BALLARO: Remembering Brower’s day of flames important for Rutgers students today

Column: Thoughts from the LX

“It happened in the middle of dinner hour at Brower Commons … a huge fire with flames so intense the New Brunswick Fire Department had to back away from the building and fight it from outside.”

I was sitting in the middle of the EE bus showing my friend news footage of Brower Commons up in flames. This was not the small kitchen fire back in April of this year. This was Oct. 27, 2004. 

The 15th anniversary of the Brower Fire of ‘04 passed by last month without so much as even an email blast or a Residence Life student event. I think it is high time to reignite some flames of the past and dig up Brower Commons from the coals. 

Today, I retell the tale of the immolation of the College Avenue campus’ iconic dining hall. I do this not only to share an interesting story in the annals of Rutgers’ history, but also to remind us about the ongoing story of community and identity. Now more than ever, we need to sift through the ashes of the past and take with us what we can for the future.

Watching the grainy NBC channel 4 news footage of Brower Commons spewing smoke is like unearthing a dusty tome in the basement of Archibald S. Alexander Library. The footage is desaturated and glossed in a smooth blur. It looks alien in an age of 24-hour crisp high definition and bombastic red and blue ties.

When I told a classmate that 2004 was 15 years ago, she reeled back in exasperation at the time gone by. The 2004 news reminded me of eating breakfast before going to first grade, while my mom was blow-drying her hair. 

It was a time before deadlines, living in residence halls with asbestos in the walls and writing about super gonorrhea for a column.

Watching the clip, seeing the first shot of plumes of smoke erupting from the high windows of Brower, is both humorous and horrifying. 

This is the place I roll out of bed for, on Sunday mornings in my sweatpants. This is the place where a smile erupts across my face when I see an old roommate walking down the ramp. This is the place I push wobbly tables together so I can sit with all my friends after a long day.

This is the place that 15 years ago, seemed like a reenactment of Mount Vesuvius belching out plumes of plinian pyroclastic flow. 

It is best summarized by a student you can hear in the background of the audio uttering “Holy s***!” 

They interview the former Deputy Chief of the Fire Department, Robert Rawls, for his thoughts on the matter. “There was too much fire,“ said Rawls bluntly, which a friend of mine, from the New Brunswick do-it-yourself (DIY) basement show scene, loves.

The clip then picks up with interviews of two students, alumni Joe Zamaria and Ryan Taylor, who followed evacuation at the scene of the fire. To me, they look no different than people I bump elbows with when I inch down the line for a scoop of mac and cheese.

Perhaps the real horror: There was a temporary dining hall set up in the College Avenue Gym post-fire that was open for a few weeks. Would you like a side of sweaty gym socks with your take-out on “Bite Nite?”

I will be the first to admit, Brower Commons has been the butt of many jokes at my own hand. While a certain friend of mine claims its architecture is an homage to peak ‘60s interior design, to me, the faded signs and plastic boards read more like "dead mall" aesthetic.

I have experienced no greater social confusion than when the “Cha-Cha Slide” graces the speakers of Brower's music line up. This happens at least once a semester. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to slide to the left? Am I to put down my orange guava passionfruit juice when I hear the command "everybody clap your hands?"

All is forgiven, yet, when the mythical Brower aux cord lands on the ‘80s playlist. I digress.

So, why do I share all of these quirky stories and weird in-jokes? Three words: The 2030 masterplan.

"One of the boldest proposals is the reconstruction of the block between College Avenue, George Street, Morrell Street and Senior Street to create a new quadrangle incorporating a new student center, dining hall, club spaces, a high-tech classroom, below grade parking and a new transit hub to create a new nexus of student activity not just for College Avenue but for all of Rutgers University—New Brunswick," according to the plan.

Will Brower become the next Cooper Dining Hall?

I want to edify the memories of Brower Commons. In the end, I do not think it is going to be a fire that tears down Brower Commons, but perhaps the crushing wrecking ball of development. 

While the bricks of Brower might not remain one day, let these memories last at least a lifetime.

Anthony Ballaro is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in classics and public health. His column, "Thoughts from the LX," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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