People care about public spaces, and maybe nowhere as much as in New York. Columbia’s most prominent public space, and definitely its most photographed, is the Low Steps.
Where other universities might have wide open spaces and vast lawns, Columbia students perch, like the characters of Gossip Girl on the steps of the Met, on a cold stone stairway. By day, the steps double as “Low Beach”—you can find people sunning themselves, hunching over their laptops, or eating their favorite Sweetgreen salad next to Alma Mater.
But what about at nighttime? Whenever I’m out on the weekends, I always see clusters of people sitting on the steps, huddled together against the breeze from College Walk. I’ve been those people a few times; once, after a brutal Latin class (it ends at 8 pm!), I had to go and meditate for a little while.
What I wanted to learn, though, was why people regularly chose Low Steps as their late-night place of congregation. So, having completed two of my three midterms and armed with nothing other than a pen and notepad, I left my dorm at 11:30 pm to get some answers.
At first, I was pretty shy. I wasn’t quite sure how to approach people who were so engaged in their own private conversations, so I sat with my back against one of the Ionic columns and looked down at the campus below. A girl and her friend were posing on the sundial. A group of boys were tossing a football around on South Lawn. Why? I thought. Why are you doing this? Why aren’t we all asleep right now? Most people on the steps proper were in pairs, or small groups. I was cold, and Camila Cabello’s song “Havana” was stuck in my head. I began concocting some angsty, Columbia sadboi spin on this story: “as I sit on Low Steps, Alma Mater’s back turned to me, I wonder if New York exacerbates or merely confirms the essential loneliness of humanity,” et cetera.
Someone dropped a plastic cup off of their perch by the lamppost—it rolled by three girls in matching pastel dresses, black jackets, and high heels, who were holding each other up as they crossed the cobblestones.
I still hadn’t talked to anyone, so I texted a friend to come join me. She arrived sporting a tragic new dye job on her hair (it’ll wash out soon, honey!) and carrying a bottle of whiskey-spiked Coca-Cola. We chatted for a while, until we were suddenly kicked off of the upper steps at midnight by a security guard. He moved horizontally along the bottom step, yelling to each group that we had to move immediately. We relocated beneath the watchful gaze of Alma, where I filled my friend in on the new Taylor Swift single (verdict: eh) before she decided to go to bed. It was now about half past midnight, and even more people had appeared on the steps. As my friend walked away, I steeled myself and approached a pair of girls.
One was a Barnard student, the other didn’t go to Columbia. They said that the steps were “a good place to catch up”; the Barnard student said that her architecture class had discussed how the elevation of the steps and the library proper emphasized that they were the center of Columbia’s campus. When I asked her about the first time she had come to sit on the steps, she told me that during a mandatory Barnard-Columbia NSOP activity, someone in her group had suggested going to Low to talk. In her very first week at Columbia, she found herself on the steps with a group of strangers. I asked her non-Columbian friend for her thoughts; she said, “it’s a nice wide space for your buttocks.” I couldn’t disagree.
I decided to stop bothering them and moved on to a group of about six people. I rudely inserted myself into this friend group for well over an hour, and in the process of doing so discovered what really makes Low Steps such an amazing communal space.
I can’t even begin to sketch out the rambling shape of our conversation. I began by asking them some question about the steps: why they were there, what drew them there, et cetera. A few of them had come from the Barnard production of Mary Stuart; others had gathered there via text. As I was sitting there, more people came along: one girl came with her brother who had driven down from Middlebury, while another guy showed up, hung around for the duration of time it took him to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, and then left. We talked about the couple in the group, who had known each other since high school; we complained about Lerner’s architecture (“who can do homework at a slanted desk?”); we talked about St. Vincent’s new album,Masseduction (“I put on “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and I start crying”); and three different people told the same story, Rashomon-style, about the same party, during which an argument broke out because a girl was apparently too aggressive in her desire to play Sean Paul’s song “Temperature.” Someone had brought a box of bourbon-glazed donuts; the brother from Middlebury told us about the car accident he had gotten in earlier that day; I had a remarkably civil conversation with a Spec writer where we talked about our respective publications pretty candidly.
Regarding Low Steps, someone in the group said, “There’s no place on campus that’s both practical and comfortable, so here we are.” Another one chimed in: “my ass fucking hurts right now.” So is Low just the best that students can do when it comes to communal space? They were about to answer this question when we had to pause to watch a man, cheered on by his friends, strip down to his underwear and jump in one of the fountains. He swam around for a bit before getting out and putting his tight, neon-coral pants back onto his soaking wet legs. “He’s gonna feel damp forever,” someone said. “There’s your story,” someone else said to me.
It was almost 2 AM, and it was getting colder. An unconscious group decision was made to stand up and begin going our separate ways. A few folks added me on Facebook and encouraged me to like their improv group’s page (Third Wheel Improv; I’m never one to deny people free promo). I said goodbye and headed back to my dorm.
I’ve been sitting in my dorm and reflecting on the night. Honestly, I just had a great time talking to a bunch of strangers. The fluidity of the group struck me as something particular to Low Steps; in a place that’s essentially the crossroads of campus, people can come and go, filtering in and out of group conversations. I felt totally enclosed by the community: I spoke with people whose experiences with the steps began at NSOP, and I hung out with upperclassmen who had frequenting them for years. It’s convenient, it’s centrally located, it’s iconic, and it’s lovingly watched over by Alma Mater. It could be a little more comfortable (we discussed the idea of really long cushions covering the entire staircase), but we make do.
I’m going to bed. If you have any more thoughts about the Steps, come and find me next weekend—I’ll be the guy jamming out to St. Vincent next to Alma Mater.
Photographs via Levi Cohen