Here in New York City, we struggle with space. There is the obvious level where this is true: Our campus is hemmed in the middle of a metropolis, itself situated on a tiny island.
Our lack of space means that the registrar is the most powerful figure on campus, with the power to condemn the wretched to the sixth circle of Pupin. It also means that NoCo had to be tall and that Dodge Fitness Center had to be underground, with a weight room akin to a Tokyo subway car and a clamoring for gym space not unlike the chaos around aid deliveries in your choice of impoverished country. Thankfully, Imperator Bollinger used the magic of eminent domain to seize a healthy chunk of space just north of us, and that may make a real difference in the limitations of space on campus.
However, there is a less obvious dimension to our struggles with space that also deserves consideration. Namely, we are not very good at using or configuring space on campus, especially in a way that would promote community. The best example of such space is Low Steps. We all flock to the Steps once the weather permits. The Steps are a flexible space, acting as a meeting point—a place to do some reading, to have lunch, to meet with friends and run into friends you haven’t seen for a while. They are the natural crossroads of the campus, connecting the high campus with the low, the north with the south. In spirit, the Steps are our version of a Roman piazza, a space that serves as the heart of campus.
But that is where the similarities with a European sensibility of space end. Apart from the Steps, which seem to have unintentionally fallen into the communal pattern of usage, there is very little common space to speak of. While most residence halls have lounges, these small spaces lack the critical mass in size to be communal in a meaningful sense. Broadway’s lobby lounge is closer in size to what might be needed, but it isn’t a very pleasant space to occupy. Naturally, one might also point to Lerner as our “student center” and wonder why we the students don’t gleefully run up and down the labyrinthine ramps while encountering similarly befuddled and yet joyous friends. Well, Lerner is actually very well executed, but it isn’t used because it was designed to be an office building in function and a student center in name.
For that matter, what about Ferris Booth or John Jay Dining Hall? These spaces combine tables and food and a high probability of running into friends, so surely they could do the job? But the fact that you need to swipe in to use these spaces proves problematic because many students don’t wish to be on the meal plan. We ought to just move the swipe kiosks back to the food area and open the seating in the dining halls to general usage, but such radical thinking is unlikely to take root. The same baffling logic that means that Barnard girls can’t freely enter the spaces of a student hall likely means that the dining halls will remain verboten for the “free mealers” among us.
The closest thing we have to a student center—space that would take the dynamics of the Steps and replicate them indoors—is, perhaps perversely, the library system. What’s a more indicative characteristic of a “war on fun” or of a fascistically work-inclined student body than the admission that the library is the student space par excellence? The Reference Room, Club 209, and The Stacks are the mythologized spaces of hormone- charged casual encounters and nights spent building lasting friendships through bonds of procrastination. We go to these places hoping that they might inject our homework-filled nights with spontaneity, only to find that we get some homework done instead. Not a bad bargain, but hardly one that should constitute the bulk of communal interaction.
Among the libraries, Uris, the business school library, deserves some acclaim. As a space in which you are both permitted to eat and talk at the many large tables, it is common space with some life. But it is also horribly uninspired, with enough fluorescent lighting to make an Abu Ghraib interrogator envious. Sadly, Uris is not an undergraduate-only space, and therefore suffers from an unfulfilled destiny as the indoor venue for casual gatherings, flash dances, wince-inducing public displays of affection, earth- shatteringly banal student protests, the display of student artwork, presentation of puppies for stress relief, celebrity sightings, random acts of kindness, record-breaking consumption of coffee, and other edifying experiences both big and small.
For now, the Steps will have to do.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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