September 10, 2023

KOH | Meet the McGraws: A Sorry Excuse for Housing 

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A little past West Campus, a dark winding road shrouded in overgrown trees leads to three old brick houses: 109, 118 and 122 McGraw Place. To get there, students must venture through a series of fraternity houses by day, and total darkness by night — save for the mere two to three street lamps flickering along the sidewalk. Upon arrival, a cockroach might scuttle from behind the radiator, and what was intended to be a hot shower before bed can end as a frigid flood in the bathroom.

Welcome to Southwest Campus, the forgotten nook of old frat-houses turned dorms.

Southwest Campus is also home to two program houses: Veteran’s House and the Equity & Engagement Community, which students can apply to live in for a unique co-ed and communal living experience. The McGraw houses, however, are a different story; they should no longer be options for housing due to Cornell Housing’s poor maintenance and lack of concern for the residents.

As a sophomore transfer, I lived in 122 McGraw Place, former home to the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon, along with many other transfer students. When I arrived in the fall, it was clear that little to no attempts were made to create a welcoming and clean environment for incoming students. Dust and cobwebs decorated the front door, dirt swept across the lounge floor and trash was slouching in a dark corner. The women’s bathroom on the 4th floor was flooded within the first week and remained unfixed throughout the entire fall semester. Meanwhile, in 109 McGraw Place, a mouse was spotted roaming the halls. To pick up packages, students had to tread to North Campus’ Robert Purcell Community Center, a lengthy 27 minute walk, or possibly longer depending on the size of the package. After many complaints, Southwest Campus’ service center was moved in October to Willard Straight Hall, which was still a hike up the slope away.

At my first residence hall meeting, my RA had announced that Cornell Housing and maintenance would gradually begin renovating the space. It seemed that Cornell Housing decided the start of the school year would be the perfect time to renovate the house, rather than before. Despite this promise, however, day-long water shutoffs happened all too often, broken heaters went untouched and leaks in the bathrooms were a daily occurrence throughout the semester.

These issues with maintenance can be fixed, should Cornell Housing realize the current conditions of these residence halls. Yet their lack of response concerning student safety hints that there will not be improvement any time soon. On multiple occasions, I have felt my own safety at risk on Southwest Campus, but my reports of my concerns have gone unacknowledged.

As many do, I would often stay on campus until I finished my work before retreating to my room. Yet unlike others, my walk back to my dorm was a daunting and frightening challenge every night. As a young woman, walking alone past dark woods with little light is already an unenjoyable experience; I would find myself speed walking to the house or calling a friend to simply feel safe. My request for the school to install more street lamps along the road so that the path back to the rooms would be safer for all students living in Southwest Campus went unanswered. Then, my request to change residence halls due to these safety concerns also fell on deaf ears.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and disturbing fact is the lack of response to reports of elderly men lingering near the McGraw Places. During my night walks back to my room, I have seen men — who were clearly not students — wandering near the houses. I’ve heard from my neighbor of a man taking pictures into our first-floor bathroom. On one account, at around 2 a.m., an unknown man asked me if he could enter the house as I unlocked the door. I remember panic flooding through my mind as I raced upstairs, refusing to look back, into my room and locking the door. I notified my RA and called the RA-on-Call and was told that Cornell Safety would investigate; I never heard back. The mystery man could have been a student or a visiting friend, but the lack of initiative to warn other residents or to address this concern of strangers approaching the house sheds light onto the lack of Cornell Housing’s care for students.

Cornell Housing’s indifference and lack of maintenance transcended into this year and onto North Campus. Approximately 130 students from the class of 2027 were welcomed onto campus with uncomfortable and overcrowded living conditions, forced to live in triples or makeshift dorms in student lounges without any warning. This housing fiasco was caused by the lack of planning on Cornell Housing’s part; they could not organize the large incoming class into the housing system before move-in day. Although this issue is now resolved and students have been placed into proper rooms, it reflects the continued lack of care, concern and preparation on Housing’s part.

The McGraw houses were never meant to be residence halls. The very design of the houses cannot cultivate a sense of student community; the isolation from campus and other dorms, lack of lounges or green area for socialization and the absence of close dining options and community events all strip away many of the appeals and charms of a true university residence hall.  If Cornell Housing will continue to overlook student concerns and the poor conditions that plague the houses on Southwest Campus, then they need to stop resorting to former frat houses as student housing altogether.

Serin Koh is a third year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her fortnightly column And That’s the Skoop explores student, academic and social culture, as well as national issues, at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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