By Bethany Lee
A new space
Perched between a fire hydrant and a water grate, this spot is her hub. She’ll watch lectures, hang out with friends, hit her vape, and almost always sip on a specialty Starbucks drink she found the recipe for on Twitter.
Isabella Chow has sat in the same place on the quad for the four years she’s been at UNC-Chapel Hill: directly in front of Bingham Hall, on the raised brick lining the quad sidewalk. For Chow, it’s the perfect spot to relax and admire the campus.
At least, it was.
Chow’s view changed when UNC-CH erected outdoor study spaces around campus, like a beachfront property that suddenly looks out the window at a brick facade.
“They’re so ugly,” Chow said, looking up from her toffee nut iced coffee to wince at the giant canopy in front of her. “It’s this big, ugly structure in the middle of the quad.”
The university installed outdoor seating in 2020 to provide students with low-risk study spaces while COVID-19 occupancy and mask restrictions are in place. More spaces were added a year later, bringing the count to 15 outdoor seating areas with over 850 seats.
The tents are not difficult to find. From pretty much anywhere on campus, students can look up and see a white canvas tent with chairs and tables underneath. Not designed with aesthetics as the first priority, the tents are like KN95 masks: useful, but not beautiful.
From the inside, curb appeal is easier to ignore. Between the velcro carpet and steel-barred canopy, students tumble past. Birds flick between trees, a pod of dining hall employees laughs beside the flagpole. Occupants eat lunch or do schoolwork in the shade.
Tent Lovers Anonymous
On sunny days, Cassia Sari sets up a spot underneath the large tent on the main quad. If she’s lucky, she secures a table where the shadow parts enough for her to sit in the sun.
“I usually try to go to the big metal one because it overlooks Wilson Library, so I can see how beautiful the campus is,” Sari said. “I don’t think it really distracts from the beauty of the campus.”
Not only does Sari disagree that the tents interfere with the campus’ beauty, she thinks they’re essential to keeping students safe. Also, Sari thinks studying there is better than sitting in the fluorescent flooded rooms in a packed library.
While the tents work best in warm weather, even on a cold, rainy day, Sari can be found underneath a side tent by Murphey Hall.
“It just depends on the way that you’re looking at it,” Sari said.
Rough and Tumble
In late January, on-campus students returned from a long weekend to a frightening sight; the tents had fallen.
Winter storm Izzy had blown through Chapel Hill, dumping snow and ice everywhere it went. The buildup proved too much for the tents to bear; they collapsed in droves all across campus.
For weeks, students walked past study station graveyards: broken canvas scattered around overturned tables and chairs. Some thought it meant the end of the tents.
Construction workers were soon spotted rebuilding the spaces. A few tents were brushed free of debris and reinstalled. Others had to be reordered after the snow ripped them apart.
Stephanie Berrier, the interim director of marketing and communications for the UNC Facilities Department, said the tents were not built to withstand adverse weather. Though subject to fire and safety codes, the tents are temporary.
To each, their own
To Sam Dalsheimer, the outdoor seating areas are “pretty okay.” He sits in the enclosed tents behind Lenoir Hall eating Mediterranean Deli spinach and chickpeas when the weather is too cold or rainy.
“They’re very nice when it’s raining, but that’s about it,” he said.
Sam prefers eating in the tents to eating inside the dining halls, where students sit elbow-to-elbow without masks. A big reason for Sam’s habits is his 1-year-old daughter, Margot, who he wants to keep safe as the pandemic continues.
Hope for the future
For many students, the end of the tents would mean the end of the pandemic. Stop Zoom classes, end the mask mandate and take down the tents.
Hannah Kaufman, a sophomore, was on campus for a few weeks before the university closed residence halls in the fall of 2020. She hardly remembers a time before the tents. Although she has used the seating areas to study with friends, she’s ready to see them go.
“Of course, COVID is not anywhere near done, but I think for me the tent is a reminder of the really stressful, restrictive semester that I had last year,” Kaufman said.
Pack it up
The end might be closer than she thinks. Although mask mandates are indefinite and Zoom is ever-present, the tents will officially be removed after Spring Commencement, according to Berrier.
Kaufman imagines what the quad must look like when the tents come down. It’s the image she’s seen on advertisements for UNC, ones that don’t include masks, social distancing, or giant canvas tents. The open quad was covered with students, everyone exactly where they were supposed to be.
“I’ve seen beautiful pictures of the quad from years ago on a summer day. Everyone’s sitting outside talking with their friends in little groups,” she said. “I guess I’m just kind of hoping for that.”
Edited by George Adanuty and Tajahn Wilson