One chance encounter with a tweet took me through the looking glass. That’s how I felt as I chased details of the history of Antioch College in Columbia and its futuristic Bubble. Yes, it was all still Columbia…but with a twist.
Along with the smiling, clean-cut images in old photos of early Columbia residents were a different lot. Young people, perhaps a bit scruffy, long-hair, blue jeans or peasant skirts…
The footage of Antioch students working on The Bubble awakened memories in me. I found that I had an emotional connection to these young people. I “knew” them. They were my older sisters’ friends, the kids from LRY.* The images took me back to a time in my own life where I was peeking in to what the big kids were doing - - having coffee together after church, playing volleyball in our backyard, coming to parties at our house.
They had “rallies” with other Unitarian youth groups around Ohio and in Pennsylvania. They made their own rules, decorated their own spaces. Created their own songbook.
It wasn’t hard to imagine that the mission of Antioch Columbia resonated deeply with many young people of that generation. They didn’t merely want to break all the rules. They wanted to be an integral, active part of creating new environments and new experiences. Not new rules. New ways of being.
Jim Rouse, from an entirely different generation, saw value in experiential and cooperative education. He actively sought out Antioch. He invited into the beginnings of the New American City something out of the ordinary. Rule breakers. People who loved the process more than the product.
“…the campus became an experimenting one, not experimental.”
Learning this made me feel more connected to the beginnings of Columbia than I ever have. I always thought that those early years were all about creating a Garden of Eden for Mom and Dad and two kids. I saw around me Pioneers vociferously defending their suburban Garden of Eden. But it was more than that. It was messy and wacky and far out and the concept that people would try and fail spectacularly was built in right from the very beginning.
That, to me, was The Big Secret that learning about Antioch and The Bubble revealed to me.
Suddenly all the indignant objections against Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods made me laugh. People who maintain to this day that they “know what Jim Rouse would have wanted” picked apart almost every aspect of the early McCall plan. They mocked the Chrysalis from the outset: as a concept, all through the construction process, and after its completion. The shape was ugly, the color garish. The plans for the park would bring about the Disney-fication of Rouse’s precious dream.
When I looked at those kids hanging out together, preparing The Bubble for inflation, I laughed. The part of Columbia worth saving, worth “protecting” is the part where we value process, experimenting, and sharing our skills and talents. Risk-taking was encouraged. The focus was not on meeting the expectations of others. These students were not worried about looking foolish or offending the neighbors.
They were learning how failures along the way were an integral part of the process. And one more thing: they knew from the outset that the inflatable college building was impermanent. It was a risk worth taking.
This is not to say that Columbia’s earliest residents aren’t entitled to have a say in Columbia’s future. Not at all. But I wonder: in the struggle to protect what they love, has their concept of what belongs in the The New American City become rigid, or brittle? If a school like Antioch Columbia showed up today and wanted to allow students free reign to create a cutting-edge impermanent structure, would they be welcomed?
I reached out to the original poster of the tweet via email yesterday to offer my thanks. Joel Kuszai is a professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY. He responded:
That was spurred by a group that is working on this issue, some in Yellow Springs, OH. There is a lot more to this. I posted a video about this on you tube, also and can share pictures…I had done a lot of work on this about 15 years ago or so and so have lots of pictures etc. documents, etc.
Ooh. I could be learning about this for a long time to come. Who knew?
Possibly my favorite response to yesterday’s post came in a Columbia-centric Facebook group.
Where was the bubble? My mother swears it was in Symphony Woods and I'm too young to remember... and my search found nothing!
The reply, from Founder and retired Director of the Columbia Archives Barbara Kellner:
I think your mom might be right. Sorry I can’t confirm. The answer is in the archives.
Ha! Now we have come full circle.
It’s very likely that the Columbia Archives really is our Columbia Curiosity Bureau. I tend to think of it as the very respectable repository of significant documentation of the Great Columbia Experiment. And yet the archives probably contain a fair amount of the unusual, humorous, and surprising. A few weeks ago I stumbled on a bit of Columbia history that I had been completely ignorant of and it was the wackiest, most way-out thing I’ve learned about the place in 23 years. - - “In Defense of Curiousity”, 9/30/22
The answer is in the archives.
*Our family belonged to the Unitarian Society of Cleveland which leaned extremely liberal for the time, especially the youth group that my sisters participated in: LRY, which stood for Liberated Religious Youth. - - jam