Editor’s Note: We transform “spaces” into “places” through the experiences we have in them. In between our “places” are voids of the unmemorable; areas in between “place” are just “space” to us. The students in Imagining Cities, a course taught by Hua Hsu, talk a lot about place-making. When I took this class last semester, we created “psychogeographies,” mapping out our “places” against the “spaces” on Vassar’s campus. Psychogeographies measure our places by landmarks that have impacted us emotionally or confronted us with space in unexpected ways. The maps we made took many forms: locating blue lights, providing narratives of a night, or recording bits of eavesdropped conversation. In the end, we found that Vassar is a place, but also many places. Here I’ve compiled some of the pieces created by my classmates.
Every now and then we meet someone who changes our pace and slows down our reality. In mid-October I became friends with someone who took his time. He walked so slow, was always late and it got on my nerves… until I stopped trying to fight it and considered the physics of the situation. In our universe it takes less energy to slow down than to catch up. So I silently agreed to take off my headphones and slow down my pace.
To him taking a walk was a time for meditation, a moment to breathe, to embrace your surroundings and let the universe do the work of putting life into perspective. He walked to become idle and when we walked together, so did I. Sometimes we would have a loose destination but mostly we would just find a path and walk aimlessly until we found a nice bench or place to pause. We would sit for hours, talking, listening or in comfortable silence. I don’t know when but at some point certain benches weren’t benches anymore. They were meaningful conversations; they became laughs and tears, fears and aspirations, warm feelings and disappointments. The bench outside of my dorm became the place where we broke up and across campus a bench near the athletic field became the place where we talked for the first time in four months. Academic and Student Life buildings lost their intended meaning and became personal sensations. The drafty Chapel became warm blood rushing to my cheeks and butterflies in my stomach. A beige and cream-colored Sander’s Classroom now tastes like carbonated orange sugar from concentrate.
Right now I am a junior and he has since graduated and is long gone, but being back on campus I find myself surrounded by the energy of these stops along the paths we used to walk. When I went out to wander campus I was drawn to all of these places that now represent memories.
Partly from memory and partly from observation, I have attempted to plot out the campus’ emergency phones, marked by their visible blue lights.
In my view, the use of architectural features as preventative measures against potential crime is one of the most direct examples of the impact of urban places on behavior. This is prevalent in the form of emergency phones. The design of the emergency phone is utilitarian and, supposedly, effective. You press a button and help is on the way. However, by mapping a semi-accurate map of the locations of many of the emergency phones, I hope to raise questions as to the effectiveness of this preventative technology.
Firstly, I have only given Raymond Avenue, and the subsequent rotary/roundabout as a focal point to orient oneself. It is anonymous enough to not give away any particular blue light’s exact position, and yet is ubiquitous enough that it should be immediately grounding, and anyone who has spent time on campus will recognize it. Secondly, I have provided no key for scale or cardinal direction. In theory, this allows for a more fluid engagement with the scattered points. The distance between the points is uncertain. It is also uncertain whether the points border buildings, or are visible from each other’s locations. In practice, this revealed alarming disparities.
Without revealing any clues as to where, I can say with absolute certainty that two of the emergency lights are placed on sides opposite to the main entrance of their respective buildings. Additionally, three buildings, architectural and academic staples of campus, with a high density of foot traffic, do not have blue lights at all. They are all in the same area. An isolated path surrounded by trees, estranged from many academic buildings and any housing, has no blue light even though it is used in the dark every weekend. One specific popular location for congregating after dark lies on an established path, out of sight from any academic or dormitory building, and is at least 300 feet away from the nearest light. A major entrance to one of the most used buildings on campus has a light, but it is broken. This light is signified by the “x” shape.
I did not trace my walking path as I mapped the points. This will hopefully lead the map-reader to begin to question the placement of the lights themselves, as they wander and notice where the lights are, and are not. The lights, in my view, serve as a reminder that the campus cares more about symbolic reinforcements of its secure nature than about bettering its environment. It sits in the middle of the road between hyper-security, establishing an emergency phone on every building and popular spot, and reformation, attempting to address and heal factors that would lead to crime in public spaces on campus in the first place.
I walked through campus and paused at various locations to which I find myself connected. At each of those places, I took a moment to free write a short paragraph or a few sentences. From these free writes, I composed a collection of “Short Talks” to explore my thoughts on the Vassar campus and take a moment of peace and solitude early on a grey, rainy weekend morning.
Noyes House Sidewalk
After the rain, a dozen sparrows search for worms in the damp earth. A chipmunk mimics their performance, its twitchy movements cartoonish.
I glorify walled-in cemeteries, ones with hills and views and vines, with cracked and mossy tombstones and ancient graffiti. I walk through them and I find solace from fear, beauty in decay. Even though the walls here are full of holes, I am hesitant to enter. Each tombstone seems to stand alone in a lonely crowd. Shoulder to shoulder, the graves are in perpetual preparedness to march forward but are condemned to remain still.
Two young women lie on their backs in the grass, their long dresses wrinkling, the fabric falling in piles between their knees. They name constellations and whisper the old myths to each other. They call out the names of stars to make them appear. When their fingers touch, they each taste metal in their mouths. It is pleasant, like the smell of a garden after it rains.
One can never see this building as it truly is. It can only be seen through different angles of experience. I see it from the inside, from the third floor where the rooms smell familiar and the air conditioner blasts against humidity and I tend to see things glow in the dark.
Places gain clarity as we walk through them. At first, they are spread out, spaces with unidentified landmarks scattered across their landscape. But the senses piece together fragments and pull places together, creating a map over the established grooves of the mind.
The campus is a swampy mix of summer and fall, tropical and cool, sleepy and anxious, lonely and hopeful. “We are all lonely in college,” said a friend, “and it is a fucking privilege to feel a body against yours.”
Everything is at a slight angle, patterned in loops in skewed lines. We create our own furrows in the grass to fight the off-kilter layout, marking out a grid never marked on a map. If we tried, we could spell something out to be seen by air travelers or unearthly visitors. We hurry through our set paths, but sometimes we stop to notice – the golden tipped leaves dripping dew, the solitary tree sadly wilting, the mistletoe bushes, the light before dusk as it hits the underside of a spire, the pink streak in the distant sunset, the feeling the wind brings when it spooks the evergreens.
I decided to follow the direction the wind was blowing on campus. I did not use a very scientific method, but I watched the leaves of the trees, observed the direction my hair was blowing around my face, and walked so the wind was to my back. In a sense, the wind pushed me about campus.
As I walked I realized the irony of following the wind. Wind is a natural phenomenon with only physics and nature to guide it. I am a conscious being, making the choice to follow this mindless movement in the hopes that it would lead me to wander just as mindlessly. My trip took me from Sanders Classroom, through Main, past the back of Blodgett, and then to my dorm, Cushing.
Due to the nature of my wind-following method, I paid close attention to the trees. The trees on the Vassar campus mostly stretch several stories high. Branches spread far past the trunk and create a mesh of leaves and wood that block out the sun. Observing the size of trees is indicative of the time that has passed from the origins of this campus. In Biology, my professor mentioned that at Vassar’s creation, the ecological preserves were all hills of farmland. Now, they are carpeted in dense greenery. There must have been a time when the campus was unprotected, and the sun beat down on the students who scurried from building to building.
Walking certainly facilitated this reflection on the passing of time. Every step was leisurely, allowing the breeze to guide my legs forward. It was an experience vastly different from my time in high school, where the large landmass of Texas left everything scattered, and a car was required to travel. That is not to say that the awareness of my surroundings was impossible in the car, but they were certainly amplified once I stepped foot outside. Every destination was marked by a hop out of the car. On the contrary, walking across campus was the equivalent to infinite hops.”
I hate walking. I hate walking. I hate walking. Please don’t make me walk. If I had to choose between walking and not walking, I would definitely choose not walking. If had had to choose between not walking and even less walking, I would choose even less less walking. I’m like Jane Fonda at the end of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, except I’ll only make it five minutes into the competition before I ask Michael Sarrazin to pop a cap square in my face. Melodramatics short, I would sooner give my mom up for adoption than I would willingly go on a long, reflective walk. And so, when I saw this assignment on Moodle, my reaction was one of disdain—for the love of God, I did not sign up for a six-week pass-fail course to walk.
I did remember a reading, however, which discussed those who lurked on a city’s outskirts– simply observing the commotion of the town– instead of actually participating in it. I thought, this is something I can get behind; this is my style. I already have the binoculars! (Unrelated purposes, of course). Putting my slight stalker tendencies to work, I set up my hall-mate’s tripod by the window of my fourth floor Cushing room and bunkered down for what was sure to be the saddest and third creepiest Saturday night of my life. I adjusted the camera for a long exposure and slow shutter speed and took a series of photos every time a person or a group of people intersected my field of vision.
Don’t mind me up here! Just your neighborhood perv going about her usual business!
I did this for 3 hours. For 3 hours, from 10 pm to 1 am, I sat on the ledge of my window watching people. I watched as they moved from space to place and place to space and place to light and light to dark and from groups to one and one to groups and one and one to two and two to one. I watched as people running on separate waves crossed, converged, and merged on a single sidewalk into something that was anything but singular. I watched as people walked. The path, illuminated by one streetlamp and the occasional first floor window or ringing cell phone, signified something grand about the night and the concept of the unknown. I watched as people left behind the familiar comfort of fluorescence in lieu for the exoticism of after hours. The darkened promise of uncertainty called and, for some reason (God knows why), these people answered it.
This Sunday I thought that I’d seize the opportunity to do a little more listening. I thought that, perhaps, heightening my sense of hearing would give greater weight to the moment, to “being with the present.” My mom was visiting from San Francisco, and since she is a pseudo-Buddhist, I thought this would be fitting to do with her. I had to walk her back to the Days Inn, where she was getting a taxi to a friend’s house
The first node on my map is us sitting in my TA. She tells me the house is nice, I tell her I’m tired, she suggests a walk. We take the route that follows the stream, hearing its soft gurgle. We eventually stop to watch some birds take a bath. I keep wondering whether I could be experiencing this correctly without closing my eyes. I start to notice the trees at this point. I jot down these nodes on my phone. Mom, who I haven’t discussed this activity with, asks me what I’m doing on my phone. I tell her I’m taking notes. This studious answer is apparently enough for her, and she continues to walk behind, looking around at the trees. At this point, I start to hear the crickets. I realize the paucity of my sonic vocabulary at this point. I’m not usually found without the correct word, but at this moment I can’t think of a closer sound for the cricket’s continuous chirp than “eeee.” I curse my inability to dominate sound with words. Then, I think better of it. Perhaps some things should remain uncategorized, lest parts of them become unnoticed. At this point I hear a thunk before I see it. This feels like a success, in the terms of the activity. I look and see that it’s the archery club, which I’ve never seen in action. Their targets are quite close and probably accounts for the fullness of the thunk. I judge them privately for cheating, and only tell mom “that’s the Archery club.”
At this point, a Chevy drives past. It’s really trying to be something. I think to myself, ‘overcompensating,’ as if people need to have a certain kind of car for a reason. Then, a squabble. “That’s mine!” and other shouts come from the nursery. What an idyllic spot for them, surrounded by trees. It must be comforting—I remember liking enclosures when I was a kid.
Across this time, I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the sonic environment. Subtle air conditioning in Cushing, some slight noises from Noyes, but besides that, there have been no novel sounds. Just cars, trees, and crickets/cicadas. Even listening intensely, I’ve already started to not pay attention to the environment. Then I realize that perhaps noise has more to do with mood than with attention. Maybe this is why symphonies or opera always struck me as strange—they were trying to bring out emotions I wasn’t interested in having right that second. So what else was there to do?
The chit-chattering of the birds at Main is apparent in the morning. This is where I will begin my path, an attempt to make a spiral with a starting point at what is more or less considered the center of campus. To pick a direction to start walking, I spin around, recite “eenie-meenie” once or twice, and stop. I begin my journey southward.
The humming of the lawnmower outside. Lights still on at the (Interim) President’s porch. Water droplets from the sky are almost invisible; they are only obvious when they reach the screen of my phone. Will this spiral thing really work out? The only rule I have is that I must stay on an actual path. The Vassar Ghost Town is seeing more pedestrians as time goes on.
I realize the smell is the cut grass, as it extends to the area surrounding Main and even reaches my own dorm house. Uh oh. The lawnmower guy and I are about to cross paths. I stop writing to avoid reaching the intersection at the same time, sparing myself an awkward moment with a man and his machine. I find myself behind Main, as if following a lopsided orbit.
The shock of colors in front of Powerhouse also emit a smell distinct from the cut grass. I continue the spiral and find myself in front of my dear friend ALANA. Turning right, I sneakily sneak through the (completely ajar) fence door, only to realize I have come to a dead end. An alternate exit presents itself: the fence ends right before hitting the wall of the building adjacent to ALANA. I squeeze through, telling myself I am doing this for science. My shoes collect the dew from this unkempt grass, but I remain unscathed. This section of my path will be an exception to my one rule.
Passing the Vogelstein Center, I veer slightly off course to inspect a collection of plastic things on a brick wall. They looked like a colony of big snails, and I’m not sure if I found them charming or uncomfortable to look at.
Back on track, the fog still tickling me with condensation, I reach the Sanders Classroom and am forced to turn left, as the construction prevents me from shaping my spiral more precisely. The construction workers have certainly made progress.
I mistakenly come close to walking the same path I did when I first started, so I cut through the Bridge Building. There, I see the fog enveloping the trees. There seems to be maintenance down below; Vassar is like a living thing, always developing. I look forward to the view the Bridge will provide in the fall.
The lack of trees on Raymond Avenue’s sidewalk make this part of my path the brightest, the light at the end of the tunnel. I find a parked car with a climate-change sticker (typical Vassar) and a Wesleyan sticker (also typical Vassar? Ba-dum-tss).
The gate welcomes back my class-of-2020 self.