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The city outside the Notre Dame bubble

Darryl Campbell | Monday, January 28, 2008

One of the first things you see when you arrive at the South Bend airport is a sign insisting that the South Bend/Michiana area is “Notre Dame and a Whole Lot More!” It sums up the relationship between Notre Dame and South Bend pretty well – acceptance that Notre Dame is in fact the big draw for the South Bend area, but an underlying insistence that there really is something else worth seeing out here.

The St. Joseph River is not the only thing that separates Notre Dame from South Bend. Most of the University has an ephemeral relationship with the greater Michiana area. Most students still consider themselves residents of their hometown who are just itinerating here for four years or so; many don’t bother to change their license plates or register to vote here, and I imagine that there are more than a few whose only knowledge of South Bend, exclusive of Notre Dame, extends to the airport and a handful of fast food or delivery places. Between residence halls, dining halls, football games, Legends, the Debartolo Performing Arts Center and LaFortune, it’s certainly possible to eat, drink, shower, sleep and entertain yourself for all four years and never once set foot off campus. We even have our own police and fire department, zip code and power station. Notre Dame is, for all intents and purposes, a self-sufficient community; there’s nothing really anchoring it to South Bend.

South Bend, on the other hand, could not sever ties with Notre Dame without losing a central part of its identity. The sign at the airport, for starters, would have to go; the College Football Hall of Fame would find it difficult to justify its existence; the ‘Backer would lose one of its core constituencies. The University itself is the largest single employer in the county and impacts the local economy to the tune of $830 million annually. On home football weekends in particular, it seems like South Bend exists solely to be an extension of the stadium parking lot. Many businesses live and die based on their connections to the University, whether they sell Notre Dame merchandise, because they appeared in Rudy, or because they depend on the business of students. In short, without Notre Dame, South Bend might be just another declining Rust Belt city like Gary, with a stagnant economy, rampant crime, drug problems and the emigration of its affluent population into the suburbs.

Because the dependence is not mutual, but one-way, it’s no surprise that South Bend’s official attitude towards Notre Dame appears ambivalent. On the one hand, the city has recently approved commercial space to build the Eddy Street Commons. On the other, the Common Council introduced, and then hastily withdrew, legislation to clamp down on off-campus parties by requiring permits – a plan police officials questioned because they doubted the enforceability of the proposed ordinance. At the same time, that it took a regulation targeted at students to start a dialog between the Council and student body representatives didn’t disspell the idea that we are disinterested in the wider community. Some of the issues that hold the attention of the greater Notre Dame community – football records, coursepacks, pie in the dining halls – seem remote or even frivolous when compared to the issues facing the city: violent crime, property taxes, the revitalization of downtown and the meth epidemic. At the same time, much of the student body takes part in community outreach and social justice programs in the city – it’s not all about football and parties. Whether it’s because of our lack of political engagement, ignorance of the vibrant social outreach programs, the curmudgeonry of an aging population (the over-45 age group is the fastest-growing population segment in South Bend) or some combination of those and other factors, the perception of Notre Dame students as a whole is neutral, at best.

Unfortunately, because our self-sufficient community is separate from the city in more respects than location, it doesn’t seem likely to change. We have the opportunity to study at one of the finest institutions of higher education in the country, but there is nothing that says we have to limit our experience simply to the campus itself and the opportunities offered through the University. There are things worth doing that don’t involve chain restaurants, strip malls and liquor stores – even if they do take us outside of our sheltered lives. (And despite what impression you might have, it’s more likely than not that you can go downtown without getting mugged or worse.) But so far, it seems like the majority of us don’t make the effort to look beyond Notre Dame, and mutual ambivalence, or ignorance, has been the result. Until we realize that there is a world worth visiting outside the University’s grounds, we will continue to barely notice it and because nothing about the Notre Dame experience forces us to, ours is just another chapter in the long and problematic history of town and gown relationships.

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.