Neighborhood woes

When the neighborhood housing system was first implemented, the question was not whether current students would like it – they didn’t – but whether future generations would benefit socially and come to appreciate it. It is now in its third year, and the administration must be wondering how the current generation of students is dealing with it and whether we have begun to warm up to the system. After all, it’s been over two years. Has our opinion of the system changed?

To put it bluntly, it hasn’t. It was often said during the initial controversy that the furor over the new housing system would disappear in four years when the people who remembered the old system graduated. Now that we’re in our third year of neighborhood housing, this seems to be wrong. Even students who didn’t live under the old system – myself included – think the new system is a mistake. Even the freshmen have opinions on the issue, and those opinions are generally negative. You can’t implement a system that’s opposed by a majority of students and expect new generations of students to welcome it. Students who didn’t have housing choice can still imagine what it would be like, and it’s an enticing idea.

The problem seems to be that the administration expected some sort of neighborhood loyalty to emerge. They imagined future generations of Ephs fighting for the honor of Dodd, Wood, Currier and Spencer in well-attended ping-pong tournaments and pumpkin-carving contests, fiercely defending the honor of their neighborhoods. Perhaps they expected that new neighborhood traditions would emerge, or that the neighborhoods would develop personalities a la Gryffindor. But, not surprisingly, Ephs don’t seem to define themselves by their choices of housing. Instead, our loyalties belong to our sports teams, clubs and especially friends – who, by the way, might be able to live together if we weren’t from different neighborhoods. The goal of the system was to unite, but it seems to have divided.

Yes, unlimited freedom may be a mistake. No one wants to feel excluded because their house is dominated by a particular social group or sports team. And perhaps forcing people who don’t ordinarily socialize with certain groups to live with those groups has some social benefit. But social change can’t be engineered, and people will find ways of socially isolating themselves or their groups no matter what the administration does.

Perhaps “encouraging” rather than “forcing” might be key here. We could keep the neighborhoods and still have neighborhood social events, but still retain the freedom to pick housing in any neighborhood we choose. We could reduce the sizes of pick groups and more strictly enforce the “no-pressure” rule. But what we cannot do – indeed, what is impossible to do – is to artificially create communities on campus. It is not feasible to throw together a group of people and expect social cohesiveness based solely on their location. Under-attended neighborhood events and a general resentment toward the powers-that-be are a testament to this.

After all, a community that isn’t defined by its members but by an external authority is not a community at all. A student who is forced to be a member of such a community will quickly grow to resent that community. And this is precisely what’s happened: students are feeling alienated by the neighborhood system rather than identifying with their neighborhood. The neighborhood housing system had good intentions but unrealistic expectations, and part of fixing the problem is recognizing that.

What would happen if we suddenly went back to the free-agent system? Largely nothing, I predict. Students seem to consider their neighborhoods matters of inconvenience – and, indeed, burdens – rather than their social centers or communities. If anything, we would have greater social diversity: people would be able to live with friends from different neighborhoods that they meet during their years at Williams rather than sticking with the same people they lived with in their entries. No neighborhood communities would collapse because these communities never existed in the first place. What communities did exist – and what communities continue to exist despite the efforts of the administration – were based on choice rather than social engineering, friendship rather than location. And what fault can our college find with that?

Andrew Triska ’10 is a political science major from Estacada, Oreg.