Searching for Columbia’s playground
By Alexander Pines
For as long as Columbia students have been demanding recreational student space (one of Columbia’s lesser-known but long-standing traditions), these recreational spaces have been periodically constructed, chronically underused, and eventually repurposed. It’s a tragic dialectic that goes all the way back to the opening of Ferris Booth Hall in 1960.
Students entering the basement of their newly constructed student center were greeted by the clatter of bowling pins and the crack of rifles in the building’s shooting range. The space also contained a student entertainment center called The Lion’s Den that housed easily reconfigurable space for dining, lounging, and musical performances. The menu was reminiscent of JJ’s Place, featuring late-night snacks like hamburgers and pizza, and even “breaded hot dogs impaled on popsicle sticks and known as Corn Dogs,” according to a 1971 Spectator article announcing the Den’s demise.
Hopes were initially high for Ferris Booth and the recreational space it contained. A passionate Spectator editorial from a special issue dedicated to the time of the building’s opening reads: “[Ferris Booth represents] the progress toward a genuine campus community through the implementation of recreational and lounge facilities which, up to now, were sorely lacking on the Morningside campus. Booth Hall is perhaps the first and most important step toward the ultimate ideal of a true residence college.”
These hopes quickly soured. Eight years after the closing of The Lion’s Den, a 1979 Spectator article insisted that Ferris Booth was not a “real student center,” calling it “pathetic” and “sterile” in an argument for renovations.
As Ferris Booth became increasingly irrelevant, students turned to “The Pub,” a bar and dining center in the basement of John Jay Hall where JJ’s Place is now. The Pub opened in 1976, but closed soon after the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1985. It later reopened to tepid reactions from students with a woodsy redesign. “Did you ever read Amityville Horror? The blood in the basement, that’s what this reminds me of,” said Eric Dawson, CC ’89, in a Spectator article about the renovations.
Part of the mission behind Alfred Lerner Hall’s construction in 1999 was to fulfil the original promise of its predecessor: a genuine student center. This promise remains unfulfilled. Many of the original, more student-focused spaces have been reprogrammed into offices or are now open to reservation by student groups instead of being available to all. Lerner used to have a darkroom on the fifth floor, a credit union, and even a travel agency.
What is now the Broadway Room used to be filled with a ramshackle assortment of pinball machines and billiards and air-hockey tables. By 2005, though, even CCSC thought it was useless and worked with the Office of Student Services to repurpose the room.
This space eventually became the target for renovations proposed by the Student Space Initiative (SSI), a group formed out of the Columbia Student Forum (an open discussion series that also spawned the Student Wellness Project) in 2011. The initiative passed a resolution through both CCSC and ESC in late 2011 that outlined the basics of a new student lounge space in Lerner Hall; requiring that the space be non-reservable, accessible to all Columbia and Barnard undergraduates, furnished and designed by members of the SSI, capable of accommodating a food provider, and more.
The SSI planned to renovate both the Broadway Room and the Lerner Piano Lounge, adding a kitchen, game consoles, and a stage to the re-furnished spaces. They even went so far as to draw up architectural plans detailing the tentative renovations to present to Columbia College Dean James Valentini and Former Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Schollenberger. “Students approached me shortly after I became dean, asking for a loungelike space that would be just for them, a ‘Pub,’ in a sense, in which students could relax, hang out and play games,” Dean Valentini said. “I told them if they designed it, I would find a place for it, and I would find the money to build it.”
Despite this administrative support, the project was stalled and the specific plans were abandoned in spring 2012 after the Activities Board at Columbia (ABC) protested, demanding that adequate space elsewhere on campus be made available for displaced performance groups that use the Broadway Room as a rehearsal and practice space. “Giving up space is giving up space. The only way [the SSI] could be truly equitable is if they open up an entirely new space,” then-ABC President Daniel Brown, CC ’12, told the Spectator.
The SSI essentially disbanded by fall 2012, in part because many of its members graduated. Functionally defunct, the SSI has been distilled into several movements focussing on smaller changes, such as adding charging stations to Lerner, better furniture for the existing lounges. Barry Weinberg, CC ’12 and a member of the SSI, expressed frustration with these efforts. “[SSI got] diluted by sort of asinine, tiny details-orientated pushes, and a lack of a grander vision,” he said. “We wanted to make Lerner a real student center—and get rid of that fucking piano.”
However, Dean Valentini insists that he still supports the cause. “I have been working on [creating leisure space] ever since [his meetings with SSI], and continue to work on it. It’s not so easy since we can’t just take space away from someone else or take money that is designated for another student program. But I think it will happen.”
Despite Dean Valentini’s optimism, he can’t bring the SSI back from the dead. Lacking the springboard of the Columbia Student Forum, all current efforts have been coordinated through the student councils. Weinberg stresses that this approach is flawed because it doesn’t have the element of openness that he feels made the project so special. “Students could really take ownership of the [SSI project]—and hopefully a space—on campus, a rarity at Columbia,” said Weinberg. “If they try to resurrect it by appointing some ‘student leaders’ or doing it through the student councils, it won’t be the same and will likely fail.”
Even if a bottom-up movement succeeds in setting aside some space for student recreation, this sort of project may be doomed. The widely despised Ferris Booth Hall was operated by a Board of Managers (BOM) staffed entirely by students. While there are obvious differences between the building and the renovations suggested by the SSI, it’s hard to believe any kind of recreational institution could overcome the Columbia Smirk, unless you can get drunk there.
In fact, there is a space on the University campus dedicated just for hanging; Barnard has the optimistically named “Fun Zone” on the first floor of Altschul Hall (nicknamed “the mancave” by Barnard blog The Nine Ways of Knowing). It’s a room with several large posters announcing “this is not a study space!” Speakers periodically play music to encourage conversation. The few students who spend time there frequently request lower volumes, however, because the noise distracts them from their homework.
A recreational center might be something we need—decades of efforts seem to demonstrate that. Yet the expectations for these spaces—that a lounge can make Lerner into a “real” student center, that charging stations improve wellness—are unrealistic on a campus with notorious levels of stress and a dearth of space. Wellness is more than a bean-bag chair. But we still want the chair.