Yale is more invested in its residential-college system now than ever before: Its development will be a defining part of University President Richard Levin’s legacy. But the recent improvements are not cheap. The renovations have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and if the University proceeds with the building of two new colleges, their cost is projected to reach at least $600 million.

Despite the primacy of the colleges, in 2006, 22 percent of Yale juniors and 33 percent of Yale seniors opted to ditch those cushy joints and move off campus.

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And a lot of them moved to the Elmhurst.

The Elmhurst is an easy building to find: It’s the giant block across from Rudy’s with a bunch of trash in front. It’s also easy to get into, since almost everyone in the neighborhood knows the building code (“You might as well make that code the article’s title,” one student told me when I interviewed him for this story.) And once in, it’s easy to get people talking. Everyone has at least one colorful anecdote.

“We finally got the sink fixed. But now the refrigerator’s leaking.”

“You’re from the YDN? Let’s just say there is a recurrent rodent problem.”

“Our floors slant. But not normally. Like, these ones slant this way, and then these ones slant this way.”

“I am often woken up by a homeless man digging through my trash.”

“There was a toilet just sitting in our landing for a while. I don’t know why it was there. You should go ask someone about that.”

Elmhurst residents didn’t want to speak on record about the building because they were scared that their landlord, Larry Visochek, would revoke their security deposits.

“I remember when we first moved in here,” Spencer Hayden ’09 said. “He was like, ‘You are not in a residential college anymore. The Elmhurst is not a residential college. I am not your master.’ ”

Hayden is right. Forget the cute perks of a college — the architecture, the custodial services, the automatic lights in the bathroom; simply by living in Visochek’s Elmhurst, or in its soul sister the Lynwood, or anywhere on Lynwood proper or Edgewood or Dwight or Howe, students lose out on basic college functions, in practice if not in theory. Most become less connected to their colleges. Most spend less time in their dining halls. And most lose contact with those acquaintances who fall somewhere between stranger and friend but who create a community.

But they aren’t particularly concerned. For the past four years, an average of 75 percent of juniors who moved off campus stayed off campus for their senior year.

As Yale moves forward in its expansion of the residential-college system, a significant fraction of Yalies will choose to move off and stay off. Most of these students want exactly what the residential-college system purports to offer — community. They just want it on their own terms.

‘Drink wine, be civil and pretend’

Sochie Nnaemeka ’09 is making us dinner. But first, we will have hors d’oeuvres.

She brings them out on an oven tin, even though they never entered the oven: slices of French bread topped with tomatoes and Gorgonzola cheese.

“Oh, wait, you’re not going to cook it?” asks Hayden, her roommate.

“Like, it’s not going to melt onto the bread or anything?” asks Genna Braverman ’09, a frequent visitor of Elmhurst 202 and one of tonight’s dinner guests.

“No!” says Nnaemeka. “It’s fine, just eat it.”

We dig in.

For three-and-a-half decades after the creation of the residential-college system, Yale students could live off campus only if they were 21, from New Haven or married. In the ’70s, Yale allowed all students who had completed their freshman year to live off campus, and since then the University has had one of the stranger housing arrangements in the Ivy League.

Unlike Harvard and Princeton, Yale is not located in a posh suburb: Yale is located in New Haven. Whatever its faults, New Haven offers student-level rent rates. So Yale students are faced with two options: They have this prestigious, well-endowed residential-college system, but then they have a viable (and often cheaper) alternative. Harvard’s off-campus housing rate is consistently below 5 percent. Last year, 13 percent of Yale’s undergraduates lived off campus.

Dr. William Hurt Sledge has thought a lot about residential-college life, and he holds that residential college life has unique benefits that cannot be reproduced off campus. Sledge, the former master of Calhoun College, recently finished serving as the chair of a committee tasked by Levin with investigating the effects residential-college expansion would have on student life.

Moving off campus will always be right for a certain group of students, Sledge said, but he thinks a residential college offers amenities that an apartment building can’t provide. Among the features Sledge mentioned was the dining halls, which he said “allow students to not have to worry about fixing meals, but to focus on other things that might be important.”

But for Nnaemeka, Hayden and many others living off campus, the cooking process is not something to be avoided — it is something to be embraced.

“Part of dinner parties is just cleaning up together,” said Isabel Unanue ’08 of 37-39 Lynwood. “You create things together, and that creates a community.”

For these students, cooking their own food is not simply a chore, but a part of the larger freedom to shape their lives that off-campus housing provides. As we munched on the hors d’oeuvres, Hayden pointed to the ways he and Nnaemeka had decorated their apartment.

“Yeah, so we painted the whole place mint green, and oh God, it was disgusting. It might have been even worse than the pink” — the apartment’s previous shade — “so finally we were like, whatever, and we just had some guys come in and paint everything white.”

In residential colleges, by contrast, students incur monetary fines if they paint their walls.

“Yeah, as long as we keep things out of the landing, Visochek basically makes it his policy not to ask about what we do inside our rooms,” Spencer said.

Except for a photograph of some place in China and a pink sheet of paper (“Oh, those are instructions on how to hump the wall,” Spencer said. “I got it in this gallery in New York”), the white walls of 202 Elmhurst are bare.

Other off-campus students have gone much further to customize their living spaces. The FOOT house on Dwight Street is packed with works of art, including a series of rubber disks hung on a wall, an unfinished replica of God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel and a portrait of a woman unknown to the house’s current tenants. And even though the house’s residents have no idea where most of the stuff came from (“It was all here … when we got here,” said Bente Grinde ’09, one of the house’s residents), they still say it enriches their lives, and they are steadily adding their own works to the house’s store.

Sledge said he recognizes that some students want greater control over their personal space than their residential colleges allow.

“There will always be students who want to have a maximum impact on the details and symbols with which they surround themselves,” he said. “But that kind of experience, by definition, cannot be easily achieved in a college.”

Instead, college life is conducive to other kinds of experiences. Although he acknowledges that off-campus housing is right for a lot of people, Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske maintains that something is lost in the move. In addition to fulfilling his duties in the dean’s office, Meeske acts as Yale’s housing liaison with peer institutions.

Meeske lived both on and off campus as a Yale undergraduate, but he was on campus during a strike by dining-hall workers in 1971.

“We all thought, ‘Hey, this is great!’ They were giving us money to go out on the town,” he said. “For the first two days, we just had a great time. Then, by around the fourth day, I remember feeling very lonely. Even though we were all in the same dorm, I still felt so isolated. The dining hall was our place to gather and talk and meet people. Without it, our contacts with fellow students were so limited. It was such a part of your Yale identity.”

But for Alexandra Romanoff ’09, another Elmhurst resident, dinner is not a time to affirm one’s Yale identity. Quite the opposite.

“Dinner parties,” she said, “are where you can drink wine, be civil and pretend for three hours that you’re not some grubby Yale student who has a final the next morning.”

‘A microcosm’

So if you’re forging your own environment, if you’re painting your own walls and making your own food, if you’re not some grubby Yale student, then what are you?

The most frequent prejudice against the tri-street area is that it is swarming with hipsters. It’s a hard subject to talk about, as no one embraces the label “hipster,” at least not like its predecessor, “hippy.” Our parents might revel in their ’60s youth, but it’s hard to imagine someone bragging to his kids about being a “hipster.” “Your father always spoke derisively of hipsters but nevertheless secretly wished someone would refer to him as one,” maybe.

No one in the Elmhurst embraces the label, anyway, and that’s probably fair. In the words of Elmhurst tenant Gideon Bradburd ’08, “Yeah, a bunch of kids might wear square glasses and tight jeans, but any group of Yale students will have different enough tastes and interests that one label for them would just be kind of stupid.” Still, that’s the prejudice that comes with the place, and it’s something on the minds of many Elmhurst residents.

“Are you going to write that we’re all hipsters?” asked Romanoff. “Because it’s kind of true.”

“Well, no, it’s not,” she added a moment later.

But perhaps it’s unsurprising that the Elmhurst has a cohesive identity. Every single off-campus student I had a serious conversation with (about 20 in all), in the Elmhurst or elsewhere, said that “being with friends” was a major factor in making the decision to move off. Hipster scene or no, the Elmhurst is a social hub.

“Much of your decision on whether or not to move off will depend on how your friends are organized,” Sledge said. “There are some students who make friends mostly within their residential college. And then there are those who make friends through extracurriculars. They might want to live off campus together.”

They do. The Baker’s Dozen house. The men’s hockey team’s house. Frats. Whenever a tour guide passes through Branford College, he tells the group that placement in a college “is completely arbitrary. There is no women’s college, no athlete’s college, you know, no a cappella college.” The tour guides are assuring prospective students that Yale kids are not organized by extracurriculars. They don’t tell the visitors that some Yale kids, for whatever reason, do prefer to be organized in this way.

On Yale’s admit Web site, residential colleges are explained like this: “Yale makes every effort to represent the diversity of the entire undergraduate community within every residential college. In this sense each college is a microcosm of the larger student population.”

“A microcosm of the larger student population” — that’s exactly what a house based on an extra-curricular activity is not.

Still, Sledge does not think that the practice of organizing by extracurriculars undercuts the mission of the residential colleges.

“Within a university setting,” Sledge said, “there will always be a tension between diversity and this sense of belonging by being with those like you.”

But what about off-campus places that aren’t associated with a specific activity but nevertheless have a distinct personality? Is the Elmhurst a hipster frat? Before her guests left for the evening, Nnaemeka posited a more complicated relation between the group, the individual and conformism than that offered by Bradburd.

“I remember coming to a party here,” she said, laughing with embarrassment. “I remember thinking that the people who lived here were cool and wanting to be like them. It’s strange. … We were all such wannabes. We’re still such wannabes. The Elmhurst is like our little Bohemian fantasy, our little Brooklyn.”

Nnameka and her guests were laughing, but she was still trying to articulate something not quite formed.

“Still, though, it’s changed us, somehow,” Nnaemeka said. “You can tell who’s an outsider when someone throws a party. They haven’t found the uniform to match. I feel like living here, somehow, has authenticated our fake hipsterness.”

She ended with a self-deprecating sigh and smiled. The food might have been served on an cookie sheet. The apartment might have been barely decorated. But all the kids in that room knew how to hold their wine glass and cigarette.

‘The 13th college’

According to Sledge, the YPD refers to the neighborhood behind Pierson as “the 13th residential college.” But Sledge himself questions the validity of such a label. Because in addition to the “more prosaic” amenities (ready advising setups, ready meals, being relieved of certain menial tasks), he said, there are also “more ephemeral” things to be found within the college system.

Sledge said the intensity of residential-college life can be a major catalyst for student growth. He described two kinds of relationships he had witnessed as master. The first was a “mutual admiration society,” in which two people of “different worlds” might “fall in love” and “become life-long friends.” The second was not as rosy.

“As a master, I was also witness to less happy outcomes, times when two people, sometimes two friends, would have a drastic falling out. These were the times that things got so bad that I would be called in to mediate. But even such negative interactions often resulted in real growth for the individuals involved. And I think such experiences, however intense and painful, might be an important part of the residential-college life.”

When asked, Sledge said he thinks it would be easier for students living off campus to avoid such intense interactions.

It’s this experience, good and bad, that Yale will be investing in when it builds two new residential colleges. But a lot of students just don’t want it. Some want the freedom to paint their walls, cook their food and choose whom they live with. Some want a way to shape their identity outside of the residential-college system. And some just want peace and quiet. Recalling life on campus, Yoona Kim ’08 of 37-39 Lynwood remembered feeling “hyperaware.”

“I remember constantly hearing the slamming of entryway doors,” Kim said. “And for me, off-campus life is about not hearing that. It’s about coming home and feeling at peace, like I’m actually in a home.”

Elmhurst resident Emma Freeman ’09 drew a subtle distinction.

“It’s the difference,” she said, “between a common room and a living room.”