Sweetwater’s closure puts campus needs into perspective

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • March 26, 2015

At issue: Sweetwater Tavern’s bitter end.
Our take: With campus expansion, Emerson must take third place into account. 

Emerson announced in June 2013 that it planned to expand its campus at 1-3 Boylston Place, a proposal that would affect local businesses. As plans were submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority that August and costs were estimated in Fall 2014 — $175 million total for a dorm at 1-3 Boylston Place and Little Building renovations — many students wondered what would happen to a campus staple: The Sweetwater Tavern. 

Now, with its taps finally dry and doors permanently locked, the city has lost a beloved establishment and students have lost a critical intermediary space.

In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg suggested the existence of “third places,” community spaces different from the “first” and “second” places, where one lives and works. Third places are often, but not always, restaurants or cafes, and are marked by affordability, a comfortable ambience, and community of regulars. Think of the bar in Cheers or Friends’ Central Perk.

Emerson largely lacks such spaces on campus—Emerson’s Cafe is hardly relaxed, the dining hall is avoided by at least half of the student body, and the library and other study spaces are too prim. So Sweetwater became one of Emerson’s quintessential third places, where students of different ages, majors, and with different friend groups could all join in the camaraderie of trivia night and sing-alongs to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

Third place are important: They give people a chance to step outside the obligations of home and career. Now Emerson students have one fewer option for a third place in an already limited roster.

That Emerson’s expansion is forcing a longstanding neighborhood establishment to close is particularly ironic in the face of the college’s original goal when moving here. When Emerson started relocating from the Back Bay to the Theater District two decades ago, one of the institution's promises was to improve the neighborhood.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, this part of the city overlapped with what was called the Combat Zone, a nickname given to the blocks of downtown that were populated with seedy bars, strip clubs, and porn shops. The area became known among city-dwellers and scared suburbanites as a bad place to be. If you went to the Combat Zone, you were looking for trouble.

In 1983, Emerson College bought the Cutler Majestic Theatre. It followed that by purchasing the Ansin building in 1992 and the Little Building in 1994. Four years later, in 1998, the college bought the Walker Building.

Crossroads—Emerson’s bar of yesteryear, when the school’s campus was in Back Bay—was another third place for Emerson students that was shirked in favor of expansion.

With this redevelopment from Emerson and other institutions, the neighborhood has radically changed. Almost all of the less savoury businesses shuttered, and real estate values increased significantly. Restaurants began opening and the boarded-up movie theater became the AMC Lowes.

But with its new expansion plans, the college must now weigh its own priorities with those of a neighborhood it once wanted to help flourish. Emerson did help to erase the less desirable elements of the past, but now it is starting to nudge out some of the brighter spots of the city’s history. Sweetwater, after all, was founded in 1978, was a local favorite long before Emerson dared to raise its banners on this neck of Boylston Street.

Emerson wanted to improve the neighborhood. Now it is the neighborhood. And it must take this new responsibility seriously. 

The college’s current plans for the new dormitory do include a new cafe that will be open to the public, and this is a welcome opportunity for creating a new third place. Or perhaps the Little Building’s revamped dining hall could provide such a space. But architects will need to work hard to foster this sense, because the current options at Emerson set a woefully inadequate and over-institutionalized precedent.

Emerson should use its redevelopment projects to improve the lives of its on-campus students, rather than just create more of them. It’s true that the college needs more study space and more eating options. But perhaps more pressing is a place where students can just be.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Friends stomping ground as Daily Perk. It is called Central Perk.