O-Issue 2013: Town vs. Gown

The ever-changing, often strained relationship between the University and its surrounding communities.

By Ajay Batra

“Now, Bob, as president of the University of Chicago, I don’t see how you can do right by the Negro problem.”

Thus spoke former University V.P. and future U.S. Senator William B. Benton to Robert Maynard Hutchins, the father of the Core, in 1941. Benton said these words in the context of the University’s nascent efforts at “urban renewal.” (This quotation also begins a chapter on Hyde Park from Arnold R. Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940–1960, which is, in my view, a must-read for every UChicago student).

Aside from famously loving Plato and hating football during his tenure as University president, Hutchins is also known for using the University’s influence in Chicago and the community to systematically create an affluent, predominantly white Hyde Park. During the 1940s and ’50s, these designs were born out of concern among whites in Hyde Park, abetted by University leadership. They worried about increased migration from the so-called Black Belt—a chain of South Side neighborhoods just west of Cottage Grove historically home to the majority of African Americans in Chicago—into Hyde Park and Kenwood.

By the 1950s, the University was an enormously influential force in Chicago and on the South Side in particular. It was able to successfully exert this influence on city legislative efforts and, in doing so, change the language of and approach to policy measures concerning urban planning and development in order to suit its best interests. Ideas of conservation, rehabilitation, redevelopment, and containment were able to take preeminence over slum destruction and continued white flight. Thanks to the nature of these measures—alongside the comparatively tolerant bent of Hyde Park and Kenwood residents, who accepted racial integration as long as economic exclusivity remained—the University got its wish of a still mostly white Hyde Park.

The University—now one of the largest private employers in Chicago, as well as a hub of donation, expansion, and investment, academic or otherwise, in a time of fiscal weakness for Chicago—is still hugely influential in its namesake city. Now, though, this influence is felt rather more positively.

UChicago is currently two years into a five-year, $1.7 billion development plan aimed not just at expanding University facilities, but also at improving public infrastructure and making other capital improvements. The plan, part of a total anticipated University expenditure of $3.5 billion over ten years, was a product of a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the first formal partnership to be forged between Chicago and the University in the latter’s entire history. The MOU was struck between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and University President Robert Zimmer and promised not just capital improvement on the University’s dime, but also streamlined city permits for University projects, collaboration aimed at creating jobs, and the firm establishment of UChicago as an “anchor institution” in the eyes of the city and the South Side. The action brought by the MOU continues in addition to multi–million dollar retail development ongoing on 53rd Street that is largely funded and negotiated by the University.

Beyond physical development, the University is also investing heavily in the development of Chicago’s finest young minds. UChicago Promise, launched last year, is the University’s “pledge to help increase college access and readiness for Chicago high school students.” Beginning with an application fee waiver for all Chicago-based applicants, UChicago Promise greatly reduces the expense of an undergraduate education for Chicago families, pledging that all Chicago students who attend the University will graduate debt-free. Through UChicago Promise, the University is also funding and staffing college counselor training and pre-collegiate mentoring services, with the aim of preparing Chicago high schoolers to succeed, not just here, but at any four-year college.

For the average service-oriented undergraduate, the University Community Service Center (UCSC) offers a myriad of opportunities for community immersion. Beyond larger “Day of Service” events, which tend to attract short-term attendance without fostering commitment, the UCSC is these days placing an increased emphasis on long-term programming. Through individual outreach programs like MAPSCorps and Summer Links, and through smaller group offerings like Service Match, the UCSC allows students to continuously serve and form lasting relationships with a diverse array of essential community organizations.

That said, today serious sticking points remain: the ongoing debate over the Medical Center’s role in providing adult Level 1 trauma care on the South Side, and issues of transparency, with many in the community calling for more public dialogue regarding the University’s development decisions, just to name a few. But in between the threads of the ongoing “town vs. gown” tension that will always, to some extent, characterize the University’s relationship with its community, there is certainly more light to bask in these days than there has been in the past.