UChicago is Safe…From What?

We need to push back on UChicago’s rhetoric of safety and the narrative it builds of the South Side.

By Meera Santhanam

Like many others, I was told on my first day of college not to cross South 63rd Street. Some warned me outright, cautioning me not to venture too far past my South Campus dorm. From others I sensed suspicion—I can’t count the number of “hmm”s and “but”s I received when simply telling people I wanted to try Robust on South Woodlawn Avenue. 

But at the same time, I was also told from my first day of college to reject the media’s portrayal of Chicago’s South Side. I was told to “escape the campus bubble,” to explore, to venture far past 63rd, and immerse myself in each and every one of Chicago’s 77 diverse neighborhoods. This notion was drilled into my head since O-Week. Before I had even done laundry for the first time in my dorm or stepped foot in a Hyde Park restaurant, I was told to hop on the CTA and explore life far beyond Hyde Park. 

Initially, I was confused and frustrated by these contradictory narratives. How in the world was I supposed to reconcile them? I did my best to erase the biased, often racist, media-instilled perception of the South Side as a crime-ridden “Chiraq.” But at the same time, it wasn’t just the media telling me to avoid areas right by campus. It was the University too. 

To an extent, I sensed this contradiction even before I became a student here. Applying to UChicago, I heard all about students’ ease of access to Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Lincoln Park, excellent Indian food in Devon, and gorditas in Pilsen. What I didn’t hear about, however, were the attractions in Englewood or Woodlawn. I wasn’t enticed with any neighborhoods, sites, or restaurants south of the Midway (except, of course, for the Obama Center). I felt like I was being marketed a painting while being shown only half the picture. 

This representation of UChicago perpetuates a culture in which we neither fully embrace nor reject the media’s portrayal of the South Side. Certain initiatives on campus do pride themselves in undermining the detrimental narrative of the South Side so pervasive in mainstream media, but the University doesn’t fully commit to doing so. It touts its private police force, the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), and constantly reassures prospective students by telling them how safe and secure campus is. I agree that safety is important. But when safety is used as one of the University’s greatest marketing ploys, the implication and underlying message is that there is something dangerous to be kept safe from, that there is something intrinsically dangerous about everything outside the University. That implication alone is severely problematic. 

In my mind, this conflict stems in part from the bubble that surrounds our campus. One need only walk a few blocks past South Campus to watch the landscape instantly change, to see litter and glass shards suddenly lining the streets and vacant lots replacing the Gothic buildings. If it weren’t for Rockefeller Chapel and the Logan Center towering in the background, you could almost forget how close to campus you were. 

This bubble signifies the University’s attempt to distinguish itself—physically and symbolically—from its surrounding communities. When the boundaries are as stark as this one’s (at least, to the South) and the houses and sidewalks and parks are so conspicuously different, I sense something far more deliberate at work. The bubble feels like more than just the boundaries of an institution, but rather a meticulous construction on the University’s part to maintain a “safe” campus. This hit particularly close to home last week—the UCPD shot a non white University student reportedly breaking windows in a mental-health episode. How are we supposed to reconcile the facts of events like these, the gunshots on the ground—targeted at South Side community members and, in this case, University community members—with the progressive narrative the University pretends to preach? 

There are incredible initiatives on campus working to hone the University’s engagement and presence in the broader South Side, such as the Neighborhood Schools Program, Maroon Tutor Match, ArtShould, the University’s “Engage Chicago” days, and various other programs run through the Office of Civic Engagement and University Community Service Center. But these just aren’t enough, and they remain jarringly inconsistent with the narrative the University often projects of the community surrounding campus. Our work on the ground and the story the University tells students—whether that is answering parents’ questions on safety during admissions tours or in briefing students on the neighborhoods surrounding campus during O-Week—need to be consistent and actually beneficial for the rest of the South Side. 

The main problem I see in the UCPD’s image as an entity that “protects from” is that it implies that not everyone’s safety matters. Sure, maybe it is committed to protecting University faculty and students (although even that is contestable now). But why are we the only ones that deserve to be protected? Why is it that gentrification and skyrocketing rent prices around campus and buying up adjacent land—and pushing people out in the process—as a means of making campus “safe” are all seen as acceptable processes? Whose safety is it that our campus police officers are really looking out for? And more importantly, whose is it actively endangering? 

I’m not saying that any of these problems have easy fixes. But I do know that solutions are within our grasp. If it’s up to the University to neglect the safety of our neighboring communities, it’s also up to them to address it. More importantly, it’s up to us to demand change and hold them accountable. 

Meera Santhanam is a first-year in the College.