When I first walked into East Quad upon my recent return to Ann Arbor, I was pleasantly surprised by much of the dorm’s summer renovation. The lobby’s new color scheme was markedly more tasteful and the new wood floors in many of the rooms were a needed upgrade from the ghastly, old linoleum. But when I walked out of the new basement laundry room to find that the Halfway Inn had been closed, I had to do a double take. I could see the need for certain improvements in the structure of the café, but to remove it entirely seemed extreme.
For those who are perhaps unfamiliar with the East Quad of old, the Halfway Inn was a retail-dining spot in the basement of the dormitory. It was dubbed “the Halfass” as a joke reference to the lovably lukewarm attitude its workers had toward efficiently preparing food. But in fairness, the delay in food preparation probably had more to do with inadequate kitchen resources rather than the indifference of the staff.
The food, though hardly dietetic, was both well prepared and pleasing to undergraduate palates. And the ambience was everything one would expect from a café in the basement of the quirky Residential College. An old piano sat in a corner of the room, against walls lined with eclectic record album covers. Couches and comfy chairs, in addition to standard cafeteria tables, created a community café feel out of an otherwise institutional space. And the odd, alternative music that often issued from a stereo in the kitchen was a reminder that the Halfass was a place in which conformity was not required of anyone.
Yes, that’s a predictable, cliché sentiment from a student in the RC. But East Quad’s distinctive history as a haven for unconventional students is an important consideration that University Housing seems to ignore. Housing believes that by converting one of the two ground floor dining halls into a new retail dining café, it is recreating a center for dormitory recreation. In some regards, it has succeeded — there are more tables in its substitute café, for example, and residents do buy food there. But it has failed in maintaining the time-honored tradition of offering made-to-order food. And more importantly, it has eliminated the offbeat flair that made the Halfass worthwhile.
The University certainly has the right to make structural changes to retail dining, but in moving away from the Halfass, the University has ignored the café’s other function of providing a cultural center for the RC. I understand that the intended purpose of the Halfway Inn was to provide snacks and necessities to East Quad residents, and not simply to cater to the implicit and unusual needs of the Residential College. But students with alternative interests are already relegated to the periphery by a University culture that deifies football players. They need a place where they can be comfortable in their own skin.
At the moment, the Halfass still exists as the home of the East Quad Music Co-op. The EQMC will keep it breathing as the last vestige of the glorious, old East Quad until some distant Housing official decides that this is no longer a reason to keep the facility maintained. But this is not good enough. Housing should keep the needs of East Quad’s historically uncommon students in mind and reverse the decision to remove retail dining from the Halfass.
If that proves too costly, then they ought to at least bring back the tradition of prepared-to-order food to their new café. This was a staple of the erstwhile Halfass, and since the current facility has an even greater capacity than the basement kitchen to prepare ordered items, there’s no reason why such food cannot be offered. Moreover, the new café should be decorated and furnished in a way that caters to its community. Housing ought to let East Quad residents paint murals on the walls, perhaps, as administrators permit in the residential hallways.
Lastly, I’ve heard that many in Housing were upset by the seemingly disrespectful name, “Halfass.” But as freshmen male residents are quick to point out, the new name, “The Other Way Inn” is embarrassingly suggestive. Though I think this name evokes colorful imagery, I think a different name might suit it better. It’s sad that Housing found the “Halfass” moniker so objectionable. Because more than ever before, that name seems fitting for the retail dining option Housing is currently offering us.
Matthew Green can be reached at email@example.com.