Blue Notes, Orientation 2015
Updated: Jul 24
A full loop on the shuttle from Columbia’s Morningside campus to the Medical School and back will take you past five different McDonald’s, two Empanadas Monumentals, New York City’s Only Active Mausoleum, six hipster coffee shops, including a bar that serves peanut butter burgers and avocado fries, Fairway Market, 8000 bodegas, Columbia’s incipient Manhattanville campus (“MEN AT WORK”), City College, Hamilton Pharmacy, Hamilton Pharmacy Inc, and six Chinese takeout places named First Choice Chinese Food.
The 166th St. CUMC stop is located almost directly across from the Audubon ballroom, now the Columbia-owned Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building, where Malcolm X was shot. The shuttle also makes stops at lesser known Broadway-flanking Columbia buildings, including Studebaker and Nash, as well as the McDonald’s on 125th, and Harlem Hospital on 135th and Lenox.
One evening this summer, walking past 166th St at roughly 6:04 p.m., I saw a man wearing a chainmail thong and carrying a wand with a heart at the end screaming at the impressively poker-faced line of people assembled at the stop at to take their clothes off and “burn them. Burn them!” and it was the best thing I have ever seen. The shuttle timetable reports that getting from the 116th to the 166th makeshift summer stop is a full 30 minutes, which is about twice the time the same trip would take on the uptown 1. The shuttle, presumably, allows you to avoid such sights.
The CUMC shuttle looks and feels deceptively like regular MTA buses, except for its blockier shape. But the general public is not meant to use them. According to the transportation website, effective April 2012, all shuttle buses were “outfitted with a SmartTrack: Passenger Intelligence Rider Count System” which allows Columbia to “ensure that access to the shuttle bus is limited to only the intended ridership,” which is people who have taken General Chemistry.
At a meeting last year about ethnicity, race and justice, students from the the Mailman School of Public Health reportedly voiced their request for the school to be closer in proximity to the main campus, presumably so they would never have to take the shuttle again.
As Columbia students meander the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, most are unaware that they are stepping on the turf of one regal creature – Phil the white peafowl, named for Phillip Foote, the former head of The Cathedral School. Phil reigns majestic over the grounds, moseying around on his talons and showing off his feathers, which span about a meter and a half once extended.
Phil joined the Cathedral grounds shortly after his brothers Jim and Harry, blue male peafowls who came to Morningside Heights in 2002. Columbians will spot the three brothers most often in the spring around finals time, when they feel free to roam the grounds in the warmer weather amidst primal screams.
Unlike his brothers, who prefer to keep a low profile, Phil has a large social media presence with a Youtube channel (expect peacock noises and footage of Phil as Christmas music plays in the background) and a Twitter account (@CathedralPhil), at which fans tweet pictures of him lounging majestically on the St. John the Divine steps, looking hungover or resisting Cathedral security, like the recalcitrant celebrity he is. “Just try and stop me,” he replies to a punter who calls him out for defecating on Cathedral grounds. Phil’s fame, though, leaves him exposed to haters – he often gets cyberbullied by the Morningside hawks, who seek refuge in the many nooks and crannies of the Cathedral building.
The Cathedral’s adoption of the three peacocks may seem unusual, but actually celebrates Christian symbolism. Ancient Greeks believed that the peafowl’s body did not decay after death, and the peacock was adopted by early Christianity as a symbol of immortality and renewal. Last year, artist Xu Bing’s mammoth Phoenix sculpture hung in the nave; created from construction debris, it likewise gestured toward themes of rebirth. The temporary installation may have garnered a lot of attention, but it didn’t ruffle Phil’s feathers. He knows whose grounds these really are.
Walking through East Campus on any given weekend night, the scene is all too familiar: music thumps from townhouse windows, punctuated by the occasional drunken yell as freshmen you’ve never seen before wait to get signed in. East Campus was not always like this. Built in 1982, the dorm was long considered Columbia’s most luxurious – so much so, in fact, that the building has played host to both university guests and faculty in its three-plus decade history.
The “East Campus Hotel,” as it was called, occupied the sixth floor of EC and provided a comfortable and affordable place for speakers, parents, and visiting professors to stay during their time at Columbia. A 2006 Blue and White review likened the 295 square feet rooms to “expensive Holiday Inn rooms, crammed between floors of partygoers.” Prior to the opening of the EC Hotel, speakers were housed at hotels off university property, where they “went wild… running up large hotel bills.” The opening of the hotel (the first guest was 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson) provided much needed financial relief.
Even Columbia’s professors embraced East Campus. Professor Robert Gross, dean of Columbia’s engineering school from 1981-1989, chose to live in an apartment in East Campus, where he hosted his popular weekly sherry and conversation hour. But just as Dean Gross’ sherry cabinet eventually closed, so too did the doors of the East Campus Hotel. After stints in 1999 relieving a housing shortage, and in 2002 housing freshmen, the hotel was gradually repurposed. In its place came doubles for 34 students.
Now, the floor consists of a mix of second years and transfer students, with the majority of the smaller, campus facing dorms taken by sophomores and the larger, Morningside Park facing dorms given to transfer students and the floor’s RA. The only remnant of the hotel’s presence is an overlooked “hotel” designation on the EC floorplan. Then again, wading through the crowd of uninvited cruisers of a weekend night, you’d be forgiven for thinking EC is best suited to one night affairs.