Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I’m Not Licking Anything! ~or~ Columbia through Four of the Five Senses

I started this blog post by asking myself: if I were to write about Columbia University as a landscape, how would I do it? What would I say about it? As someone who traverses the uneven brick walkways every day, how would I describe it? And by extension, how could I describe it to someone who does not spend most of his or her time here? How could I explain to them the Columbia that I experience on a daily basis?

In previous posts, we have looked at Columbia through the lens of objective outsiders, or we have looked at one piece of it as one might examine a bug under a glass. But one thing that I think we have forgotten about Columbia as a place is exactly that. It is a place. Moreover, it is our place. It is, in many ways, the one thing that all of us have in common. To echo an idea that has been bandied about in discussion, Columbia University is the 4x1 city-block arena upon which all the little dramas of our lives play out.
As a place and a landscape, however, Columbia is very often neglected, unappreciated, and straight up ignored by many of its most frequent visitors: its inhabitants. Can any of us honestly say that we have taken time since ourinitial visits to really look at the campus we beat our feet upon? Do any of us ever stop and appreciate it in a Hoskins-ian sense? I propose that in order to rediscover Columbia, the place, it might be necessary to get our proverbial boots muddy.
I propose that we stop hurrying about the very important business of living our lives to take a walk about Columbia in order to simply appreciate it; to observe it and perhaps even to understand it more as a landscape and less as a backdrop. Think of me as Hoskins, and yourselves as the exclusive in-group of genteel city-dwellers weekending in a locale that is at once familiar and exotic:
It is 10 AM, and the sounds of Amsterdam are deafening to the ears. The shake and rumble of a myriad trucks and cars seems to vibrate through the very pavement. Some hiss and belch smoke as the go by. Angry beasts. Travelling up Amsterdam towards campus amidst the cacophony, one is immediately struck by the size and austerity of the brick buildings. Wearing their green caps, one might feel as though they are standing on the outside edge of a group of similarly dressed giants who are resolutely ignoring them. Taking a deep breath, however, one can smell the pleasing scent of soap, sometimes tinged with lavender, sometimes with “Mountain Spring.” It is these:

Moving on, it is possible to sense that one is walking uphill. Not because of any distinct rise in the terrain, but more of a tightening in the calf muscles. Even though it is not yet noon, the olfactory senses are assaulted by the pungent smells of spiced meat.

Food trucks are lined up daily around the periphery of campus; prohibited from selling within the gates, they vie for prominent locations on the sidewalk, sniffing around the university’s skirts.
Turning left onto College Walk, one is immediately struck by the lack of sound. It is as if simply by entering the gates, the chaos of the outside world is muted. It is quiet here. Footsteps are audible and voices seem hushed even though no one is whispering. Somewhere close to my right side, a pigeon rustles is feathers. Smells are also different here. Outside, the avenue is full of scents of laundry, cooking, gasoline, and sewage. Here, however, one can detect the crispness of the early February air.
Approach the center of campus and the scenery changes yet again. Here, one has the distinct senseof having somehow squeezed into the middle of the group of similarly dressed line-backers and gotten a glimpse of the warmth that can be found on the inside. Indeed, in the middle of campus, one can feel the sun, and the wind is somehow less bitter. Looking downwards towards Butler Library, it is easy to miss the odd circular platform lodged amidst the granite steps. According to Columbia lore, an immense bronze globe once stood upon that dais but was taken down during one of the World Wars, presumably for safety reasons. After that, it mysteriously disappeared for a few decades before resurfacing in a cornfield somewhere in Missouri. What happened to it after that is anyone’s guess.

Looking up towards Low Library, one is confronted immediately by wide steps. Your narrator happens to know for a fact that underneath those steps lies a labyrinth of tunnels, most leading between various buildings on campus, some even leading into Barnard. Some tunnels are still used today by catering staff and grounds crews. The symbolism of this reality is, I hope, not lost on anyone.
The next stop on our tour takes us up several levels of stairs and into the humanities quad. Every time I take this route I feel as though I’m exiting stage right. But going straight up the stairs by Alma Mater makes me feel too exposed. One wonders if the original designers of Columbia meant to do that.
Here, one notes that conversations are much less muted. The front doors of buildings are apparently places where people congregate, and perhaps being in the lees of the buildings allows them to speak more freely than in the wide open expanses of College Walk and The Stairs. It is darker here, too. There is less sunlight and more wind. Odd that this is where many people choose to stop and chat. Despite this however, one can hear the chirp of songbirds, and the hedges that divide the grass from the brick are pleasing to contemplate. Upon a deep breath, one can smell a whiff of the woodchips used to line the shrubbery, now many times frozen and thawed. I remember one year when manure was used to fertilize the hedges. It has hasn’t happened again since.
Moving deeper into the belly of the beast, one approaches a freeway of sorts, complete with rest stops and on/off ramps. In between classes, this thoroughfare is congested, and bodies are easily jostled along the way between here and there. It is rush hour without the cars.
The social sciences quad always makes me feel as though I’m in a well, and despite the attempt at a cheerful sitting area in the center of the brick-lined basin, one is never quite comfortable enough to linger here long. Perhaps it is the lack of sunlight, or the distinctly decrepit façade of Fayerweather hall; perhaps it is that the sitting area seems forced, but here, more so than anywhere else on campus, Columbia seems to loom.
The apex of our tour takes us into the engineering quad, a part of the Columbia landscape that always seems to me a sort of afterthought, despite the presence of the newest and most advanced buildings on campus. Perhaps it is because no matter where you are, you are always staring at the ugly backside of Uris, or perhaps it is that the constant hum of the generators required to heat and cool the laboratories makes one feel as though one has wandered into the boiler room. Listening to the bustle around me, I can’t help but feel as though I’m not the only one who thinks these. Gone are the distinct footfalls heard on College Walk; instead, feet shuffle, the sound of sneaker soles rubbing over stone a diametric opposite of the click, click, click, of high heels. Perhaps this reveals the differences between the types of people who frequent the engineering quad versus the humanities and social sciences quads. I won’t presume to pass judgment here.
One can never miss the entrance to the gym. It smells gym-y. A mixture of sweat and chlorine that, aptly, I’ve always thought, emanates from the yawning maw that is the entrance to the Doge Fitness Center.
Despite knowing that the gym was constructed underground in the interest of maximizing space, the image of Columbia placing the mental on top and shoving the physical down below is never far from my mind whenever I come here.
The final stop on our tour takes us out the other side of College Walk, spilling us unto Broadway, which despite being only several hundred meters from Amsterdam, could not be more different. Here the first smell that greets you is of roasted peanuts, coated in sugar and welcoming even on the worst of days. Here, the smoke-belching, hissing delivery trucks are gone, replaced by the sharp chattering of taxis and car-horns. Instead of solemn office-buildings and hospitals, the facades of buildings are packed with storefronts. Instead of hospital staff, Columbia B&G, and the occasional harried graduate student, it seems all of Columbia’s student body are gathered. Broadway is the boisterous, extroverted, and boastful cousin of Amsterdam’s head-down, working-man.

Thus, a picture of Columbia emerges from our little walkabout. One that portrays our place as one that is at once immediately and powerfully visually cohesive, and yet containing so many nuances and points of disunity that it is almost impossible to paint in broad strokes. What I hope I have done here, with this lengthy and rambling post, is reintroduced you to the landscape upon which you live your lives, and encouraged to go, yourselves, and look at your Columbia with an appreciation for all the good, and the bad, that it dishes out. Columbia is not just a stage upon which we happened to land for the present moment in our lives, nor is it a static entity that will never change. The appreciation one can glean from viewing the Columbia landscape is one that, based on our understanding of landscapes so far, is undergoing changes as we speak, because of us. Who knows what it will look like after we are gone.


Daniel Molina said...

Great images. Although I acknowledge the need to connect with my stone surroundings I still find myself with blinders on going from one destination to another with little interaction. But when I do I admit, I rename them for my sake of - we'll say conquering the exploration.

One example being the "Plastic Bubble" - got a coffee before class last week and sat in a plastic bubble.

Alison said...

I find this a great way to think about the other attributes of space, besides the purely visual. I recently heard a discussion, as well, about sound and measuring sound in space archaeologically that brought to the foreground the fact that sound is really effected by things like temperature, air/wind resistance, etc - so the way sounds are experienced across campus may be dramatically changed depending on whether the space is full of a crowd of bodies or relatively empty. Likewise, a hot summer day with no breeze may sound different than a cold, windy day. Interesting thoughts!