April 11, 2014 by Justin Roczniak
So, recently, I was watching an episode of The Triangle Live with Sandra Petri (a great Internet YouTube television program, by the way; I recommend it highly) about the origins of the Drexel Shaft. Most of us on campus today don’t know it beyond an abstract concept of “I was shafted by Drexel.” You’ve encountered it when they wouldn’t register you for a class, or they cashed your study abroad check on a day that coincided with what you called a “reasonably-sized” liquor store run and you went broke. However, the Shaft was more than just that.
For the longest time, it referred to the chimney of the Pennsylvania Railroad power station in the Powelton Railyards adjacent to campus, which Amtrak demolished in 2009, on the grounds that it was A. architecturally interesting, B. structurally sound, and C. had genuine possibilities to be reused as a commercial property. Naturally, it had to go.
Much more interesting in this episode, though, is the theory proposed by Drexel archivist Rob Sieczkiewicz, which is that the “Drexel Shaft” referred to a fountain in the main quad called the “Flame of Knowledge.” It’s not there anymore because it was moved in front of North Hall sometime after 1968. And this new piece of information got my gears turning about the current state of Drexel’s main quad.
The Flame of Knowledge, as best I can make out, was eventually replaced by one of those great fountains that you can walk through and get soaked. This fountain still exists, under the pavers in front of Gerri C. LeBow Hall, but its pump room is removed and no provisions have yet been made for a new one. After carefully considering student body input, which seemed to be universally positive and supportive of the return of the fountain, Drexel decided to take the low-effort way out and pave over it.
This brings me to our real subject. Ask anyone in their junior or pre-junior years about the quad and they’ll likely just give you a blank stare. “We have a quad?” And their query is perfectly valid. When the construction fencing came down and Gerri Hall was opened, we still didn’t have a quad.
What we got was a token plaza, like you’d see at a strip mall or a suburban office park. It’s a vast plane of grey pavers, uninterrupted by greenery, unpunctuated by monuments or even outdoor furniture, and unhospitable to all. The quad is not a place to “be.” It is, rather, a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. It pays lip service to being a quad, but fundamentally, it’s just a glorified parking lot.
There are a few easy ways to fix this of course. For one thing, take out about half the paving and replace it with a nice lawn. For another, throw in some permanent lawn furniture. Maybe even a permanent stage for impromptu concerts or angry student rants or whatever. These aren’t difficult to implement, and in the case of the greenery, would actually solve a lot of drainage issues. Of course, we just built this new quad, and I doubt Drexel is about to tear it up and start again, although that’s probably what they’ll end up doing in the end.
So our other solution to the quad problem is programming, and I don’t mean the computer kind. Events are going to have to happen on the quad for people to make use of it.
Very close to Drexel is the Porch at 30th Street Station. It has nothing going for it: It’s narrow; it’s not close to any amenities aside from 30th Street Station; and it’s crammed in between a high-speed arterial road, a highway, and a faceless government office building. Additionally, it was finished on a shoestring budget and never got past Phase 1 of its construction, it has no greenery to speak of, and, beyond all that, it has a stupid name. And yet, it’s a genuinely nice place to be because of the programming! Sometimes the Porch is a food truck food court. Other times it hosts a farmers’ market. Once or twice a month it’s even a beer garden! Programming a space can make all the difference. All over the city, we see great programmed spaces, like the free lunchtime concerts at LOVE Park, or the food truck festivals on South Street, or the much larger free concerts at the Piazza at Schmidts. Programming a space can totally change people’s perceptions of it.
I have not seen how students will react to the quad this summer, and for all I know, they’ll drag lawn chairs and umbrellas out there and start talking and laughing and tanning just like they do at Drexel Park and on the North Lawn. I find it unlikely, though, since they don’t do the same in similar spaces, like, say, F Lot.
To put it in the simplest terms, the quad needs a thing. Right now there’s nothing there, and no reason to be there. It doesn’t even have greenery. If Drexel wants a usable space, and not just one that provides a beautiful unobstructed view of Disque Hall (a highly underrated building, but that’s another story), they’re going to have to either get out of this mindset that they have to pave everything, or they’re going to have to do a lot of programming for that space. Ideally, they’d combine both. Give students a reason to use the quad, and they’ll use it and love it. Keep it the way it is, and they’ll collaborate and talk and laugh, not in the quad, but in Starbucks in Gerri Hall, and get fat and pale and depressed.
Justin Roczniak is the op-ed editor of The Triangle. He can be contacted at email@example.com