Boston – Fact Check

"This way to hell" – or Harvard

Eliot House, whose distinctive blue-topped tower is famous for appearances in "The Social Network" among many other films, is a residential house for students at Harvard University. It opened in 1931, when it was considered the most elite of the seven original houses.

Photo by Joseph Sohm / Alamy

Boston – Fact Check

"This way to hell" – or Harvard

As I cross the Harvard Bridge between Cambridge and Boston proper, I see the chalk graffiti: “THIS WAY TO HELL.”

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

It’s a joke, to be sure – probably a student from nearby MIT dealing with December exam fatigue – but it’s also an apt one. For Bostonians and students alike, the chasm between town and gown may well be as unbridgeable as the mythic river Styx.

Cambridge’s collegiate history, after all, is defined by this separation. James Marsden, an Oxford academic specializing in the history of educational institutions, tells me such divisions are built into the fabric of Boston itself. “The original Massachusetts Bay colonists wanted to be able to train their own ministers in a suitably Godly fashion without having to write to Cambridge [England] to send more,” he explains. “Harvard was established on the other side of the Charles so it would be easier to maintain discipline.”

Thus was this new “Cambridge” formed: sufficiently far from Boston proper that – it was hoped – its students would never venture into more illicit quarters of the city, such as the dockside, where prostitution and gambling were rife.

The town/gown divide is still palpable in Cambridge: the ultimate college town. Interspersed with the slick research buildings here are the student haunts: coffee shops, bars, nightclubs, all characterized by a particularly academic turn of mind. “Thelonious Monkfish” is a seafood restaurant-cum-jazz club; a local pub is called “Asgaard” in reference to the Norse gods.

For the better-remunerated professors, an elegantly austere restaurant across from the MIT labs calls itself “Catalyst”; its décor an array of glass-and-chrome neurons firing across the reclaimed-wood bar.

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