HARTFORD, CT, March 4, 2011 – Institutions of higher learning have the capacity to profoundly reshape the 21st-century urban landscape, but they must exercise great care in how they use their clout or they could end up causing more harm than good.
That message was driven home Thursday by Davarian L. Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies, during a talk sponsored by Raether, ‘68, P’93, ’96 ’01. Raether, chairman of Trinity’s Board of Trustees, was on hand for the inaugural lecture, as were President James F. Jones, Jr. and many administrators, faculty and students.
By way of introduction, Rena Fraden, vice president of academic affairs, said Baldwin had become “one of the critical defining voices” at Trinity in just two years. “His genius is global,” she said, “while his teaching is deeply local.”
Baldwin, an historian, cultural critic and social theorist of urban America, is working on a project in which he is researching how urban colleges and universities have become powerful social forces with the ability to uproot residents, relocate historic landmarks and gentrify neighborhoods.
Citing the expansionist policies of the University of Chicago and New York University, Baldwin said the two schools were guilty of gobbling up vast tracts of Chicago and New York City, respectively, and turning them into extensions of the campuses rather than maintaining the integrity of the surroundings. Baldwin said Arizona State University was guilty of the same thing in Phoenix, as was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In the case of the University of Chicago, which moved a rundown but historic jazz club from a blighted section of the city called Bronzeville to a more affluent area, Baldwin said the message it sent was: “Welcome to the new Bronzeville. It’s not just the ‘hood anymore.” Although some might view the relocation of the jazz club as a trivial event, Baldwin said, “it spoke to the larger battle over neighborhood preservation.”
Baldwin joked that the University of Chicago was formerly known as the “place where fun comes to die.” With the revitalization of the abutting neighborhood, that is no longer the case.
Baldwin said many cities are particularly open to the idea of colleges and universities engaging in revitalization and economic development because the cities are always scrambling for new sources of revenue. Retail establishments, restaurants, upscale housing and other amenities result in more money being spent and more taxes being generated.
And in many cases the universities have the money to do what the cities cannot. For example, Baldwin said, NYU and Columbia University are the two largest property holders in Manhattan today. Their endowments are huge and many of their alumni wealthy.
Baldwin accused Columbia of “leveling whole blocks in Harlem” in pursuit of its goal of enlarging its campus, and he called NYU “the school that ate New York.”
The downside of what many schools are doing, Baldwin explained, is that by converting longstanding neighborhoods into affluent shopping and living milieu, they exacerbate the “flight of the creative class.” Many residents who can no longer afford to dine in the expensive restaurants or buy co-ops. In other words, the universities have succeeded in creating “economic lifestyle moats” around their campuses, ultimately changing the demographics of the neighborhoods and the cities.
Despite his painting a rather bleak picture of the role of urban universities in the 21st century, Baldwin told his audience that it is not all doom and gloom. “Am I saying that all universities are evil? No.”
He argued that there is a correct way of engaging in the lifeblood of cities that is rife with possibility. Well-intentioned people can reposition colleges and universities so that they are “incubators of the urban future” and can engage cities rather than ignore or destroy them.
Community building is an approach that can work, Baldwin said, so long as it is done properly. Neighborhoods can be created where the quality of life is improved for people from all socio-economic backgrounds, not just the affluent.
The research that served as the theme of Baldwin’s lecture will ultimately be turned into a book entitled, UniverCities: How Knowledge Institutions are Transforming the Urban Landscape.