The Tragicomic History of Commons

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They say Hogwarts’s Great Hall, home to treacle tarts and pumpkin juice, was modeled after it. That’s not true — the honor belongs to the dining hall in the College of Christ Church at Oxford University — but it may as well be. High, cavernous ceilings; lights strung around the interior as if it is never not Christmas; long, dark auburn tables; and portraits of mythical (mostly) men who have had some affiliation with the school. Commons is the wizarding world come alive for a few hours a day; it’s the Harry Potter series of dining spaces — some patrons are diehards, others poo-poo the popularity, but everyone recognizes the cultural importance.

Now, it’s no longer serving you pancakes.

On July 9, Yale Dining announced in a statement to the News that starting this academic year, Commons will end its breakfast service. The change comes as the University tries to make whatever cuts it can to chip into and eventually eliminate its $39 million deficit. Ezra Stiles, Morse, Branford, Saybrook and Silliman will now each provide hot breakfasts — eggs, pancakes, etc. — filling Commons’s former early-morning role.

The change brings Commons down to serving one meal of its former three. When residential college renovations ended in 2011, Commons closed for dinner. In response to that announcement, students started a Save Commons Facebook group and a petition urging the administration to reconsider.

“It’s kind of fundamental to Commons to be this neutral gathering ground,” Sophia Sanchez ’13 told the News. “Not every meal you eat has to be encapsulated within a college. We’re not just students of Davenport or Calhoun; we’re students of Yale College.”

But the dining hall remained closed for dinner.

Commons isn’t new to controversy. A dive into the Yale Daily News archives pulls up grievances small and large — food fights, management-student animosities, and gripes about cleanliness and the quality of food — each dispute fueled by a sense of collective ownership. Commons was the first building to unite an otherwise then fragmented community, and since its founding in 1901, everyone has felt like stakeholder.

But while students have formed their own social structures within, and attachments to, the shared space, for most of Commons’s history, the administration has had the final say. From 1901 to 1969, students were required to wear a jacket and tie for meals. Recent, sometimes temporary, closures — in 1991, 2011, and 2014 — have come down without student consultation and to various forms of dissent.

From Bread to Bourges

“You may complain about braised beef and assorted cold meat, but the present fare in Freshman Commons is a far cry from the starvation rations served there in times past. Early in the eighteenth century the staff of life lived up to its name in Commons, where bread and apples formed an almost unvarying menu.”

So reads a November 1938 Yale Daily News article headlined “Worms, Dirty Dishes, Graft, ‘Slum’ Have Caused ‘Food Wars’ in Commons” looking back on the history of the building, and the various shared eating spaces (dubbed “the commons”) that preceded it.

In the early 1700s, the piece reported, “slum” — “an incongruous mixture of leftover food from the day before, ‘fried to a consistency which baffled digestion’” — and a quarter pound of bread constituted breakfast. For lunch, students had to drink cider straight from shared pewter pitchers because their peers insisted on stealing cups en masse — on average, 600 per semester — from the dining hall (some things never change).

A hundred years later, the situation wasn’t much better. All freshmen were required to eat in the commons, while upperclassmen dueled with the administration over whether they too had to eat there. In 1819, the students staged a mass walk out, refusing to eat meals because, they said, “the steward had been drunk, the ham stank, the dishes were not washed clean, loose and mixed company was entertained in the kitchen, and the steward was involved in ‘graft,’ selling pies to outsiders.”

Though the faculty responded by “conducting an inquisition” and giving a “sharp shake-down” to the culinary staff, 10 years later, the problems had gotten worse. In 1828, students staged another walk out, also refusing to take the classes that were held in the shared space. This time, the faculty didn’t budge. A large number of students simply up and left school (the majority later returned under parental pressure).

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When the building we now think of as Commons, with a capital C, was built for the University’s bicentennial in 1901, students found options a lot more appealing than slum, but expectations that ran higher as well. At the time, students lived in boarding houses scattered throughout New Haven. They slept there, ate there, and socialized there. Opting into group meals at the dining hall was one of the few ways to unite an otherwise fragmented social scene.

It wasn’t only that students lived in different houses, grouping with those they already knew from Andover, Exeter and Choate, said Professor Jay Gitlin ’71, who teaches “Yale and America.” It was also that the Yale undergraduate population divided into two groups: the Academics (“ACs”), the equivalent of students graduating with a B.A. today, and the “Sheffs,” the equivalent of students aiming for a B.S. While the ACs spent their days on the south side of campus, the Sheffs largely remained in the SSS and Silliman region, home of the Sheffield Scientific School.

Gitlin said Commons was supposed to link these different spheres, “It served as a bridge where everybody could meet.”

But the new dining hall, built in at the same time as Woolsley Hall to form the Hewitt, or Bicentennial, Quadrangle, got off to a rocky start. There was a spiffy new building, but students weren’t up to its standards.

On May 2, 1902, the News published an editorial referring to “the disturbance at the University Dining Hall.” The piece never explicitly mentions what the disturbance is, but calls it a “continuance of a practice indulged in at the Old Commons … decidedly out of place in such a building as the new dining hall.” Though the editorial never named the details of the event, the piece was followed by several explicit reports of food fights in the paper, and was probably the first of a years-long trend.

Then, in October of 1903, a “Mr. Tyler” sat down Commons’s regular boarders for a spiel about the dining hall’s student-management relationship, which, never great, had soured. Tyler was less interested in laying down the law than having a constructive discussion. At the root of less-than-stellar service was a tipping issue, he said. Some students were tipping, some were not; the latter were, unsurprisingly, less satisfied with the service than the ones who were quick to hand over cash. Instead of individual tipping, students ought to pool their money for all the waiters at the end of every term, Tyler said.

Tyler’s democratic management model also extended to the food fights. Students would elect representative from each table, who would negotiate between dining hall management, school administrators and their peers. It seemed to work. A few days after, the News published an article announcing that, for the first time, a food fight perpetrator had been punished.

With the enforcement of order, came higher expectations of etiquette. There were waiters, assigned seats, pre-determined and uniform meals, and strictly enforced dining hours (you didn’t walk in and out whenever you pleased; failure to show up on time meant demerits). This lasted for over half a century.

“Until my junior year [in 1969], there was a coat and tie rule,” professor Gitlin said. By that time, students were serving themselves buffet style, but they weren’t yet bussing their own dishes.

Still, the signs of post-war counter culture were starting to show. Commons hosted a junior prom every year, and the big name bands during Gitlin’s time—the Byrds, Wilson Pickkett—played in the main hall, “much like Spring Fling.”

Meanwhile high society continued upstairs. A band played in the President’s suite on the second floor of Woolsley Hall, where “everyone would go and dance the Foxtrot or some old romantic dance.”

The affair lasted from Friday until Sunday night, when Commons switched back to a traditional dining hall that at least had the potential to unite everyone from across campus — though not in the way the administration might hope.

“Honestly, Commons was a place we all avoided,” Gitlin said. “Nobody liked it much. You couldn’t hear anyone. The acoustics are God-awful.”

And Back Again

If there’s a Commons of old and a Commons of new, Gitlin’s years at Yale, from 1967–1971, were bifurcated by the two. The Commons of old served up staid dinners, punctuated by outbursts of immaturity, while the Commons of new became the home of those left out by that very society.

In 1969 Yale simultaneously admitted women and relaxed the formal dress code in the hall, paving a trajectory of increased inclusivity. Meals were no longer a boys club, and they didn’t have to follow club rules.

So in 1991, when Yale Dining announced for the first time that Commons would no longer be serving dinner, the loss of a common space was acutely felt by certain groups.

“Minority and gay students often congregate in Commons,” the New York Times noted in its surprisingly detailed coverage of the event. “Nikki Montgomery, ’92, explained why she enjoyed dinner at Commons, ‘It is one of the few times on a daily basis that you get a lot of black people sitting down together to really talk because there aren’t that many black students in any given residential college.’”

Commons only remained closed for seven years. In 1998, the administration, beginning its renovations of residential colleges, chose to restart dinner service to accommodate those students who were unable to eat in their own dining halls. But as before, Commons became a home to Yalies of every college.

In 2011, Commons ended dinner again. This time, the announcement was over email, and the student reactions over social media. According to a News article published in May 2011, more than 800 students joined a “Save Commons Dinner” Facebook group, and more than 300 signed a petition by the next day asking Yale to reconsider.

As before, strong reactions came from those with affiliations that crossed college lines. A member of the fencing team noted that Commons was the only place that could fit his 15 teammates at once. And then-freshman Paavan Gami ’15 appealed to a sense of larger community.

“There is truth to the idea that cross-residential college friendships can and are formed and developed at Commons,” Gami wrote the news. “Dinner is the perfect time for freshmen to be integrated into the Yale community.”

But as much as collective dining influences student life, the administration makes decisions based on many more factors. In 1991, then-dining hall director Alan R Kenney cited the need to cut the dining budget by more than $1 million in a letter to students. More recent news has a financial bent as well — University President Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak have asked departments across the University to cut what they can from their budgets to make up a $39 million deficit. In a statement to the news in June, Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke cited “limited options for mitigating operation cost increases,” but in a recent email, she wrote that “the decision to close Commons for breakfast was not financially focused; rather the key driver was the opportunity to facilitate planning for its future renovation” and to make the “operational footprint” of the food service in the hall small enough for renovation to be feasible without impacting students’ food service.

But while Van Dyke also acknowledged that Commons is a “precious and important resource” for the Yale community, these changes have been made without student input. Yale College Council President-elect Michael Herbert ’16 said he was not told about the decision to stop serving breakfast until the administration issued a press release.

Commons will remain open for lunch, now from 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and several residential colleges will offer hot breakfast in its place. The shift is nowhere near as large as when the dress code was imposed, or when women got a seat at the table, but for those who liked the experience of pancakes in Hogwarts’s Great Hall, a little morning magic is gone.

For others, it simply won’t matter. As Jay Gitlin said, perhaps capturing the experience of a large segment of Yale’s undergraduate population, “I never made it to breakfast.”

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