Cambridge, Mass., gets an A+

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 4:20 PM

Cambridge, Mass., may play second fiddle to the city across the river, but it’s home to Harvard, MIT and the picturesque Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Buses, bicycles and cars buzz by. Pedestrians scurry to and from the subway station. Street vendors hawk their wares.

Smack dab in the middle of all this Harvard Square activity, our tour guide asks us where we’re from.

“Kentucky.” “Vancouver.” “Beijing.”

Minneapolis,” I announce when my turn comes.

“Taiwan.” “Dublin.” “St. Paul.”

St. Paul? I’m from St. Paul, too. But no St. Paulite ever says they’re from St. Paul unless they’re in Minnesota.

Elsewhere, who knew from St. Paul until the 2008 Republican National Convention was held there?

That’s how people in Cambridge must feel, too. Who knew Cambridge until Harvard Prof. Henry Gates Jr. was arrested there by police for trying to break into his own house in 2010, or the Boston Marathon bombing suspects fled to Cambridge, killing an MIT police officer, last April?

Cambridge is to Boston what St. Paul is to Minneapolis — the smaller, less famous city across the river.

“Cambridge is well known, but credit goes to Boston,” said Michelle DeKenis, a native Cantabrigian who graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 2012. “We’re known for Harvard and MIT.”

Which is why we’re in Harvard Square — for the Hahvahd Tour, conducted by some enterprising Harvard students who sport T-shirts that reflect Bostonians’ pronunciation.

The guide will walk you around the lush green Harvard Yard, pointing out such sights as the $57,000 guard house (the most expensive structure per square foot at Harvard), the dorm where future famous roommates Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones once lived, and the oldest building on campus, dating to 1720.

The most important feature in the yard is the statue of John Harvard, third-most-photographed statue in the United States (behind the Statue of Liberty and Lincoln Memorial, both of which are much, much bigger), according to our tour guide. By the by, this statue was cast in 1884 by Daniel Chester French, who also did the Lincoln Memorial.

Not only do Harvard grads in their caps and gowns want their photos taken at the statue, but so does every tourist at one of the world’s most famous institutions of higher learning. The tradition is that if you rub the statue’s left foot, it’s good luck.

“Some people think Harvard students touch the toe for good luck on their way to exams. That is not true,” says Collin Jones, our tour guide (on his final tour, since he just graduated). “The only people who touch this toe are tourists. Students play pranks on the foot. It is not clean. If you rub the toe for good luck, please wash your hands afterward for even better luck.”

Jones also tells us that it is known as “the statue of three lies” because there are three inaccuracies about the statue. First, John Harvard, a graduate of Cambridge University in England, wasn’t the founder of the school bearing his name: He bequeathed his 400-book library and some money to the college. Second, 1638, the date on the statue of the school’s founding, is wrong: It should have been 1636. Third, the statue is not modeled after Mr. Harvard.

“All portraits of John Harvard went with the great fire of 1764,” Jones says, pointing out that no one knew what he looked like some 120 years later when the statue was cast. The model for the statue is believed to have been Harvard President Leonard Hoar or Hoar’s grandson, a Harvard student at the time, Jones explains.

The Hahvahd Tour also shows you the dorm where Mark Zuckerberg lived when he created Facebook, and Widener Library, which has the nation’s second-largest collection of books (after the Library of Congress) and a fascinating back story.

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    Cambridge, MA, home to MIT, Harvard,and the picturesque Mount Auburn Cemetery.

  • Harvard Square (above) is one of the commercials hubs of Cambridge, Mass. At right is the Stata Center at MIT, a building designed by famous architect Frank Gehry in the deconstructionist style.

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