What Neighborhoods Mean For Us

It is common knowledge that Amherst College is plagued by a plethora of social issues. From loneliness to an acute lack of a sense of community, the problems that affect our campus may be small or great depending on who you ask. In the past year many a dining table conversation has been dedicated to the dreaded topics of loneliness and inclusiveness. Ideas like reviving fraternities or creating social clubs have even been brought up, but all to no avail, it seems. So here we are, lonely.

Or are we? If you have had the chance to read the college’s recent strategic planning report that was made available in an email to the entire student body, then you probably know better. You probably know about what the college is calling residential clusters or “neighborhoods.” The neighborhood plan proposes a system in which groups of nearby dorms and theme houses will be merged into clusters to form six neighborhoods. These clusters will be composed of what looks to be first-years, sophomores and juniors, while seniors will be given preferential housing outside of the system. According to the same document, each neighborhood will have its own culture and character and “will help students build a stronger sense of community and belonging.” There you have it: Problem solved. Bye-bye, loneliness!

Well, not so fast. Permit me to draw a parallel between neighborhoods and residential colleges at other campuses. If anything, the intent behind the two concepts seems to be the same — to create a sense of community. So, if you are familiar with the residential college system at Yale or Rice, then you probably already have a pretty good idea of what neighborhoods will be like. Neighborhoods sound like a really good idea. And if the success of residential colleges at Amherst’s peer institutions is anything to go by, they would provide a venue forming inter-class relationships and would give first-year students a ready support group. They could also create a close community similar to the community that a fraternity or sorority could provide and that social clubs hope to provide, but would be stringently regulated to make sure that they stick to their mandates. Heck, they might even provide a more secure way for underaged students to access alcohol through upperclassmen. I have to say, they’re a winner.

So why do I sound so sarcastic? Because I don’t buy into the idea. According to Yale’s office of residential life, residential colleges and their variants were instituted on large college campuses to “allow students to experience the cohesiveness and intimacy of a small school while still enjoying the cultural and scholarly resources of a large university.” Now, let’s not let Yale tell us what to do, but it seems to me that a campus with 1,785 students isn’t quite as big as one with 5,430. Even without talking about numbers, Amherst touts itself as a college community that seeks to create a cohesive unit of students, faculty and staff. Are we quitting by looking to neighborhoods to solve our problems? I can’t say.

However, one of the major characteristics of residential colleges — and I would imagine, neighborhoods — is that they act as self-sustaining units. They usually have dining halls, libraries, movie theaters, kitchens, etc. They thrive because most students can and do spend much of their time in them, with no real need to leave their neighborhoods besides very specific needs. Obviously, our campus isn’t like that. Late nights at Frost and Merrill and meals at Valentine would make it difficult for people to actually spend a significant amount of time in their neighborhoods, even if they wanted to.

Another problem would be that all neighborhoods wouldn’t be equal. The plan indicates that some will have significantly larger numbers than others and others will simply consist of nicer and closer dorms. These obvious discrepancies would make it very difficult for people from different neighborhoods to have comparable experiences. According to the tentative campus map of the neighborhoods, one neighborhood (what is now the first-year quad) will have as many as 500 students while another (the Hill) will have 86. To balance this gross inequality, the administration proposes to give disadvantaged neighborhoods benefits that are intended to be able to replace people.

Talking about people, what if you don’t get along with the people in your neighborhood? Neighborhoods would significantly reduce your relationship mobility. In a recent article, Yelim Youm ’18 wonderfully describes the nature of many of our initial college friendships here at Amherst. She describes them as friendships formed out of necessity and proximity. Neighborhoods will make you friends because almost everyone else will be in the same boat, but the answer to whether or not they will make you true friends is still up in the air. How many of us have had the experience of jumping into friendships with people who we later come to dislike? I have, haven’t you? Well, when we have neighborhoods, chances are you will get to live with those people for three years. Yay!

But you know what really gets me? It’s the fact that neighborhoods will rob me of the ability to decide where I live. Sure, they would give better housing options to sophomores, but only those who actually end up living in neighborhoods with desirable dorms will benefit from this. As a soon-to-be sophomore rising from the ashes of room draw, I hold close to my heart my dream of living in Mayo-Smith in my junior year. Neighborhoods will take that away from me. In fact, they will make it impossible for anyone to really choose where they want to live on campus.

What’s worse? They would do all these undesirable things without actually solving the problems of loneliness. They would further fracture an already broken campus social scene and in return give us only a feeling of pseudo-belonging for all our troubles. We will jump and cheer behind our neighborhood banners and pride ourselves in our nice neighborhood sweatshirts, while the same problems will still abound on our campus. Barring any real effort, in a neighborhood setting, we would likely still only be friends with people on our floors. To add to this, we would be robbed of the opportunity to actually make organic friendships. And even if you did make friends outside your neighborhood, you would never be able to live with them.

So what should we do? I will propose no grand schema, no plan to end all plans. All I will say is “carpe diem.” Seize the day! The only friends we make are those we make for ourselves. External factors may help and certain social structures may oppose us, but in the end it will always come back to us. We have such a nice and vibrant community where everyone so talented and invested in their activities. Structures for building community are in place; We need to seize them. I recently attended both the Amherst Explorations exhibition and the Iron Chef competition, and was amazed by what great potential these events have as opportunities for community building. Yet they were both very poorly attended. The only way for us to be part of this community is to actively involve ourselves with it. Busy schedules abound and excuses are plenty, but if there were ever something worth investing in, it would probably be our peers. My people have a saying that goes “Ewu nwuru n’oba ji abughi agu gburu ya”. (Don’t try to pronounce it.) It means, “A goat that dies in a barn was never killed by hunger.” Amherst: Wake up!