Non-Silent Spring: Cornell’s Slope Day, 2024

After Cornell University’s Slope Day, May 8th. Photo: David Yearsley.

Cornell University in central New York State commands a spectacular position above the city of Ithaca with Lake Cayuga stretching out of sight to the north. The Cornell alma mater casts higher education in literal terms, first, “Far above Cayuga’s waters”; then, in the second stanza, “Far above …the bustling town.” With altitude comes power. Cornell dominates not just the hilltop but the political economy of the region.

The campus tips steeply towards the valley below just beyond where the original 19th-century library with its Venetian-style clocktower still stands. That incline is aptly known as Libe Slope and it is on this broad grassy field with its endless views (“glorious” according to the alma mater) that the largest outdoor student event happens each year on the day after spring semester classes end: Slope Day. This six-hour long, afternoon bash brings big-time musical acts to the base of the slope, the students massing in front of and uphill from a temporary stage flanked by massive speakers as well as police SUVs, ambulances, and fire engines.

The antecedents for these revels can be traced back to the last decade of the 19th century, when a Navy Ball was held in the fall to raise money for the crew, regattas being one of the favored sporting entertainments of the Gilded Age. In 1901 the ball was moved to March and the event was rebranded as Spring Day; it coincides with the crew race against Harvard, the boats’ progress up the lake tracked by special rail cars carrying the spectators.

Spring Day was to be much more than athletics followed by dancing. The issue of the student paper, The Cornell Daily Sun, for Wednesday, March 27th, 1901 touted Friday’s “Magnificent 20,000 Pound Noonday Parade” led by “three Great Bands in one.” The catalog of attractions included “Two wild and bloodthirsty hounds, one large and one small, with their trainers. One splendid specimen of zebra, the only one of its kind in existence: not exhibited on rainy days. The largest and smallest horses in Ithaca and scores of monkeys and other interesting features.” Precision was the order of the day. The notice warned that the parade would reach campus at 12pm sharp.

A painting commemorating that first Spring Day hangs in what was originally the music room of the student union just above Libe Slope. The picture depicts a spectacle far more genteel than it probably was — and certainly more genteel than it became. Within a few years, students expected to enjoy what one Daily Sun wag described in 1906 as each spring’s “reprehensible entertainment.”

Spring Day events came to include still larger parades with dozens of elephants trooping through downtown. There were mock bullfights, bear-baiting and medieval jousts, minstrel shows and “Stoic Indian” powwows. Students danced to the latest Broadway hits by the likes of Ludwig Engländer and later to the strenuous swing of Glenn Miller.

The students drank too. Spring Day 1921, the first under Prohibition, turned into a booze-fueled brawl and elicited stern words soon after from the Cornell Alumni News:

“This community has awakened to the realization that the young person of the present day no longer follows mid-Victorian standards of deportment. It has become aware that the combined elements of totally undisciplined stags, jazz music, synthetic spirits, girls, and powerless chaperones form an unstable compound. It has discovered that the gin man is almost as regular and faithful as the milk man.”

The need to blow off steam—or perhaps off-gas dangerously high hormone levels—had long been recognized by the students, if not their overseers. The year after Spring Day had been canceled with America’s entry into World War I, the Daily Sun of March 14th, 1918 claimed that “More than ever … Cornell needs what was once the community’s annual spring tonic. For as a dispeller of gloom, Spring Day was the most efficient of all panaceas.”

Spring Day was abandoned amidst the student unrest of the 1960s, reemerging as Spring Fest in 1979 and held on Libe Slope on the last day of classes. During the Reagan Years the drinking age was raised from eighteen to twenty-one and the university attempted to remove the event to a flat, fenced-in spot in order to control underage drinking. These measures had roughly the same level of success as those of 1921 and spurred a massive protest in 1986 with “Take Back the Slope” t-shirts and placards and a boycott of the official enclosure. Thus the name of Slope Day was born of protest, not for moral and political reasons like those that had motivated the students during the Vietnam War, but for the cause of pure hedonism.

When I arrived at Cornell in the mid-1990s 1990s Slope Day was unenclosed and only loosely regulated. The event was a magnet for high schoolers from across the region eager for the music and, even more, the alcohol. After the festivities would conclude around five o’clock in the afternoon young people could be seen teetering away from the Slope.

Just over the brow of the hill at the central administration redoubt in Day Hall, the lawyers got worried. Rather than collide with the last day of classes and occasion wholesale truancy, the event was moved a day later and, beginning in 2003, a sprawling network of chain link fences was erected and wristband controls instituted. Whereas the Navy Ball of yore had been a fundraiser, its bacchanalian progeny was a gigantic and unapologetic funds user-upper, the most expensive student outlay of the year. The 2023 budget was $315,000; this year’s more than doubled that figure to $715,000. Just less than half of that new total is spent on the “talent”; $44,927 goes to security and fencing; $22,570 for Porta Potties.

Popular acts are expensive and there has been a push to strive for the level of celebrity brought to Slope Day in past years whose artists have included Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Drake and Kendrick Lamar (the last two currently engaged in a vicious personal duel—a hip-hop cage fight played out on the Billboard charts in a PR extravaganza and marketing bonanza built, it seems, on the Post-Chomskian concept of manufacturing dissent).

Two student polls led to the selection of this year’s headliners Flo Rida and, the closer, A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

The official start time on Wednesday was 11am, and across midday the students formed long lines that filtered through the heavily controlled check points.

But the “pre-gaming” starts hours before that. Wednesday was clear and hot, and as I hiked the hill to my office at 8:30 in the morning the music was thumping and students drinking vigorously outside of their rooming houses and fraternities. As I crossed over one of the gorge-spanning bridges onto campus a trio of women wearing sorority insignia tube-tops held a brightly colored sign at an angle away from me so that I could at first only see the word “Free.” As I walked by them, I saw that it read “Free Food”—part of a program to get revelers to eat something before getting too drunk. I told the women that at first I had thought the sign was going to read “Free Palestine.” They laughed, then scowled, one of them gesturing across the bridge and said, scornfully I thought, “If you want that go up there.” She meant the pro-Palestine encampment known as the Liberated Zone a quarter-mile away on the Arts Quad.

By late morning I had returned to my house just below campus, but at 4pm I headed up the hill again. The afternoon had become windy, gusting up to 20mph. A Boogie wit Da Hoodie’s beats swirled with the breeze and the roar of the crowd. In the Campus Gothic cloister that serves as a memorial to Cornellians killed in World War I just below the Slope I ran into a team of paramedics and asked what the casualty rate had been so far. “You tell me,” responded one of them brusquely. He was big man carrying a big box of what I assumed were medical instruments.

I worked my way up the far, northern periphery of the slope and thought I could pick out “Sexy, you’re sexy / Want you to be my bitch, not my bestie.”

Above the far northern corner of the Slope I went into the art museum whose fifth floor offers the best views of the area—apart from those in the clock tower (currently scaffolded and closed for renovations). Boogie’s beat pulsed through I.M. Pei’s plate glass windows, but I couldn’t see the stage through the trees that had just come out in full leaf. I turned and took at the lake—glorious to view.

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“Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” Photo: David Yearsley.

I left the museum to visit the nearby Liberated Zone encampment. A lone police SUV kept watch. Since the encampment set up on April 25th, the university’s president claimed the protesters are disruptive. She wanted them out, and suspended several. But even their demonstrations had never approached the decibel level of A Boogie nor for that matter the loudness of the lawnmowers and leaf blowers busy beautifying the Quad in advance of graduation. The previous weekend I’d gone to a “Lindy Hop at the Liberated Zone,” less to learn the steps than for the alliteration. This week there were Yiddish classes near the encampment. I had seen no garbage, no sign of drinking, heard no hate speech about “bitches” at the Liberated Zone.

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Liberated Zone encampment on Cornell Arts Quad, just uphill from Slope Hill. Photos: David Yearsley.

Cornell’s president announced her resignation yesterday. The protestors are still here.

Some of encampers were stepping over their low polyethylene fence and heading to the Slope. I asked the young man at the low-security entrance to the encampment if he was enjoying the music surging over the brow of the hill. “It sounds pretty good,” he smiled.

I continued across campus, and circled back around the entire enclosure. As I again neared the base of the Slope, Boogie had reached his last number, his big hit “Drowning.” I’d been trying to familiarize myself with some of this music since his selection as Slope Day closer had been announced at the end of March. I recognized the tune, but couldn’t pick out any of the lyrics, loud yet indistinct. A group of young tube-topped women, their skin red from the sun or the booze or both, had exited the enclosure and was swerving uphill along the chain link fence mouthing the words “bitch I’m drownin’.”

The tune ended to more roars and A Boogie’s pitch for his new album as I surveyed the scene through the chain-link fence. Had a Spring Day reveler of 1901 been transported to Slope Day 2024 he might have been puzzled to see that the human animals, rather than the lions and zebras, were the ones in cages.

The gates were flung open and I waited a few minutes. Back at the first Spring Day parade of 1901, spectators were warned “not to annoy the animals” and that might be held as good advice for a 59-year-old Music Professor and CounterPunch correspondent, but I threw caution to the abundant winds and asked some kids what they thought of the show. “Awesome!” the two of them said together. “Did you hear Flo Rida?” one of them asked me. I shook my hoodie-less head. “Too bad,” she said. “He would be good for your people.” I took that to mean for the old folks. I googled Flo Rida later. He was born in 1979.

I made my way through the dissipating crowd onto the Slope. Littered across the grass there were empty plastic bottles everywhere, many crushed underfoot. The bigger ones were for water, but there were also hundreds of tiny bottles that had held shots of tequila, vodka, or whisky.

I asked a cop strapped up with pistol, taser and god-knows-what-else how it was that all the anti-alcohol measures had so abundantly failed. “They just sneak the stuff in.” The evidence I kicked with my shoe likely indicated mass violations of New York State Law and Cornell Policy, I remarked, thinking as I said so of the punitive measures directed at the Liberated Zone. “Kids will be kids,” said the cop.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com