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Idle Space

Ways to Use Student Center Opening Left by Newbury Comics

Eric J. Plosky

Apparently, MIT thinks the Second World War ended only last October, for Building 20, designed to last “the duration of the war plus six months,” has only now -- finally -- met its steel ball coup de grace.

When I was a sophomore, I had a class in Building 20, and I suppose the edifice’s ceremonious departure marks a change in the way I will forever view the campus. The place has changed greatly during my (glorious) tenure here; such changes already make me feel old.

Freshmen and fresh-faced faculty are unaware that it was not possible, when I first arrived at MIT, to walk through Building 26 to 16 to 56 to 66. No, for many long months, the buildings -- first 56 and then 16 -- underwent spiffy renovations, only at the end of which was it possible to stride with dry impunity from East Campus to Lobby 7. Now, even though Infinite Corridor Jr. has been open for who knows how long, I still walk outside from EC to Building 6. Once, it was a trail dictated by necessity; now, it’s just a habit, one the MIT-young will never understand.

The snazzy Building 2 classrooms weren’t always; just three years ago they were as decrepit as those next door in Building 4 still are. Building 11 didn’t always have a self-important Student Services Center; it used to host the Fishbowl Athena cluster, rightfully symbolic of MIT. And doesn’t anyone else miss the high-yield weapons testing that used to endear me so to Hayden Library?

I’m digressing slightly; what I really want to focus on is everyone’s favorite 84 Mass. Ave., the Stratton Student Center. Yes, what is now the CopyTech Turbo-Express Xerox-Xerox-Xerox Center used to be the MIT Museum’s merchandising stand. Yes, Technicuts, in the basement, used to be a detention center operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But these are minor changes.

Picture it: Cambridge, 1995. (Imagine me using my best Sophia “Shady Pines, Ma!” Petrillo voice.) I am an MIT first-year in need of a compact disc, heading to west campus after my 6.001 lecture in 10-250 (these were, of course, the days before porn mixed with Scheme). I do not, upon exiting Lobby 7, turn to trudge down Mass. Ave., for it’s not necessary to schlep all the way to Harvard Square or to Boston’s Tower Records. I can buy my CD at Newbury Comics -- right in the Student Center, right next to LaVerde’s Food Palace.

This isn’t fiction. I myself played out that exact scenario (except for going to .001 lecture) hundreds of thousands of times during my first years at MIT. Alas and alack, however, Newbury decided last summer that its posh 84 Mass. Ave. location, despite regular profits, didn’t fit in with its overall, long-term game plan. (Who would have believed it -- long-term planning at MIT!) So Newbury gathered up its CDs and vacated the space, and, as even the most apathetic tool should have realized by now, the space is still vacant.

At this point, the situation really is ridiculous. MIT might have been able to keep Newbury by lowering its rents, or engaging in whatever other machinations are possible in the real-estate business. Instead, the administration stared dumbly at the departure of a popular tenant, and it hasn’t made any progress over the past year in filling the space. Doesn’t it embarrass administrators that a prime location is unfilled in what is supposedly the headquarters of student life?

No matter. Now that MIT has gotten used to zero income from the Space Vacant (nÉe Newbury), I have a couple of ideas as to what it can be used for:

President Vest’s office. Hackers would have a really hard time hiding the entrance, but that’s just about the only downside to this plan. After Chuck neighbors up with Frank LaVerde, I predict a significant change in the administration’s responsiveness to students.

Subsidized massage parlor. Every now and then, massagists make guest appearances in the lobby: Who would argue against a permanent presence, especially if the Tute keeps it cheap? Suggested addition: luxury five-minute shampoos, expensive-salon style. Aaahhh.

24-hour bowling alley. West campus would be alive at all hours with the cheery sound of bowlers carousing. (Hmm.) Maybe better: roller rink. Yes, it would be small, and you’d have to leave enough space for both a disco ball and a concession stand. But it could all be shoehorned in. (The Stud. Ctr.’s no-skating policy would need a tweak.)

Medical Department triage facility. To serve the needs of the dozen or so students who live on west campus, a fully-stocked miniature hospital Á la M*A*S*H. An operating theater with big picture windows would enable students on their way to or from Lobdell to observe operations in progress.

Student social space. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Long-shot ideas: new athletics center, pet shop (as if we didn’t have enough animal life on the upper four floors), off-track betting parlor, N.R.A. field office, and any of {tobacco shop, liquor store, pool hall}.

If any of these ideas appeal to you, dial (781) 273-5555 and pass them along -- and feel free to take all the credit. It’d be enough for me to be able to visit campus in ten or twenty years, look at the space formerly Newbury Comics, and nod with satisfaction when I say proudly to myself, “I had a hand in that.” Whatever else changes on campus, that would be enough to make me feel young.