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Making South Bend a community

Observer Editorial Board | Thursday, November 3, 2011

One of the best things about Notre Dame is that everything a student could possibly need is on campus. But it is also one of the worst because it separates us from the city that is our home — South Bend.

The tension between Notre Dame students and South Bend residents isn’t new. The Community/Campus Advisory Coalition (CCAC) met recently in downtown South Bend, bringing representatives from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross College together with city, county and police officials. Some residents of South Bend expressed their frustration at having Notre Dame students disturbing their neighborhoods. Paired with the recent upswing in off-campus crime, it is worth asking what can be done to resolve the tension.

We know that the community we live in isn’t perfect, but neither are we.

Students lead different lifestyles than families. Families develop strong ties within their neighborhoods; they react defensively to Notre Dame students in South Bend because that is where their children learn to walk, ride bikes and eventually drive their own cars.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame students flit from dorm to apartment to house, do their best to make ends meet, are most active on weekend nights and have had poor relationships with law enforcement in the past. How can a community reconcile these two demographics?

Let’s start with identifying the biggest problems.

A major concern for Notre Dame students is off-campus safety. At the CCAC meeting, student body president Pat McCormick broached the subject of off-campus safety with the coalition members. Everyone agreed that more needed to be done to keep students safe off campus.

Just a week ago, a burglar stole several laptops, iPods, game stations and cash from a student home on N. St. Peter St. What is even more alarming, though, is that the burglar also drove away with a resident’s black SUV. This robbery marked the sixth targeting student residences in only four months.

The result of this? Students avoid South Bend and rely heavily on campus resources. Having a Starbucks, a Burger King and even a FedEx Office within one building certainly makes life easier, but what we gain in convenience we lose in community. Remember when a trip to your hometown grocery store included catching up with your second-grade teacher, or making conversation in the produce aisle? We patronize imported franchises while independent businesses struggle in South Bend.

Meanwhile, South Bend residents notice a trend in students overtaking and disrespecting a neighborhood during the year. The parties, noise and short-term residency clash with a family lifestyle. For a University that strives for a family-like community, Notre Dame students can’t seem to extend the same compassion and camaraderie to South Bend residents. And for the amount of complaints we have about Notre Dame being a disconnected bubble, Notre Dame students rarely attempt to burst it.

Both students and residents have legitimate concerns, and a lot can be done to alleviate these two problems if we work together. The solution lies in long-term relationship building.

The University currently has a few initiatives that work on facilitating relationships between off campus students and their neighbors. The Off-Campus Council distributes a leaflet called the “Good Neighbor Guide,” which seeks to educate students on how to mitigate risk of conflict in their adopted neighborhoods. CommUniversity Day, which takes place each spring, also allows Notre Dame students to volunteer for a day in the South Bend community.

These initiatives, while commendable, are too few and far between to foster long-lasting relationships between residents of South Bend and the Notre Dame community. Integrating two communities doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a day-by-day process.

To students who live off campus: knock on your neighbor’s door and say hello. The same can be said to South Bend residents. A good relationship with your neighbor means that you look out for one another. A nonexistent relationship indicates a lack of interest and conscientiousness.

Yes, it will be awkward. Yes, you may feel uncomfortable. But going on your first interview is going to be the same way — scary, stilted, but in the end rewarding.

To the residents: not all of us are disrespectful party-goers who make excessive noise every night of the week. We may be young, but we are willing to learn — that is why we came here in the first place. Some of us are also a long way from home, and would love even just a friendly smile or wave that would make us feel like we belong.

Only a few individuals are committing the crimes against South Bend’s residencies. These people are not representative of the South Bend community as a whole. Many of the community members at the CCAC meeting were right in saying that students must be more vigilant, aware of their surroundings and exercise caution off-campus, but responsibility is shared between the community of South Bend and those students who choose to make South Bend their community.

Our neighbors think that students ruin a neighborhood’s history and character instead of building, enhancing and adding to it. Let’s prove them wrong. Go to that house next door, ring the doorbell and say hello. Who knows, maybe your neighbors will surprise you. We guarantee you’ll surprise them.