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‘Anchors In the Community’

‘Anchors In the Community’
No longer self-enclosed enclaves, universities join hands with residents, government and organizations to create safer, better neighborhoods
By Lydia Lum

Ten years ago, Myrtle Gordon and her neighbors feared turning their lights on because it was likely to attract a drive-by shooting of their homes, in Columbia, S.C. Stepping out, they could see the illegal liquor houses and drug dens that riddled their neighborhood, and which surrounded Benedict College.

Now, crime and blight are nearly gone. In their place is a mix of renovated and new wood-frame and brick homes, as well as bungalows and Victorian and patio homes. The neighborhood’s appearance has been restored to that of several decades ago. Families and working professionals, including Benedict employees, are gradually moving in, replacing transients and drug dealers. The transformation, Gordon and other residents say, has resulted from the private, historically Black college helping to clean up the community and ignite housing and economic revitalization.

Benedict’s efforts, financed through grants as well as corporate and individual contributions, are part of a growing wave of higher education institutions across the country improving their surrounding neighborhoods. These colleges and universities that were once self-enclosed enclaves are now assuming the role of community developer. They have joined hands with residents, government and organizations to create safer, better neighborhoods in urban areas, especially where minorities and immigrants live.

“Now, we can walk and feel good about the area,” says Gordon, who has lived near Benedict all her life. She retired after teaching in public schools for 33 years. “No changes are made in this community that we are not aware of.”

Indeed, it’s a list of changes that Benedict has sparked in this area north of downtown Columbia. College officials steer students — who must finish 120 community service hours before graduating — toward neighborhood improvement efforts. The college is more than just a name partner of the Benedict-Allen Community Development Corp., but has employees filling one-third of the CDC’s board seats. Benedict President Dr. David Swinton himself serves as board president. The college purchased a vacant lot and established a park, complete with basketball and tennis courts and a children’s playground. Although university-owned, it will open in 2003 as a public space. “It’s wonderful to have green space again,” Gordon says.

But should academia actually have hands-on involvement in community development? What are the risks and benefits to the school? And, do students get short-shrifted when resources are spent on neighborhoods, rather than only within classrooms?

“The environment should reflect the values of the college,” Swinton says. “How can we teach students about hard work and quality work if we’re in a rundown area ourselves? That would contradict what we’re trying to do. At minimum, we should use our knowledge to improve the community. Service is part of our general mission.”

Furthermore, some school leaders believe investing in the neighborhoods helps keep their own institutions in business. In response to growing urban decay, “we can build bigger and bigger fences around ourselves, or we can watch parents move their kids to another school, or we can do something about it,” says Dr. John Bassett, president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Under previous Clark President Dr. Richard Traina, school officials in the mid-1980s began efforts that led to renovation and new construction of more than 300 units for low- and moderate-income families in an eight-block radius around the private, predominantly White university. Most units are three- and four-bedroom triple-deckers. Owners can not only live there, but also rent out the other two levels. To emphasize Clark’s commitment to the neighborhood, Traina even moved out of the posh president’s house two miles away and moved into one of the refurbished homes. Bassett, who became president in 2000 and now lives in the same refurbished home Traina did, says Clark’s neighborhood commitment was a key factor in his accepting the top job.

That posh president’s house? Sold.

Still, when considering community development, a balance must be struck so that a school’s main constituents — students — aren’t shortchanged.

At Benedict, about 30 percent of freshmen either drop out or transfer. Only 35 percent of students remain to graduate. Swinton says he and other officials aren’t satisfied with those retention rates. Swinton emphasizes that Benedict enrolls many students with disadvantaged backgrounds. By helping to re-develop the neighborhood, they are showing students how people, especially minorities, can live in the inner city. “We are showing students they can succeed if they take the energy and time to do so.” Swinton says.

“We’re not Harvard or Emory. We’re not trying to be.”

In fact, a cleaner neighborhood helps recruit students, says Dr. James Wingate, president of the historically Black LeMoyne-Owen College, where 86 percent of the enrollment comes from the private school’s hometown of Memphis, Tenn. LeMoyne-Owen, as well as Benedict, were among 22 Black schools nationally receiving federal monies this year designated for urban redevelopment. LeMoyne-Owen’s proposal, which received $549,000 in funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, calls for capacity building, technical assistance and economic development in the 20-block radius from LeMoyne-Owen. The college’s community development arm, which doesn’t expose the school financially when it purchases property, has helped finish 10 new and rehabilitated single-family homes this year. Half are now occupied. They are all first-time homeowners and mostly Black. Officials hope to add at least 10 new and renovated homes annually in the area, continuing partnerships with local and state housing agencies. “I see only opportunities, not risks,” Wingate says.

“Colleges can be anchors in the community.”

One targeted audience of buying into such homes are university employees themselves. The private, predominantly White, University of Pennsylvania, for instance, offers its employees several guaranteed mortgage and home improvement loan programs to entice them into west Philadelphia. The programs are so popular, with more than 400 households involved, that demand is greater than the supply, and there is a waiting list for available homes, says Lee Nunery, Penn’s vice president for business services. Penn’s programs are administered by its own separate housing office. Among other things, Penn acquired 20 single-family homes and duplexes where roofs and porches had collapsed. After renovating and restoring much of the original architecture, all of the homes sold, though not for a profit. Still, Penn officials assume risks that properties will in fact sell, Nunery says. “You always know that homes surrounding these homes may not necessarily be kept up, and then what can you do? There are limits. You just hope that one improvement will inspire another, and another.”

Indeed, growing pains can occur in determining how much can actually be tackled. At the University of Louisville, community revitalization efforts once included childcare and job training for residents south of downtown. But those efforts only replicated other organizations, says Dr. John Gilderbloom, professor of urban and public affairs. Instead, what was more successful was an initiative by graduate students, mostly Black and Asian, who designed plans for new and renovated homes in that area. That initiative — which didn’t involve the predominantly White public university acquiring any property — helped unify Black churches, nonprofits and other organizations by soliciting their input into what became eight different kinds of homes to re-develop the area, Gilderbloom says.

And all schools face “town-gown” tensions when initially reaching out beyond classrooms and research labs. Jack Foley, executive assistant to the president at Clark, recalls the neighborhood suspicions in the mid-1980s. “We were perceived as aloof,” Foley says. “Clark had expanded a lot, and the residents had complained of the additional noise, the trouble parking on their own streets. So, we had to build our credibility. We took small steps, planted some trees in the neighborhood, hosted a barbecue.”

Over the years, Clark helped start the Main-South Community Development Corp., but has only retained 1 of 15 board seats to allow maximum community and business input, Foley says. Meanwhile, Clark also extended a $1 million line of credit to Main-South to buy, secure and renovate property. The university itself has invested about $7 million in neighborhood revitalization. About half that amount is in free tuition for students enrolling in Clark after graduating from a nearby public school. More than 70 percent of students at that secondary school qualify for free lunch programs and more than half speak a foreign language at home.

Colleges and universities, even through community development corporations, don’t do the work alone, of course. Typical partners are local, regional and federal agencies in housing, urban planning and health and human services. Funds come from government, foundations and individuals, among others. “There’s no downside to this whatsoever,” says E.W. Cromartie II, a Columbia city council member whose district includes Benedict. “Partnerships and collaborations are the only way to go, because of limited resources.”

At Benedict, which received a $500,000 HUD grant this year, future plans call for construction of a mixed-use building a few streets away that will house a restaurant, cultural center, loft apartments and commercial space. With better housing already in place, college officials are now trying their hand at other amenities to improve quality of life in that area. Longtime resident Gordon and others applaud the effort. “Benedict is physically and socially an asset for us,” Gordon says.

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