Seventeen minutes: that's how long it took me last week to go from dead-to-the-world asleep to discussing the size of city blocks in a discussion section. In that amount of time, I managed to get dressed, grab breakfast, brush my teeth for the Sonicare-required two minutes, and make the 12-minute trek (two long blocks, six short blocks) to campus. I've been bragging a lot about this accomplishment, and what my audience fixates on—even more so than my commitment to dental hygiene—is that walk to campus. "Twelve minutes? Where do you live? New Jersey?" No, in fact, I live in Cathedral Gardens, that Barnard residence hall located all the way at 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue—so yes, in the eyes of many a Columbia or Barnard undergraduate, a place as distant as that fabled land across the Hudson. Here, on the western banks of the river, the Columbia and Barnard campuses together comprise 36 acres—according to Beef Magazine, enough area to sustain exactly one cow-calf unit per year. And yet, proving that humans are superior to cattle, or at least more efficient in our grass consumption, thousands of us live, work, study, and eat in that same area every day. Given that concentration of population and purpose, it's no wonder that the idea of distance is telescoped. If you're traveling above 125th Street, below 110th Street, or east of Amsterdam Avenue, you might as well bring a telescope—along with a compass, trail mix (heavy on the M&M's, light on everything else), and a Sherpa. When I strike out for campus from Cathedral Gardens, I triple-check my provisions, wear my sensible walking shoes, and run through contingency plans involving cabs, buses, and stealing children's bicycles in case I'm late. And yet every so often, I hear dispatches from friends at other schools reminding me that a 20-minute trip to school (17-minute miracle aside) can hardly be considered a schlep. At the University of California, Davis, for instance, my 0.8-mile commute would be downright luxurious. There, after freshman year, upperclassmen pack all of their belongings onto the backs of their bicycles and ride to new homes spread across the town. Of course, it's not entirely fair to compare Columbia, a private, urban, and well-endowed university, to the public and suburban UC Davis. But even compared to a peer institution, Columbia's physical space (and the accompanying concept of distance) is tiny. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, sprawls across 300 acres of Philadelphia, making it 10 times the size of Columbia. The uninitiated might expect Columbia's diminutive size to force more interaction with the surrounding area. Instead, it seems to turn the focus inward. Because students rarely have to walk more than two or three blocks, the nearby neighborhood can remain foreign and enigmatic. (Of course, I'm not arguing that Penn students are any more likely to venture off campus than we are—how could a Fighting Quaker be anything but timid and confused?). Our postage-stamp campus is physically separated from the rest of the neighborhood by walls, gates, Lerner's cement façade, and those long city blocks. And this separation adds to that skewed sense of distance—if we exist within 36 acres, then of course the walk from the Quad to Pupin feels like a long haul. I am by no means exempt from this attitude. My first year, even as I transitioned from a 40-minute commute in high school, I complained about the long, tunnel-protected journey from Sulzberger to Milbank, and I often considered staying home on a Saturday night rather than stumbling all the way to 1020. So it was with great trepidation—and the temptation of natural light and a dishwasher—that I chose to live in Cathedral Gardens this year. What I've found is this: Having physical distance from campus has given me a new perspective, both literally and figuratively. Like your grandpa and the U.S. Postal Service, I walk uphill both ways to school, through rain, sleet, or snow. As I do so, I nod to the ever-present proprietor of Giovanni's and try to avoid the snowballs that fly between kids coming home from school. I climb the slope of Morningside Drive, and look to the park on my right and the dark and gothic backside of St. John the Divine on my left. I think of my previous three years here—of horror stories about muggings along the park and the vacant building across from Cathedral Gardens, of the general consensus that the 36 acres and Broadway alone represent a safe haven, and of all I've missed because of inertia and fear. Even as Columbia looms ahead and the city falls away beside me, I realize that on these walks, I feel more like a part of the city than at any other time. I'm just another New Yorker, bridging the distance between Point A and Point B. Anna Arons is a Barnard College senior majoring in urban studies. Two cents and sensibility runs alternate Wednesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff