The Last Days of Cloyne Court

Ellen Cushing | April 14, 2014 | Story Politics

It's 10:24 on a warm night in early March, and the cops are here. We are being told so, in no uncertain terms, by a raven-haired UC Berkeley undergrad—hands on hips, voice piercing, face stern. “Get the fuck out right now,” she screams at the scattering crowd from atop a picnic table in the center courtyard of the university housing co-op Cloyne Court Hotel. She is dressed head to toe in pirate garb, covered in fake blood, and likely the closest thing to an authority figure here.

“You know we need to be really careful right now,” she says to a lanky boy, who hastily gulps a beer as he’s shooed toward the door.

Indeed. As most of the revelers know, the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC)—the student-run board that governs the university’s 20 co-ops—faced with mounting concerns over Cloyne’s extreme party culture, is set to vote on the co-op’s fate the following week, on March 13. What they don’t know is that the result will be a dramatic restructuring for Cloyne. At the time of the party—the co-op’s much beloved pirate-themed blowout—Cloyne is working toward two mutually exclusive goals: convincing the board that it’s responsible enough to be kept open, and going out with a bang in the event that its arguments fail.

A singular ethos is at stake. Cloyne, the university’s flagship co-op, is where a school known for its counterculture has historically housed its counterculturiest students—where, for decades, kids who didn’t fit in at the frats or couldn’t afford the dorms often found themselves. In a video put out to bolster the case for its continued existence, Cloyne presents itself as a refuge for its members (a sentiment echoed by every last one of the current and former residents to whom I spoke). “Cloyne is a space...where people come together to follow their passions and have complete autonomy,” the video voice-over intones over B-roll of students engaging in decidedly wholesome activities: gardening, painting, yoga. “You kind of forget that it’s real,” says another voice. “It’s so far-fetched and beautiful.” Residents talk about the hundreds of murals lining the co-op’s walls, the late-night philosophy discussions, the time they set up a Slip ’N Slide in the hallway, the time No Doubt or Green Day or Elliott Smith dropped by for a show. They describe Cloyne as being transformative in many of the same ways that college in general is transformative—the newfound freedom, the community, the experimentation—but stop short of talking much about the natural corollary to all that freedom and experimentation: drugs and alcohol.

On the morning of March 18, 2010, 21-year-old John Gibson was found unresponsive in his bedroom at Cloyne with a mixture of alcohol, marijuana, ketamine, and cocaine in his system. He sustained serious brain injuries and is now unable to speak, walk, or care for himself. Gibson’s mother sued Cloyne and the university, alleging that both had “knowledge and awareness of the drug trafficking and drug abuse problem” at the co-op. Two days after Christmas last year, the case was settled for nearly $1 million.

The settlement put the entire co-op board at greatly increased legal risk should a similar event happen in the future—and if history is any indication, that’s a strong possibility. According to a handout compiled by former BSC presidents and distributed at the March 13 meeting, at least three students (including Gibson) have seriously overdosed at Cloyne, one fatally, since 2006. Police records collected by the San Francisco Chronicle reveal that at least three students were hospitalized for drug-related injuries or illnesses last year and that police are regularly called to the Northside property. A cursory Google search reveals years-old references in the campus newspaper to “several meth labs in the basement,” along with a five-star review on the co-op’s Yelp page lamenting the poster’s “losing brain cells from all the ‘experiments’ I conducted on myself vis-à-vis a rockin’ good time.”

These examples could be outliers, but they’ve posed a serious problem for insurance agents trying to buy the co-op a liability policy and for lawyers who might be called upon to convince a jury that cases like Gibson’s were tragic anomalies.

In fact, more than the actual incidence of drug use, it may be these and other online reports that killed Cloyne as we know it once and for all: College life may be defined by its temporary nature, but Facebook photos are forever. As the co-op’s lawyer, Fred Feller, argued, the co-op’s hedonistic reputation precedes it, especially on the Internet—and in a courtroom, appearances are everything. Or, as its insurance agent, Jim Vawter, put it, “I can only put lipstick on a pig so many times.”

So, at 5:30 a.m. on March 14, after nearly 10 hours of argument, the board voted by a two to one margin in favor of creating the Cloyne Court Substance-Free Academic-Theme House. The new Cloyne will have quiet hours beginning at 8 p.m. seven nights a week and a strict zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy. It will essentially become a dorm, albeit one with a storied past and a communal kitchen. At the end of the spring semester, all but one current Cloyne resident— who personally convinced the board of his commitment to zero tolerance—will be forced to find housing in dorms, other co-ops, or off-campus residences. Soon after that, crews will come in to whitewash over any murals that depict drug use. Come fall, little will remain of the largest housing co-op in North America.

But for tonight at least, the party goes on. Outside, a bedsheet emblazoned with the slogan “Save Cloyne” hangs across the former hotel’s brown-shingled facade. Inside the rambling, city-block-size space, kids sip from Solo cups, talk about their spring break plans, and marvel at the pirate ship–shaped deck that a group of boys recently built in the courtyard. For all of tonight’s end-of-an-era significance—to the co-op’s long history, to its thousands of current and former residents, to the families of the students who have died within its walls—it’s no more or less insane than any other college party, save for a general awareness of its emphemerality that you rarely find among 19-year-olds.

In a second-floor bedroom, two girls in heavy eyeliner earnestly discuss where they’ll live if the vote goes through and they’re forced to leave. A couple of feet away, a pair of blond frat types in dollar-store Viking helmets attempt to beat-box along to a Dr. Dre song. Flyers implore attendees to “party with the ship...go down with the crew.” In one room, a psychedelically colored mural that once proclaimed “We own it” in block letters has been amended in red spray paint to add “until they take it away.” And when the cops come, as they do to nearly every big Cloyne party, many people file out somberly instead of packing, as usual, into bedrooms and waiting for the squad cars to drive away.

“Why is everyone leaving?” a Viking asks, genuinely confused. “I mean, they’re fucking cops and we’re drunk college kids,” one of the girls in eyeliner says, resigned, before grabbing her bag and heading out the door.

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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