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Seeing UC Berkeley anew on my own campus tour

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MARCH 31, 2014

Wheeler Hall has a certain old-world charm. The hallways are wide. The windows are enormous. There’s a women’s bathroom on the third floor that looks like it came straight out of Harry Potter. (On Foursquare, it’s the Chamber of Secrets.) As an English major, I’ve spent a great deal of time here. The building is almost a hundred years old — a fact that anybody who can follow a line of electrical conduit can see. I sat in a professor’s office last week on the fourth floor and watched as he calmly took a wrench out of his pen cup and banged it on the old radiator behind him to get it to stop making that awful, cantankerous noise. Wheeler is one of the buildings that make up the old heart of Berkeley. Like Dwinelle and LeConte halls and the libraries, they’re the ones everybody knows. I decided last week that I was going to visit every building on the UC Berkeley campus so that I can say I really know this place before I leave it.

Let me tell you right off that I failed. I wanted to visit every building owned by UC Berkeley, but once I found that list (accompanied by some unsettling seismic safety information), I knew I couldn’t do that in the time I had allotted. I had about a day to devote to this, so I ruled out residence halls, parking structures, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and anywhere too far to walk. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and bleary-eyed, and I realized I did not get exactly what I came for. But I did get a story.

I started at the top of the campus, judiciously deciding I would rather work downhill than uphill. Many of the buildings up near the North Gate helped me to realize something I did not previously know. When I walked into Cory, Soda, Sutardja Dai or Etcheverry halls, it was like I was at an entirely different university. When classes let out, the crowd was overwhelmingly male. Down on Sproul, the crowd is fairly even, but I usually perceive more women than men. Up top, if an engineering or computer science class had just let out (I’m assuming, based on conversations and what was left on the board), the people in the hall were 80 to 90 percent male. Although no one was unfriendly to me, I did get a few outsider glances.

From there, I walked down through McCone and Davis halls and ended up staring at the whirling steel sculpture suspended in the Bechtel Engineering Center. As that spiral spun, I reflected on the narrowness of my social circle. I had felt out of place in science buildings because I knew hardly anyone in one of those majors. Here and there I have friends in molecular and cell biology or political science, but for the most part, my friends are like me: readers and writers and liberal arts types. I wondered why we don’t cross over more. The campus was starting to feel segregated to me, so I kept walking down to Evans Hall.

Evans wasn’t new to me. Like most people, I have had classes in those windowless little dungeon-rooms with those flying-saucer orange chairs. Watching people come and go, I saw that this was a fully integrated place where everybody had discussions and math classes and study groups. Evans is an eyesore and feels purely utilitarian in every way, but the mixed-up multivarious heart of Berkeley is there.

The hidden gems were up next. I already knew Hearst Memorial Mining Building, but it’s my favorite. I took a quick walk up those marble stairs just to look at how gorgeous it was, then pushed back through the massive wood doors.

I had never been in Hildebrand, Giauque or Gilman halls. The last two are very pretty; the first is stunning. Inside Hildebrand, I found a hidden courtyard between it and Latimer that would be overrun by Instragrammers if it weren’t so hard to find. It reminded me of my first days at Cal, when I got lost in Dwinelle and found Ishi Court by accident and decided to eat my lunch in its spooky sunless square.

By the time I had walked through Downtown Berkeley to reach the University Avenue Golden Bear Center, I was wiped out. I felt like I had traveled the world in a day. I had come from South Hall, where I saw a gang of junior high kids taking Harry Potter-themed selfies, to Valley Life Sciences Building, where I was greeted by griffins and dinosaurs guarding the secrets of the future.

Visiting every building on campus was on my Berkeley bucket list, but it did not give me a better understanding of Berkeley. If anything, this experiment pointed out to me how fundamentally different my experience here will be than that of someone who has never seen his or her professor beat on the radiator with a wrench. If we never explore this place outside of our own majors, we are like the five blind men feeling the elephant. The only way for the whole thing to be known is if we trust each other and tell the story together.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].

MARCH 31, 2014