Ups and Downs: Surviving — and embracing —  a vertical campus

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Any prospective Emerson student is bound to hear an overly excited tour guide say something along the lines of, “We’re a very vertical campus. If you don’t like elevators, you shouldn’t come to Emerson College.”

After a few weeks at the school, it quickly becomes apparent how true that is: Students need to build a strong relationship with and understanding of the elevators in the academic and residential buildings. Daily activities on this perpendicular property rely on these mechanisms. The school has 51 elevators — varying in size and efficiency — and will soon add a few more. The college has proposed a new 18-story residence hall in the Boylston Place alley. Confined to a few city blocks amid the congestion of downtown Boston, Emerson has nowhere to build but up, forcing a sometimes-bitter embrace of elevators. 

The decorum, behavior, and culture found in Emerson’s elevators are unique to every passenger while also holding students together — sometimes a bit too closely. 

It starts early. Every year, one of the first things new students learn during orientation is the art of elevator etiquette. Rules are drilled into the nubile freshman brains: If you’re going to the fifth floor and someone presses six, get off there and take the stairs down a floor. Don’t take the elevator to the second or third floor. Many riders take a hard line with these edicts.

“This year, I have a class on the second floor, so I go up to the second floor from the first floor on the elevators,” confessed performing arts major Suzi Pietroluongo, who said she suffers from knee problems. “I’ve had people honestly sigh when I press two. Sometimes I ask if anyone would mind that I press two.”

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Occasionally she gets a passive aggressive response: “I’ve had people tell me like, ‘Oh it’s not me that’s missing out on the exercise, it’s you.’”

Sophomore journalism student Bridget Morawski said she previously lived on the third floor of Piano Row, and said residents were advised to be polite and take the stairs up to reduce elevator traffic. At Emerson, deciding whether to ride or walk to the third floor is practically a moral issue. It’s like an 18 in blackjack; you don’t know whether to fold or hit.

More difficult than navigating to the third floor of Emerson’s steep campus can be surviving the overly intimate social situations that arise in elevators. Seeing your professor on the elevator always requires some quick thinking and problem solving: Saying the wrong thing, or not saying anything at all, could jeopardize their impression of you. Seeing your best friend’s ex requires a quick, dirty look, and then a long glance at your phone. Others, unable to handle the claustrophobic encounters, avoid the risk entirely — they’re the kids who come into your fifth floor classroom huffing, puffing, and sweating.

“Sometimes in the morning, I’ve noticed everybody is kind of in sleepy mode and it’s like that awkward silence moment where everybody is in close proximity, close quarters,” said Eric Hofbauer, who teaches jazz history at Emerson, of his in-elevator interactions with students. “You can hear a pin drop.”

Despite the discomfort, Hofbauer said most try to maintain some cordiality.

“My students always say hi, especially ones from past semesters and stuff,” said Hofbauer, who also teaches jazz history, ensemble, guitar, and composition at University of Rhode Island, where he doesn’t take elevators in academic buildings. “Everyone says ‘hi’ and ‘how’s your semester going’ and stuff. They’re very friendly.”

The awkward elevator ride is a familiar scene: Students are sardined between people they sort of know, eye contact is rapid and competitive, everyone is on Instagram, a professor makes a feeble stab at conversation, and the doors of a packed car open to eager students who will wait for the elevator longer than they’ll be on it.

But some students refuse to let the tight space interrupt a juicy conversation, Hofbauer said.

“I’ve definitely eavesdropped on some pretty funny stories of night-before epics of these college kids,” said Hofbauer. “I don’t really know if they notice I’m standing behind them- I’m tall, I stand in the back, so they might not notice that there’s actually a faculty member in the elevator.”

Others use their post-class elevator ride to discuss how busy they are. They will say it in poetic ways like, “Have you ever heard the expression ‘squashing mushrooms in a rainstorm?’” Thus commences a laundry list of assignments, extracurricular tasks, and internship applications that have to be completed before Friday.

It’s hard to imagine Emerson as a traditional, flat campus. How would students have a tete a tete after class to say ‘Did you start the paper?’ or ‘I’m dropping this class’ without riding the Tufte elevator from the 10th floor?

On more horizontal campuses, students have found benefits to avoiding the elevators.

“There are a lot of elevators [at Boston College], but people take the stairs because they are all about fitness,” said Emily Clark, a senior English major at BC.

But with Emerson’s anxious elevator encounters comes the possibility of growth. You can embrace the forced interaction offered by the vertical campus, and maybe even meet a new best friend riding up an elevator in the Ansin building. Future students will certainly have plenty of opportunities — as Emerson expands upward, the microsociety that exists within the elevators will only continue to reach new heights.