Central Purpose

Central Purpose

For 320 years before the Yale Schwarzman Center soft-opened in 2021—and 125 years since the country’s oldest such structure opened at the University of Pennsylvania—Yale students didn’t have a student center: a persistent, accessible and adaptable facility set aside for a range of shared social and cultural experiences. Instead, Yale’s student life played out in spaces too specific in access (eating clubs, secret societies, residential colleges) or function (theaters, bleachers, a main dining hall that didn’t let students choose their own seats until 1923) to qualify. The absence of a single, unifying hub was long a topic of interest among students; a history on Schwarzman’s website includes a 1976 flyer rejecting, but really underscoring, what must have been a common refrain: “Yale needs a social center.”

Executive director Rachel Fine, who joined Schwarzman in October 2022, couldn’t have said it better herself. A classically trained pianist whose professional aspirations were thwarted by a chronic injury, Fine first came to Yale in 1995 as a PhD candidate in musicology. The department, she recalls, resided “over on Elm Street at the time, right near the public library,” while she resided, for her first year, at the Hall of Graduate Studies, a building now repurposed as the Humanities Quadrangle.

“I actually loved living there. I looked out at Morse, Stiles, those colleges, and could walk right to the gym,” Fine says. But her time at Yale was in other ways a struggle. “Your first year, you’re just anxious all the time,” she says. “I’m trying to complete my work, get everything in on time, be a good student,” spending “long, long solitary hours in the library.” Feeling socially disconnected and artistically frustrated, Fine sought relief through a cappella, an art form she’d come to appreciate when the Whiffenpoofs performed at her high school. She won a spot in Out of the Blue, a more contemporary singing group, but the fun was short-lived as others in the musicology department pressured her to quit, which she did, under duress, after just a few weeks. “The message was clear,” she recalls. “‘This [is] not scholarly’”—a demoralizing message for someone who was just trying to find her place in a new place.

At the same time, Fine was disappointed to find that there “was not a strong bridge, in my humble opinion,” between her program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the activities of the Yale School of Music—a bridge she would’ve gladly crossed if it meant time at a piano and the company of other musicians. Instead she found opportunity off-campus, “continu[ing] to take lessons and perform here and there.” In particular, “I had a gig at the Neighborhood Music School, which was my saving grace and my creative outlet”—and all the better for being neighbors with her favorite hangout, Koffee?.

Still, the feeling of disconnection remained. Taking a leave of absence in 1997, Fine moved back home to the Bay Area, where life whisked her down a different path. Along with a relationship that would turn into a happy marriage, she found a career she loved in arts administration and never looked professionally back—until, in an astonishing coincidence of cosmic balancing, Yale tapped her to lead the kind of communal and artistic space she had so badly needed 25 years earlier.

Today, Fine is taking advantage of her second chance to connect. Off campus, she loves the pistachio latte at Pistachio 2, the baklava at Havenly, the burger at Tavern on State, the cheeses (and other things) at Liuzzi and the skate at Fair Haven Oyster Company. Coming to Yale from the Los Angeles area, where she led a number of arts organizations and where Chinese food is apparently king, Fine is—gasp!—“fundamentally not a pizza person.” But she’s trying. “I never ate pizza. I mean, in 20 years [in L.A.], I maybe had pizza two or three times. But I feel that it’s so important to this community that I am really giving it a go.” Her favorite so far? The “absolutely delicious” potato and rosemary pie at Sally’s.

On campus, she’s having her cake and eating it too, as Schwarzman’s prime objective is to enrich people’s lives both socially and artistically. The Center’s schedule of arts and cultural events, featuring a mix of established, emerging, student and community artists and usually open to the wider public, has been dizzying and diverse, from a book talk by the most popular of popstars to a performance (co-presented with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas) by “the first female to master the kora, a 21-string instrument that combines the qualities of a lute and a harp.” In March, a virtual reality installation invited participants to “interact with one another and with a live actor in [a] virtual space” during an experience of “an unparalleled hybrid of documentary audio, theater, game design, and immersive art,” while a hip-hop dance troupe earlier this week “pushe[d] the boundaries of street dance movement vocabulary.”

Reservable online and almost always free, event tickets are often quickly gobbled up, though Fine “encourages people to get on the waitlist, because inevitably there’s attrition.” She also encourages waitlisters who haven’t been promoted to show up anyway. “It’s a risk,” she says, but “many times, there are 20 people at the door, and we’re able to let them in… We try to accommodate everyone that we can.” Summer will be a relatively quiet time of “maintenance and planning,” Fine says, though a couple of events, in partnership with Elm Shakespeare Company and IFAI, respectively, are on the docket for June: a “one-woman show confirm[ing] Shakespeare’s insight into the human condition is as relevant as ever” and, coincidentally, a circus arts show that “breathe[s] new life into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.”

Then, of course, there’s the food at Schwarzman, which Fine rightly notes is an artistic domain as well. When fall and spring semesters are in session, Yale and the public can typically dine and drink shoulder to shoulder across various weekday options: the Commons dining hall, where I’m told “a plated meal combination” in a “very generous portion” from one of four menus costs $15 with unlimited drink refills; Elm, a cafe/bistro officially described as “highlighting global flavors”; Ivy, a grab-and-go-style kitchen intended to “satisfy late-night cravings”; and The Well, a wine and beer bar Daily Nutmeg reviewed in March.

Given the timing of this article, there are significant caveats to note. While Elm will proceed through summer with reduced hours (8 a.m. to 2 p.m.), today is the last day of service before a long summer break for Commons, Ivy and The Well. Moreover, there’s a critical wrinkle for non-Yalies right now: As temporary signs posted on the Center’s doors indicate, Schwarzman is currently open only to people with a Yale ID—or, I’m told, members of the public attending a scheduled event. This may be part of the university’s response to political protests that, as recently as Wednesday, gathered just outside the Center in Beinecke Plaza.

Whatever the reason, this condition is the exception, not the rule, and however long it lasts, one expects Fine will keep making up for her own lost time 25 years ago, by helping Schwarzman help others make the most of theirs today.

Written by Dan Mims. Images 1 (of The Underground), 5 (of Elm) and 6 (of Commons) photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2, featuring Rachel Fine, photographed by Laurie Valentina Gomez Acosta. Image 3, featuring (from left) Freyda Spira, Rachel Fine, Corrine Coia and Jennifer Newman, provided courtesy of Rachel Fine. Image 4, featuring Commons during a performance, photographed by Lotta Studio.

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