Despite the freezing temperatures and light snow on the afternoon of Saturday, February 23rd, the grand opening of the Harvard Ed Portal in the Boston neighborhood of Allston was a lively and cheerful affair. Well over 200 people attended the event from 1-4pm, along with several members of the Harvard and local city press, with organizers and students from Harvard University mingling with families from the Allston-Brighton community.
Both Harvard President Drew Faust and Mayor of Boston Martin J. Walsh were in attendance and gave short speeches in recognition of the event. The afternoon also featured musical performances and dances by various student groups, and an enthralling lecture on the piece “The Rite of Spring” by Harvard Professor Tom Kelley from his upcoming HarvardX course. For the children, there were painting exercises, fun science experiments, and other activities led by Harvard student volunteers.
The Harvard Ed Portal is a brand new 12,000-square-foot space at the corner of Western Ave and North Harvard Street in Allston intended to serve as a community center and place of learning for the residents of Allston and Brighton. The space contains a theater space for performances as well as many smaller rooms for workshops and activities for children.
This grand unveiling was the latest in a series of efforts from a task force led by Professor Rob Lue, faculty director of the Ed Portal, to extend the many resources available at Harvard University to members of the Allston community. In total, Harvard has allotted $8.3 million towards the building of the Ed Portal and other projects aimed at the local community. Many Harvard students have also taken on roles as organizers to carry out community projects and serve as mentors to children.
At the new theater podium, speaking to a mostly standing audience, President Faust asked attendees to consider the question, “What is a Harvard? How do we think about what Harvard is?” She then went on to paint a picture of Harvard as “the unending pursuit of knowledge” and the Ed Portal as a place where the community around Harvard could take part in this pursuit as well.
Mayor Walsh echoed the question again in his speech and stated, “To me growing up, Harvard was someplace that very, very smart people went to, got a good education, and went on to do great things…went on to become presidents, and kings, and prime ministers. Today, what is a Harvard to a lot of people in this room is that Harvard is in reach of every person in this room.”
In his speech, Mayor Walsh acknowledged the sometimes-strained relationship between Harvard University and its neighboring communities as well as the city of Boston when he said, “I want to thank Harvard. I know that sometimes there’s been a bit of bickering back and forth. But this is one of the things that come out of bickering. It’s a great opportunity.” The frank statements elicited a lot of knowing chuckles and applause from the audience, many of whom were residents of the neighborhood.
The statements alluded to a long history between Harvard and Allston reaching back a quarter of a century when Harvard began buying up land in Allston across from the Charles River. While Harvard Business School and the new Innovation Lab are already in Allston, many new developments are planned as Harvard expands into the neighborhood, including a new home for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and potentially new residential spaces for students.
Many residents of Allston have been upset about this encroachment of Harvard into their community and concerned about what the continuous march of development means for them. Many have complained of how this has resulted in higher living costs for current residents, pricing many of them out of the neighborhood.
One sign of this was seen in an advertisement found outside the Ed Portal promoting the Continuum, a brand new retail and apartment complex across the street. It had the word “gentrification” scrawled across the front. It remains to be seen how Harvard’s plans will continue to change the face of Allston and its residents in the coming years. However, the Ed Portal, as Mayor Walsh stated, has been one good outcome of the tensions between the university and the city and will hopefully be a entertaining and inspiring place for the community for years to come.
My Takeaways from this experience:
Attending the event was a somewhat stressful experience, as I tried to juggle food and drinks in one hand and my phone in the other, which I was using to both record audio and take pictures. My audio quality was terrible as I couldn’t get close enough to the stage and was too close to the rooms of children. I think being an actual journalist may be difficult for me as I am by nature quite non-confrontational. Although, I imagine some credentials and a badge could make me a lot more willing to push past crowds and even try to interview folks. I did not attempt to interview anyone for this piece.
I also didn’t have time directly after the event to write up the article and so cheated and wrote it several days later (still taking up only 4 hours in total for event + writing). Trying to coordinate WordPress and images on my iPhone turned out to be extremely frustrating due to the opaqueness that is iPhoto Library app. It’s amazing to me, even as someone who does UX and usability, how much anger something like poor or purposefully obfuscated application design can elicit.