Friday, July 12, 2024

Employees of the Agassiz Baldwin Community – who do not live or vote in our neighborhood – have seized control of an essential process to review and decide our neighborhood name. Some residents prefer that our long-standing neighborhood name be left alone; others want it changed. The relevant paid staff uniformly favor change and have set up a deeply biased selection process.

There are many possibilities for a new name, including but not limited to: The North of Harvard Neighborhood; Oxford Street/Francis Avenue; Harvard and Lesley; Harvard Grad Schools; Baldwin School; William James; Maria Baldwin’s; Julia Childs’; Edith Lesley’s; General Artemas Ward’s; Revolutionary War Headquarters; Old Cedar Swamp; Agassiz-Baldwin; or Agassiz Family.

Fortunately, our residents are already familiar, in their election voting booths, with voting for many candidates with their own vote counting eventually for one only choice: It’s our ranked-choice proportional representation ballot. Instead of just being able to vote for one candidate (where your favorite might well lose), you can rank as many as you find palatable and your vote counts even if your top favorites are eliminated.

Instead of this familiar ballot, the staff has initiated merely an online “consumer survey,” announced by flyers hand distributed throughout the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this “pick up a flyer and vote online” approach has many flaws:

  • The recipients of the flyer may not live and vote in this neighborhood for municipal, state or federal elections, but can still vote about a name change.
  • The flyer and associated website did not contain other, nominated name choices.
  • If a recipient selects a box saying they do not want the name changed, they can’t then check nominated names they would prefer if their “Agassiz” choice loses – the opposite of our proven proportional representation voting.
  • The explanatory website contains the views of other council members but deletes mine, probably because the paid staff disagrees with me.

As a history nut, my own perhaps idiosyncratic view is as follows: Louis Agassiz was the son of a devout minister in Switzerland, where there was little ethnic diversity. Out of his respect for God’s creation, Agassiz had himself lowered by rope deep into mountain crevasses and discovered a key feature of geology: ice ages. He collected countless species of animals and plants and became a popular, internationally famous lecturer.

Because of that fame, he was invited to teach in America, including at an institute affiliated with Harvard, then later formally joined the Harvard faculty, where he built a little museum to display the specimens he had collected. At that time, Harvard had no graduate schools and only a small endowment – less than half that of the nearby Andover Theological School, which educated only ministers. But Agassiz proved a superb fundraiser, traveling across the country to fundraise. Agassiz helped Harvard College triple its endowment and become a university and helped found Cornell as a place “where any person can find instruction in any study.”

When in Pennsylvania, he saw his first black person, a waiter. He thought he had discovered another species! He became an abolitionist and did not support slavery. But his creationist theology led him see God at work always and everywhere, creating new species. He disagreed with Harvard’s Asa Gray: He did not believe in evolution.

His wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, believed in college education for women (which Harvard’s then president opposed). So she set up in their home a “Harvard Annex” for women where Harvard professors repeated their lectures, at her husband’s urging. Eventually, she and some friends persuaded Harvard to grant these women a college degree; she became the first president of Radcliffe.

Their son, Alexander Agassiz, learned to explore caves as his father had done and explored an abandoned coal mine in the Midwest that he saw contained copper. He bought it and soon was supplying half of the country’s copper. From those riches, he expanded his father’s museum eight times over; its entrance hall honors Alexander, not Louis.

Recently, Harvard kindly informed me of its eventual plan to move this huge museum to Allston, so the crowded (and richly endowed) engineering school across the street can expand there. If the neighborhood unites again, I think we can stop this by threatening to persuade the City Council to use eminent domain. Our city could then lease the building back to Harvard for museum-only purposes. If Harvard refuses that, it could be a terrific huge complex to have our police and firefighters, City Hall staff, health care workers and clergy live here instead of commuting.

But if Agassiz voters totally remove that name, Harvard could then reply, “You didn’t care about the Agassiz family. Why should we?” I feel that would be a hard argument to counter!

Therefore, I urge the city to disregard this arbitrary and biased survey and put our choice of name to a customary neighborhood-citizen ranked choice vote. If election commissioners won’t cooperate, city staff can ask Robert Winters to loan his own proportional representation voting software and can count the votes impartially.

For all these reasons, I recommend either keeping the name as is or changing it to The Agassiz Family Neighborhood, which would honor all three members of this distinguished family, without whom Harvard and our unique little neighborhood would not have been the same.

Fred Meyer, Hammond Street

Fred Meyer has been an Agassiz neighborhood resident since 1959.