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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Death and Life of Great Macalester Spaces

By Aaron Brown

After an exhausting first week back on campus, I celebrated the end of the week by curling up in the library with a book. I had picked up the recent biography of Jane Jacobs, a 1950’s urban thinker whose community organizing efforts managed to save her Washington Park neighborhood in Manhattan from the bulldozer and from becoming a new highway. Her innovative ways of chronicling, observing, and fighting for urban vitality make her a hero among us urban studies geeks; I’ve personally met people wearing “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?” wristbands and t-shirts. The book frames her life against that of Robert Moses, the urban planner who led the movement for gigantic freeways and contained a autocratic, tyrannical, dictatorship-esque zeal for urban renewal.

I took my seat in the West Gallery on the second floor of the Library and began reading. As I read, my gaze inadvertantly moved towards the new Marvin Plaza, surprisingly empty on a wonderful late-summer afternoon, lying just outside the window. Robert Moses himself would be proud with the exacting manner in which Marvin Plaza was built; during the summer, a set of fences inadvertently appeared, a space on campus was torn down, trees removed, and an expensive new space was introduced to the Macalester community without significant consultation.

This is not to say that Marvin Plaza is not a welcome addition to the community. Nor am I trying to say that an investment in revamping this pivotal location on our campus was a bad idea. In some regards, “the Marv'” is actually pretty cool; it gives an alum a reason to donate a ton of money to the school, it was constructed with some newfangled ecobricks that reduce storm water runoff, and there’s an extra set of bike racks. Rather, my concerns with this new plaza lie with what this says about student participation in the design of the physical form of the public spaces we in the Macalester community inhabit.

Sadly, this is only the latest in a series of campus construction projects that seem to have slipped by without much consultation with students. Macalester, as an institution, seems to be on the move. This summer Macalester opened the doors to the Institute for Global Citizenship, which admittedly has its own student council and a few dedicated students involved with the process, but rankles many who STILL wonder just what the heck the building is other than a paean to the International Studies department and a home for Kofi Annan’s bust. Last fall, Macalester’s environmentally-minded students were shocked to learn about the imminent construction of a cooler system that locked Macalester into a decidedly ungreen future of carbon emissions; MACARES denounced it as “contrary to the vision of promoting collaboration and participation in the development of sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure.” And, lest we forget, multiple controversies still exist around the recent construction of the Leonard Center; why couldn’t they find the space for a unisex bathroom, why are we parading this gigantic building as a paradigm of ecosensitivity when it’s so large, and why did we spent so much on a building (with ridiculously nice accomodations for athletes) when there aren’t nearly enough lockers to meet demand for student body? Could these funds have been spent in a manner more consistent with students requests? A different biography of Moses once vividly described him sitting in his office, watching gleefully as giant bulldozers tore through Queens while building his projects. Watching the way this college knocks buildings down, moves ’em around, and builds them up (LEED CERTIFIED!!!), most without substantial student input, it is easy to pessimistically cast Macalester in similar light.

This is a particularly frustrating trend as Macalester gears up for the biggest capital investment in decades. The Fine Arts Center is going to be rebuilt over the next five years. Macalester benefits from having Provost Murray (who knows quite a bit about art) at the helm, and departments have been making plans for the center since we were in elementary school. Yet the construction of the art building is relevant to more than just Art Majors or Professors; performing spaces are currently used by anyone in the Trads, African Music Ensemble, Orchestra, Drama, and other organizations.

I don’t want this article to be read as another bland, “I WISH STUDENTS HAD MORE SAY” opinion piece; I wholeheartedly believe that every forward-thinking institution needs a Robert Moses. There’s an advantage to having the administration plan certain projects and create long-term visioning goals that a student body (which entirely changes every four years) can’t possibly create. I’m the first to admit some of the higher ups are a lot smarter than I am and are making, on the all, generally wise decisions with regards to the future of the college. Macalester is a better place because of the administration’s ability to turn visions into goals, projects, and eventually reality.

So how will students get their voice heard? I’m sure that the hyperorganized MACARES will be happy to provide suggestions for reducing carbon footprint and fine arts majors will get the chance to informally voice preferences through their departments, but how thoroughly will the Robert Moses-esque Macalester administration incorporate elements of Jane Jacobs’ activism to find out what students outside of the arts department actually would like in that space? An upgraded dark room for photography, a state of the art auditorium ready for 21st century performance, more galleries, more spaces for informal musicians and performances? What if Bad Comedy, MacPlayers, and Fresh Concepts had somewhere better to perform than the dank Dupre basement? There’s also a slew of much smaller spaces on campus that students could rally around. I bet students have some good ideas about how to make Macalester more friendly to the differently abled, how to encourage more biking and walking in our community, and where wifi networks are needed most. We only need to be asked.

The consultation process shouldn’t just enable particular students who get excited about this sort of stuff to get involved, but rather encourage broad participation from all cross sections of our community. If the administration actively solicited ideas about how to make Marvin Plaza more interesting, I’m sure they would have received a handful of good ideas, a few bad ones, and plenty of ridiculous ones (GIANT SHARK TANK!!). It’d take extra time and resources to survey students, but the delay would ensure alums who generously donate to Macalester knew their contributions were positively impacting the campus. Economists and Political Scientists have devoted careers towards empirically showing the benefits of community visioning and bottom-up decision-making. If you’re going to make an investment for students, it seems wise to find out what the students actually want.

In short, I exhort Macalester students to invest time and creative energy into imagining

what you would like to see on campus, and I implore the Macalester administration to invest further in giving students a seat at the table. I’m confident there’s enough Jane Jacobs in all of us to cooperatively guide Macalester into the years ahead, and enough Robert Moses in the administration to ensure our collective vision is enacted.

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