Dear undergraduate students:
How much of your time do you spend on Barnumbia’s Morningside campus? If your answer isn’t “a lot,” then we don’t believe you.
After all this time, you probably consider yourself pretty familiar with campus. You may even claim to know it like the back of your hand. And sure, you likely do know your way around campus very well. But do you really know the campus itself? When you’re forced to navigate around South Fields on your way from Lerner to Hamilton, have you ever stopped, looked down, and wondered: How well do I really know Columbia’s lawns?
What’s that? You don’t care? Take this quiz to find out anyway.
1) How much space does Columbia’s grass take up?
- 1,000,000 square feet.
- As much as one standard American football field: 57,600 square feet.
- Approximately 180,500 square feet.
- None. It exists in a separate dimension, occupying zero volume and zero mass.
The correct answer is C: the areas of the lawns on Columbia’s Morningside Campus that are sanctioned for use—i.e. not including the little grassy plots around Low Library, in front of St. Paul’s Chapel, etc.—add up to 160,000 square feet. (This is equivalent to just under three football fields, so if you answered B then you’re wrong by a factor of three.)
In hot pursuit of this figure, The Eye ventured out into the field. Split into two teams, we anticipated that it would take us no longer than half an hour to measure the area of Columbia’s grass. “It’s 5:42 p.m. The dick fountains are on. The sun is starting to set,” one of us mumbles into our iPhone. “We’re about to start measuring our first lawn.” But after spending $21 on two lime green tape measures from University Hardware and enduring countless weird looks from people passing by, our only conclusion was that we were wrong. Super duper wrong. “The time is 6:19 p.m. It’s taken a lot longer than expected to measure just three of the grassy spaces on campus.” We ultimately got the answer via email from Columbia University Facilities and Operations—likely a more reliable source than our measuring tapes.
Columbia has more lawn going on than we realized. Grass seemed to be hiding around every corner: in front of Earl Hall and in front of SIPA, behind the bushes framing Low Library, and on the roof of the Diana Center.
Barnard alone, however, does not have an impressive amount of grass. The construction of The Milstein Center is taking up over half of Lehman Lawn, which is the one real lawn on campus. At about 14,000 square feet, Lehman Lawn of days past had a greater area than all of Barnard’s current lawnage combined—a mere (approximate) 10,200 square feet, including the Diana Center green roof, the grass steps, and the Quad courtyard.
Over the course of four days, we prowled lawns far and wide and randomly interrupted and interviewed 22 different people who were lounging, studying, eating, and fetch-playing. We figured, of course, that the individuals making use of the lawns must be our resident experts. And they were.
In the eyes of many lawn-faring students, the size of the lawns is an important part of Columbia University’s image and identity—especially since we are in Manhattan. “It makes it feel like a typical college campus, even though it’s in the middle of an urban city,” Karina Encarnación, a Columbia College first-year, explains while she reclines on one of the little lawns on Low Plaza, book in hand, just as the sun starts to set.
In the age of young adults’ obsession with aesthetics, Columbia students—and lawns—adhere to the stereotype. We care about how our campus looks. So much so that, in response to the current construction in front of Butler, Bwog recently wrote a two-sentence article titled “If South Lawn Doesn’t Have Grass Again Soon The Students Will Revolt.” Four students wrote an op-ed for Spectator in April of last year criticizing the installation of the now infamous bronze statue Reclining Figure. Not only did they dislike the sculpture itself, they also opposed its placement. “Adding insult to injury, the narrow stretch of lawn that Reclining Figure will inhabit is the only part of South Lawn permanently open to the public,” Jeremy Liss, Alex Randall, Daniel Stone, and Hallie Nell Swanson wrote. “The sculpture’s girth will intrude on the precious few square yards of grass where students congregate together, be it over soccer or cigarettes.”
In response to this uproar, the administration agreed to change their plans. But rather than scrapping the sculpture altogether, they simply moved it from the center of campus to the lawn in front of Mathematics and Havemeyer. It’s clear, then, that there is an unspoken hierarchy of lawns at Columbia. We care more about South Fields than we do about the grass squished into campus’s corners. But it’s inevitable, isn’t it? The lawns in the center of campus are bound to be the center of our collective attention.
2) Who makes, or has made use of, the lawns, other than current members of the Columbia community?
- Columbia students before the 1960s
- Small children
Okay, okay, this is kind of a trick question. All of the answers are correct except for B. Yes, even D. Back when former POTUS Barack Obama was a student at Columbia, he used to play pickup soccer on the fields in front of Butler. He graduated in 1983, but came back to campus five years ago to stand on the lawns once again—this time as a speaker for the Barnard Class of 2012’s commencement ceremony. Oh yeah, baby! Our lawns can totally name-drop.
But other, cuter, beings grace the lawns more regularly than Obama. “I love watching all the mommy groups,” gushes Columbia College first-year Maeve Flaherty. “That sounds creepy, but all of the little children, it’s very soothing in a way.” These pint-sized peeps, she tells us, are the most noteworthy thing she has witnessed on the lawns so far.
Dogs also play a leading role in the story of Columbia’s lawns. In the eyes of some, they’re really the stars. Of the 22 lawn-folks awkwardly approached with questions, six mentioned dogs and one had a dog with him! A very dedicated Shihtzu Bichon named Ace is playing fetch on the lawn in front of Mathematics when we meet. The little white pooch lives two blocks from Columbia and comes to campus every afternoon. “Both of us love it,” his owner tells us.
Our team of investigative journalists bore firsthand witness to the impressive population—or should we say “pupulation” (our editor says, “No, we shouldn’t”)—of dogs on campus. Mid-lawn-measuring-misadventure we ran into two! A little brown dog named Buster, who is very active, and a little white dog named Pepper, who is very lazy, were hanging out on one of the lawns in front of NoCo. Both are two years old, and damn adorable. Their owners were chatting like old friends, even though they just met that day thanks to their pooches.
But until a certain point in our recent history, neither the students nor dogs of Columbia University were allowed to grace its grasses. In 1957, over 1,100 Columbia students signed a petition asking the administration to allow them to “lounge and study on the grass of South Lawn.” This was, as you may have guessed, prohibited at the time, although there were “scores of students who illegally use[d] the lawn each day to relax and study, despite almost comical efforts by University police to disperse them.”
Okay, okay, so we lied. B is correct, too. Columbia students before the 1960s did make use of the lawns, they just weren’t supposed to.
When we break this old news to current students, many of them are shocked. Columbia College senior Mark Lerner deems the historical ban repressive and authoritarian. “The idea that the center of our campus, the thing that holds it together … was off-limits to the community itself … I’m not okay with that.”
JP Viernes, a senior in Columbia College, is just as surprised and retrospectively bothered. We find him sitting on South Field in front of a sticker-laden MacBook, wearing robot-print socks and a smile in the 11:13 a.m. air. “I mean, it does look visually pleasing, but it is a social space. … It’s kind of elitist to keep the lawn for just visual purposes,” he says, unwittingly echoing the sentiments of countless Columbia students in the late 1950s. “A large percentage of Columbia’s students, either by signing a petition or by defying the graycoats,”—aka Public Safety officers—“have shown their determined desire to use South Field for more than a mere scenic backdrop,” Spectator reported on May 7, 1957.
But until the 1960s, the University did exactly that. William J. Whiteside, the Director of Buildings and Grounds in 1957, announced, “I do not think that the idea of allowing students to sit on the grass is practical,” objecting on the grounds of potential littering, the fragility of the transplanted grass, and “the difficulty of restricting its use to Columbia students.” (Damn, Whiteside, your last point sure echos racist sentiments about who Columbia is and isn’t for, which continues to pervade the University 60 years in your future.)
Despite the concerns raised by their peers, the Executive Committee of the Columbia University Student Council voted in disapproval of the lawn petition that May. Then law student Lloyd Elgart, Law ’57, chairman of CUSC at the time, cited “the administration’s wish to preserve an attractive ‘front lawn’ for campus visitors during graduation week” when explaining why. What a sell out.
Despite setbacks, the status quo gradually began to change.
The first day of May in 1956 was sunny and warm, and news broke that “neither the students nor the guards seemed too concerned” if students only lounged, “and refrained from ball-playing,” on the lawns. Exactly six years later, Spectator again reported that as long as students kept their “cavorting” off the lawns, they had “a convenient place to relax on warm days.” Then, in the spring of 1965, Whiteside made a groundbreaking announcement: “Casual and unorganized ball and frisbee tossing will be permitted on the College Campus hereafter provided it does not interfere with loungers, readers, and others seeking relaxation on the greenery.”
And so it was official. Even Whiteside and his three objections came around eventually.
As recently as 2015, Columbia’s lawn policies have loosened. That December, facilities announced that the South Fields would be un-tarped earlier the following spring and remain open later into the following winter.
3) Do Columbia students like the lawns?
- For the most part, yeah!
- No, everybody hates them
You’re a student, you know the correct answer is obviously A.
We know that our group of interviewees is far from a random sampling of all Columbia students—of course, those who use the lawns in the first place are a self-selective group. Keeping this in mind, we’re still surprised by the consistency with which they tell us that lawn time is an important part of their routine at Columbia. On various lawns at different times, in separate conversations with students from Columbia College to the School of Engineering and Applied Science to Barnard College to the School of International and Public Affairs, and even with non-students, we inquire how often our impromptu interview subjects make use of grassy spaces on campus:
“Very often,” “every afternoon,” “almost every day,” “as often as I can,” “as much as possible,” “as much as possible when the weather is nice,” “whenever the weather’s nice,” “every day that it’s not raining, even if it’s cold,” “on a good week, every day,” “I try to every day for at least an hour,” “maybe three hours everyday except for weekends,” “if it’s warm out, then pretty often, except when the red flags are up and the lawns aren’t open.”
(I, too, would have been out on the lawns more often, if it weren’t for those meddling red flags and their darn dog!)
Almost as consistent as the above responses are students’ thoughts on how they would change the lawns if they could. While a few people have material improvements in mind (e.g., having more shaded areas, “a place to charge your devices so that you can be one with nature even if you’re focusing on an email,” and less chain-link fencing), for the most part students just want to spend more time on the lawns.
“I really like them the way they are, I just wish they were open more,” Lerner says. Several students go as far as suggesting we keep them open all the time. And it’s not just students who want more access to the lawns. Over the course of her tenure, Columbia’s Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Scully Kromm has become known for her vocal support of keeping lawns open more often and for longer hours.
The administration, too, acknowledges the importance of grass time. “We have worked hard—with a particular focus over the last two years—to employ strategies in care and maintenance that have increased access to the lawns,” writes Columbia University Facilities and Operations in a statement to Spectator.
Facilities also notes that only four lawns (South Lawns East and West, Furnald Lawn, and Hamilton Lawn) are under the flag system. At 73,000 square feet, they make up just 45 percent of the 160,000 square feet of lawn space sanctioned for use at Morningside. On 88 percent of the days between September 1 and October 13 this semester, at least two of these flag-abiding lawns have been open. But it get’s better; on 72 percent of days, at least three have been open.
In addition to being the social centers of campus, the lawns also function as study spaces—incomparable to the University’s many others. “If people are out in the real world reading, instead of cramming in a library … I believe people are much more likely to be passionate about it and connect over what they’re working on,” explains Zachary Kahn, a sophomore in Columbia College. But Lerner offers yet another perspective. “I don’t like to think of going on the lawns as something that’ll make me more productive because I feel like I go here to get away from the pressure of having to be productive all the time.”
Whether you’re a Mark, a Zachary, or somewhere in between or beyond, I think we can all agree: Mark and Zachary, and also some other people, indeed like Columbia’s lawns.
4) How many members of Facilities are responsible for lawn maintenance at Morningside?
- None! The Ghostbusters franchise funds our lawns!
If you answered C, congratulations! You’re correct! According to a statement from Columbia University Facilities and Operations, while there are no job positions devoted exclusively to lawn maintenance, six team members are part of the Grounds team.
(In addition to maintaining our lawns, those six people are responsible for “cleaning off all campus hardscapes, litter collection, leaf removal, snow removal … flower and plant maintenance, hand watering, planting, weeding, mulching, irrigation repairs, and waste removal/litter pickup during events.” Wow! Shout out to the Grounds team!)
If you answered D, then you probably took a campus tour, where you were told that the makers of Ghostbusters set up a lawn-maintenance fund for the University after filming on South Fields, and (naïvely) believed your tour guide. Breaking news: while it is true that several scenes in Ghostbusters were shot on campus, and that Ghostbusters would have had to pay for any damage done to the lawns during filming, the long-term lawn-funding rumor is just a rumor.
But don’t feel bad if you fell for it; you’re not the only one! Between bites of a salad, Nina Gonzalez Silas, a Barnard College sophomore enjoying a Monday night on the South Fields, laments that Columbia “could use that money for things that students actually want and need, rather than making the campus pretty.” Alas, that money does not exist.
But the six people on the Grounds team do exist, as does their multifaceted responsibility. Lawn maintenance alone is a very involved process. Each and every lawn at Columbia has its own season-dependent maintenance schedule based on various factors, including use, soil conditions, and shade. New sod is laid on the lawns in front of Butler after Commencement every year. Lacking a root system, the sod needs to be manually watered multiple times per day every day over the summer so that the lawns will be ready for students to use in the fall.
And then there are the turf blankets. Several of our interviewees voiced frustration about the infamous annual tarping of the lawns, but also acknowledged that part of their frustration comes from a place of confusion as to why doing so is necessary. Facilities clears that up for us: “The use of the turf blankets in the winter allows for the lawns to be ready for use by the Columbia community in the spring (when demand for their use is at its peak) at an earlier time than they would be ready absent that protection.”
Facilities closely monitors weather forecasts leading up to spring, and removes turf blankets as early as weather allows. In 2017, all lawns were tarp-free by March 27. Ready for some good news? This coming winter, in consideration of the fact that the renovation of Butler Plaza has created “a more welcoming gathering place,” Facilities will experiment with leaving Butler Lawn uncovered. And ready for some really good news? They also anticipate that several lawns on Upper Campus will not require turf blankets this year. Hip hip hooray!
Evidently, lawn care is no simple job. In fact, lawns are such intricate, high-maintenance beasts that Purdue University, partnering with the Midwest Regional Turf Foundation, established a turf studies degree program in the 1950s. Indeed, Purdue students can devote their undergraduate years to studying lawns and receive a B.S. in Turf Science and Management.
So how did you do? Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. We just hope that you learned a thing or two and that the next time you find yourself on the grasses of Columbia, you take a moment to appreciate it.
Iga Szlendak, Skylar Fetter, Laura Block, and Candy Chan contributed reporting.
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