Lost stories of Lehigh: Our “Liberation Lawn”

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Elliott Nasby

Change.

Often we fear it, for it threatens to disrupt the comfortable ways in which we live. But there are certainly times, like now for example, when we are in deep need of it — in this world, this nation, even at Lehigh.

Something must surely incite the need for change within a group of people. But before the rallies, speeches and protests, what makes the thought conceivable?

Public space and the freedom to gather in it.

Imagine the civil rights movement without Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial or the free speech movement of the 1960s without the campus of University of California, Berkeley. Urban, open space enables activists to be heard.

In an article written for the Urban Omnibus, Columbia professor Vishaan Chakrabarti explained that open urban areas offer a central location for activism to take hold — “Liberation Squares,” he calls them. But even more important than the locations is the deliberate power urban planners have in choosing to provide, or in some cases, not provide such a space.

Examining these commonly overlooked factors with a finer lens can help us to reveal more about our community and ourselves. Inspired by the podcast “99 percent invisible” — which you should 100 percent check out — I try to shed light on Lehigh-specific forces.

Last time, I discussed the infamous “Lehigh bubble,” surfacing the many subtle features of design, history and social misunderstanding at the campus’s fringes that could possibly be linked to the divide.

What can we draw from our university in regard to open spaces?

Somewhere, I’d argue, that is so easily taken for granted and so easily overlooked: the UC Front Lawn.

In a sense, college campuses are their own mini cities, and campus quads exist for aesthetic purposes adding a cohesive centrality to an institution. But less obviously, the front lawn and flagpole give Lehigh a location to incite change.

Making use of such a deliberate design is all the more vital to pursue the change we wish to see by starting from the inside out.

Which brings me to a Lehigh story long forgotten but a vivid example of a public display of opinion — the day the ensign of Soviet Russia flew atop the university flagpole. On a calm, seemingly normal morning in May 1937, around 500 prospective students began trickling in for their routine introduction to Lehigh.

It was not so different from what we see today with campus tours and info sessions, when the university makes an attempt to paint itself in the best light possible. But it could not have taken a more inauspicious turn for the worst.

Most likely mayhem ensued as students, tour guides and prospective students rushed to the scene to confirm the news that, yes, there really was a bright red soviet flag casting its glorious crimson shadow over the heart of campus.

The culprits were never identified, although two conspicuous individuals had been spotted fleeing the chaos upon arrival of several police officers. The flag’s reign was eventually ended by a daring steeple-jack, while the flag itself haphazardly slipped into the hands of a Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother.

Whether this was an intentional declaration of alliance to the Communist regime or simply an elaborate prank, the event undoubtedly shook things up. People were rattled, and the administration sent into sure hysteria, but one cannot deny the power of such a statement, made possible by public space.

Save for uncivil, vulgar professions of sacrilege on campus like the 1937 incident, why not agitate the waters a little bit? Why not make use of the power or our open spaces?

Not to say that any change is good change, but it couldn’t hurt to add some color to the campus scene. We’ve seen it already this semester with the Rally of Solidarity.

But even then our voices — your voices — should not dissipate in the aftermath. The platform is there, an openly public front green space, but it’s up to us students to put our “Liberation Lawn” to use.

Elliott Nasby, ’20, is an assistant sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at ebn220@lehigh.edu.

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