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Back to My Old School

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The old UIC campus had moods to make even the most tormented interdisciplinary-lit major quickly appreciate his or her place in the universe. That was before it was renovated last year.

On wet days the granite walkways that crisscrossed overhead would dump umbrella-denting spurts of rain on the unsuspecting freshmen who used them for shelter. In the winter, hiking across the unplowed upper plaza that stretches from the library to the student union required snowshoes and ski goggles. A simple trip to the financial aid office in University Hall was like traveling backward through a mine shaft.

I could go on--the howling wind tunnels, the deadly icicles, the physics-textbook-deep puddles, the hurried nighttime walks past the desolate Jane Addams Homes to the one or two actual campus bars. I used to tell friends I was attending college in a Wim Wenders movie.

No more. I stopped by the school this fall, three years after graduating and during the first year since the campus was "revitalized" into a replica of a southern California community college. Gone was the old outdoor forum, where students were supposed to gather as in Greek times but where I could never last more than ten minutes on the concrete seats without hurrying off to the softer chair of a class I might otherwise have skipped. Gone were most of the 342 bird-shit-streaked columns that used to hold up the walkways and provide hiding places for professors dodging advisees.

In their place were spacious lawns, funky lampposts, baby trees, earth-tone sidewalks, and ... light, where once was concrete and shadow. Students lounged on the grass. Leaves fluttered down to rest on once-seasonless surfaces. Dorm windows sported cutout pumpkins.

I hated it all. The old UIC was special, the prototype for the "brutalist" urban campus. And if the purpose of American schooling is more social engineering than education, the old campus was also highly functional. Anyone who could survive four years in those bleak square blocks at Halsted and Harrison, surrounded by housing projects and expressways, would no doubt go on to thrive in any monolithic corporation or lifeless megalopolis.

Now it's like any other school: a mirage.

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