A Tale of Two Worlds

Harvard employees living in Allston experience two sides of a heated debate

Having lived his whole life on the same side of North Harvard Street in Allston, former Harvard employee Robert W. Alexander takes pride in his neighborhood.

“I live with the trash, and the rats, and the students,” Alexander says. “That’s my home, and I love it.”

With a foot in both the Harvard and Allston-Brighton communities, Alexander has had a front-row seat to the drama of tensions building between his neighborhood and the University over the past year, following the decision to halt construction indefinitely on the Allston Science Complex in December.

Allston residents like Alexander, comprising roughly 5 percent of Harvard’s workforce, are caught in the middle of an ongoing debate to which they bring a more nuanced perspective due to their involvement on both sides.

“I’ve attended a lot of the Task Force meetings, you know, it’s like Harvard consultants and lawyers sit on one side of the room and the community sits on the other,” says native Allstonian Paula M. Alexander—a staff assistant at Harvard Business School who has worked at the University for over 30 years and is married to Robert.


But employees from Allston say that the professed antagonism between the two sides understates the complexity of perspectives and is unlikely to be productive.

“It’s easy for an individual to point fingers at a large institution without understanding the University’s perspective, but it may also be helpful for University planners to walk a mile in local shoes,” says one Allston employee who wished to remain anonymous to protect his relationship with his employer and neighbors.


Allston residents working for the University say in interviews with The Crimson that they have been impressed with Harvard as their employer, and many emphasize an affection for the University.

Robert Alexander notes that Harvard and Allston have coexisted for many years, and he himself first crossed paths with the University during his childhood.

Growing up next door to Harvard, he fondly remembers going to the fields surrounding Harvard Stadium to ride on a tractor with a University groundskeeper affectionately known as “Farmer Bob.”

“I’d go down there because it was beautiful,” he reminisces. “It was agrarian,” he adds, chuckling.

More recently, residents have complained that the University has shut them out of the decision-making process regarding its future expansion into the neighborhood, criticizing Harvard for abandoning the Science Complex—once hailed as a mecca of cutting-edge research—and for failing to convert Western Avenue into a vibrant “Main Street,” as promised.

But these issues are largely separate from what employees acknowledge as the tangible benefits of working for Harvard.

“I’m happy to work here—I’ve been able to support my family with this job,” Quincy House plumber Robert J. Kearney says. “Some guys on the outside [who are not employed by the University] go for months without work.”

The perks they cite range from a diverse work environment to the chance to take classes at the Harvard Extension School and certain graduate programs at a reduced cost.

With his tenth floor Holyoke Center office looking out onto Allston, Robert Breslin—an accountant and longtime resident who has been working for Harvard since he was a junior in high school—says he has enjoyed the opportunity to earn two degrees from the Extension School with University funding.

“Harvard can really offer so much,” Paula Alexander says. “Since I’ve worked here, I’ve learned here—I’ve had great opportunities and met friends from all over the world.”

At the same time, employees say they define themselves by their families, community, and neighborhood first and foremost.

“It’s my job, not who I am,” Kearney says.


“Being a member of both communities—Harvard and Allston-Brighton—one realizes that it’s very easy to make generalizations,” says one Harvard employee living in Allston.

The Allstonian viewpoint is sometimes caricatured as uniformly antagonistic toward Harvard, which employees from Allston say does not represent their perspective.

One Allston contingent has positioned itself in opposition to the University, sometimes making an affiliation with Harvard uncomfortable, says one Harvard employee.

“I have a Harvard t-shirt that I very rarely wear around town,” he says.

Several Harvard employees, speaking as Allston residents, say that they do not share the sense of “entitlement” expressed by some of their more vocal neighbors.

“A lot of people feel like Harvard owes them something—I don’t,” says Kearney, who has worked for Harvard for almost three decades.

Breslin echoes this sentiment, adding that Harvard has a certain obligation to look after the neighborhood, but that the University in this case is a landlord like any other.

And employees also acknowledge that Harvard’s presence benefits the community as a whole.

Pointing to Harvard’s contributions to Allston—such as the Harvard Allston Education Portal, which offers free enrichment opportunities in science, math, writing, and public speaking to neighborhood children—resident employees add that Harvard has provided significant community benefits, which are sometimes forgotten in the heated discussions over Allston’s future. Others note that Harvard’s development into Allston has the potential to create jobs in the area for locals.

But despite their more balanced perspectives, several Allston residents employed by Harvard say they were not immune to the disappointment following the University’s decision to halt construction on the Science Complex.

“They promised us the world, a utopia,” Robert Alexander says.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached


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