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Purpose of ‘College Town’

Letter to the Editor | Monday, May 1, 2006

This letter is in response to a piece that ran in last week’s The Observer (“‘College Town’ survey to seek student input,” April 20). The report described an initiative undertaken by various undergraduate leaders and marketing professor Tim Gilbride to “conduct market research to determine what Notre Dame students would want to see in neighborhood development projects.” This would seem to be at odds with the opening statement of the story, proclaiming that these people plan to gather “data for developers to help create a “College Town‚” tailored to the needs of Notre Dame students – specifically getting to and finding off-campus entertainment. Are we talking about neighborhood development? Or entertainment development? Are we talking about the needs of a community (which happens to extend well beyond the Notre Dame periphery)? Or the consumer impulses of temporary residents?

There is no Platonic Ideal of the “College Town.” The “college town” comes into being through an organic process by which both the “college” and the “town” are allowed to express their distinctive characteristics within that shared territory of mutual interaction. The “college town” must be able to support local businesses and must be a place where both students and local residents feel at home. The “college town” should not simply become an extension of the Notre Dame campus – systematically pushing the boundaries southward until Near Northeast is finally purged of its less attractive elements. And it should not be devised by corporate marketers and developers whose primary frame of reference gives preference to large national chains. We have Grape and Main for that.

Let me be clear: I am totally in favor of a “college town” environment – in fact, I have long felt that both Notre Dame and South Bend suffer for lack of such an atmosphere. I recognize that development must happen for this to become a reality. But I am also highly suspicious of marketing schemes that attempt to create a community out of upper-middle class consumer demand and that fail to understand the actual needs of neighborhoods and residents. “Data” for developers to create a “college town” for Notre Dame students? Excuse me for saying so, but that would be so typical of Notre Dame!

So as not to be labeled a naysayer, I will include a constructive proposal. If Notre Dame wishes to be involved in the development of a “college town,” let it invest in the LaSalle building in downtown South Bend, convert the old hotel rooms into apartments, provide shuttle services (or better yet, a bike path!) to and from campus and install a coffee shop and restaurant in the ground-level retail space. Students will have immediate access to several good restaurants, coffee shops and the Morris Performing Arts Center. With a Notre Dame residence downtown, other businesses will be attracted to and will cater to this economic target, students will have more opportunities to become positively involved in the South Bend community and eventually the territory between Notre Dame and downtown will sprout the seeds of shared commitment to a more sustainable and communally responsible vision of the “college town.”

As you consider the survey that you have recently been invited to participate in, please keep the following in mind – you are not mere consumers of some ideal place called “College Town.” There is more at stake than your desire for entertainment. There is also more to being a Catholic university than figuring out the degree to which controversial events are either to be sanctioned or outlawed and assigning named saints to campus cluster terminals.

In the words of Gaudium et Spes, one responsibility of modern Catholics is to remember that “freedom is often crippled by extreme destitution, just as it can wither in an ivory-tower isolation brought on by overindulgence in the good things of life. It can, however, be strengthened by accepting the inevitable constraints of social life, by undertaking the manifold demands of human relationships and by service to the community at large.”

Samuel Thomasgraduate studenttheologyApril 26