CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- One shudders to think what Longfellow would have made of this contretemps. The poet probably would have been discomfited, to say the least.
The fuss has died down in recent weeks, but what a row it was.
The locus of the trouble was 113 Brattle St., right next door to the Longfellow House and, at a glance, little different from the other spacious homes on this tree-lined street. A company called Creative Learning Environments bought No. 113 in late 1987 and proposed to operate the Commonwealth Day School there.
But when movers started bringing in furniture on June 24, 1988, Arthur Brooks swung into action. Brooks, an architect who lives on the other side of the school, took it upon himself to let the police know that the school lacked an occupancy permit.
Brooks didn't stop there. He called City Hall and got a cease-and-desist order. But the school received the permit, so Brooks appealed. Then, he started the petition.
The newspapers loved the petition. In fact, it it weren't for the petition, the whole matter probably never would have surfaced.
Brooks and others rounded up 230 signatures. Ostensibly, the signers said they were concerned about traffic and parking in the neighborhood.
This is not just any neighborhood, however. This is Brattle Street, proud bastion of the liberal intellectual elite, refined repository of good manners, right thinking and earnest causes. Here, the Volvo bumper stickers say "1% for Peace."
So it came as a shock when the newspapers started reporting that the petition was a racist subterfuge intended to block the educational aspirations of minority youngsters. The awkward fact was that a school had been located at No. 113 for a half-century and had been nearly all white. Now it was to be nearly all black.
This being Cambridge, something had to happen. It did.
Mayor Al Vellucci, who represents the other Cambridge -- the city of neighborhood groceries and triple-decker apartments and Portuguese bakeries -- saw his opening.
After three decades of battling Harvard on behalf of his people, Vellucci found a way to tweak the liberal intelligentsia one last time before his retirement. He appointed the director of his Human Rights Commission and four others to investigate.
Meanwhile, the school gave up and sold No. 113 Brattle to a think tank, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, to which no one objected.
Nevertheless, the mayor's commission plunged ahead, having been told to get to the bottom of things. All of this put Laurence Tribe, the distinguished Harvard Law School professor and a signer of the petition, in something of a pickle. There is a general assumption that Tribe has been on hold at Harvard, just waiting for the Democrats to win the White House again and put a right-thinking liberal on the Supreme Court.
People began to talk: How would this look? Signing a petition to chase young black schoolchildren out of his neighborhood -- horrors!
Tribe maintains that when he found out what really was going on, he tried to make amends, and he so testified to the commission last fall. He explained that he demanded his name be removed from the petition and said Brooks had misled him, talking about safety and never mentioning the racial issue.
That only made matters worse. The Boston Herald quoted one commission member as saying Tribe had been "used and psychologically coerced" into signing. Well, how would that sound in a Senate confirmation hearing? The story made it sound as if he'd been either duped or brainwashed. It just wouldn't do.
So Tribe wrote a six-page memorandum. In it, he said that he "fully accepted personal responsibility for my error in signing the petition." He wrote that he had been misled. But he made clear that he was not accusing his neighbor Brooks of deliberately misleading him.
"This entire episode should be distressing to all concerned," the constitutional scholar wrote. "If some of the things I have heard really happened, then some of the neighbors ought to be ashamed of themselves, but I do not have first-hand knowledge that would lead me to make any accusations whatever."
Tribe went on to say that he has since visited the school, which found a new location, and even offered to help raise money for a scholarship fund.
The memo was included as an appendix to the commission's report, which was finished Dec. 22 and listed 37 findings, including "disturbing evidence of what might be considered harassment of the school and its students by some neighbors." Although the school has long since moved, the affair lives on. The City Council voted to refer the matter to the state attorney general, who is reviewing it.
The commission made no attempt to discern what Longfellow might have felt were he still an abutter to No. 113. But one can just imagine. After all, Longfellow and his companions fought a Civil War to end slavery. And it was Longfellow who wrote:
Come to me, O ye children!
And whisper in my ear
What the birds and the winds are singing
In your sunny atmosphere.
For what are all our contrivings,
And the wisdom of our books,
When compared with your caresses,
And the gladness of your looks?
Ye are better than all the ballads
That ever were sung or said;
For ye are living poems,
And all the rest are dead.