Section: Opinion

Don’t destroy the Black Box

The College’s move to tear down this historic landmark reflects a troubling trend of Village homogenization

My favorite building on campus lies to the right of the post office. It’s seemingly vacant except for the stray cat that perches on the side of the building toward the back, always sitting there, glaring at passersby rushing back to their dorms or off to class a few minutes behind schedule.

At first glance there’s no way to tell the building is in use — black drapes cover part of the door, and the bulletin board to the left of the door includes Kenyon Reservations listings from September. But past the tall columns out front and the darkened doorway, there’s a space designated for student use, quite unlike the other performing arts spaces on campus: This is our Black Box.

There are three traditional performing arts spaces on our campus, and most of them are not open for public use. The first, The Bolton Theater, is reserved for main-stage productions directed by faculty from the Dance, Drama and Film Department, dance concerts and select lectures. The Hill Theater hosts senior theses, dance concerts and many late-night rehearsals for introductory drama courses. Undoubtedly the space available to student groups is the old bank building in the middle of downtown Gambier — the space converted into our Black Box.

Recently, the College sought a permit from the Village to demolish this space, and the Master Plan proposes a market and more student housing on the land it now occupies. While I salute the College for providing more housing for students, the price of these construction projects is more than just a couple million dollars. Kenyon’s culture is going to change.

When I think of the new plans for downtown Gambier, I think, chillingly, of the song “Little Boxes,” popularized by Pete Seeger, about the houses built by the U.S. government for veterans after World War II, and other suburban developments like the Levittowns. The song attacks the uniform developments, cheap building materials used to mass-produce these houses, including asbestos, and the way suburbia seemed to move American culture toward mass production and blandness, in place of creativity and freedom.

Why are we removing historic, quirky buildings like the Black Box in favor of a more suburban town? This is not what Kenyon is all about. Look at the alumni whom we trumpet: Olof Palme ’48, Paul Newman ’49, even John Green ’00: These people were mold-breakers, not conformists.

Ultimately, this is not my decision to make, and I hold Graham Gund ’63 and the Gund Partnership in high regard. Yet I ask the Gund Partnership to consider this plea: Take a minute to see the Black Box through our eyes. Sure, it’s a “cement block,” as Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman called it earlier this year, but it’s also a safe, comfortable space for us to practice our craft. Dearest administration, you and the community are always welcome to attend our shows. I’d also encourage you to take a moment to listen to the words of good ol’ Pete, “Little boxes on the hillside, and they all look just the same.”

Jess Kusher ’19 is a biology and film major from Spartanburg, S.C. Contact her at kusherj@kenyon.edu.”

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