Some people would say that the neighborhood system has run its course and that it needs to be abolished in the same way that fraternities were abolished over 40 years ago. I always hear the same criticisms about the neighborhoods: “They are the reason why I cannot live with my friends,” or “The neighborhoods have failed because of poor senior housing in Spencer and Wood.” It seems as though people have lost sight of the actual purpose behind the neighborhoods and have trivialized the system as “just the four groups on campus that try to throw parties on the weekends.” This outlook on the neighborhoods misses the whole point behind why they were created in the first place.
The neighborhoods developed in response to a poor social climate at Williams that consisted of student self-segregation in housing and a lacking sense of campus-wide community. The neighborhoods were supposed to help students step outside their comfort zones and interact with people that they otherwise would not have met. The neighborhoods were supposed to foster school spirit and pride through competition and new traditions. There were a lot of things that the neighborhoods were supposed to do but in the end failed to accomplish.
That being said, these failures were not due to a lack of effort by the neighborhood governance boards but, rather, due to the way the neighborhoods were structured and a lack of student buy-in. These goals of building community, increasing school spirit and pride and improving the social scene on campus cannot happen with just four neighborhoods strewn across campus. Furthermore, they cannot happen without strengthening community on the house-level as well.
With the exception of Currier, the neighborhoods lack the common geography necessary to develop an identity and build student allegiance. Basically, the size of the neighborhoods needs to be smaller, and the best way to do this is by increasing their number from four to six.
In 2005, a proposal for the establishment of six neighborhoods was discussed, but the idea was dropped due to student disapproval. It is important to understand that the student body was coming out of a free agency system with no structure. The idea of a six-neighborhood system was foreign then, but we are now more prepared for the idea of six neighborhoods after having dealt with a four-neighborhood system.
The focus then would be to group the neighborhoods based on the geography of the houses. In addition, we need to re-examine the dynamics within the houses themselves and craft a system that gives more ownership to the residents by forcing people to personally invest in the social climate of where they live.
The six neighborhoods should be built around the location of houses in order to help cultivate a sense of real neighborhoods within our housing system. The best way to do this would be to make the entire Greylock quad one neighborhood, the houses in Dodd circle another and Tyler, Tyler Annex and Thompson a third. The other three neighborhoods would be Currier (as it is now), Wood, Perry, Garfield and Agard as one neighborhood and, lastly, Brooks, Spencer, West and Morgan being the last neighborhood. This new system groups houses that are closer together and are similar to each other in terms of how rooms within each house are laid out. This system would also have people pick into any neighborhood they would like every year based on seniority. The hope here is that geographically closer houses in neighborhoods would allow neighborhoods to develop their own traditions and personalities and that, for that reason, people would choose to join a particular neighborhood every year. That being said, this is only the first step towards making the neighborhoods stronger. It takes more than changing the geography and number of neighborhoods to build community.
Any new neighborhood system must address how students interact within each house. This is the biggest goal of the neighborhoods, and it unfortunately has not been given the attention it deserves. It is impossible to be a neighborhood if people never get to know their neighbors. What good is a house full of diverse people with diverse interests if students do not know who lives down the hall? What benefit do I gain if my neighbor does not know me well enough to ask me to lower my music if it is disturbing him or her rather than calling Security anonymously? What we have now is a place where strangers live side-by-side, and until we address this problem, the entire goal of the neighborhoods will go unrealized. One step towards doing this is eliminating Baxter Fellows and replacing them with house councils, made up of house residents. Establishing a council would allow for more people to have a say in house issues, create more involvement in the planning of house social events and encourage people to build relationships with their housemates.
Whatever the changes may be, the responsibility falls on everyone to help build this neighborhood system rather than destroy it. Ultimately, we all have a vested interest in developing a stronger student body, and I believe the neighborhood system has the ability to increase our sense of community. If it takes a village to raise a child then it takes six neighborhoods and student buy-in to raise our community to its full potential.
Ifiok Inyang ’11 is a political science major from Newark, N.J.