In 2008, a graduate student described her experience walking around campus and searching for Harvard to former University President Drew G. Faust.
“She said she arrived to join the Kennedy School, and she started walking around looking for Harvard, and she couldn't find Harvard,” Faust said. “There was the College. There was the Kennedy School. There was the Law School. But where was Harvard?”
Comments like those led Faust to undertake one of the first major projects of her presidency: convening a committee tasked with fostering connection and interaction on campus. She called it the “common spaces initiative.”
In the twelve years since, the committee has transformed the physical footprint of Harvard’s campus. Its crowning achievement, completed in 2018, was the renovation of the Smith Campus Center — a building that houses administrative offices, cafes, study rooms, and a large public commons.
Before the common spaces initiative, the message to those walking through Harvard’s campus was “keep moving” and “don’t talk to anybody,” according Lizabeth A. Cohen, History professor and former co-chair of the Common Spaces Committee.
Roughly a year-and-a-half after the University completed its renovation of the Center, many of the space’s planners said it has fulfilled their vision as a place that serves both Harvard affiliates and the public.
“We’ve seen people meeting up with friends or colleagues, and others quietly studying. We’ve seen passersby enjoying a performance, others spending quality alone time, or engaging in exciting impromptu collaborations,” Tanya D. Iatridis, senior director of University planning, wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s being used exactly as we had planned and hoped.”
But the space’s status has brought challenges, too. The planners intended to create both a Harvard-focused community center and a public building open to Cambridge residents, but controversies over the treatment of non-affiliates and homeless individuals have highlighted the difficulty of striking that balance. Affiliates say the campus center has fulfilled its promise, but perhaps only for some.
Faust said the common spaces initiative was one of her first priorities as president.
“I had a sense that Harvard was very fragmented into its separate schools and separate identities and workplaces,” she said. “The notion of having a space where people could share ideas and bump into each other and benefit from the extraordinary extent of expertise and knowledge and experience that Harvard represented was a big part of what inspired this.”
To help solve that issue of fragmentation, she created a task force that suggested several projects, collectively known as the common spaces plan.
“[The plan] articulated a spine that ran through the campus from the quad all the way, really, down to the river with several sort of moments and places of intervention, where there could be interaction, where we might intervene and create spaces for people to get together to have intellectual as well as social exchange,” Cohen said.
Before renovating whole buildings, the group started small: they placed chairs in the middle of Harvard Yard. Cohen said placing the chairs in the Yard was “a crucial moment of recognizing that the campus is a kind of hybrid public-private space.”
Still, the arrival of chairs — which today cost around $381 each — also brought unexpected wrinkles.
“The chairs were actually chained down at night. There were some chairs that we put that ended up in dormitory rooms, and we had some amnesties where you could bring your chair back without any punishment,” Cohen said.
In the end, though, the chairs stayed largely in place.
“It was all these fears that really turned out not to be a problem,” she said.
After situating the chairs, the committee moved onto its capstone project: transforming the former Holyoke Center into the Smith Campus Center. The effort was always a component of the common spaces plan, but it would require extensive planning.
“The Holyoke Center was visualized as a heart but we knew that was probably way down the road,” Cohen said.
Indeed, the planning process for the Smith Campus Center included 30 public meetings, 25 focus groups, 6,000 responses to a campus-wide survey, and numerous other discussions.
“One of the things we did was have a lot of focus groups with graduate students, with undergraduates, with staff, faculty, and the overwhelming sentiment that was expressed was that, you know, there's nowhere to go,” Cohen said.
Cohen said that, throughout the planning process, the committee wanted to ensure the space fulfilled many different functions. For example, they fought to make the top floors accessible to more than just the administrators who worked there.
“We always knew that the building would have to be shared between administrative functions and this campus center,” she said. “We could have the sort of bottom three floors and then the top — we argued very hard for that top, because we felt that those views really belong to everyone.”
Cohen said a lot of consideration also went into the types of restaurants that would be invited into the campus center.
“What we did not want was for the Holyoke Center to be kind of threatening to the Square. We actually wanted to enhance the commercial success of the Square, and we argued that this will actually get people off of the campus into the Square and into the city,” she said.
Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said the renovated center has been a “tremendous benefit” to the Square. While six new restaurants in the Smith Center bring more choices to customers, Jillson said their openings have had a “minimal impact” on existing businesses.
“If anything, you know, there’s historically enough business to go around for everybody,” she explained.
Joseph Papa, manager of Mike’s Pastry on Dunster Street — which sits directly across from the Smith Center — said that any competition is “good overall” for business.
“If there’s a reason people are coming into Harvard Square, we’re really pro,” Papa said. “ I think the more businesses in Harvard Square that are thriving and are busy and have foot traffic, I just think everyone benefits from it.”
Lawrence Margulies, president of Pavement Coffeehouse, said the University’s focus on working with local businesses helped him to afford to operate in a location that would ordinarily be out of reach. Pavement occupies a space toward the front of the Center often trafficked by both students and tourists, though Margulies said the former group comprises the largest share of his customer base.
“They really helped put us in a place that we normally wouldn't have been able to attain in terms of what Harvard Square rents are going for. They really looked to only work with small local businesses inside the Smith Center, as opposed to just regional or national players,” Margulies said. “They made it so we could get a foot in the door.”
Despite the campus center’s open doors, Pavement’s student-dominated customer base is perhaps no accident.
Robert Winters, a mathematics instructor at the Harvard Extension School and MIT and editor of a blog on Cambridge politics, said that, even when spaces are designated as publicly accessible, in practice, they are often underutilized by the public.
“The overwhelming majority of people will still be the affiliates,” he said. “Unless you do extensive outreach to try and draw people in, it's inevitably going to be relatively minimally used by people other than affiliates.”
“Should Harvard, for example, be really going out of their way to promote Smith Center, as well as the plaza, as a true public place? Maybe. Maybe, I mean if that's really what their vision was they probably should stick to it,” Winters said. “But it was the student center and probably, I guess in most people's view, still is and will probably remain that way, regardless of any intention.”
Some affiliates said the campus center’s rules also favor Harvard-only events, particularly those run by undergraduates. This academic year, 70 percent of room reservations in the Smith Center came from students, Julie A. Crites, director of common spaces, wrote in an email.
Graduate School of Design student Patrick C. Braga said he encountered difficulties while trying to book a space at the Smith Center for a short public concert.
“It feels like the ability for students to — especially graduate students who don't have access to all the facilities in houses — to be able to use common spaces like the Smith Center or other places on campus for events is just not at all transparent,” Braga said. “And that opacity makes it really difficult to make things happen on campus.”
“I didn't feel very satisfied with the process for using the Smith Center as a space for a public event, in part because it's kind of the one building on campus that very deliberately tries not to be stuck just within one school,” he added.
In an emailed statement responding to Braga’s criticism, University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke said the common spaces office is committed to opening its spaces up for a variety of purposes.
“The office recognizes that students or groups often come together for short-term or even one-time projects, and as such has begun looking at potentially refining the requirements for booking space across campus,” she wrote.
While the Smith Campus Center opens its doors to people from all backgrounds, building staff still reserve the right to enforce certain expectations.
As noted in a building user guide on Harvard’s website for its common spaces, campus center staff enforce certain guidelines that help create “comfortable, convivial gathering spaces” for students, faculty, academic personnel, staff, and visitors alike.
These guidelines include keeping noise to appropriate levels, sharing the space and facilities, cleaning up, and staying awake. Prohibited activities include drug use, playing music on personal speakers, and solicitation.
When visitors do not meet these expectations, security guards may step in or report them to the Harvard University Police Department — which assigns officers to patrol the common spaces during operating hours.
Since the reopening of the Smith Center, HUPD officers are often dispatched to the building to respond to reports of “unwanted guests,” according to the department’s public crime log.
In the winter months, these reports frequently involve violations of the building's no-sleeping policy — a policy that has drawn criticism from witnesses. Security guards and HUPD officers often wake up homeless visitors and others who fall asleep in the campus center.
HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano highlighted that the department’s priority is responding to “inappropriate or illegal behavior” committed on campus, regardless of an individual’s background.
“Although some of the complaints have been associated with persons who self-identify as homeless, the Department is concerned about inappropriate or illegal behavior committed on campus regardless of the status or affiliation of person(s) involved,” Catalano wrote in a statement Friday. “In the event that misconduct, including sleeping in the Common Spaces, or criminal activity is reported to the HUPD, officers will respond to the location and take appropriate action.”
But one HUPD officer’s conduct in the campus center has sparked further concerns. In recent months, the Smith Center’s goal of fostering “comfortable, convivial” common spaces for all visitors has been challenged by a HUPD officer’s interactions with homeless individuals.
HUPD Officer Anthony T. Carvello — who patrolled the Center beginning in January 2020 — was criticized for his use of force in three separate trespassing arrests at the Smith Center, which all involved young homeless black men.
In September 2019, Carvello put his hand on one man’s neck during an arrest, according to video footage. The man said in an interview with The Crimson that he could not breathe when Carvello grabbed him.
Carvello wrote in a police report four months later that he used pepper spray on another man three times to make an arrest. That man said in a conversation with a HUPD sergeant after the arrest and in an interview with The Crimson that Carvello — who is white — called him a racial slur.
In February 2020, Carvello was criticized again for pushing a man onto the ground while making an arrest. Witnesses and three HUPD officers familiar with the incident said they believe Carvello used excessive force on the man.
Catalano wrote that the department reviewed these three incidents and concluded Carvello’s actions were within HUPD’s guidelines.
“For all three arrests in question there were supervisory reviews of the use of force. In all three incidents the supervisor found that the force was reasonable and within HUPD’s Policies and Guidelines,” Catalano wrote in a statement in March.
But the challenges posed by the Smith Center’s public-private status are now on hold, as the coronavirus pandemic has emptied the space entirely.
The building — which was built on principles of collaboration and engagement — has been largely devoid of visitors since the University sent most students home in mid-March and the state issued a stay-at-home advisory later that month.
Crites, the common spaces director, wrote in a statement that places like the Smith Campus Center will remain a valuable space for collaboration during these uncertain times.
“As we build the on-ramp to ‘new normal,’ and all of us grapple with the loss and grief that is part of our collective experience, spaces to gather safely will be just as important – if not more so – than before,” Crites wrote.
Faust said that difficulties with collaboration during the pandemic have changed the way people work together, and in effect, the definition of a common space.
“It seems so horrible now that we're all separated, we can't be in touch with each other, and we can't come together,” Faust said.
But when Harvard’s campus comes to life again, Faust said common spaces, and particularly the Smith Center, will become more necessary than ever before.
“I think, at its essence, a university and a college of a residential nature is about people coming together and people discovering individuals that they might not otherwise have met and interacting with them and learning from one another,” Faust said.
“I think that's what the Smith Center vision is about, and that's what I hope it will embody,” she added.
—Staff writer Charles Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @charles_xu_27.