I’ve been walking through the remains of Central campus lately.
As the weather continues to cool, and the leaves start to rustle in the trees lining Alexander Avenue, the area has a kind of vacant beauty. Other than the occasional campus bus barreling down Oregon Street towards Blue Light, the streets are largely undisturbed. Plots of land that once anchored the ancient apartments that housed the majority of Duke’s greek life are now covered by wild grass. I can see the Twitter caption now: “the Earth is healing; we are the virus.”
During a year where an actual virus has changed the way we spend our days, taking a walk after hours of Zoom classes provides some much needed stress-relief. With the Duke Gardens closed until further notice, the abandoned Central campus serves as a different kind of wide open space where I can clear my thoughts.
Walking through this new, empty reality of Central campus is calming. But I still see the ghosts of Theta girls sprinting across the street towards the C2, hair wet, coffee thermos in hand. The bus driver patiently drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, making sure they didn’t get left behind. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with nostalgia for the trashy campus that once was.
And amidst these nostalgia walks, I’ve been forced to confront the jarring reality that the Duke I remember so well doesn’t exist anymore.
I don’t have many personal ties to Central campus. I never lived there. And anyways, the demolition of Central campus was a long time coming: the walls and ceiling were dotted with mold, the metal staircases had rusted, and rising tensions in Duke housing reform made Central’s destruction inevitable.
Yet I still remember piling into an Uber to an upperclassman’s apartment, caked in sweat from hours of dancing at Shooters. Watching my friend trip on the metal stairs leading to her door, leaving a gruesome purple bruise on her leg as she limped to the finish line of her Saturday night. Washing the X’s off of my hands in the dimly-lit bathroom before settling in for 2 a.m. Enzo’s and a movie.
Visiting a Central apartment at the end of a long day felt like the pure joy I assume adults experience after their 9-5, kicking off their shoes, tossing their keys on the counter, and melting into the couch. Stopping by a friend’s place wasn’t like a trip to any other Duke dorm. Those apartments felt like homes.
Those homes disappeared when Duke destroyed Central. Not only did Duke demolish it, they burnt it to the ground.
And with its destruction, the Duke I arrived at three years ago evolved. I’m sure similar personal crises of nostalgia have befallen many graduating students before me, but only the Classes of 2020 and 2021 have been forced to face senior year at an entirely different Duke.
The Duke that was the backdrop to our dream senior year isn’t COVID-compatible. Those who grinded for three years with the promise that “senior year I’ll have free time!” aren’t seeing their hard work pay off. In 2016, The Chronicle published 101 Things To Do Before You Graduate, a list that will be left incomplete for many of us. Students can no longer “meander through the Duke Gardens,” “get kicked out of Perkins at closing,” or “ride the bull and dance in the cage at Shooters.” For the Class of 2021, that Duke is long gone.
I had my own list of senior year expectations. I wanted to cram into Cameron Indoor Stadium one last time. I wanted to win Krafthouse trivia. I wanted to hug my friends.
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I hope that no other senior class has to face what’s supposed to be their best year here at a version of Duke that pales in comparison to the one they saw as a starry-eyed first-year.
But Duke is ever changing. If I had to explain to someone from the Class of 2018 what campus looked like now, they’d ask me what exactly is a “Blue Light.” Duke has to keep evolving, and sometimes that means tearing down something that once meant a lot to people. Every fall brings a new class hoping to mold Duke to their expectations. The Duke experience is malleable by design. Eventually, that means getting left behind.
But we’re not left behind yet. We’ve been trying our best, whether that meant rapidly finding off-campus housing, making immaculate class schedules that our first-year selves could only dream of, or booking accommodations for a graduation we can only hope to have. The senior year we wanted to have was never going to live up to the senior year we’d get. And now, all we can do is try to make new memories with the Duke we’ve been given.
When we return to Duke after graduation, it won’t be like this, because it was never supposed to be like this. Future classes won’t have to face this version of Duke. There won’t be any footprints on the ground telling us where to stand, any professors trying their best to project across the lecture hall through a mask, or any one-sided bench swings on the BC plaza. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this Duke.
I’m not sure I want to. Then I’d have to acknowledge that it’ll all be over soon.
Jake Malone is a Trinity senior who’s probably on a walk right now. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays.