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MIT student blogger Danny B.D. '15

East Campus, A Home by Danny B.D. '15

*dons his historian hat*

I’m writing this blog post’s introduction from an Amtrak train heading back to MIT (well, South Station in Boston) from my hometown of New York City. I always manage to overheat when I travel, so I’m only wearing two layers: a t-shirt and my winter coat. True to form, I had to shed that outer layer, so despite the 34-degree air outside of this 2250 Acela Express, I’m in short sleeves.

A few minutes ago, I got up to stretch my legs and walk the length of the car. As I headed back to my seat, I noticed three of my fellow passengers staring somewhat obviously at my shirt. Crap, did I spill something? I like this shirt too. I looked down to check, and I realized that they were probably staring because the center of the shirt looks something like this:

Render of the shirt; minor changes were made after this version.

Right. I’m not at MIT right now—it’s easy to forget that this kind of thing isn’t really normal in most other places.

In fact, I’m wearing the 2014 Rush shirt for my dorm, East Campus. (The dorm goes by EC for short, or East Campus Alumni Memorial Housing for long.) You’ll find that my dorm’s been making head-turning Rush shirts for a while.

I don’t want to make the Admissions Blogs all-East-Campus-all-the-time, so this isn’t going to really be a post about my own experiences in the dorm: it turns out that quite a few of my fellow bloggers do live/have lived here, so I’ll let them handle that. Instead, as the current East Campus Historian, there are some different angles and perspectives which fall under my purview. Let’s clear up some questions.

Size/shape/layout/age/location of the dorm?

View of East Campus, looking south, with names of houses added. (They do not normally float over the dorm like that.) Source: EC website

East Campus houses about 365 undergraduates. It consists of two nearly-identical, 300-foot-long buildings known as the West and East Parallels. Each building is five stories high, and each is divided vertically into three “houses”. Originally, the six houses (named for alumni who donated to the dorm’s construction) were separate political entities, but over time that was changed to align with the social cohesion on each hall. Nowadays, saying you live in Goodale or Hayden locates you along the hall but is secondary information to saying that you live on, say, First East or Third West. Each hall has its own subculture within the dorm: five allow cats, and two allow smoking.

The dorm was originally funded for construction in 1923, and opened to students for the first time in the fall of 1924. Thus, the dormitory turned ninety years old this year. It is the second-oldest dormitory after Senior House, which opened in 1916. East Campus can be found (somewhat unsurprisingly) on the eastern half of campus, bordering Ames Street, and away from most of the other dorms.

Wait, why is East Campus far away from the other dorms?

It’s not just East Campus—Senior House is also on Ames Street. Random Hall is north of most of campus along Massachusetts Avenue, but the rest of the dorms are all on the western half of campus.

There are reasons for the separation. Senior House was built along with the Main Group of MIT’s campus in 1916: at the time, MIT didn’t even own the land west of Mass Ave, and there was plenty of space on what land they did own. When the decision was made to build more undergraduate housing (that is, East Campus), it was placed near that first dorm.

So why are all of the other dorms on the other side of Mass Ave? The answer lies in the 1949 Lewis Report of The Committee on Educational Survey, on page 137:

The plan suggests that the East Campus (bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, Memorial Drive, Ames Street and Vassar Street) be used for classrooms, laboratories, faculty and administrative offices. Gradually as new dormitories are erected, the students would be shifted to the West Campus. The space thus vacated could be effectively utilized for educational expansion.

The essence of that suggestion has stuck with MIT for the last 65 years, and has led to a rough division of focus across Mass Ave, which cuts the modern campus in two: west of Mass Ave, you’ll see a larger focus on student life and activities (dormitories, the student center, athletic fields, assorted clubs), and east of Mass Ave, you’ll see the focus on academics (classrooms, labs, libraries).

I made an animated GIF to try to show this visually: it alternates between a 1924 map of MIT and a 2015 map, with dormitories highlighted (click to enlarge):

Comparing 1924 vs. 2015 MIT campus maps. Dorms are highlighted.

You’ll also notice that the Lewis report calls not only for dorm construction on West Campus, but the relocation of East Campus and Senior House residents into those new dorms. That hasn’t managed to happen.

Why hasn’t that move happened?

A mixture of lack of resources and fear of blowback from students and alumni. That’s not to say that plans haven’t been drafted: in 1969, when MIT released a report on the coming decade of construction and campus changes, it was announced that the 1970s would finally be when East Campus and Senior House would move westward, and the physical buildings were slated to become home to the humanities department. That didn’t end up happening, obviously. Furthermore, a lot of both present and past residents of the dorm are quite fond of this place, so the reaction to closing the place we’ve called home would be fierce.

Emotional attachment aside, how is the dorm physically holding up on its ninetieth birthday?

Quite well, all things considered! East Campus was built with a bunch of concrete poured over wood and way, way too much rebar, making it a Faraday cage nearly indestructible. Since the buildings are pretty much a fireproof bomb shelter (wrecking balls would just bounce off of them), everything’s held up. Cambridge building codes also state that if MIT spends more than some amount of money trying to renovate, then they will need to bring the buildings fully up to modern fire code, ADA[?], etc. and that would open too many cans of worms. As a result, there have been a lot of relaxations over what we as residents can do to the space, giving rise to murals and loft beds and crazy construction projects.

That doesn’t really explain why murals and loft beds and projects became a thing in East Campus: sure, MIT stopped worrying as much about keeping the walls a standardized color, but how did East Campus end up with a personality?

*takes a deep breath*

This is a question which is near and dear to my heart. You’re right, there isn’t any particular reason why a living space needs to have a culture associated with it. And yet, MIT’s residential housing system has, for almost a century now, encouraged just that.

The idea was that dormitories should have their own student-run government, and be as self-sufficient as possible. Instead of creating freshmen-only dorms or upperclassmen-only dorms[1], students from all four grades were to be housed side-by-side. The result was an environment where upperclassmen could teach freshmen, who would then teach the new freshmen in coming years.

It’s not a complicated idea, but it’s a powerful one. Giving a living space autonomy is one thing, but remember who the residents are—not just tenants, but MIT students. Bunking that many creative minds next to each other created a feedback loop, where ideas met people with the technical know-how or the artistic abilities to bring them into action. If you don’t know how to do something, chances are someone in this crazy place does.

Side note: this also led to a lot of technically-complicated pranks, the beginning of MIT’s hacking culture. If you want to read up more on what East Campus was like in the 1920s, and what early hacking culture was like, go check out my other blog post on that. Thanks again to Lydia for helping me get that online before I was an actual Admissions Blogger :)

East Campus was occupied by the US Army for a brief period during World War II, but after the students returned, starting in around 1950, we began to see the beginning of real dorm identity take root: people identify as East Campus residents, and it becomes accepted that there is a set of stereotypes which follow that identification. East Campus even receives its own catchy song: in 1964, Baker House resident Matt Fichtenbaum ’66 and East Campus resident Dan Murphy ’65 composed the song “Old East Campus,” whose lyrics (well worth the read and listen) highlight circumventing hot-plate restrictions, visitor hours, and safe volume levels. The exact gripes no longer apply, but the camaraderie certainly does.

Basically, EC gets a reputation as the dorm doing crazy things. In October of 1949 there was a total lunar eclipse, and as The Tech reported, East Campus “staged a monster festival […] the flare-lit orgy stayed in the higher noise levels with firecrackers, explosives, and a PA system going strong during and after the eclipse”. (Seriously, go read this article.)

You’re using one crazy party from over sixty years ago to justify a trend?

Well, no, not just that. Turns out that absolutely nothing in East Campus is new—take the pyrotechnics in that article. It turns out that fire has been a long-standing love of the dorm. From the 1928 water war, which involved igniting two abandoned, kerosene-soaked cars in the adjacent parking lot, to the annual May Day riots in the fifties, which featured a bonfire of Institute furniture, to the 1964 Fifth East fire, which burned out a newspaper-stuffed room, to the 1998 Fourth West fire to which students responded by throwing a dance party to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, to East Campus’s modern mascot (as of 2003), which is literally a burning stickman: the dorm has never lost touch with its inner pyromaniac.

Here's a nearly lifesize version of the burning stickman mascot in the EC courtyard during Rush in 2012. Behind are three separate construction efforts: to the left is the double pendulum, framed in the center is the Frosh Wash, and to the right is the frame for a swinging viking ship.

During dorm-wide events, it’s not uncommon to hear the Soviet national anthem blaring from speakers in the courtyard. Nothing is new about the use of Communist symbolism around East Campus: take a look at the 2000 East Campus Rush t-shirt design, or the May 6, 1952 issue of The Tech, which describes “a mock Communist appearance…led by a student in a red cape, [who] played the communist “Internationale” to the delight of the Boston newspaper reporters.” Nothing that happens here is actually new; it’s all been done before, but that historical underpinning is what makes this place so attractive to me.

There are tons of cultural shifts in play between the years and decades of East Campus residents, and yet there’s a common kinship. I am awestruck by how many stories I can read from the dorm’s past and think Wow, this could have happened yesterday[2]. I am awestruck by how many incredibly awesome alumni I meet who share their tales of adventure, while I sit there thinking This isn’t just someone who happened to live here—this is what I’m going to be like in the future, I’m what this person was like at my age, and I am totally okay with that.

How do hall cultures fit into all of this?

The ten halls of East Campus act like microcosms of culture unto themselves. This wasn’t always the case: as I mentioned above, students used to consider themselves residents of, say, the Walcott house (southernmost third of the East Parallel), but not Fourth East. Even after the dorm government restructured itself in 1953 to have floor-based political representation, halls didn’t really have identities associated with them yet. This would last through the fifties and almost through the sixties.

What’s awesome is that the EC alumni from this period are very much around, and have done a lot to help color in the social history. From their words and from records of the time, we can point to three major changes that led to the rise of halls’ subcultures. First, in 1968, the halls were carpeted and two rooms per floor were converted into lounges: this was part of then-Dean of Student Affairs Ken Wadleigh’s effort to effect “the development of good quality of student living-learning environment in these houses,” as he noted in the 1968 MIT President’s Report. The result was nearly immediate. “Unprecedented community activities took place: games of bridge and Three Card Drop, tooling sessions (with blackboard), beer, slackers hanging out, etc.,” wrote Dave D. ’72, in a public email correspondence with other alumni from that era. Soon after the birth of halls’ social spaces came changes in their social demographics: East Campus was first allowed to go coed in 1970. By the fall of 1971, four of the ten halls had female undergraduate residents, and the difference in hall attitude was evident. “Coed floors were noticeably healthier. Male-only floors were obsessed with sex and had a desperate, testosterone-laden attitude. Coed floors were more normal with the types of interaction you would see in a normal home,” wrote Bob L. ’78 in a reply. Finally, halls were given a voice in the freshmen-room-assignment process within East Campus after 1970. From Doug W. ’74, also chiming in on the alumni thread:

When we were allowed to have a “mini-rush” the next year so freshmen could select specific floors, we tried to make it clear to them that if they wanted a quiet place to study, 3rd East wasn’t the best home for them. The more outgoing hacker-types got involved in the mini-rush, and we quickly decided that we should have someone high enough up on the local political food chain that we could have an insider on the floor assignment committee each Fall. From then on, the character of the Hall was self-reinforcing. I assume that process is largely still in place today. “Self-reinforcing” is the takeaway there: any small jokes or personality biases of a hall could now be strengthened through artificial selection of where incoming students lived. Together, hall culture was primed to grow and proliferate in a way it could not have before.

The bulk of halls’ traditions appear after these changes. The “Jack Florey Roof and Tunnel Hackers” shirt, designed in a parody of the Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey logo, finds its origins in the 1970s, and the shirts are still sold and worn by a large subset of the dorm’s residents today. Third East picked up the nickname “Third East Travelling Animal Zoo” in the early 1970s, and within a few years the abbreviation had become a moniker for the hall itself: Tetazoo. East Campus’s oldest surviving murals date to this time period as well, with murals being common pretty much everywhere by the late 1980s. Fifth West’s annual first-snowfall tradition, Flames Over New Jersey, traces its roots to around 1980; the alumnus who began the tradition, Ken M. ’83, still celebrates it with his family in his Wisconsin home. The halls’ kitchens were added in 1983, further increasing communal space and mutual support on each hall.

The halls have been rolling along ever since. Stories of pranks and water wars and parties and hacks and mayhem aren’t just written down—we can hear them from those who lived here before us. The oral tradition has been crucial in making each hall into a community.

Standards banners for each of the ten halls, created during Rush in 2008.

I’m glad halls feel connected, but you have described a place which seems loud and scary. Hell, your motto is THE WEAK SHALL BE EATEN. If I live in EC, am I at risk of being eaten when I’m having a hard time?

No. Not at all. The motto really plays off of this bravado the dorm likes to put on for fun when we act as a unit: you’ll see it more during dorm-wide events, such as Rush or CPW[?], or in media such as our i3[?] videos.

Those events and videos are tons of fun to produce, but they’re not giving you the full story. In truth, I’m not the best person to tell you about why people choose to make this dorm their home.

At the beginning of the semester, our school’s Chancellor, Cynthia Barnhart, was scheduled to hold a meeting in Talbot Lounge at East Campus. The Chancellor is in charge of all things student at MIT, and works directly beneath President Reif in the MIT Administration, so it’s fair to say that she wields quite a bit of influence over student affairs here. Chancellor Barnhart wanted to visit to learn more about East Campus and dorm cultures overall: why do people choose to live in EC?

In preparation, some friends and I set up a website and sent an email to the student and alumni communities at various “East Side” dorms (EC, Senior House, Random, Bexley[?]). We asked for submissions of any length about why people call these places their homes, so we could present the collective to Chancellor Barnhart and other administrators. Prompts included Why is our residence system special/valuable? and How has your residence affected your life?, as well as What are the problems and threats that you see right now?

The response was amazing.

Submissions poured in—from upperclassmen, from freshmen, from recent alumni, from not-at-all-recent alumni, from parents, from teachers, from friends. People wrote openly about how living in the dorms had provided them support networks; how their communities had helped them deal with stresses, accept their identities, nourish their mental health. People wrote about how they learned life skills beyond the classroom, how to use power tools, how to put things in places where they shouldn’t go, how to do rope work, how to cook, how to help friends and strangers. 167 posts are up on the site, which is now closed as a kind of time capsule.

You can view the whole collection here:

I highly recommend that you jump around posts—everything is in chronological order by post time, which has no bearing on their quality. (It would be a crying shame if, for instance, you missed the first post on the site, What makes our dorms great made MIT great, by my friend Allan S. ’17.)

I can only hope that you do read through parts of the site, and see that THE WEAK SHALL BE EATEN really doesn’t describe this place. We call it home for a reason.

Word cloud of post titles from This is the East Side submissions.