I’ve Been Living in a College Town

During my time in graduate school, I’ve really enjoyed living in communities that are shaped by the institutions I’ve attended. Some people will say that moving out of the neighborhood and creating some space between university life and everything else is essential to their sanity. To be sure, no university neighborhood or college town can offer everything. But I find a certain satisfaction in taking what’s there and living with it. Being close to campus is convenient, of course. And living near colleagues has helped me grow relationships that are closer than that of co-workers. This builds on my sense that a university should be more than a workplace, not just a part of a community, but a community in and of itself.

But universities are inevitably parts of larger wholes. And often this relationship between a university and its surrounding community, or neighboring communities can be deeply fraught. I was reminded of this recently when Irvine, one of my former homes, popped up in the news because of local opposition to a new emergency homeless shelter. This news wasn’t directly related to the University of California, Irvine, where I went to school, but it reminded me of my time living there. Having grown up on the east coast, the move to the heart of Orange County was a big deal for me and my wife. In some ways, Irvine is paradise-like. The weather is essentially perfect year-round; the scenery is beautiful – the juxtaposition of pines and palm trees sticks out to me; the beach is a fifteen-minute drive from campus. The city boasts a thriving population of immigrants and is plurality Asian/Asian-American.

But it is a profoundly strange place. Carefully manicured landscaping and shopping plazas with names like Fashion Island can make you feel like you’ve stepped just a little bit outside the real world. The city’s ethnic diversity belies its upper-middle class (emphasis on upper) socioeconomic uniformity. Somehow, Irvine both makes you forget major problems the world is facing today, like gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth and ecological crises like water shortages and simultaneously drives them home precisely through its masking of them.

To be sure, the university, its campus, its administration, etc. bear the marks of its environment. But it also deserves credit as an effective vehicle for social upward mobility. And, as a graduate student – definitely on the lower end of the income distribution spectrum – it was a bit easier to enjoy the benefits of living in a place like this without thinking of myself as bearing too much responsibility for its excesses.

If, living in Irvine, the challenge was explaining to people the relative opulence of my surroundings, I’ve had very much the opposite experience after moving to Chicago. The image people have of this city – especially the south side – is as crime-riddled and very dangerous. As the saying goes, though, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods; my surroundings and day-to-day life are vastly different from areas only a mile or two away.

The University of Chicago is located in Hyde Park, south of downtown. Its eastern edge runs along Lake Michigan. In some ways it is very different from Irvine. The weather is an obvious one. To me, though, the main difference is Hyde Park’s blending of a small town atmosphere with the perks of living in a major metropolis. For someone who grew up in the suburbs but has since spent a lot of time in larger cities, it is pretty ideal.

And Hyde Park is much safer than people assume when they hear ‘Chicago.’ There is crime, of course, and even rare shootings. But, in my experience, those never involve university students.

At least that’s what I used to say. Last Tuesday night, police responded to a report of a man breaking car and building windows. When he ran at one of the officers with a metal object in his hand, the officer shot him in the shoulder. Fortunately, the wound was not life-threatening, and he is recovering; although I imagine he has a long road ahead of him in many ways. Only after shooting him, an email from university administration said, did the officers learn he was a university student.

That last fact – or the need to note it – has struck me. Would things have turned out differently if the responding officers knew that he was a student? If so, what does that say about us?

The force responsible for policing this neighborhood – and a bit beyond it – is the University of Chicago Police Department. It is one of the largest private police forces in the country. Having a private force that bears public responsibilities – including life-and-death decisions – without the same transparency and accountability as a municipal police force is inherently problematic. The university’s statement implied what I think most people would assume – that UCPD necessarily provides special protection to members of the university community. Protection from other members of the university. But probably more so protection from people not affiliated with the university. That’s certainly the impression we get from security alerts that detail reported crimes that happen in the neighborhood (versus other crimes and complaints we don’t hear about).

Again, I can say that I’m not the main reason things are this way. The university has to care about the opinions of parents paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year in a way that it doesn’t have to care about mine. I absolutely support a more just, accountable, and transparent police force for Hyde Park. Just like I support homeless shelters in Irvine.

But I also enjoy living in a community tailor-made for me and people like me. I can get by just fine living in a neighborhood with as few homeless people as possible and a police force that is built more for me than for others. It is an enjoyable life, but by no means a good one – for myself as an individual or for my university. Even if we achieve an academic community that is healthy and harmonious internally internally, it will be, at best, for naught if we don’t account for how we affect our neighborhood and city.

The relationship between students, universities, neighborhoods, and cities is so complex that the argument of this post is embarrassingly narrow. As I think about what I’ve written about in the past, I am struck by how little I have talked about where I live, with the exception of when I was abroad. In effect, I’ve treated my neighborhood – outside campus – as external to my life as a graduate student. But that doesn’t reflect my day-to-day experiences. Re-thinking, or re-writing how I present the relationship between being in academia and in my neighborhood is a small step. But I think it’s in the right direction for us all.




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