primal wonder at this most un-natural sublime would overwhelm and reduce it to silent, Kantian awe.

OK, I'll say it: the view of the 'Pike from the Cambridge Street overpass is as fine an urban landscape as any post-impressionist ever painted, its sunsets some days as rich and full of life as Turner's.

So yeah, close to the 'Pike, and proud of it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Forget what you've heard about how "wood warms you three times." Yes, I did get a bit overheated stacking all this wood--about two cords' worth. And yes, we'll be plenty warm when we burn it (if we stand near the stove--it's a very central sort of heat).

But what really gets me fired up about burning wood is the sheer beauty of it. The way these pieces, split by my arborist neighbor from the many trees he cuts all over greater Boston, fit together to make a solid stack--like the tiles in a mosaic, in three dimensions. Their heft and hardness against my chest when I bring them in to burn. The little thrill of ignition as the kindling leaps into flame, I add a few small pieces, and the fire quickens. Even the ash, so pure and fine when I shovel it out and bag it for use in the garden later on. And the smell, drifting down the street in one direction or another, speaking to passers-by of woods and campfires and the out-of-doors, so that strangers sometimes stop to tell me, when I'm outside hauling in more logs, how glad they are for the smell of it.

Wood warms in so many ways, it would be a cold season without it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Our neighborhood is merely Allston, and yet it has a portal. You can see it from a distance: two columns rising, a domesticated version of a Brandenburg Gate. Even though--like the Brandenburg Gate for so long--it leads to nowhere, to a steep grassy slope, buttressing the Cambridge Street overpass, our neighborhood's rough edge.

We lived on this street--Royal Street--for about ten months once, long ago. This strip of no-man's-land was there then, an urban waste, litter-strewn, barren of all but the toughest weeds. An eyesore, a blight, the scene of lurid crimes. Half-hearted clean-ups, tentative planting schemes came and went. Nothing helped.

Then a few years ago the site was claimed by a local visionary. Grants followed, landscape artists arrived, volunteer crews pulled out weeds. Sprawling raised steel forms were mounted sideways across the slope, filled with earth and seeded, along with the slope itself. Last spring it turned a rich green as the grass grew two, three, four feet high. You could hardly see the forms. A debate broke out between those who found it lush, and others who thought it looked unkempt. The grass was trimmed and the forms reappeared. It has found its shape and goes on, a modest but eminently successful earthwork, a monunent.

The portals are a little cheesy. Literally--they look as though maybe mice have been nibbling away at the fragile metal plates that define the columns. The curlicues of capital and urn are derisory in their quotation of classical forms. And yet the columns, the portal, as I like to think of it, introduces the whole structure, the whole work, as a work. Gives it definition not just as a form in the earth but a work of art. Here in Allston.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I haven't been as faithful to this blog as I intended, and my plan to document the full cycle of my garden will have to wait till next year. But I do want to show off these ears of corn I harvested a few weeks ago from my plot in the Herter gardens. They were small but sweet, and you can't get'em any fresher. Yum!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Salve Festa Dies

We went to a wedding in Allston this afternoon. Well actually it was in Watertown, but the two principals were our Allston neighbors, Rita and Carol. And actually it wasn't a wedding--it was a blessing of their relationship, 45 years strong and counting. But it sure felt like a wedding, with clergy joining their hands and saying prayers over them. Or maybe an anniversary, since at their ages the honorees were somewhat more retrospective than the average bridal couple. But whatever it was, it couldn't have been more celebratory, and in a number of details I found it full not only of joy but of interest.

First of all the location--not a church but the VFW hall. Rita and Carol are lifelong Catholics, but pairs of ladies don't get married, or even blessed, in Catholic churches. And the priests included a man and a woman who were themselves married to each other. Something odd in this picture. And a nun, who actually presided as if she were a priest. When we all joined in the blessing, we did so in the name of God, but also of the Goddess Sophia. So while in many respects it felt like a traditional Catholic service, these clergy are American Catholics, and they are moving the Church, as the Spirit moves them, in new and interesting directions.

And then there were the invitees and onlookers, family, friends, neighbors, including two of our children, who are Rita and Carol's godchildren, and like some others in the room, part of the sizeable cohort of children they cared for in their family day care. In short, it was the sort of gathering you would expect in a traditional neighborhood, where people live their entire lives in the house they were born in, as Rita has done. It is true that on the dance floor there were more couples of women than of men and women. Chatting, I heard about Rita's nephew's recent wedding from his new husband, and there was at least one couple of young wives. We in Massachusetts are perhaps a little ahead of the curve in the forms of sociability we encourage.

For all the innovations, though, the whole event, I want to say, was deeply conservative, from the boards of photographs preserving memories back through the last century, to the half-century-old recordings of crooners played by the DJ. And above all in the accounts of how Rita and Carol's lives are woven into the fabric of our durable little community. Family, church, community--these are the conservative values that were broadly in evidence, slightly reconfigured to suit the occasion, but not so much you wouldn't recognize them. It was a beautiful occasion--and I know that's something people say, but in this case it was true--and we came away enriched. L'Chaim.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crime story

About those strawberries. All week they've been ripening just fine, but then the ripe ones would just...  disappear. 

Today I think I found out why. I was reading in my yard, a bit out of sight, when I looked up and saw my neighbor on her hands and knees in my strawberry patch. I ran over and yelled at her, and she jumped up, smiling nervously. In her hand were two prime red strawberries.

She is an older teenager, I would say, and lives with her extended family about five houses down the street. I don't know her at all though I've seen her from time to time. Her mother seems to speak only Chinese. Her grandmother grows bok choy and green beans--and a few strawberries--in their yard, and gathers huge loads of deposit bottles. The grandmother and I nod and smile when our paths cross, but otherwise my interactions with these neighbors are few.

 More disturbingly, her mother was waiting for her on the public sidewalk, not ten feet away, pushing a stroller that held the young woman's toddler son. This little heist was a family affair. Maybe that's part of why I blew up, yelling at the young woman, telling her over and over that she was "stealing," that she was a "thief."  She gave me back my strawberries and slunk off, chastened I hoped.

But now that some hours have intervened, I have to wonder about my reaction. Am I really that invested in ownership of a handful of strawberries? What happened to my belief in a communal ethic of sharing? This family of neighbors is to all appearances rather poor: why not give them some strawberries? And they are neighbors: all the more reason to be generous. Did the differences of race and language play a part here? Was this a case of "those people" taking from "us"? Maybe they bring different assumptions about property and ownership that would be interesting to learn about. Maybe I should have offered them some strawberries before they took them. Has my pride in growing things overwhelmed some more fundamental values? 

These are questions that cut in multiple directions, and I haven't reached any certain conclusions. If I see this girl or some other human predator in my strawberry patch again, I may temper my reaction, but to what degree I'm not sure. Turns out these reflexes of ownership, of "it's mine," are deeply embedded. One more reason to appreciate my urban garden, though:  as a microcosm of the urban, where these issues of anonymity, human density, strained relationship and cultural difference do arise.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Strawberries turning red!

June 1

Either it's a really early season, or these are a different strain from the last strawberries I grew. In any case they're here--three weeks earlier than expected.

Allston Skyline (2): compatible neighbors

Viewed from Allston, Peabody Terrace sets a high standard for what a riverside building should be or do. The scale is monumental, with hulking vertical and horizontal structures laid out in stone-gray concrete . And yet the details of balconies and windows are perfectly vernacular and village-like, decorative and domesticated at the same time. Peabody is the chef-d'oeuvre--locally at least--of José Luis Sert, the great Catalan architect (and dean of Harvard's design school). With its Mondrian-like boxes of shape and color, the effect is to humanize the modern and make it liveable (as Peabody Terrace has been, by most accounts, for more than four decades). The prominence of the design, projected over the flat expanses of riverway, is spectacular. 

Its neighbor directly across the river, the Harvard graduate dorm known as One Western Avenue, makes a worthy homage and pendant to Sert's achievement. Designed by the same Machado and Silvetti (Sert's successors at Harvard's GSD) who built our prize-winning Allston library, the much-belabored One Western matches Peabody Terrace not just in size but in its use of large vertical and horizontal blocks. While One Western's actual texture of patterned brick and randomized window placement fails to please my eye to the same degree as Sert's colored panels and balconies, the drama of the elevated horizontal wing, like a tower laid on its side to frame an open courtyard, more than compensates in visual interest. Most importantly, the similarities in shape communicate across the river like neighbors talking over a fence (as Robert Campbell might say), bringing coherence to this stretch of the riverway we in Allston share with Cambridge. 

Oddly enough both buildings have excited voluble opposition: out of sympathy, in the case of Peabody Terrace, for the Riverside neighborhood it displaced, or aversion to such incongruous effects as One Western's anti-gravitational illusion (and to be frank, cheap materials). Personally, I feel enriched every day my  biking, running, or walking path takes me past these buildings and their blue-collar neighbors, the Genzyme factory and the Western Avenue power plant. They do what big buildings on conspicuous sites are meant to do: make me feel like my neighborhood is something special.   

Sunday, May 31, 2009

let us now praise ...

May 31

Meet Trotsky. Born in the vicinity of Acton, Massachusetts, Trotsky has lived his entire life--11 years and counting--here in Allston. Very much attached to his family--he prefers the term 'pack'--Trotsky performs a number of domestic chores: discouraging intruders and greeting other dogs with his sonorous bark, tracking the whereabouts of other pack members, and patrolling his yard. Once he even caught a rat and dispatched it expertly, despite his total lack of prior experience. Trotsky is an admirer of the U.S. Postal Service, and greets its employees enthusiastically, shaking them down for dog biscuits and PDA's. He has a fanatical aversion to squirrels, and relentlessly chases them back into their trees during his daily visit to Hooker Park. He similarly disapproves of loud or unruly pedestrians and loudly admonishes them from his listening post at the window. Along with many others like himself Trotsky helps make the Allston community what it is, and I thought he deserved this brief recognition. Good dog! 

Friday, May 29, 2009

Riverside places (1)

May 29

Just west of Watertown square the Charles river plunges some five feet to its death. The violence of this act is diffused in the long, smooth contour of the spillway, the roar and splash of the rebounding water, the assiduity of the gulls (and occasional humans) who fish here, and above all in the serenity and peace of this spot. It is nonetheless true that the river as such meets its end here. What continues on to join the Atlantic ocean at Boston harbor is not a river at all but the Charles River basin, an artificial body of water whose level and flow are regulated by the dam at its eastern end, the counterpart to this falls. In between falls and dam the water flows, but at an engineered rate, at the whim, one might say, of the hydrologists. Though it still looks and feels like a river, that fact of regulation changes just a little the way I feel about the lower Charles--and makes me appreciate all the more the vitality, the wildness even, of this place. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Corn's Up!

May 28

Trying to reenergize this blog, I've thought I might include a running account of my efforts at farming in Allston. Here at my plot in the Herter Community Garden, the corn I planted in six hills a week ago is just showing above ground (hat tip to Bob V who not only phoned to tell me but used his phone to send a photo, a confusion of technologies I find perplexing). In any case, corn has long been my favorite plant to grow, part for the vigor and size of the plant, part for the incomparable taste of the ears fresh-picked, part for certain mythic associations from the Hebrew prophets all the way to Longfellow's Hiawatha. They're so tiny and vulnerable now, but in two months time, if the gods are willing and the weather auspicious, if the rabbits desist and the pests forbear, these plants will be towering overhead, angular ears protruding, tassles whispering in the wind. A miracle. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Imperial Harvard

March 2

One of the most interesting though little noted architectural sculptures adorning the landscapes of Allston, Harvard and the Charles River Basin is this one, atop the pylon that marks the Cambridge approach to the Anderson Bridge. What the sculpture depicts is an empty suit of Roman armor, surmounted by a rather fierce-looking eagle. The composition strongly evokes the demise of the armor's wearer. The memorial plaque exhorts Harvard's students, who must pass it en route to the athletic facilities, to reflect on their patriotic obligations (and perhaps see their training in the sports arena as preparation for that higher-stakes engagement).

The bridge is often mistakenly identified with the name of its donor, Larz Anderson, though it really commemorates his father, Nicholas Longworth Anderson. Anderson senior achieved glory while still in his 20's as a private, then colonel, and finally lieutenant general in the Union army, where he directed a number of important campaigns. The rather bleak representation contrasts with his military success and subsequently benign life managing the family fortune, a life that ended not on the battlefield but in belle-epoque Paris. Yet the stern lesson of sacrifice and duty endures in his name.

Erected in 1913, the bridge is a small but integral feature of what architectural historians call 'Imperial Harvard,' a stylistic term that describes quite a few structures built on the campus between the Civil War and the Great War (and a little after). The preeminent instance of Imperial Harvard  is Widener Library, with its massive columns and forbidding scale. Emerson Hall to its east captures something of the same spirit, as does Langdell Hall at the Law School, and perhaps the enormous pilasters of Lehmann Hall that loom over Harvard Square from within the Yard. In the same spirit is the rather ghastly Sargent mural inside Widener, depicting fresh-faced doughboys rescuing the damsel France from the clutches of diabolical Teutons. In all this confident, even triumphalist iconography we can read the pride of a university that under President Eliot's tutelage had become one of the world's finest, and a nation that had come to dominate international affairs. The sacrifice implied by that empty suit of armor yielded a handsome return. 
What interests me in all this is not just antiquarian curiosity but the lessons one might bring to bear on the future. Architectural styles change, as do the institutional identities often codified in those styles. In its next great building phase, instituted by Eliot's successor A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard created the river houses in the friendlier and more accessible neo-Georgian style that has come to characterize the university's visual identity in our day. Despite the locked gates I mentioned in an earlier post, those houses in their design suggest community, conviviality, shared purpose. Lowell's idea in building them was to democratize residential life for undergraduates, who had stratified by family wealth into an array of luxury apartments and exclusive clubs on the one hand and spartan dorms and rooming houses on the other. Like their monastic antecedents, the houses were intended to level such distinctions, as if in preparation for the more democratic post-WWII era.

So what will Harvard's institutional identity come to be in our new century, and how will that be stylistically expressed? Here's a dark view, suggested to me just this morning in the dispute that has publicly surfaced among Harvard's biological scientists. Pure knowledge, some claim, is being displaced by applied technologies, foundational research giving way to enterprise (and patent income). In this spirit a future bridge might be named for its sponsor and emblazoned, not with an icon of civic virtue, but a corporate logo. This would effectively caricature the sort of 21st century university Larry Summers seemed to have in mind when he embarked on his Allston adventure.

Now Summers is gone--kicked upstairs so to speak--and President Faust has her chance to stamp a new identity on the university. Perhaps that identity will be characterized by the sensitivity and openness to dialog that are said to be her strengths. Perhaps that new identity will have little to do with Allston--recent news stories would support this view--though there remains the awkward question of those 350 acres of Allston land Harvard owns. But here's a more cheerful possibility. Maybe the new Harvard will grow into its Allston holdings after all. Maybe it will build on the green design of its first new project, and follow through with its promise to make a permeable, welcoming, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly campus. Perhaps it will follow up its tentative steps to engage with the local community, to be a presence in its schools and a resource for its residents. Leaving behind its centuries of parochial inwardness, setting aside the pretensions of imperial ascendancy, perhaps the next incarnation of Harvard will be one of real community, not the self-contained communities of the river houses but the interwoven and sustainable community it could form with its neighbors and its adjacent cities. Such a conception of a great university would be an innovation worthy of a new century. 

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Allston skyline (1): the temple of Biotechnology

6 February

We don't have much of a skyline in Allston, and for the most part that's fine with us. The main exceptions occur along the Charles River, where the spacious perspective calls for large, even dramatic buildings, that would be out of scale anywhere else in the neighborhood. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the Genzyme manufacturing plant, an outsized and eccentric structure that asserts itself unashamedly in the foreground of the riverscape.

The building's design is said to owe much to Genzyme's eminent CEO, Henri Termeer, an architecture buff who wanted it to be compatible with the red-brick Harvard architecture it adjoins along the river. But a quick glance tells you that, red brick aside, the Genzyme factory has little in common with its Harvard neighbors. It has more to do with another red-brick neighbor, the power plant on the Cambridge side, particularly as the industrial uses of the Genzyme building show clearly through its oversized and deceptively contoured windows. But really the Genzyme plant looks like none of its neighbor structures, or anything else I've ever seen, except perhaps ... yes, a Gothic cathedral! Doesn't it? With its lofty nave-like shape, its clerestory windows, its side gables that suggest chapels, transepts, or even flying buttresses? Not a literal cathedral--the components are too oddly rearranged, and who ever heard of a red-brick cathedral? And not a complete one: it lacks a section, the apse, with sanctuary and apsidial chapels on the east end. But wait. All that scaffolding and those cranes working on the east side, are they going to complete the 'cathedral' structure at last? It's hard to tell right now, but from the designs I saw when the new project was launched, I think they might.

When the original plant opened, Mr. Termeer told reviewer Robert Campbell that he hoped the new building would be a "symbol of biotechnology," humankind's next great adventure. As it happened, Campbell wasn't buying, and instead he saw the architectural grandeur as merely mystifying. Campbell complained that the building's industrial uses are disguised by its elegant envelope, but Termeer's idea was just the opposite: to point to the ennobling possibilities in the new industry. Thousands of sufferers from Gaucher's disease will go on living because of work done in the Genzyme plant, just as pilgrims visited the original cathedrals in search of miraculous cures. 

Now that Harvard owns all the rest of that tract behind the Genzyme building--owns the building itself, with a long-term lease--there is every chance that that bold symbolic statement will come to mean much more than even the far-sighted Mr. Termeer might have predicted. Imagine stem-cell research going ahead full-speed just down the road in Stefan Behnisch's futuristically green laboratory buildings. Imagine that the rest of Harvard's new Science Complex is lit up with similar researches in biotechnology and the other sciences of our new century. The almost theological claims of the Genzymne plant's architecture--which Campbell and others called into question at the time--could be fulfilled in the new technological precincts of Harvard's Allston campus, a summum of enlightened scientific culture.  

Or not. Maybe prudence will triumph over vision, and Harvard will choose to hold on to its billions in endowment dollars, rather than invest them in fulfilling its campus idea. Maybe Termeer's monument will remain a lonely outpost of what could be. The great cathedrals took centuries to build, and the first generations never saw the fruits of their labors. But I take hope from the boldness of the Genzyme building, and look forward to the time when it stands for and points toward a renewed Allston.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What Does Allston Want?

4 February

It's been two months since the results of Allston's Needs Assessment Survey were tabulated and presented to the community. In that time Harvard has apparently lost a ton of money and made public noises reassessing its commitment to expand into Allston, while the City and the BRA have been notably silent on all aspects of Allston's future development. Meanwhile the rest of us go on living here, wondering what our city government and our Large Neighbor to the North have in store for us. Let's not forget, though--even if others might prefer to--that a year ago we were promised something grand, what Harvard's lawyers called a "major transformational project," toward which the needs assessment was a first step.  This promise was part of the community benefits agreement signed by Harvard and the City as part of the approval for the Science Complex--mitigation, that is, for the gigantic construction project unfolding on Western Ave. Whatever else Harvard builds or doesn't build in Allston, we have a right to expect that 'transformational project' to move forward.

So what will it be?  

Sorting through the mass of data collected by the survey, one theme clearly emerges: local folks want Harvard to enhance educational opportunities in our neighborhood. Much of the focus is on helping kids do well in school and prepare for college: tutoring, summer opportunities, counseling and mentoring all place high on the list of priorities. Looking more closely, you can se that other particular needs emerge: immigrants (a third of our community) want more ESL classes, seniors are looking for adult education and other services. Logically enough, people look to Harvard for a share in its educational bounty--and indeed the educational portal is already a small step in this direction.

But what about other needs? Some are routine: people want potholes filled, sidewalks repaired, snow shoveled. Maybe Harvard can help with these things, or maybe the city could do its job better. Large support is voiced for better water quality in the Charles River, though I believe this may exceed the scope even of Harvard. Better access to the river, on the other hand, is something Harvard really could help with, as it owns quite a lot of the adjacent land. 

All these wonderful thoughts about improving our neighborhood with Harvard's help soon lead to that other large process, the Community-Wide Plan (CWP) undertaken by the city last year as a counterpart to Harvard's campus planning. The CWP hasn't made a lot of progress, but in some ways the Needs Assessment offers good advice for how that CWP, designed by the BRA and supported by Harvard, could lead to substantial, timely, and essential improvements in our quality of life. Here are a few suggestions:

  • All those educational programs need not only dedicated funding but a home more substantial than the temporary portal structure. A Community Center would be truly transformative for our neighborhood just as the Honan Library was a few years ago.
  • Such a Community Center needs to be sited and planned for in the CWP process right now, so as to serve as a linch pin for other community planning. The whole point of the CWP is to take a larger view of our community's development.
  • Placed anywhere along Western Ave., the Community Center will enliven its surroundings with foot traffic and activity, and thus serve a major goal of the CWP and its parent plan the Strategic Framework: making Western Ave. into a distinguished 'boulevard' or 'main street.'
  • What makes the most sense to me, though, would be a site in between the two centers of activity at Barry's Corner and Brighton Mills, adding animation to that whole half-mile stretch. This points to Smith Field, that vast and greatly underused neighborhood asset: why not build the Community Center within or next to Smith Field, as part of a larger redesign to make the park more street-accessible and lively?
  • The Community Center/Smith Field idea points to another need highlighted by the survey: for better indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, sports programs, even a gym and pool. Imagine the synergy in a Center where kids (and adults) could go for educational enrichment and counseling, and also play sports all year round? Now the 'transformational' possibilities are hugely expanded, and we would have one of the most desirable community assets imaginable.
   There is much more that needs to be incorporated into the CWP, more to negotiate with Harvard, more to say about their campus planning. But the time to move on the Community Center is NOW, while the Science Complex is under construction, the needs assessment is fresh in our minds, and before Harvard 'forgets' its promise to our neighborhood. Siting and preparing to build such a Center will not only start to transform the neighborhood, but it could give new life to a stagnating CWP, and remind us all of the visionary possibilities we imagined years ago when this whole process began. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

the river houses and the Great Depression

2 January

The view of Harvard from Allston is above all a view of the river houses. These elegantly detailed Georgian-revival piles, with their pleasing rhythm of courtyards and gates, proclaim all that is collegiate in Harvard's identity, while their names--Eliot and Winthrop, Leverett, Lowell, Quincy, Dunster, Mather--read like an honor roll of Harvard's Anglo-American forbears. 

The river houses are lavishly praised  by historian Douglas Shand-Tucci as the "masterwork" of the famous Harvard architect Charles Coolidge. Among other virtues Tucci notes their orientation, "river facing," a quality we on the other side of the river would find especially pleasing, if only it were true. That is, the architect may well have intended the hospitable message of the open-sided courtyard fronting on the river, but in my memory the gates have always been resolutely locked. To the river-walker the river houses pose a formidable barrier, and their spear-tipped gates say 'Private property--no entrance.'

It is interesting to recall that these houses were built in the first years of the Great Depression, 1930-31. Funding came from a single donor, whose gift of $11.5 million paid for the construction. That's million, not billion--just a few weeks' worth of compensation for Harvard's high-flying fund managers in recent years as they embroiled the university's endowment in hedge funds and credit default swaps. Now, with losses accumulating and 'only' $28 billion or so left in its endowment the university has started to voice doubts whether it has the funds to carry on with its Allston projects. Such was not the thinking of President Lowell in the bottomed-out market days of 1930: he was determined to move ahead with the collegiate vision embodied in the houses, and he turned the available cash donation into brick-and-mortar (and construction jobs) in just a few years. Most would agree that Harvard became a more distinguished institution as a result. 

So as I see it the river houses suggest two great challenges for Harvard in the present time. Can the university, with its still-vast resources, go forward with its 21st-century vision, despite the unfavorable market conditions that may be with us for some time? Does Harvard still have that much courage of its convictions? And can it understand its presence and mission in such as way that this time it really will open its courtyards to the public sphere? Will the hospitable possibilities of the river houses be realized in the new Allston campus?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


1 January 2009

I just set up my crèche. Usually it goes up with the tree, but holiday travel and bustle pushed it back till now. But it's OK--we still have five days till Epiphany, or Three Kings' Day, when you really need a crèche. Five days for the shepherd to complete his idolatry and withdraw with his sheep, while the Wise Men wend their way toward stable and star. Five days to rearrange the manger scene again and again--I think some family member is changing it when I'm not looking--for maximum effect. 

As you can see, our set in a simple, minimal one, just seven human figures, four animals, and a rickety stable with star attached. The kings bear tokens of their royal gifts, the shepherd carries a lamb. The Holy Parents make a protective pair--Mary by her posture, Joseph with his staff--while the Bambino radiates out from his straw. All is as it should be, every figure in its place, flickering faintly in the light of the votive candle I have placed there. If you look closely at the figures, you see that the carver has given great expressiveness to their tiny features. They were carved by hand in olive wood in Palestine, in Bethlehem, on the West Bank.

But suddenly, as I recall this fact, I am struck by how illusory it seems, the peaceful scene represented by my crèche. How perfect it is, the continuity from year to year as the twelve days of Christmas unfold and turn into Epiphany. How perfectly the Kings arrive, right on schedule. How satisfying this whole story of babies in mangers, attended by shepherds, angels, and kings. How unlike the chaos and hatred and death that characterize the place we call the Holy Land this festival season. How poorly my crèche suggests the agony of Gaza. Or put another way, how Gaza raises its voice in witness against the complacency of my crèche, of our holiday season. How far we have wandered from the peaceable vision of the prophets, of the gospel storyteller, of the carver of my crèche.