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All Roads Lead to Harvard Square

ON the Charles River upstream from Boston, there was, in historical days, the village of New Town. John Harvard came along with some other worthies and not only started up a college, but he changed the name of the place to Cambridge. Sixteen thirty-six, a very good year to buy real estate. These days in Cambridge, there is a subway stop called Harvard Square. It is a busy stop, surrounded by camera stores, restaurants (hot dogs to haute cuisine, pay your choice), ice cream (winter and summer), places to have your shoes fixed, machines for money, movies (it is believed that ``Casablanca'' has played more than 10,000 times), jeans at glittery boutiques, even tweeds in men's shops that still feel a bit like those of John F. Kennedy's undergrad days. You can have anything photocopied or fax'd, you can try to find an apartment at a real estate office, have an architect design your dream house, or maybe mosey around the hardware store. Software and CDs, flowers, and bookshelves and books to fill them, helped out by 25 bookstores. The place is the school store gone big time, an academic indoor and outdoor mall - one great collective photo opportunity.

Encircling all this is John Harvard's university, with its Business School, Radcliffe College with its Schlesinger Library, and the Charles River. Enjoying this neighborhood are some 17,500 students paying rapt attention to some 3,500 teachers. Filling in the spaces between the automobiles and the bicycles are the residents of Cambridge, plus a few million tourists.

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John Harvard probably never met Goodwife Emerson, but she knew about him all right. She was a lady briefly recorded in yellowed town records, who lived on a farm near what is now the Brattle Theater. Her reaction to higher education had mostly to do with her cow yard. The boys, and history must record that they were Harvard Boys, let Goodwife Emerson's cows out. Out of the cow yard. Moonlight prank, nothing serious, but the good Goodwife was closer to the Old Testament than many people today, and hellfire and brimstone threatened the boys and Harvard College - even competed with any waning moonlight. Public declamation in Latin and Greek, disputations logical and philosophical, could not compete with Goodwife Emerson's indignant common sense. The old record contains only the bitter complaint, the outcome is unrecorded. Maybe the boys jumped in the Charles River and swam to Boston for safety. This is just an old Town and Gown story anyway, so they probably grew up and lived happily ever after.

Time moved on for Cambridge and Goodwife Emerson, even for George Washington who, in his day, came along, sleeping in what is now the Longfellow House, mustering his troops on the Cambridge Common. The college grew bigger - the Charles River no longer visible from Harvard Square - and the farms were pushed farther away. By Civil War days, President Lincoln's son Robert was caught smoking in Harvard Square. President Thomas Hill of Harvard wrote Robert's father all about it. Happily, Robert Lincoln grew up to become a respectable president of a respectable railroad.

History gets to be old stuff. Nowadays, we videotape things as they happen, hoping for understanding with the replay. Harvard Square is a split TV screen, its pictures sometimes in black and white, usually in color: the place as it once was, what it is, and what it is going to be.

The traditional bricks and ivy are still around, though a nice little house with peeling clapboards and dusty books, say on Athens Street, gets harder to find. The sort of place where characters out of Henry James's ``The Bostonians'' might be expected to have supper, where earnest, dedicated - even radical-dilettantes and professors would dispute and proclaim in Latin and Greek.

But recently a young man with orange hair and a turquoise necklace helped a little Cambridge lady across the street. She admired his hair. In the Square, they hand out tracts about the environment and human rights and oil spills and ethics and Reebok shoe sales.

Down by the Charles River the water is cleaner than in past years, the rowers precise, the trees in spring very like those Goodwife Emerson admired from her cow yard. Theme music for the split screen is supplied by voices from all over the world - India and China and Nigeria and Australia, even the homeland of John Harvard.

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