The Southwest Saga
It's an uncharacteristically warm winter night at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and Rebecca Sozanski wears sandals on the balcony of Calvin Coolidge Tower, on the north end of the Southwest residential area. Sozanski was an undergraduate here and is now a graduate student in the department of regional planning. She is also the assistant residence director for Coolidge Tower and says she likes her job. But she acknowledges that as an undergraduate from 1996 until last spring, she refused to live here.
"I hated Southwest because I found it very intimidating and loud," Sozanski says. "There were gangs roaming around and lots of screaming." Instead, she lived in Central residential area across campus, a smaller set of dormitories in a more rural setting.
In her graduate program, Sozanski studies the physical construction of housing complexes like Southwest. While actually living here has not been as terrible as she imagined, she now understands why the complex has such a bad reputation. The concrete and bland uniformity of the buildings make it hard for students to really call the area home. Add to this the high energy of more than 5000 college students crammed into a small piece of land and you have a recipe for disaster. It's the scenario that led to the "ZooMass" reputation that so many people associate with the university in general and Southwest in particular.
The evolution of Southwest has been tumultuous at best. The good news seems to be that its original purpose--to be a living and learning area for students--is being revisited in the 1990's. But it will take some work before Southwest can shake its reputation as a partier's paradise.
Hugh Stubbins must have smiled years ago when he first gazed up at his creation more than three decades ago. Stebbins was an architect (a builder of prisons, in fact), and in 1964 he was asked to design a $36 million dormitory complex on campus. The location, now home to five 22-story towers and 11 four-story lowrises, went through many incarnations before Stubbins came along. During World War II, army tanks were tested on what was little more than swamp land. By the early 1960's, 14 Amherst families were displaced from the site when the University of Massachusetts bought it in order to create what was then called the Southwest Residential College.
"A New Skyline, New Horizons," read the promotional material meant to lure students to the new dormitories. Then UMass President Lederle anticipated a boost in enrollment as baby boomers reached college age. He was right about the enrollment, but his vision of a living and learning community fell apart in the 1970's and 1980's and never quite recovered.
Stubbins and Lederle had no idea Southwest would be considered such a crazy place to live during the years of its construction. They promised students coming to Southwest Residential College that there would be phones in each dormitory room, as well as libraries and gyms within the towers. A separate student handbook was given to these residents lauding the towers and telling them that "high-rise construction has proven the most advantageous from all standpoints for its most recent residence facilities, allowing a great deal of economy, utility, and architectural integrity."
The manual also contained information warning students of the dangers of throwing objects out tower windows. It wasn't until 1976 that all of the windows received screens when a student was knocked unconscious by a roll of toilet paper thrown from John F. Kennedy Tower.
This kind of incident became commonplace over the next decade or so as Southwest's reputation began to plummet. There were too many students living in the area to sustain the living and learning community. It was no longer a residential college, but it was the first place students went when they were looking for a party.
Dave Hautenen, a 1987 UMass graduate who lived in Kennedy Tower said that this was due in part to the physical atmosphere of the area, but also to the lowered drinking age, and the sheer volume of students. More than half of the residential population of UMass lived in Southwest (and still does). Keg parties were allowed in the dormitories in the mid-1980s, Hautenen said, along with deejays who frequently played music from the lounges.
"It's like a city," Hautenen recalls, "Those who like the city don't mind the noise. But if there was a keg party, students would go door to door and there would be hundreds of people on the floor. It could get really crazy."
But Hautenen is also quick to point out that some of the other living areas at UMass were just as rowdy, only on a smaller scale.
"When I came here as a freshman, I moved out of Baker [a residential building in Central Area] because it was out of control. Southwest was tamer, in my opinion," Hautenen says.
So, like many students, he spent his first and second years living in Southwest. The area still has the highest population of first and second year students, and this also may also have something to do with the riotous atmosphere.
Jennifer Arsenault spent two years as the assistant residence director of Kennedy Tower and wrote her master's thesis on the history of the area. She is now the assistant director for regional alumni clubs at UMass. When she has organized reunions for past graduating classes, she has observed that Southwest residents seem to have the fondest recollections of their dormitory days.
"It seems like it's really more of a community," Arsenault says. "They talk about doing some crazy things, but they graduated and went on to successful careers, so I guess Southwest wasn't too harmful to their educations."
It's because of these tales told by alumni that Arsenault had to sanction many students who seemed overwhelmed by being away from home for the first time in such a big place. Mythic stories of cows being pushed off the tower roofs, vending machines being thrown out, loud music played at all hours, and students "surfing" from elevator to elevator by climbing through holes in the ceilings all contribute to the mystique.
"At one time it was a crazy place and now students are like, 'I was just upholding the tradition'," Arsenault says.
Despite the occasional object being thrown from a tower, or the inconvenient prank of a flooded bathroom, Arsenault thinks that the worst is over. But the legends live on, and students hear all about them before they even arrive in Amherst on move-in day.
"The student mentality has changed. In the 1970's and 1980's it wasn't hidden craziness. Now, like in the other areas, it is," Arsenault says. "It just happens behind closed doors."
Chip Ritter, residence director of Coolidge Tower says that the students of Southwest are just as studious as those in the other areas. Much of this is due to residential academic programs that were reinstated in the area for first-year students. One entire residential hall, Patterson, is home to the First Year Program, where all four floors house undeclared freshman. The staff in the building run a variety of programs through the year to keep the students focused on academics even without a major.
"The myth is that it's all noisy parties," Ritter says. "What I've found is Sunday through Wednesday, students work very hard, so Thursday through Saturday they can go nuts. But this behavior is definitely not exclusive to Southwest."
But even some current undergraduates are still not convinced that things have changed much.
"I'd walk by and hear car radios and people screaming," says senior Spanish major Felicia Lundquist. "I wouldn't want to live there, it reminds me of the projects."
Southwest residents Vito Mauriano and Jennifer McNeil feel differently. Mauriano moved to Southwest from Sylvan Residential Area four years ago and has been there ever since.
"Before I came here I heard it was like New York City," Mauriano says. "It's loud and I love it. It's active and I found more opportunities here. When I lived in Sylvan, the parties were much worse."
McNeil thinks the bad reputation is due to all of the activity in the area.
"I came here as a freshman for an academic program, and I thought 'Oh my goodness, am I going to be able to get work done?' But I've always been comfortable. It was noisy, but I adjusted."
The opinions that seniors in high school form about Southwest, and sometimes about UMass in general, are something Dave Follick, former head counselor for the New Students Program, tries to discourage. The New Students Program is a series of three day-long orientation sessions incoming freshman are required to attend. When they are taken on a tour of the living areas and are told to rank their choices for the upcoming school year, many students already have strong feelings about Southwest. Some can't wait to live there, and some plan to never even visit.
"Folks in Massachusetts know it's history, and the reputation it had before. When we do the information session we tell students and parents that Southwest is the metropolitan area," Follick says. "A lot of the students who caused so many problems decades ago probably wouldn't even be admitted here anymore. A lot has changed and it's really unfortunate that some students pass up such a great living area."
Through the years, the physical characteristics of Southwest have stayed the same, for better of for worse. The towers allow more students to live on campus, but many argue the quality of living has declined for those who chose to reside there.
"This place is so loud because there are more people," Sozanski says. "And there is no transitional space here to make it seem more of a home." Transitional space, according to Sozanski, is semi-private space like a lobby or a lounge where residents could interact outside of their private rooms.
"You can't monitor who's around you so you don't feel like you have ownership," Sozanski says. "That, unfortunately, leads to crime and violence."
But the current administration, within the past five years, has revisited the idea of the "living and learning community" that prompted the Southwest campaign in the first place. Talent Advancement Programs (TAPs) are scattered throughout the towers and lowrises. These are invitation-only programs for freshmen enrolled in highly competitive majors.
Residential Academic Programs (RAPs) are also focused on freshmen and allow them to take classes in their residential buildings. This program is funded by a state grant to help increase the first-year retention rate. And both the Prince and Crampton dormitories house only graduate students, who presumably have their wild and crazy college days behind them and can lend an air of serious academia to the rest of the area.
While Southwest Residential Area may not be as aesthetically pleasing as Stubbins and Lederle had thought back in 1964, it is starting to revisit its academic roots as we head inot the new millenium. Sure it's still busy, loud and crowded, but most of the students who live there are proud to call it home. And unless one lives there, it is hard to truly understand its mystique. But no doubt, in 20 years, the students waiting for the elevator to the 22nd floor or screaming out the window of a lowrise, will be the same students who fondly look back at their college years, remembering Southwest with a smile.