“The pika house is a three-story maze like a live-in Rube Goldberg machine, with space for thirty-two occupants, living and study areas, pantry, study room, kitchen, workroom, garden, and a tree house connected to the multilevel outdoor deck by a retractable drawbridge. Art covers the walls, creativity abounds, and community-relevant decisions are made by consensus.”
— Private: Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History by Denver Nicks
pika starts with a lowercase letter, even at the beginning of a sentence. People forget this, go on with their lives, and occasionally a nitpicking (or just nostalgic) alum will remind us all that this is pika, distinct from PiKA, distinct from Pi Kappa Alpha, distinct from any other fraternity or living group at MIT or in Cambridge. pika, whose flag is a Jolly Roger with a carrot and a wrench instead of cross bones, has a feeling all its own.
My roommate describes it as a “loving chaos.” One kid, trying to explain pika, said “pika has a lot of family values. Just not the ones you would expect.”
“It’s not just a mixed house – it’s a mixed home,” people say. There was once a kid, a stranger, who needed a place to stay and wanted to see coop life, so pika let him stay for a few days. When he realized one of the residents he’d met was gay, he was taken aback. “Is this a mixed house?” he asked. It’s an old story now, and kind of a joke, but it’s a good word for pika: mixed.
Mixing: an in-house pikan (left) meets an MIT freshman (right). Photo credit: Harini Suresh.
There is no quintessential pikan. It’s a house. It’s where you live, not who you are – not like a frat or sorority. It’s not exclusive; it’s not clannish. You get a bid, an invitation, if you come around and we like you. Traditionally, you’re given something small and handmade, a craft or something, with your name on it and the phrase “we invite you to join our continuing experiment in cooperative living.” If you decide to move in, you announce your “pledge” with a gift to the house of the same sort.
A pledge and a pumpkin. Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
Members of pika’s meal plan (residents, friends, hungry students) sign up for weekly cooking or cleaning shifts and share home-cooked meals every night. Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
I used to come for dinner on Friday nights. Stepping into pika, coming in from the dark, quiet neighborhood to a warm and colorful house, made me feel like I was somewhere else, at home in Oregon, not at MIT. This is an institute: when people think of MIT, they think of straight-edge valedictorians taking measurements on their way to straight-edge success. They don’t think of art, or overflowing bookshelves, or kids juggling and singing, playing banjos they carved themselves and fitted with coonskin. I lived here over the summer, and I meant to move out. I had a single in a coveted dorm. I loaded half my boxes into the car to move back to campus at the end of August, and I changed my mind. I moved them all back inside and asked loudly if anyone wanted a roommate.
A collage of faces found in a cabinet labeled “old shit.” Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
The walls are covered in murals and writing. Photo credit: Harini Suresh.
pika receives funding from MIT to maintain study spaces (above and below). Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
Here, the culture is organic; it isn’t controlled or muted. We have chickens, we have a four-story firepole and a movie projector on the roof deck. We have a pantry that yells at you if you leave the door open. We have legends.
The view of Cambridgeport from pika’s roofdeck. Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
There’s one about our living room, the Murph (all the rooms have names). It goes like this. Before this building was Pi Kappa Alpha, it was a boarding house. When the fraternity bought the house, the pikans moved in, and the boarders moved out. All but one, Mr. Murphy, who wouldn’t go. He refused to leave. “Mr. Murphy, you have to move out,” the pikans said. “We own this house. We need this room.” But he refused to leave. Finally, the pikans had a house meeting, as we’re apt to do, and decided to put a foot down. They came downstairs the next morning to find the room boarded up from the inside. The windows and the door – everything was covered. They couldn’t just break in. That would be rude, they thought. They needed a pretense. They decided to throw a party, like fraternities are supposed to do, and stage a fight. They wrapped a kid in bubble wrap and tossed him through the door. Through the splintered doorframe, they saw that the room was empty. Mr. Murphy and his belongings were gone, and there was no sign the room had ever been lived in. Nothing but a nightstand in the middle of the room, and on it, a typewriter missing the letter ‘Q.’ Or, in some versions (my version) a bowl of alphabet soup missing the letter ‘Q.’
A kite hangs over the entrance to the Murph. Photo credit: Harini Suresh.
There’s often music in the Murph. There are people sitting and coding, reading, or drawing in the Murph book. We have Murph books dating back decades: sketchbooks filled with musings, illustrations, meeting notes and messages from the days before students lived and breathed email.
Absurdity, art, and communication coexist in old Murph books. Photo credit: Natasha Balwit.
Murph books fill up every year or two, students leave after four; the makeup of pika changes, but there is a continuous thread. The house has a memory. There are the physical artifacts (murals, construction projects, the angsty manifesto Mark scrawled on the second-floor wall in the nineties) and there are bits of written history (house meeting minutes from February 1975 describe the decision to go co-ed). And then there are the people. Last Thanksgiving, a grey-haired man in leather boots looked around the Murph and smiled. This fall a local alumna came by to drop off an old pink armchair, and as she left, she looked up at the roofdeck and laughed to herself. “The things we used to do…” She never finished the sentence.
Video by Michael Waldrep. Essay by Natasha Balwit. View Natasha’s entire pika photo essay – 53 images with captions. Listen to an audiovisual version of Natasha’s essay here:
• pika, or 69 Chestnut Street in Cambridge, is one of six buildings buildings profiled by students in the fall 2013 MIT course, “In This Building.” See what it’s like to live at the other five buildings.