2015 was a year for the history books: Kanye West announced his impending presidential intentions, the internet broke down about the color of a striped dress (white and gold, anyone?), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the eighth edition of their five-year Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Vassar’s beloved cafe in UpC had its last hurrah before its doors closed for the last time at midnight on Dec. 11.
Fret not students still seeking a space to simultaneously study and be social! The year has changed and so have the options. Now along with a new semester and a renewed work ethic, students have access to three new campus spaces. The Bridge Café, Kiosk Late Night and Main’s own newly-christened The Old Bookstore have all been newly renovated and opened to students looking to satisfy needs ranging from hunger to procrastination.
Of the three new areas, though, one stands out as most promising and conducive to succeed UpC’s reputation as a hub of student activity: The Old Bookstore. Dissimilar from the Bridge Café and the Kiosk Late Night in that it is not a food-selling venue, the OB (or very briefly, Low Main) still offers the capacity to be with friends any time of the day or night. There, students can conduct informal meetings, do homework, gather together to study or engage in none of the above.
Either way, though the space itself has been greatly anticipated for a long time, it may be surprising to learn that its preparation period has been even longer. Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann describes the process as long and arduous but ultimately highly fulfilling. She says, “Planning for the lower level of the College Center began at least four years ago before the move of the Bookstore to the Juliet. At that time, the VSA conducted a survey and student focus groups to gather input on the lower level and Chris Roellke and I held some open meetings for students about the space.”
Despite their efforts and initial planning, however, VSA, Roellke and Begemann met with delays during the 2014/2015 academic year. Begemann mentioned that the Biology Department needed to use the basement level during 2014/2015. She said, “During that time, we held meetings with student groups organized in part through Campus Activities, with the Campus Master Planning Committee and with others involved in the services that were being considered for the old bookstore space. As we embarked on the campus master planning process, we took time to gather information about what people wanted from the College Center.”
This process of gathering community input was not exempt to attempts to incorporate the community in more than just the conceptualization aspect of this project. As Begemann explained, the process of attaining general input for the endeavor included incorporating the ideas of faculty member in Urban Studies and Art History Tobias Armborst. As a licensed architect and teacher of architectural design here at the college with students firmly engaged in class projects related to the College Center and as leader of his firm, Interboro Partners, Armborst brought a unique understanding and engagement with the design of the lower level and the student services space on the entry level.
Both Armborst and Begemann parsimoniously explained their ideas for an accommodating and accessible space. They wanted to create an open environment that also included important college utilities. Among them are the help desk, card office, computer repair, computer store and tech training. In Begemann’s words, “These [the utilities] had been separate before and it is easier for both the providers and the users if everything happens close together in one location.”
Continuing, Begemann detailed some key issues faced as the project continued: “Due to funding restrictions, our hopes to be able to renovate the full basement were thwarted, but we were able to do a targeted renovation of the front section of the basement as well as the old SARC space and computer store on the upper level.” Despite this, Begemann and team pressed on, firm in their understanding and intent for the student space.
The team hopes the uses of the space will range from studying alone, working in groups, lounging, playing board games, hosting programs—essentially anything that students could come up with could be accommodated. Spoken word, music, comedy, art exhibits were all thought of as viable options for space utilization. Begemann illustrated the point saying, “In conversations with various student groups over the course of last year and before, it was pretty clear that the top priorities were flexibility, lots of power (notice all the outlets), good access to data and a variety of seating types.”
Though the organizational committee for this project took student concerns very seriously, they felt a balance needed to be struck with the logistical limitations to the space and budget.
Again, Begemann elucidates, “With food being another top priority, the best we could do with the funds available was to expand the Kiosk space for late night options. We also provided the vending nook and V-print in the lower level. We heard that a 24/7 study space that could be noisier than the Library would be nice.”
As far as the space remaining a haven for the more academically inclined, Begemann assures, “Opening the walls and adding the big sliding natural wood doors not only brings the outside in, but makes the space inviting and accessible. The idea with the color was to keep the space simple and use the furniture and carpet as accents. With the different furniture types, we can see what is most popular and as the space is tested and broken in, take it further in that direction. The goal was not to make a space that was over-thought, but rather a place that was simple, bright, flexible and able to be used in a variety of ways by anyone according to interest, time of day and demand.”
However, as inviting as a space may be, VSA President Ramy Abbady ’16 understood the importance of fostering a student connection to the area to create an association of familiarity.
Thus, despite its unorthodoxy, including the students in the most important and intimate aspect of the project beyond even contributing to the space’s compositional direction was critical for Abbady and the VSA Council.
Delineating the lounge’s naming process, Abbady explains, “As far as I know, buildings are often named after a donor, as is the case with Mudd, Vogelstein and Rocky. Others, like Raymond and Jewett, are named after former Vassar presidents. It is fairly nontraditional for Vassar to name spaces through the student body, though this did occur two years ago during the trial run of the late night food at the Deece (called “Deece After Dark”). That process had been done through the VP for Activities, but I wanted to make this process as democratic as possible by including all students in the naming. I sent out an email to all students asking for submissions of names. I received over 30 names, which were included on the first survey I sent out.”
Based on community input, the initial name for the space, as determined by VSA’s #NameThatSpace competition, ultimately ended up being “Low Main.” Although students probably had good intentions, this nomenclatic event has been met with its fair share of controversy.
Responding with an open letter to the student body on the name’s fall from grace into racist and non-tolerant territory, Cecilia Hoang ’18, Jonathan How Yu Chung ’18 and Anna Meaney ’18 described the fundamental issues of making light of intrinsically heavy topic: “To trivialize this [naming of the space as Low Main] is hurtful, and it is racist. This is not merely bullying nor my own ‘hypersensitivity.’ It is systematic violence against me and so many other Asian folks in this country. Realize that when you make a ‘play on words,’ you are making a joke, and too often my culture has been the punchline.”
In response to this objection, the VSA council met quickly to determine the viability of the name in relation to the current environment of student perception. After deliberation, the name was decidedly pulled from the running; in order to maintain the role of each student, however, the VSA council decided it was only fair to rerun the #NameThatSpace competition, albeit with a few minor modifications.
Abbady was questioned about why the name “Low Main” was ever accepted as a valid space name option to put on the ballot. Abbady didn’t want to interfere in the voting process. “I assumed that most Vassar students would realize the issues with it. Obviously, that didn’t end up happening. In the past, an event similar to this occurred with the trial of having the Deece open late at night. For that situation as well, students submitted names, but it was ultimately the Vice President of Student Life Chris Brown that ended up picking the name.”
Interestingly enough, in the judgment of some members of the Asian community, the punny “Low Main” was not as troublesome as perhaps student communication made it out to be. For international students, “Low Main” too struck their funny bone rather resonantly. VP of the Chinese Students Coalition, Xiaoqing Xu ’18 describes indignance as well, though for an entirely different reason. On behalf of the Chinese Students Coalition, Xu felt justified in expressing offense that Asian-Americans themselves are feeling offended about “Low Main” because they found it to be funny as well. In essence, Xu wants to explicitly define a distinction between nay-sayers and the entire population since their feelings don’t accurately represent their whole sentiment.
Regardless of initial controversy, the student body still mustered up quite a voice with their acceptance of the second round of the #NameThatSpace vote: over 1300 students voted for what is now to be known as The Old Bookstore. A nod to a remnant of Vassar’s past now reinvented, the Old Bookstore appears to be a neutrally charged alternative to the previous possibilities such as The Void, the Cappy Hill Come and Chill Lounge and others.
In the same vein of discontent and public division, initial reception of the space itself has not been too favorable either. Caleb Gruder ’17 admitted his reaction to the new lounge was that it was profoundly disappointing. Exasperatedly, he exclaimed, “This space could have been so much greater than what it is. There could have been a movie section for all the film classes or just students to screen movies, the color scheme and interior decoration are lacking and the ambiance of the area itself is the farthest thing from inviting.”
In contrast to Gruder’s view, however, the younger Chris Langer ’19 looked towards future iterations: “The space actually accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a space for students to study or socialize or maybe do both. The physical realization of the idea may seem too half-baked for some, but considering all the obstructions to the lounge’s construction in the first place, it’s not that bad. Honestly, I can see this small little period of discontent ironing out eventually and students coming to accept the space for what it is. For me, it’s still in a period of transition; I know there is going to be further improvements and additions to make the space a student mainstay in the same way UpC was.”
Cheris Congo ’19, however, was quick to detail the logistical difficulties of the space: “The area itself is not that interesting or inviting. The environment is stale and it has no redeeming qualities. You would think with such quick access to food options like the Late Night Kiosk there would be a reason for me to go, but even the Kiosk isn’t meeting expectations. At least last semester I didn’t have to wait in line forever for a smoothie prepared by someone not yet accustomed to their workspace.”
For any students even slightly dismayed with the new space, hope might be found in the plans for future renovations. As Marianne Begemann mentioned, “Ultimately, through the Campus Master Planning Process we will have a plan for the renovation of Main and the College Center holistically.” As plans continue to evolve and materialize, student input will continue to influence changes to the college’s physical structure. Future students may remember this controversy over The Old Bookstore as a teaching moment.