By Kelly Sampson
Arizona Summer Wildcat July 30, 1997
Life Under the Stadium
Reprinted from the Arizona Daily Wildcat, March 7, 1997
Every time Sarah Becker tells someone she lives in the stadium, she gets the same reaction.
"Really, how's that?"
She squints her eyes and crinkles her noise to imitate the distasteful look that always accompanies the question.
It's not what people expect.
To Becker, an ecology and evolutionary biology freshman, and to others who live or have lived there, it's a second home, a place with a strong sense of community and belonging.
"It's like one big, happy family," Becker says.
The fact that her dorm is built around a football stadium is hardly the most important factor for her.
Navajo-Pinal Residence Hall, home to 158 students, is built under the south end of the UA's Arizona Stadium. Becker lives in the all-female Pinal side.
Many of the stadium dorms' residents are athletes, and Becker says this makes it a better place to live. Her roommate is on the women's soccer team.
"I don't think any other dorm, except the honors dorms, has a group of people in it with a common bond."
Navajo, Pinal and a third dorm, Sierra, are now connected through internal hallways, turning them, more or less, into one dorm, one community.
Becker's main complaint with the dorm is that the rooms are always hot. The window has to stay open all the time, she explains. This means you constantly hear the traffic from busy Sixth Street just 50 feet from her second-story window.
She doesn't mind the urinals though, which still line the walls of most of the women's community bathrooms in Pinal and Sierra, marking the days when only men roamed the halls.
"I guess you just get used to them," she says.
The only noticeable differences on a walk through the halls from Becker's dorm to the all-male Navajo dorm are in the names, the gender of the residents and in the 10-foot widening and bend in the hallway connecting them on each of their four floors. Come around that bend and the scenery is the same. The old-fashioned look is reflected in the geometric shapes of the mauve and midnight blue carpeting stretching down the hall and in the exposed piping running overhead, encrusted with layers of dull white pa int. Identical too are the unevenly-spaced residents' doors, twin beds and desks, all covered with glossy coats of mud-colored paint.
At the end of a quiet offshoot of one of Navajo's main hallways is the door to David Gortler's room.
He has spent all three years of his graduate study in pharmacy living in the stadium dorms, first in the co-ed Sierra, and last year and this year in Navajo.
It's that sense of community that keeps him coming back.
"Everyone just kind of helps each other along," Gortler says.
seniority to move into Room 147 on the first floor. Such a room was coveted in the time when visitors were only allowed in for a few hours each day. Those on the first floor could smuggle their visitors in, despite the resident assistant on duty and the e ver-vigilant "hall mother" assigned to the dorm back then.
David Gortler's current room is nearly twice the size of the average, with enough space to plop a comfy sofa down between his and his roommate's beds. The walk-in closet is easily large enough to fit a third bed.
That's what seniority gets you there - raw square footage.
But in Navajo-Pinal, it's not easy to develop seniority because so many people come back, Gortler says.
"Everyone's just happy here. Maybe it's something they put in the water."
The dorms' "drawer graffiti" backs Gortler up on this.
Beginning sometime in the early 1950s, residents began scribbling their names and the years they spent in the dorm on the sides of their dresser drawers. Many stayed three or four years.
"I don't know where else in the United States other than living in a commune, you can find this kind of environment," Gortler says.
Visit the other part of the stadium dorms, Sierra Residence Hall, and you find the longest hallway on campus, according to legend.
Also there are smaller rooms, most with polished cement floors, windows facing the underside of the east stadium bleachers far from sunlight and metal-frame bunk beds.
"The rooms are hideous."
That's Gortler's take on the decor.
And the bunk beds squeak and shake as he recalls. His had "U.S. Army" stamped on the side.
Built below the three tiers of the stadium's east-side bleachers, Sierra's single story holds 38 students, making it the smallest dorm on campus.
Harold Smith remembers it well, even after 30 years.
"It was pretty bare," he says.
Decades ago Smith moved away from the UA after finishing his freshman year studying chemical engineering and living in East Stadium Residence Hall, renamed Sierra in 1982. He was one of about 50 who lived there in the fall of '65 and spring of '66, before some rooms were converted to workshops or storage space.
Smith was glad to go.
"East Stadium," he says, "was very oppressive."
He returned to his hometown of San Francisco after his freshman year and finished his degree at Berkeley. He says the dorm didn't drive him away, but it didn't make him want to stay either.
"Getting crammed into that dorm added to the desire to get back to the Bay Area."
But even Smith felt the community bond in the stadium dorms.
"There got to be quite a sense of camaraderie, a feeling that we would tough it out together."
He is surprised, though, that students are still toughing it out in his old dorm, expecting it to have been closed down or converted.
That may happen in a few years.
Jim Van Arsdale, director of Residence Life, says that while there are no plans right now to change either Navajo-Pinal or Sierra, the administration has discussed building a couple new residence halls. If new dorms are built, the university may eliminate Sierra.
Van Arsdale is up front about the reasons.
"It's just not a very pleasant environment," he says. "All the rooms have windows, but none of those ever sees the light of day."
But building a new dorm takes years. A decade is likely to pass from the time the administration begins discussing it to the day it opens, Van Arsdale says.
So Sierra is likely to be around for a while longer, even if it is replaced.
So residents will wander the halls of Sierra for years yet. They will continue to see, every 10 feet or so, portions of exposed concrete beams cutting diagonally across the top of the hallway, reflecting the shape of the bleachers above. And because the c eilings of west-side rooms follow that slope, students will continue to duck occasionally as they move about their rooms.
And residents of all three dorms will continue to learn what it's like to have football games raging above them.
Gortler says those aren't as bothersome as people think. For one thing, most of the residents have season tickets to the games, so they aren't in the dorms at that time anyway.
But he has had to stay in and study occasionally during games. It's really just a "quiet rumble" from above most of the time, he says. Occasionally the building vibrates.
Of course, when someone scores, he says, it's obvious.
"I can tell if they (UA players) are having a good game for sure."
Becker doesn't have any problems with the games either. She can hear some cheering and the echo of the announcer's voice over the stadium loudspeakers. But it's not too noisy, she assures those who ask about it.
Last year, when the game against the UA's rival ASU ended, and ASU fans tried to rip a goal post from the field, Becker was in her room. She slept through it.