Just through the front door of the brownstone at 542 West 114th Street, strings of lights run along the walls of the room on the right, casting a warm glow through the windows and onto the sidewalk below. A print of a Gustav Klimt painting is tacked up above the fireplace, and the room is full of a hodge-podge of furniture. In this front room and throughout the brownstone, residents host club meetings and Friendsgivings, cook alongside each other in the kitchen, and chat over homework. Here, Columbia’s transfer student community has found a home. The residents trade in corridor-style living for a living room shared with neighbors who can relate to their path at Columbia. On a campus where almost every inch of space is claimed before they arrive, here is a house that has been set aside for them—but only for this year.
A brownstone gives its inhabitants a sense of ownership of the entire space, rather than just their rooms. The presence of each resident extends into common spaces, as residents spend large amounts of time outside of their singles or doubles, and individuals become invested in the well-being of their community members.
“You don't have a security guard, and so it doesn't necessarily feel like you're living on a school campus in that way,” says Elena Wood, a junior transfer student at Columbia College who currently lives in the brownstone. “And you just have more social spaces, so everyone brings their own friends home and we get to meet them.” She uses the word “home” naturally, gesturing around the brownstone’s living room and front hall.
This past fall, Columbia Housing held a selection process for the fate of the brownstone on 114th Street. It had housed Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian American-interest fraternity, until reports of hazing were filed in the fall of 2018, and, according to a brother of the fraternity, Lambda lost its housing last spring due to resulting disciplinary action. This year, the brownstone has been home to transfer students. Next fall, Casa Latina, a Special Interest Community for Latinx students, will move into the coveted brownstone.
This fall, only one brownstone was available, resulting in a competitive process that highlighted the perennial tug-of-war between vying entities for coveted space on an urban campus. This struggle is not unique to brownstone selection: We see it in study spaces, with room booking, in our dorms, in classrooms, and with Uris Hall and Manhattanville.
This brownstone—which has a maximum occupancy capacity of 74 people, 18 beds, a large kitchen, and additional gathering spaces on the first floor and basement—represents more than a building. It would allow groups to hold large, engaging events on their own terms and give them a permanent home on campus, strengthening their capacity to support their members and solidifying the group’s place—and that of their common identity or interest—as a concrete component of Columbia’s ecosystem.
A total of 19 SICs and Panhellenic organizations—both prospective and pre-existing—applied for the brownstone. SICs are groups of students united by “common identities or interests” that apply to have a shared living space. Fraternities and sororities similarly offer students the chance to connect with students, both at Columbia and across the country, through group activities and social events.
Of Columbia’s 13 SICs, only Q House, which is dedicated to LGBTQ students, has an entire brownstone as of the 2019-2020 school year. Comedy House, Muse House, Jazz House, and the Application Development Initiative reside in SIC House; the remaining eight are split between suites in Wallach Hall, River Hall, townhouses in East Campus, and SIC apartments on West 114th Street—leaving those groups without a building to call their own. Over 10 fraternities and sororities have dedicated housing neighboring campus.
Joshua Chun, a Columbia College junior and the current resident adviser for the 114th Street brownstone, recounts his experiences with the building while sitting in his single, a spacious room with high ceilings. Chun is a Lambda brother, and he applied to be the fraternity’s RA before Lambda lost the house. Despite the eviction of his fraternity, he decided to stay on anyway.
When Chun and his residents initially received the email announcing the application, he remembers that “it was slightly jarring, the fact that this space that we were sharing as this transfer student house could only exist for this year.” Chun describes how the transfer students have become attached to the brownstone, and the thought of losing a space that they have made their own is disheartening.
Wood found that the transfer community at the brownstone provided much-needed support during her first semester at Columbia. “I knew it was going to be difficult [to come here as a transfer], but honestly had it not been for the community that I was living in, it would have been so much harder than I would have even anticipated,” she tells me.
I speak with Columbia College junior Asa Ferguson, another transfer student and resident, while he studies with Wood in the front room of the brownstone—a space, framed with crown molding, where residents spend time and work together. “I think that [the brownstone is] serving its purpose well,” Ferguson says, adding, “It’s nice to have other people in the same boat who are dealing with the same issues and who know the resources and sort of help solve those issues.”
Chun echoes their thoughts and mentions having discussed creating a floor of a residence hall set aside for transfer students in the future with Columbia Housing officials, but Chun isn’t sure that that option will be as successful. “I think the success of this community is very much tied to the structure and setup of a brownstone, and even just a floor of something is not nearly as conducive to community as living together in a house,” he says.
Living in an SIC or a fraternity or sorority house is different than living in a suite with friends. Milagro Chavez-Cisneros, a junior at Columbia College and the community coordinator of Casa Latina, stresses the commitment to community building required from each resident. Casa Latina is currently located in a six-person East Campus townhouse. “So it’s really got more of a family sense, in a way that is open to anyone, not just people who live in the house,” Chavez-Cisneros tells me.
Events like Casa Latina’s Bienvenida in September, Manhattan House’s Frybread Fridays, pre-professional workshops, movie and karaoke nights, Game of Thrones watch parties, brunches, and potluck dinners define the residential experience found in SICs. Events make SICs more accessible, opening up the community’s support system and resources to many students.
Both Manhattan House and Casa Latina serve communities beyond their official residents. Casa’s space is frequently used by other Latinx student organizations. “If something falls through with a room reservation, we’re always available for people to host things,” Chavez-Cisneros says.
The size of many SICs’ current locations in six- or 10-person suites limits their options. Chavez-Cisneros sees the brownstone as an opportunity to share Casa Latina with more people by increasing the number of residents and the size and number of common spaces—allowing for larger and more varied events.
“[What] we're asking for is the opportunity to get a bigger space and do better,” she says.
During the application process, Columbia Housing emphasized the importance of the brownstone serving a larger part of the student body. The “Mission and Values” section of the application asked groups to “describe how the brownstone will increase a sense of community, both for your group or the greater Columbia community” and to “explain how the group’s goals extend beyond the community.”
“Everyone kind of implicitly agrees that Manhattan House is supposed to be the center of the indigenous community at Columbia,” Abigail Hickman, a junior at Columbia College and community coordinator of Manhattan House, says. When other groups, such as the Native American Councilor Malama Hawai’i, hold meetings or events, they are often forced to go elsewhere because Manhattan House cannot house them.
“[We don’t] really have that one single common space that we can go to,” Hickman explains. “There's no Center for Native American Studies. There's no Native American faculty advisor. There's no Native American lounge. All we have is this SIC.”
In the eyes of the supporters of VegHaus, a proposed SIC for vegan students, the brownstone’s kitchen was the biggest draw, presenting the opportunity to increase accessibility to veganism and healthy eating in the Columbia community. Jacob Carmichael, a sophomore in Columbia College, is a member of Columbia Vegan Society’s executive board and took the lead on VegHaus’ application. Speaking in early November, Carmichael envisions weekly meals with vegan and allergy-friendly options, a stocked pantry for students in need, and workshops on healthy eating, all centered around the brownstone’s ample kitchen space.
In past years, groups of students have been able to apply for SIC housing in residence hall suites or in the SIC House as they become available. But this year, the application for the brownstone was the only path to becoming an SIC.
Each of the 19 applicants submitted proposals of up to 10 pages in length. Within 48 hours of the applications being submitted, five finalists were selected by the brownstone review committee, a body composed of students and administration officials. Frustration from applicants—including VegHaus, Manhattan House, and a proposed Pan-Asian SIC—led to deliberations regarding the lack of transparency and the mechanics of the process.
“Unfortunately, we found out in a little over a day that [our application] was rejected, which was also very shocking to us considering the time we spent on it,” says Chun. He was part of a group of students that applied for the brownstone to create a Pan-Asian space on campus, in order to ameliorate the loss of Lambda’s housing, which was often used as a community space by other Asian and Asian-American student organizations.
Some groups have found that they can adequately support their communities without a permanent space. The sorority Alpha Omicron Pi, one of the finalists for the brownstone, has not had its own residential space since its return to campus in 2013. Four out of the six Panhellenic sororities have brownstones; AOII is one of the two that do not. Katherine Xu, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as a former chapter president, was excited by the opportunity that the brownstone presented for hosting events such as study breaks, EMT trainings, and charity work. But she also cautions that such an opportunity comes with caveats.
“A house is also a responsibility because you have to take care of it; you have to build a community within it,” says Xu, adding, “You have to be really good denizens of it.” A brownstone requires an additional level of organization in order to maintain the building physically, to support residents, and to comply with AOII’s national organization policies specific to chapter housing.
Currently, AOII, as a Panhellenic organization, uses the brownstones of other Panhellenic sororities or books rooms on campus for its events. The sorority has over 100 active members, and full chapter meetings would exceed the brownstone’s lounge capacity; AOII would still have had to book external spaces regularly. Columbia has acknowledged the need to better facilitate room-booking: during a Columbia College Student Council meeting this fall, Vice President for Campus Services Scott Wright announced plans to increase the number of lounges designated to specific groups. Xu’s experiences suggest that organizations may be able to build a communal bond without a fixed location, but that requires a delicate reliance on booking Columbia’s facilities.
In search of building a strong community, Xu has found a silver lining to not having a physical space. She notes that members don’t take their time together for granted, and sisterhood activities are carefully planned to make the most of the spaces the sorority is able to reserve. Xu explains, “When we have chapters or sisterhood events or study hours, [they are] very meaningful activities because we took the time to book the room and plan something,”
While SICs are expressly formed as residential communities, AOII has long functioned successfully without that component and sees potential housing as an added benefit, allowing for greater flexibility, rather than an integral goal for the organization.
Nonetheless, other groups view having their own space as a necessity in order to provide members with a strong sense of support. Without dedicating physical and personnel resources to various student groups and communities, Columbia risks falling behind peer institutions.
For instance, Manhattan House is Columbia’s sole physical home for indigenous students on campus. In contrast, other schools such as Stanford University and Dartmouth College have expansive programs for indigenous students, offering on-campus cultural centers with dedicated staff, pre-orientation offerings, academic guidance and tutoring, workshops, and other programming. Both schools also have residential houses: Native American House at Dartmouth and Muwekma-Tah-Ruk at Stanford.
Admittedly, these universities, while similar to Columbia in many ways, are located in very different settings than New York; finding room for these initiatives is much easier in Hanover, New Hampshire or in Palo Alto, California than in Morningside Heights. However, regardless of the challenges the University faces, these shortcomings impact the lives of Columbia students and potentially the decisions of prospective students as well.
Some of the programming included in Manhattan House’s proposal for the brownstone focused on educating residents and the broader Columbia community through events such as lectures and workshops on Lenape culture. Hickman hoped that the space would serve as a nexus to indigenous organizations, activists, and communities throughout New York—helping to fill the lack of a cultural center.
“It [would be] like, we have this space in perpetuity and now we can build on that space even further,” says Hickman, “in a way that really sort of recognizes not just providing a safe space for indigenous students, but pushing them to excel as indigenous students as opposed to the way Columbia typically pushes students to excel just as students.”
Chavez-Cisneros somewhat echoes Hickman, emphasizing the importance for prospective students to see themselves clearly represented in Columbia’s landscape.
Describing Casa Latina’s presentation in front of the brownstone review committee, Chavez-Cisneros says she focused on how Casa Latina fills in the gaps of Columbia’s own efforts in enabling the success of Latinx students on campus. She described how the SIC helps Latinx students find their place on campus and gives them a support system to fall back on. Drawing from the results of an online survey, she shared the perspectives of Latinx students, explaining the importance of Casa Latina in their Columbia experiences.
“[Casa Latina] is the first place I felt like I was at home on campus,” reads one.
“This is the first place where I really felt comfortable being myself,” goes another.
There isn’t room for Columbia to give this kind of space to every group who wants or deserves it. Next fall, one group of students will move into the brownstone, but this spring, another group will move out.
New York is an ever-shifting, continuously expanding and contracting patchwork of people and communities, where the success of one group often relies on the loss of another. Casa Latina has a tremendous opportunity to support Latinx students and to enrich the Columbia community, but as it steps forward into a new era in the brownstone at 542 West 114th Street, many other students are standing in the wings, waiting for their turn.
Enjoy leafing through our first issue!