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From the Magazine: North & South

Illustration of the Pomona College campus by Steve Gray

From a tactical perspective, the couple dozen Pomona students lined up on the grass didn’t have a chance. Calling them “ragtag” would have been an insult to rags. And tags. They were mostly wearing blue shirts, carrying stuff meant to be construed as weapons—squirt guns, sticks and toy lightsabers. They were playing soldiers of the Union Army during what had been billed as “Claremont’s First Civil War Reenactment,” and on this cloudy December day the parklike expanse outside Walker Lounge was standing in for Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. Which meant that the Pomona kids in blue were surrounded on three sides by Pomona students wearing grey, waiting to grind the blueshirts into meat.

With the kind of eardrum-piercing screams you usually only hear at a five-college party, the forces of the South charged. They ran up the steps that separate Walker Beach from Bixby Plaza, and closed in from the west and the east. It was going to be an ersatz slaughter.

Now, in general, modern Sagehens eschew bombs for bon mots. And yet: when North and South come to blows at Pomona, something resonates. Again and again, throughout Pomona’s history, North has opposed South. Conflicts of ideology— some less serious than others—have played out geographically. Even on so small a campus as Pomona’s, which side of campus you lived on defined your experience. North Campus or South Campus? Location is destiny. Where equals who.

Pomona College Magazine

  • Read "Faculty at Home" another feature from the Winter 2010 issue of Pomona College Magazine.
  • Download the full PDF [pdf] of the Winter 2010 issue of Pomona College Magazine.

IN 1887 THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA land boom went bust, and funding for Pomona’s first building stalled. Left with nothing more than a foundation and a cornerstone on a mesa north of the actual city of Pomona, the trustees hastily found space in one of the pop-up towns the boom had created, the mostly-empty village of Claremont.

Specifically, the College took ownership of a hotel that no one was staying in, and converted it to…well, everything. The Claremont Hotel—on the site of Marston Quadrangle today— became dining hall, classrooms, reception rooms, president’s suite, even a new preparatory high school. Women lived on the south end of the building; men lived to the north. It was a precedent that would last 80 years.

As Pomona’s enrollment grew, the north end of the campus was reserved for what became known as the “men’s campus.” Smiley came first, and then the Clark dorms and Frary Dining Hall. As recently as the 1950s, the women’s dorms, just 1,500 feet south, might as well have been on a different planet.

In women’s country, a certain gentility reigned. Blaisdell Residence Hall was “decorated and furnished with the primary idea of combining an atmosphere of femininity with a residential background,” according to a contemporary press account. The reception rooms were in the 18th-century English style, in terra cotta and pink. The windows were dressed with “hand-blocked linen draperies of pink roses and blue delphinium.” Women were expected to be inside by 10 p.m. except on special occasions, their behavior moderated by live-in proctors. Men waiting for a date would hang out in a “beau parlor” downstairs, ostensibly never seeing how that other half lived.

North Campus, meanwhile, was “a little more rough and ready,” says Bruce Prestwich ’55. “They were serious about it, protecting our ladies.” That’s not to say no one ever found ways to connect—Prestwich met his future wife Carolyn ’54 while waiting tables in Harwood’s dining hall.

Once a year, every dorm had an open house. It was the only (sanctioned) time anyone saw the rooms of members of the opposite sex. The men, says Prestwich, decorated their rooms with crepe paper and flowers. They weren’t always quite so domesticated. Carolyn recalled a women’s banquet in Frary that ended with the North Campus men forming a double line at the dining hall door, funneling the women—all dressed in formalwear— from the dining hall all the way to Smiley and then trapping them inside. “That was supposed to be really funny,” Carolyn says. “So a few of the women went upstairs and turned on the water to flood the place. They let us out.”

What I’m saying is, architectural differences between the two sides of the campus refracted and amplified the cultural ones. Obviously, when you segregate people by sex, the two environments are going to diverge. But more than that, the women’s dorms, with their stylish décor and hotel-style corridors, were meant to convey—and impart—a ladylike comportment, a set of manners. The men’s campus, on the other hand, combined Mediterranean red roof tiles, cloisters and white concrete walls with private entrances, fireplaces and built-in bookshelves. It was macho and clubby, and it implied responsibility and maturity. These were the ideals Pomona was trying to inculcate in its students. (James Blaisdell, then president of Pomona, wanted the men’s campus to have the feel of gentlemen’s rooms at an Oxford College—which goes a long way toward explaining why Frary looks like the Great Hall at Hogwarts.)

Colleges are supposed to operate this way. Architecture and landscape should, ideally, reflect the educational intent and philosophy. When it works, students can’t help but fall for it. “It’s a combination of general human placedness, where you try to come up with a myth or narrative for the place where you live,” says Geoff Manaugh, editor of the speculative urban theory blog Bldgblog. “Then you wed it with that time of life. You’re away from home and looking for an identity.” Fully 98 percent of Pomona students live on campus any given year—those kids are a full-time audience for everything the College can show them.

BY 1966, SEX SEGREGATION WAS falling apart at colleges across the country. Pomona opened Oldenborg—roughly equidistant between north and south campus and the first co-ed dorm on campus. A student commission pled for further integration, pointing out in a report that everyone was behaving. “We see how well the sexual exchange works at Oldenborg,” a senior named Lorrie Santillo, an author of the housing report, told the Los Angeles Times in 1968. “The men will talk about something other than sports and the women will discuss news rather than dress.”

Slowly, over the next three decades, a new campus division coalesced. It seemed that everybody preferred the classiness and open design of the Clark dorms to the more typical—and more contained—South Campus buildings. Since they had first pick in room draw, older students filled North Campus. First-year sponsor groups were mostly placed on South Campus, with a few exceptions. When I was at Pomona in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were sponsor groups in Norton-Clark and in Walker, and as a Smiley first-year I have to admit those “North-Campus freshmen” seemed exotic and sophisticated to me for some reason, even though they weren’t any older. It was probably that I didn’t really know where Norton-Clark was.

In any case, “Norton wasn’t particularly successful as a first-year residence hall,” says Deanna Bos, who has worked in Pomona’s housing office since 1986. “The students who lived on North Campus thought it was kind of cool, but they didn’t ever really connect with their classmates.” The Office of Campus Life determined that it’d be a better idea to cluster all the sponsor groups on one area. South Campus and Frank Dining Hall became a neighborhood of first-year students and their sponsors. Everything from Smiley north filled with mostly juniors and seniors.

Moreover, residence halls were coming to be seen as the places where the College could intervene as students built their identities as adults. “I think that when I first came here it was more the attitude of, ‘we’re here to provide you a bed and three square meals a day and a safe place to live and work and study,’” says Bos. “Now the amount of in-residence hall programming, trying to create more connections and intersections of viewpoints and communities, is more deliberate.”

The result? Different worlds again. “The first-year dorms have a strong, palpable sense of community,” Zach Barnett ’11, a head sponsor who lives in Harwood, tells me as he tours me around the campus. “Doors’ll be open. There’ll be people in the hallways talking. Any other hall, you won’t get it at all. It’ll just be kind of sad.”

Talking to a bunch of seniors over soda pop (and one root beer float) in the Smith Campus Center, though, brings a whole different perspective. “I didn’t really see what was so great about living on North Campus,” says Kerry Belodoff, who lives in a newly renovated Norton-Clark single. “Until I lived there.”

I ask for more specifics.

“North Campus is prettier,” Belodoff says.

“It’s also a lot closer to the other colleges,” says Andrew Halladay. He had the float.

“There are better parties on North Campus—” adds Marlies Talay.

“—because there’s a lot less common space on South Campus,” Belodoff says, finishing Talay’s thought. They’ve been friends for four years, after all.

But I’m still not getting it. “So the first-years just come up, right?” I ask. The table goes quiet.

“They can, yeah,” Halladay says, in a tone suggesting more of a hypothetical than I’d meant.

Talay explains: “It’s a little weird if they do.”

Now, it’s also the case that the location of a student’s sponsor group can act as a whole other sort of identity. Different dorms, even different hallways in dorms, come with their own reputations and mythologies. “You are identified with where you lived as a freshman for all four years,” Talay says, and I can’t argue—for a few of my friends I’m still, at heart, someone who lived in the “Buffer Zone,” the all-male, all-nerdy first floor of Smiley. I’m pretty sure my room still had water damage from Carolyn Prestwich’s attempt to flood the place.

Nevertheless, North Campus and South Campus exist in separate social milieus. North Campus, with its balconies and courtyards, is where the grown-ups are, a place where hard alcohol is still permitted in dorm rooms. South Campus is…not.

A DECADE AGO, THE CONTRAST spilled onto the pages of student newspapers and became the central issue for candidates for student government. At the heart of the conflict: corn dogs. Also pizza, coffee and other late-night grazing foods that comprise Snack, a fourth meal served in Frary Dining Hall from 10:30 to 11:30 most weeknights.

When the Frary kitchen underwent a remodel in 2002, Snack moved to Frank Dining Hall. When Frary was done, Snack moved back—but a few students prevailed on then-Dean of Students Ann Quinley to keep it in Frank once a week.

The machinery of political activism at Pomona cranked into action. “We were apathetic when they forced the lower classes south. We were apathetic when they turned our social venue (Walton Commons) into an R.A. desk,” said an editorial in The Student Life. “Thursday night snack up north seems like a cruel joke.” Petitions circulated. Some students argued that Snack was environmentally unsustainable, what with all the extra dishwashing. Others argued that it treated kitchen workers unfairly, foisting unwanted extra hours on them. Members of student government expressed shock that Pomona administrators might make decisions without informing them.

It’s easy to scoff at the entitlement implied by a class war fought over late-night munchies. Really, though, it’s all part of the plan. The particular controversy might have been unpredictable, but the fact that Pomona students chose sides in a battle and argued a point of view based on where they lived was not. “They get here and there’s a four-year process to test whatever ideas they have about their sexuality, their politics, their religion,” says Ricardo Townes, associate dean of students and dean of campus life. “This is my 33rd year in higher education administration, and I’ve seen nothing other than that arc.” Pomona is built, literally and metaphorically, to force students to choose those sides, to build that identity.

When I was a sophomore I lived in Oldenborg, and Fridays at 12:30 a.m. the woman who I’d later marry would meet me in the TV lounge to watch The Prisoner, a 1960s British series about an ex-spy called Number Six who gets confined to a surreal town called the Village. Every week Six’s captors would try to trick or torture him into telling them why he quit, and he’d resist. I’ve watched The Prisoner a few times since then, and now I realize that Claremont—our Village—has always been the inverse of Number Six’s. Both are architecturally and sociologically constrained environments. But his was built to extract information; ours was built to inject it.

POMONA COLLEGE’S FIRST-EVER Civil War reenactment ended pretty much the way you’d expect. The Southern forces’ pincer move would have worked perfectly, if anyone had played right. “It turned into a sort of free-for-all really early on,” says Jordan Cohen ’12, the film major who organized the battle. “You can see in the video, people were dying and getting back up and dying again.”

That’s the beauty of a simulation like a battle reenactment, or a college. You can try different approaches, again and again, taking different sides, testing for different outcomes. And if you fall, you’re safe. You get back up, grab your squirt gun and take another shot.

This article appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Pomona College Magazine. To view a PDF of the magazine, please click here [pdf] .