About a week ago, my roommates-to-be and I began searching for an apartment. We started early because we’re nervous; there are five of us, and five-bedroom units are hard to come by. Now, we’d heard our fair share of horror stories, but put in this uncertain spot, we turned to the only place we knew would have properties available so early in the game: MAC Property Management. They showed us three places: a huge duplex way out of our price range by the MSI, a tiny place in the Pepperland with bedrooms so small I actually had to lie down in one of the rooms to make sure a human could sleep in it, and a seriously charming basement apartment—with loads of exposed piping, low ceilings, and an oddly placed and all together unnecessary staircase—that we ended up dubbing “the dungeon.” One of my roommates was so displeased with our “only options” that she went so far as to ask, “If we’re going to live in a shit-hole why don’t we just stay in housing?”
Easy, says I. Apartments are cheaper. We split the rent, the utilities, and we cook our own food instead of paying exorbitant prices for meals so mediocre they almost inevitably end in either a whole plate of cantaloupe or the always-edible-but-never-great slice of pizza. Plus, “the dungeon” was kind of cool. But I see her point. We’re in South Campus right now, and we’re never going to live in so new (and remarkably still so clean) a building in Hyde Park. Even for those not in a place like South, the longer you stay in housing, the (theoretically) better your rooms get.
I suppose when it comes down to it, the pragmatic appeals of off-campus vs. on-campus life seem to fall pretty evenly on both sides and just come down to matters of preference. But there’s more to it than that. The post-second-year housing exodus is—while by no means universal—fairly common practice on campus. There’s something else at work that’s drawing people to apartment life.
A friend of mine once described living off-campus as being “ambiguously cool.” When I pressed him on why, he understandably said he didn’t know—that’s what made it ambiguous. But it seems to be a sentiment held widely here. I certainly share it; why else would I be excited at the thought of trading in the 8th floor panoramic view of the South Side from my South Campus apartment to live among the pipes in the basement of an old building on East 54th Street? There’s a definite allure even when “the dungeon” is your closest livable option, and that allure is independence.
Well, another degree of independence. To be fair, in college you’re never quite independent. I mean, if I literally never ate I might be able to pay Hyde Park rent on my 15 hour-a-week work-study salary. But then I’d be dead. So the fact of the matter is my parents will be paying for my housing here, on-campus or off. Regardless, in an apartment, you’re obviously more on your own. You might be able to decide where to go, what to eat, and what to do with your time when you start dorm life, but at the end of the day? Your bathroom gets cleaned for you, there’s food waiting for you in the dining hall, and if you get into a spat with your roommate, your RH can help sort it out.
I got a taste of living off-campus this past summer when I worked in Hyde Park and stayed in a sublet apartment at 57th Street and Blackstone Avenue. Sure, some days I had a can of beans for dinner, but it’s these things, these little responsibilities of upkeep and compromise that apartment life forces on you that make you grow in tiny, seemingly insignificant ways that prepare you for the “real world” in a way a dorm (and as some pessimists might argue, the rest of this college) just can’t. It’s for those reasons that, despite all the cries to put more effort into student life and try to retain more students in housing, I’d urge people to move off. UChicago is often called “a bubble,” and in many ways it is. But it’s still an urban school and there’s this tiny extra bit of life preparation urban schools can offer with off-campus housing that other schools just can’t.
In the end, my roommate-to-be wasn’t so disenchanted with the whole idea of moving off-campus. It was all the mild irritation of the moment. She believes about as strongly as I do in the merits of living on your own; we’re just looking for a lease six months in advance and all the not-dungeons are currently occupied. And while I do encourage people to move off campus, it’s obviously not for everyone. But, if you’re on the fence about moving off because you don’t like your options (I once overheard someone in a café describe MAC as “old-timey slum-lords.” Their words, not mine.), consider the practical gap in your education it can help fill in, and the valuable opportunity off-campus housing offers beyond its “ambiguously cool” vibe: the opportunity to let go of dorm hand-holding and to, well, clean up after your own mistakes. Also, if you know of anybody moving out of a five-bedroom apartment, let me know. I’d really appreciate it.
Joe Cronin is a second-year in the College majoring in anthropology.