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Excerpts of Keynote Address: UniverCities and their Implications for Historic Preservation

30 Sep 2015 2:40 PM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

by Davarian Baldwin, Trinity College

editor's note: Dr. Baldwin’s June 3, 2015 talk is excerpted below. Look for an expanded version to appear in a forthcoming volume of the VAF’s journal Buildings and Landscapes!

In 2003, the University of Chicago (U of C) took notice of its black neighbors to the near north and their struggles to convert the historic Checkerboard Lounge blues club into the centerpiece of Bronzeville’s urban heritage tourism development plan. In a startling turn of events, the U of C went on to not just buy but relocate the Checkerboard from its 43rd Street location to a university-funded shopping district in the school’s Hyde Park neighborhood.  Outraged, Restoring Bronzeville members charged a “theft of culture.” The university retorted that the purchase of the neglected institution was an act of Black Historic Preservation that would, not coincidentally, also anchor an “entertainment district” to benefit university life near campus.

To the casual observer, the “transfer” of the Checkerboard Lounge from Bronzeville to the U of C confines may seem anecdotal at best and trivial at worst. But this struggle over the Checkerboard lounge in fact speaks to a larger battle of competing urban plans for “neighborhood destinations” within the rise of what I am calling “UniverCities.”

My larger project, UniverCities: How Higher Education is Transforming Urban America highlights the larger emergence of colleges, universities and their affiliated medical centers (“the meds and eds”) as the dominant employers, real estate holders, policing agents and health care providers in all of the country’s major metropolitan areas.

On one hand, colleges and universities look for new sources of revenue in the face of shrinking state expenditures for higher education. On the other hand, cities compete with each other to recruit viable “anchor institutions” that can network an attractive urban experience of concerts, coffee shops, and eateries amidst a fully-wired, entertainment-based dense foot traffic collage of consumers and residents. The interests of municipal and urban higher education leaders have converged in the shared quest to capture the consumer dollars of empty nesters, young professionals, and tourists venturing back into cities after decades of divestment.

This reality gives added nuance to Richard Florida’s celebration of the “creative city” whereby cities are serving the interests of the “meds and eds” in exchange for redesigning urban neighborhoods into the model of the university campus. Tax-exempt institutions of higher education become the perfect facilitators of capital in the new urban economy because they are presumed to serve a public good and therefore their expanding non-educational and profit generating investments are rarely subject to the same kinds of public scrutiny and economic oversight as other industries. Colleges and universities are seen as “saving the city.”

Moreover, university-based urban planning is often first tried out on the struggling neighborhoods of color that surround these campuses, largely because a history of racial inequality has rendered the real estate as low in value while the residents struggle to establish political influence.

But the case of Bronzeville, the University of Chicago, and the Checkerboard Lounge also points to competing uses of “historic preservation” as part of various efforts to draw capital into re-designed “neighborhood destinations” as part of the new creative economy. The convergence between higher education, community preservation, and economic development is happening in major cities across the country; including New York, Los Angeles, and Boston alongside Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Providence among others. The best collaborations build new cultural institutions and bolster economic development, from museums and public security to small business incubators and technological innovation. At the same time, such endeavors tend to replace affordable rate with market rate housing, create property tax deserts, build an army of low-wage “creative class” workers (janitors, cooks, groundskeeper), and use public funds for private development with little public oversight.

For the last 100 years, Chicago’s South Side has been at the center of an urban planning model now fully emerging right before our eyes. The U of C has gone as far to use the language of “historic preservation” to justify their practices of land acquisition, campus expansion, and community control. And as the interests of municipal leaders, higher education administrators, and local residents converge, there must be a critical assessment and plan of action that directly engages these UniverCities, their assets and consequences.

I am preparing more detailed thoughts on the larger implications for historic preservation within this creative economy through an essay, “‘It’s not the location; it's the institution’: The Politics of Historic Preservation in the New Creative Economy,” for the VAF journal Buildings and Landscapes. To be sure the consequences of this story are far from simply academic. These observations can lead a new level of coordination between academics, planners, architects, preservationists, and policymakers about current implications of this UniverCities landscape for various community stakeholders.


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