Before we examine how Columbia uses its space, we should first determine where exactly this space lies, where it begins and ends. In other words, I’m going to cheat a little by challenging the question instead of answering it.
To do this, let’s analyze the spectrum of definitions of Columbia’s space one might think up from most to least conservative.
One could make a valid argument that if we talk about the space of Columbia, we should talk about the main campuses from 114th to 120th between Broadway and Amsterdam. Why? Well, this area encompasses the most prominent unbroken expanse of Columbia property in Manhattan.. That’s important because the distinction between off-campus and on-campus might follow the most literal, concise delineation between Columbia and The Rest of the World, via our walls and gates. It’s a spatial issue. It also includes the largest variety of spaces, from classrooms to libraries, dormitories to dining halls.
The biggest difference between this definition and the others is how this level represents not only the spaces but also, vitally, the spaces between spaces. That these two ideas share a word seems a bit unfair, but alas we must make do with such linguistic ambiguities. We use the former notion, of constructs with inherent purpose, in this discussion with a rather utilitarian mind-set. How can Columbia put to use Hamilton as a structure beyond the academic setting? How could Columbia have better architected Lerner for students instead of bureaucracy? And so on. Personally, the latter definition interests me more, for it’s everything between the clearly defined that gives us flexibility and so opportunity. Low Steps transforms from a staircase to a beach; College Walk flip-flops from busy pathway to demonstration standoff. These examples we interact with mostly by moving through, yet they’re clearly spaces that we would all agree are Columbia spaces.
But what happens when we move one step away? When we include the dormitories, libraries, and administrative buildings that are not on the central campus? The apparent space we obviously enlarge—we’ve added more buildings to the mix, more microcosms. How about the second kind of space, the space between spaces? No longer does this definition seem so clear. When I walk from McBain to Schermerhorn, does that stretch of Broadway count as a Columbia space? The administration does not have much sway over this public property, but that doesn’t mean we don’t consider it a physical part of our school experience. I’ll remember the Thursday and Sunday Greenmarket alongside Lerner without much distinction from more institutionalized arrangements. I interact with both environmental forces, one layer of Columbia and the next.
And we again move on to staples of the community, to the places every student intimately knows. Milano, Westside, Absolute, Morton Williams. These are not Columbia spaces, you might argue. They are not provided for us. They are, perhaps you believe, incidental spaces, not ones we should consider when we muse on Columbia spaces. You might look at “Columbia” as a conditional adjective, and something qualifies only if it’s by Columbia, for Columbia, of Columbia. You might be right. To me, you’re not. I interact—this word I’ve used not infrequently, as it’s specific enough to convey a sense of relationship but vague enough to not privilege certain manners over others—with these places and have made them integral to my Columbia experience. In making the Columbia modifier subjective, I elect to take some responsibility away from the administration and carry a burden of effort, of perspective.
As my favorite architect once said: “We have to go deeper.” Keep pushing. Once we start stretching the boundaries, they don’t snap back too quickly. Morningside. Manhattan. New York City. The world.
It might sound trite, but see the exaggeration as a method to highlight an alternative way to think about the problem of our space limiting our experiences to certain patterns through the lack of a Columbia community space.
What is my space? It’s certainly the 211 square feet of my double, but it doesn’t have to be that tangible. What lies out the window is my space, too. Some colleges may have dorms with very different views—rolling green, a Frisbee-filled quad, the Forbidden Forest—but we have apartment buildings and cafes, the Hudson and Morningside, a metropolis skyline. This space, unlike the others, we do not own exclusively. It’s shared and not just with Columbia students. But, heck, I’ll make it mine. I own those cafes, I own that river, and I damn well own that Manhattan sunset.
Columbia’s campus lacks a true dedicated student space, and this problem the administration should fix. However, it’s not all that bad because we have instead a very unique challenge. We must learn to accept, to own, to live in what lies outside our windows. We must learn to appreciate spaces not meant for us or kept for us but for themselves. It’s a hard task. Perhaps a place some of us don’t recognize as necessary or worth the effort. But the alternative is to use the administration’s shortcoming as an excuse instead of a motivation.
Ben Rashkovich is a Columbia College sophomore. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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