Summer Musings: A nearsighted reflection on slated renovations

Times of change may bring long-run benefits for the University, but those immediately present are left to reconcile the remains of what they once thought was home.

By Kristin Lin

I lived in Pierce my first year. I am also a fan of Hallowed Grounds. In most cases, the places you live for a year and buy your coffee don’t tell much of a story. But this past year, I have learned of the changes that these two locations will be undergoing. And though I am not a frequent customer of Hallowed Grounds, when I read that a part of the coffee shop will be repurposed as an office for ORCSA, I felt something strangely similar to when I found out about Pierce’s closure.

The announcement of Pierce’s closing came shortly after my initial acquaintance with the building. Even then, however, I sensed that a place on campus important to me was being taken away—which, for someone as unsettled as I felt, is like saying that the only friend you have made at school is moving away at the end of the year. Where are you supposed to turn when that happens?

But if I have learned anything in college, it’s that home is, in the end, in people, not in a place. When I return to campus this fall, I’m confident I’ll still feel at home, even though the corner of 55th and University will be a pile of rubble, haunted by the ghost of Bigwood (shout-out to Thompson House). But beneath the house reunion and spirited mealtime chatter, I also know that things won’t be the same. As superficial as it sounds, physical location does matter: These buildings on campus are more than just slabs of rock; their floorboards are keepers of memories, their walls the bearers of the past. They matter to so many people in so many different ways.

One of the more interesting concepts I gleaned from Econ 198 was “short run versus long run” analysis. Many things—the three-year North Campus construction project, for example—can be justified by their long-run benefits. It’s easy to overlook damages incurred in the short term for the sake of a long-term goal.

I understand that this new dorm is going to do great things for UChicago. In the fall of 2016, freshly minted first-years will move their things and their lives into Campus North (plans and budget permitting) and they will have a blast in those three-story lounges. And the fact that another dorm once stood beneath their current one will mean nothing to them—at least, not on an emotional level. For me, it is only then that the scars of those who were displaced from their dorm will seem like they were worth something.

But right now that doesn’t really seem relevant, when all I can think about is how a figure of consistency and permanence in my life—yes, I am talking about a building—will cease to exist in a few weeks, and how a huge part of the familiarity that I have established toward this campus will crumble with it.

I’m definitely not trying to say that we should forgo long-term success in order to evade short-term pain. Not at all. (I mean, of all places, I am studying here, aren’t I?) But I do think it’s important to be conscious that during times of large-scale change going on right now at the University, the consistency of geographical locations matters even more than it usually does. The rooms in Reynolds, Bartlett, Crerar—they are the foundations of our sense of belonging on this campus. They are the rooms that have helped preserve our student culture as it is. And it’s difficult to see a place that you care about be changed for the sake of some future kid’s happiness, or for an institution’s success. Basically, I’m trying to say that sometimes, change totally sucks, especially for those who are stuck witnessing it.

Some will feel this change through Hallowed Grounds, where its crucial niche on campus can be heard, seen, felt.  The way the floors creak at the entrance and the fluorescence of the refrigerators which illuminate the otherwise dim room—it all carries a sense of history and tradition that the steel and glass of Mansueto or South Campus just don’t have yet. That coffee shop is where generations of students have joked with their friends and pondered about their classes and dreamed about their futures.

Notice that none of this really has to do with the coffee.  Forget the coffee. If ORCSA takes over a part of Hallowed Grounds, it will be taking away a place that many consider a part of their home on campus. Whether this will be for better or for worse is not really the point—at least, not now. The point is this: regardless of the overarching intentions driving the change, when our physical anchors to a place disappear, so does a sense of emotional connection with it. And it’s this emotional connection that makes UChicago not only a school, but also a home.

Kristin is a second-year in the College. Summer Musings is a new Viewpoints blog that publishes every Tuesday and Friday through September 27th.