Magazine Preview: Geography Is Destiny
Written by Bwog Staff
Though the process for selecting next year’s housing begins in earnest next week, students who are part of special interest communities already know where they will be living this fall. Those locations—whether they be brownstones or a singles in Wien—play a large role in determining the lifecycles of these student groups, for in special interest communities, you are where you live.
Months before the housing lottery rewarded some with East Campus and consigned others to the McBain shaft, the fates of two student communities were sealed.
For Greenborough, a special interest community (SIC) created to focus on environmental issues, a bright future lay ahead—January brought news that the university’s Housing administrators had granted the group use of a spacious brownstone on 114th Street for the following academic year. But, for the writers of 114 Rue de Fleurus, January was not so lucky—the collaborative writing community learned that month of their assignment to a cramped corner of Wein’s second floor. Not all SICs are created equal, it seems.
These night-and-day housing placements aren’t unusual to anyone who has ever tried to navigate the special interest communities program. Begun roughly 10 years ago, SICs were created “in large part to provide a unique residential experience for a group with a shared identity or common interest,” said Kristen Sylvester, an associate dean in the Office of Student Affairs. But, though the program itself is here to stay, individual communities have distinctly fluid existences—in practical terms, this means Housing must make building assignments weighted by their evaluation of the group’s ability to sustain itself over coming years.
“Sometimes, there’s a particular time in the Columbia community when there’s a really passionate group of students and they think the SIC program may be able to fill a gap on campus,” said Sylvester. “Other times, there’s not a need on campus if those outlets are being provided elsewhere.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, then, the oldest existing SICs are also the best-housed. Potluck House calls a 114th Street brownstone home, a prime space to carry out its mission of bonding over good food and good talk. The vegan residents of Metta House live in a plum East Campus townhouse, where they can more easily maintain a strictly vegan kitchen area. The LGBT issues-focused Q House is located in a coveted Ruggles suite, and the list goes on.
Less-than-stellar accommodations, meanwhile, seem to be the hallmark of the less-than-successful SICs. A row of singles in Broadway housed the now-defunct Urban Economics Perspectives, and Third Culture Alliance spent a year stuffed into a top corner suite of Claremont before disbanding. Similarly, Art House existed for only year in the Wallach suite across the hall from the Dean of Residence, a location that made it difficult for members to be as artistic as they would have liked. “A lot of us would practice instruments there, and we were also attuned to potentially annoying the Dean of Residence,” said Robyn Burgess, CC ’10. “We were never called out as a nuisance, but we got the feeling we shouldn’t be doing that there.”
114 Rue de Fleurus, though not yet extinct, is hoping to avoid a similar fate. With a single-stall bathroom for eight residents, its current home is humble by most campus standards, to say nothing of the garbage chute extending through the suite and a pillar that awkwardly divides the common area. The low point, the residents speculate, was the November dinner they hosted for Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate and Columbia faculty member. Feasting with a literary giant on homemade quiche and cookies, the writers were forced to cram a dining room table into their largest single.
Cristen Scully-Kromm, assistant dean for Community Development & Residential Programs, acknowledges that “limits to budgets and space” curb the numbers of SICs approved and determine where they’re placed. Kristen Sylvester adds that the Office works closely with Housing to “support the communities programmatically” while still “taking into consideration the needs and desires of the general student population and keeping in mind the general housing lottery.” The balance is a precarious one, allowing communities like the newly approved Middle Eastern Cultural Appreciation House (MECAH)—the only SIC approved for the 2010-2011 school year – to land two palatial suites in Claremont.
Just across Broadway, Barnard’s Special Interest Housing Suites are not meant to be as qualitatively distinct as those at Columbia. Instead, these suites are intended to “support programming in the residence hall community as opposed to acting as a discrete, separate living unit the way that some of the groups may be at Columbia” explained Matt Kingston, associate director of Residential Life and Housing. Freed from finding their groups a distinct home, last year Barnard approved a more eclectic group of communities: Music House, CG Chefs, Science House, Recess, GALS (Globally Aware Ladies), and Food Fight.
Beyond a proposed SIC’s potential for longevity, the Columbia Office of Residential Programs also seems to weight its approvals in favor of groups with political leanings or identity bases. Narine Atamian, CC’12 and MECAH’s coordinator, sees the private, “safe space” afforded by the house’s suites as instrumental to the sensitive, politically-charged events they hope to host. “We want to create a safe space to express personal opinions, and having an intimate location—specifically kitchen space—is important,” said Atamian. “Food is really important in Middle Eastern cultures, and we want to both honor and be able to explore that aspect.”
Liz Allocco, CC ’11, Greenborough’s Coordinator, affirmed that the trendiness of going green may have also appealed to Housing during the SIC application process. “To try to get the administration more into it, we said we’d be leading the Ivy League schools in environmentally conscious housing,” she said. “We told them it’d be a wonderful way to show commitment to Green NYC. We tried to play to their pride a little bit.”
The lack of a political mission or identity basis may have been what most hurt 114 Rue de Fleurus when building assignments were made at the beginning of last spring. “A lot of the SICs are ‘safe spaces,’” said Erica Weaver, CC ’12 and house coordinator. “Writers don’t really need a safe space so it’s a little different for us.”
Still, the writers did not concede to their residential fate. A campaign begun last fall by the house sought to convince Housing to assign them a new, larger space for next year. “Whenever we had an event, we would write Housing a message,” said Weaver. “Every week, we’d try to figure out if we could reserve a space for workshop so we could have more people from the community come. I think Housing recognized that we weren’t in the best space.”
And the writers won. Beginning next fall, they will take over the sunnier, more spacious rooms on Harmony Hall’s second floor, where a true common area will allow them to hold more events and host writers with dignity. The new home may be no brownstone or East Campus townhouse, but with this better location, the writers of 114 Rue de Fleurus might have done more than secure the future of their SIC—they might have just proved that you can change your own fate.