New LA campus calls for community immersion

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • January 16, 2014

At issue: Emerson’s iconic campus opens in Hollywood

Our take: Don’t let the building become a bubble

Emerson’s new campus in West Hollywood is, by any measure, stunning. Developed by world-class architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis, the structure towers above Sunset Boulevard, its thousands of aluminum panels glistening in the near-omnipresent sun. And from the fifth floor terrace, students relaxing in the open-air sundeck have vistas of both the Pacific Ocean and the iconic Hollywood sign.

But a quick glance past the guard rails or a short walk down the block reveals the building’s—and its inhabitants’—decided privilege. This glitzy high-rise is surrounded not by high-end shops, but small, family-owned businesses; not by glamorous apartments but by small middle-class houses. The socioeconomic disparity is marked.

It would be easy for Emerson students to live completely within the center’s shelter. Instead of going to the Latino grocery store across the street, with its fruit spread across multicolored bins and products with unfamiliar Spanish names, residents can simply go downstairs to the Emerson Kitchen, with its brightly-labeled cans of organic goods and tightly-sealed bags of gluten-free snacks. Instead of walking past the neighbors, students can hop in their cars—parked in the three-floor subterranean garage—and speed to their internships.

Calling attention to this is not meant to make students feel guilty for having access to this exceptional opportunity. It is merely meant to prevent the formation of a privileged bubble. Though students on the LA campus are encouraged to indulge in the luxuries afforded to them, it is an intrinsic part of their enrichment as students and humans to become aware of the world around them.

It will take a conscious effort for those on the campus to break outside their comfort zones and explore the less polished areas of Hollywood. Creating poignant films or the next great novel, after all, does take a bit of exploration outside of their bounds. With discretion, students should tear themselves away from the warmth of the campus firepit and the glam of floor-to-ceiling glass windows. While our new architectural feat is impressive, being enlightened by the effects of gentrification and housing discrimination can be too.

The responsibility of acknowledging these things is not solely that of the students. Administrators should do their best to use the new facility as a springboard for discussions about diversity, inclusion, and privilege. They should also make use of the campus’s close proximity to lower-income communities as a means of enhancing students’ artistic perspectives. Mentors are not exempt from ensuring that students in LA do not develop in isolation, or with a limited scope. Just as the Boston campus helped to revitalize the former “combat zone” surrounding the Common, the Hollywood campus has the opportunity to reinvigorate its neighborhood—but only if its residents are willing to engage.

Attending the much-discussed LA program is still something to be excited about—but it is important to be aware that not everyone in Hollywood calls their home a humble abode out of endearment. The city is rife with racial tension and deepening economic divides. It also happens to be plagued by many people that find it easy to gaze behind rose colored glasses, living blind to the inequality around them. Students that remember to cast aside these lenses will benefit from something even greater than the Hollywood of movies. They will benefit from the Hollywood of reality.