Beyond the ivory tower

By Marshall Knudson

[img id=”80530″ align=”alignleft”] Community is an idea that most of us respect and few denigrate. We grow up venerating community leaders, taking up the torch of community service, and reading the community paper. It’s a word of great currency and much contestation. Do we mean a group of individuals living in meaningful proximity, as in political districts, or do we hope to describe a group of people who share affinities—a common identity, or maybe a mutual vision of progress? In most cases, it seems to mean a little bit of both.

For our purposes, the “community” is understood to be everything and everyone involved with this university. Catering to the community is like peering out of the ivory tower and clambering down its hard stone steps to reach the ground, an inescapable condescension. With its monolithic presence in the central South Side, the University is always poised to pursue policies that affect the lives of “community members” with untold consequences. It’s not that our presence is an unmitigated disaster, or our programs sheer negligence: The University’s hospitals provide critical services, its sponsored schools and tutoring programs promote scholastic achievement, and under the aegis of the University Community Service Center, students are made aware and empowered to engage with the community, wherever it might be lurking.

On the other hand, our narrow-sighted vision and heavy-handed approach to community development takes a real toll on the “town–gown” rapport. Zimmer’s assurances to improve community relations amount to little more than recruiting as a major real estate holder in the area, corporate retail operations that provide us with brave new shopping experiences and a wide range of imported cheeses. The community gets to fill the new part-time positions and serve us in exchange. Symbiosis? Maybe not.

What we need is a way to bridge the gap between the University and the community in a way that’s less patronage and more solidarity. For those unaffiliated with the University, there is scarcely an organization with which to speak to students, or faculty, or administrators on equal terms. What we need is a genuine social space beyond the confines of campus—somewhere we can create a community that cuts across the lines that divide us, and work together in parity, with hope to make a brighter future today.

A group of students, united by the idea of providing a safe haven for community-created events, have gathered together and submitted a proposal to create such a community center, run mutually by University students and community members and backed by the hope of providing a safe haven for community-created events. Tentatively titled the “Woodlawn Collaborative,” the committee has proposed a location at the First Presbyterian Church on 64th Street, not far from the dorm being erected behind Burton-Judson in contravention of a one-time university promise not to develop farther south. The “Collaborative” would open up as a multi-purpose site to house arts and education programming, group meetings, performances, and other such functions.

Students are interested in meeting their neighbors and taking the life of the mind beyond the classroom. United in service, art, and self-education, students and our neighbors can come together to build an institution that addresses the long-standing issues that plague our wider community. Food drives and after-school programming can meld with discussion groups, art exhibits, and even bingo circles, filling out a space for collaboration and association.

A true off-campus community center would be friendly and accessible to the residents of Woodlawn, Hyde Park, and the surrounding neighborhoods. It would be a valuable means of contributing to student life, offering a healthy place to interact and collaborate.

The University’s administrative officials cannot empower and improve the community on their own. As my friend Luis Brennan suggested, “We have to do it for them, and that’s what we want to do.”

The “Collaborative” would be a tangible opportunity for the university to prove its commitment to our neighborhood and its insistence that the school motto, “crescat scientia vita excolatur, is more than empty rhetoric or an elegy to the progressive past we buried long ago.

The administration should give the green light to this ambitious and important project.

Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature. His column appears every other Friday.