Over this past break Amigos Restaurant, a longtime staple of the Morningside Heights neighborhood, shut its doors. Amigos was never anything that special. It was a cheap Mexican restaurant, known for its heavily alcoholic margaritas. Yet for many people it represented an important place in the Columbia community. On the day of its closing, Max Davidson, a server at Amigos, posted a eulogy of sorts on the Facebook page columbia buy sell memes. “It might sound convoluted to refer to a three-star Mexican bar as a cultural institution, but it is,” Davidson wrote. “Amigos was never perfect; but it was a place that people from many walks of life could join and eat well-prepared Tex-Mex while getting a buzz on cheap, overpoured margaritas.”
Max’s post gets at the heart of what Amigos represented for many people: a place where different members of the Columbia community could come together and have fun. It was never high-dining fare, and it was never a trendy, hip restaurant, yet it managed to become a staple of Morningside Heights—a place with cheap drinks and space for the community to come together.
Places like these are vital to a university like Columbia, which is notorious for lacking space. Columbia lacks lab space, adequate classrooms, and administrative offices. Perhaps the most striking facet of this crunch is the lack of student space. As a result, restaurants are often some of the only community gathering spots left in the area. However, many of these institutions have recently been forced to close their doors. Deluxe, Vine and the UNI Café are but a few of the recently closed establishments.
Many of these restaurants have since been replaced by flashy new eateries like Sweetgreen, Pret A Manger, Junzi Kitchen, and Shake Shack. These on-the-go-style establishments serve ready-made food, meant to be eaten elsewhere. In addition, these businesses often have few tables or offer specialized phone apps for ordering, choices meant to encourage people to spend as little time in the restaurant as possible.
All of these new spaces sacrifice the community-style aspect of a restaurant, in which friends come together around a table to share a meal. As a result, they reduce the number of community spaces near campus, by taking real estate that could otherwise house spaces that foster student interaction and serve as places for the community to come together. Many would argue that the shuttering of these restaurants,while unfortunate, is simply the force of capitalism in action, that restaurants come and go and the type of restaurant that takes their place matters little. However, I believe that those arguments fail to understand the importance of communal interaction in the college experience.
Part of the value of a liberal arts education is encountering different opinions, debating ideas with your peers, and engaging in conversation that extends far outside the classroom. This type of learning can only take place if there are public social spaces where people can engage with each other. Many of the locations dedicated to fostering this type of interaction on Columbia’s campus fail spectacularly.
For a prime example of inadequate use of student space, look to Lerner Hall, which fails to serve as a community gathering point. The space is dominated by ramps that take up most of the floor space, and the few lounges that do exist are often overcrowded. In addition, most Columbia residence halls are no better at fostering communal interaction. Main dormitory lounges are used mostly for silent studying, and sometimes as practice space for performance groups. Many upperclassmen live in corridor-style buildings that contain small lounges that serve as the only social space for a floor. As a result of the lack of student gathering spaces on campus, off-campus restaurants like Amigos have been fulfilling the role of gathering spaces for the student community.
Columbia’s campus can be a fairly isolating place to begin with, and many students complain of feeling cut off from their peers. These communal spaces play an important role in feeling solidarity with and attachment to our fellow Columbians. Much of the isolation felt by Columbia students is a direct result of the lack of places for students to come together. Without these spaces, student isolation is only made worse and arguably contributes to the mental health issues many students feel on campus.
With the shuttering of Amigos, Morningside Heights loses yet another communal space. It is sad that sit-down restaurants, like Amigos, seem to be a dying breed in Morningside Heights. I say this not to romanticize Amigos or restaurants like it, since they are not without their flaws—affordability being one of them—but rather because I am sorry to see spaces that served as the settings for some of my favorite memories of the Columbia community disappear.
If the administration wants to get serious about its commitment to improving student life and student space, one place to start is by being more careful choosing commercial tenants for their buildings who prioritize creating student gathering spaces rather than simply preparing on-the-go fare. If students care about preserving the few of these restaurant spaces that remain, then they should actively support them with their wallets. Therefore, the next time you are considering going out for a quick meal with some friends, consider the fact that choosing to go to Symposium Restaurant rather than Sweetgreen probably won’t take much effort, but it might just help save some of the last community spaces in Morningside Heights.
Robert Godfried is a senior in Columbia College majoring in sociology. He hopes that more young people of color will run for office because he is tired of looking at so many old white men on C-SPAN. Robert can be reached at email@example.com. The Sexy Side of Local Politics, runs alternate Thursdays.
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