(How and why students should foster healthy town-gown relationships)
By Micah Meadowcroft
When junior Forester McClatchey, the Collegian’s cartoonist, sketched a bewildered college student faced with the improbable varieties and combinations of food available at the Hillsdale County Fair, what was a joke about artery-defying fried fair food became, for some, a cause for offense. A few Hillsdale natives took to Facebook to vent their displeasure regarding the cartoon, recalling a student’s unfortunately-phrased restaurant review from 2013 [“Broad Street Market: uniting the campus and the community”, Hillsdale Collegian, Feb. 6, 2014], and complained that the cartoon was further evidence that the college students dismissed them as yokels. Other locals replied in the cartoon’s defense. It was the kind of little flame war that sparks on social media all the time. It blew out almost immediately.
The underlying sentiments at play, however small the population that takes them seriously, are the product of hasty generalizations and self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of Hillsdale natives and thoughtless immaturity on the part of Hillsdale students. The temptation of the town’s citizens is to dismiss college students as “entitled”, if not actually wealthy—though that also seems a common characterization—and as snobbish cosmopolitans who think little of the town’s rural roots and inhabitants. Those offended by the cartoon saw it as an attack on the county fair and all the farm culture it represents. Offense can be found where one looks for it, and, generally, these characterizations are both unfair and self-fulfilling. The more that locals assume that students are arrogant and standoffish, the more distance they themselves contribute to the divide, affirming the initial assumption that students hold themselves apart.
For their part, students throw around the term “townie”. In both its most and least charitable use, “townie” is a catchall for any Hillsdale native. For the majority of students it has merely replaced “local” or “native.” But many students also use “townie” to describe a particular kind of person, associating it with poverty, crime, and substance abuse. In this sense, a townie refers to the person female students dread sharing a sidewalk with late at night, the kind of person whom male students walking girls home can’t decide if it would be validating or merely frightening to run into. Students don’t think everyone born in Hillsdale is this sort of “townie,” but the connotations get confused until even the generalized use of “townie” carries a scent somewhere between methamphetamine and methane. It’s a “Here there be dragons”, a lazy label for the unknown, and a real problem.
Until both sides of this issue are addressed, progress in improving Hillsdale’s town-gown relationship and bringing the college and the city together in real community will be impossible. Human fallibility being what it is, someone’s mistake will reignite old suspicions and undercut progress. While being offended is a choice, it is our responsibility as Hillsdale students to not give occasion for offense. No one goes to church with “townies.” You know those families and you don’t think of them with a label; you think of them as individuals and as a community. That’s what we have to do to play our part in healing whatever cultural rift divides town and gown.
Either potentially giving offense or being offended in interactions with the people of Hillsdale presents one party with an opportunity to bear with the weaker brother as the Apostle Paul commands in Romans. Should education or economic situation ever truly be a stumbling block to relationships with locals, it is a chance to meet people where they are rather than taking offense. It is vital to the health of the whole Hillsdale community that students, rather than self-righteously steeling themselves for martyrdom for their sophistication, examine themselves to see if they are not the weaker brothers, wanting comfort and coddling.
In my first week as a Hillsdale student, I took an assignment from the Collegian to describe Hillsdale’s political tendencies—not Hillsdale the college, but the town. I wanted to be as real a reporter as I could, so I got my notebook and pen and marched toward Carleton Road with the intention of running into people and interviewing them. I expected I’d find the busy sidewalks I’d grown up with in Portland and many eager interviewees wanting to talk about Governor Romney and President Obama. I found one occupied porch and empty sidewalks.
I didn’t notice the porch was occupied at first. Or, maybe I did, but convinced myself that I didn’t because, to be honest, I was scared. I didn’t know how to interact with what my memory paints as a grizzled older man in a stained T-shirt and trucker’s cap, briskly swaying back and forth on a rocking chair. He might have had a cigarette. I didn’t see a person; I saw a cliché and was intimidated. Here was a redneck. I noticed a little girl on the porch with him and immediately started theorizing about a dangerously simple family tree. This was not the investment banker who fronts a band or the unemployed barista that I was used to—there were no tattoos or dreadlocks. Just a man on his porch in a small American town and an accidental affront to my suburban and urban sensibilities, colored as they were by Larry the Cable Guy and the rest of the Midwest that TV had to offer. My geography was bad. I’d just arrived. I certainly thought Appalachia and Wisconsin were a lot closer than they are.
I noticed he had noticed that I had noticed him. I stopped, and stammered out a request to interview him for the Collegian, “the student newspaper,” as I explained. He assented, and, before I could ask a question, declared that I looked like Elvis Presley and that that was a good thing; I think he said “blessing.” It was surreal. I asked him about politics, and he said he’d never voted, but that if he voted it would not be for Obama, because a friend of his complained about the president. “Ramsey” seemed his preferred candidate. “Romney?” I clarified. “Romsey, yeah”, he clarified further.
I finished my newspaper story with my label intact. He had done nothing to dissuade me from the idea that he was a redneck, and I took his words as confirmation enough. I had met a “townie.” It took a year to get over the culture shock of being a West Coast transient in the middle of the Michigan mitten, a year for me to begin to peel my labels off the town and its people and to realize that the people I met at church and got to know well enough to be comfortable with lived here just like that man. It’s taken longer for me to realize that I did not know that man. I judged him based on one American Gothic snapshot and one conversation on a subject that he really had no need to know much about. I’m sure his concerns are of a more local and immediate variety.
I was the weaker brother. City of Hillsdale, please bear with me.
For students not from the Midwest, especially those not from small towns, there is a real sense of foreignness to Hillsdale. For someone from the coasts, Hillsdale without the college is a drive-through town in a flyover state. The risk for students, and even for faculty, is that this is the place where the school is and not ever the place where they are. For the student only here for four years, it’s especially tempting to let the familiarity and convenience of Wal-Mart and the McDonald’s drive-thru protect them from ever needing to become a member of this strange new place. When one never looks for what the town has to offer, it becomes easy to say there’s nothing here.
The most immediate solution to that problem and the best way to learn the poverty of labels like “townie” are the same: cross Carleton. Carleton Road cuts Hillsdale in half. To the northeast sits the college, to the southwest, an incredibly preserved historic American town. It’s convenient for never the two to meet, but it’s lazy and eliminates an opportunity for an education the college itself cannot offer. To know and experience and be a part of a different kind of life from both the one grown up in and the carefully constructed one found on campus is an opportunity for personal growth and an economic blessing to the town.
Professor of Political Economy Gary Wolfram and his wife, Mary Wolfram, are economic development consultants for Hillsdale, Michigan. Wolfram has taught at Hillsdale since 1989. He said that when he first began, town-gown relationships were “moderately nonexistent.” In some ways, I’m affirming a trend rather than sparking a movement with this essay. Wolfram said developments of the last few years have led to students crossing Carleton in increasing numbers and businesses beginning to adjust practices to appeal to them.
As an example of that recent progress, the college and the city are working to have a sign set up on the highway that reads, “Welcome to Historic Hillsdale, Home of Hillsdale College.” It’s not resentment or alienation or apathy that’s holding up the sign’s installation; rather, it’s the Michigan Department of Transportation and the permit process. “We wouldn’t have thought of putting up the sign five years ago,” Wolfram said, illustrating the progress that’s been made.
Wolfram points to the relationship between Notre Dame and South Bend, Indiana, as an model of a well-connected college community for Hillsdale. It was not always so. As a runner, Wolfram competed both in South Bend and at Notre Dame. When he was in the town, there was no indication that the university was up the road. When he was at the school, the group spent no time in South Bend. That’s changed since, and South Bend is now a thriving college town.
That kind of community in Hillsdale can only continue to grow if students continue to make it a priority to explore the city, especially downtown. Hillsdale may distinguish itself from other central Michigan towns of its size through its connection with the college, but, Wolfram said, “the whole downtown is a historic district.” That’s something all its own, and something students can treasure just as much as natives.
A particularly popular and intentional point of nexus between town and gown has been Broad Street Downtown Market. Robert Socha, co-owner and manager, said he’s seen the tavern become “a place where the college and community can come together and celebrate life, have a great meal, break bread”. He has high hopes for Hillsdale’s future as both the college and town grow, and sees Broad Street continuing to be a place for dialogue and celebration.
Other downtown institutions have become cross-cultural shared spaces as well. Wolfram pointed to Here’s To You Pub & Grub and Volume I Books as successfully blending students and town residents across socioeconomic lines. The Palace Café, during its late night weekend hours, has become a place where students fill up booths next to crowded tables of locals. Students proudly wear Coffee Cup Diner T-shirts. You become members of Hillsdale by being members of the institutions that make up the city.
Student groups are also beginning to recognize that the town’s problems can be their problems too. Wolfram cited the volunteer group “A Few Good Men”, Greek philanthropies, and other student organizations as increasingly trying to partner with the town beyond the college community. “Not too long ago we had members of the community come up and meet with the student groups [to] try and help them find people to partner with and [figure out] what to do to help,” he said.
In Wolfram’s mind, the next step is not just for traffic from the college to the town to continue to increase, but also for traffic from the town to the college to grow, and for the wider college community—donors, parents, and the rest—to discover Hillsdale. Socha is an example of that last hope, as he and his family moved to Hillsdale in 2013, only connected to the area by Imprimis and a desire for his children to attend Hillsdale Academy.
Traffic from town to college takes two forms. On the one hand, Wolfram would like to see both further dissemination of information about college events to the town and greater attendance and engagement at those events by the members of the town. Additionally, he believes downtown stores, restaurants, and coffee shops need to consider student schedules more in their hours of operation. Many places close before students have time to go down the hill.
Wolfram, the town, and the college are all partnering to give opportunities for the larger college community to encounter the city. The Wolframs lead tours of historic Hillsdale during parent’s weekends and Center for Constructive Alternatives seminars, and this last parent’s weekend, stores stayed open late for Awesome Autumn to provide the chance for parents and students alike to encounter the shops that make up the downtown. “You’d be surprised by how many have never been downtown,” Wolfram said.
And it’s true that geography plays a part in it. The concentration of businesses really is on one side of Carleton, and the college community is mostly on the other. “If we can get retail to move its way up the hill and college folks to move their way down the hill, then it will help us create that interaction,” Wolfram said.
In studying other college towns, Wolfram notes that successful cities keep their graduates. He pointed to Ann Arbor as an example of a city where students stay. It works best when students settle down in a capacity not directly related to the college.
That’s also an observation of Assistant Director of Career Services Keith Miller. A member of Hillsdale’s Tax Increment Finance Authority board, he noted, “I think that at this point, what hasn’t happened, is Hillsdale graduates staying here and founding businesses that increase the employment base beyond just people who stay and work for the college.”
Miller graduated from Hillsdale in 2003. “When I was a student, I basically ignored the town,” he said. Those interactions he did have with locals were mainly through his church.
Churches are a key part of facilitating interaction and fostering community among the college and town people. Their effectiveness is also almost entirely dependent on the attitude of the student. Miller said that when he was a student, church was just something he went to with his friends because he felt he was supposed to. It was too different from those churches that he’d grown up with in the American Southwest for him to feel that he was getting anything out of it. Frustrated by the absence of something cosmopolitan, he didn’t connect. That’s certainly still a temptation for students. It is more than easy to just go to church with school friends, stay for the service, and leave, without real interactions—to dine and dash, so to speak.
After graduating, Miller left Hillsdale for almost a decade before returning to work for the college. He said he has found that his friends are mostly faculty or somehow associated with the college. He still considers it difficult to connect well with locals, whether they are his neighbors at home or in the pew. There’s a real cultural distance, partly because of his upbringing in a different culture and partly because of the self-sustaining nature of the college. It creates its own culture.
Miller said it can almost be compared to life around a military base. Hillsdale College has a mission that it is seeking to fulfill, and that mission builds, by default, a kind of insular community. Army wives spend time with army wives; the people of the college, with their shared purpose, spend time with one another.
To Miller, that kind of cultural distance is self-perpetuating. Therefore, he said, “I would love for college students who are coming from a different culture with different expectations, with chain restaurants that don’t serve liver and onions, to understand that Hillsdale is a different thing.”
He considers the question to be one of membership. What kind of membership does he have in Hillsdale, Michigan? For Miller and the rest of the college community, answering that question takes a careful consideration of both the time spent in a place and the role played there.
Tenured professors with no intention of leaving Hillsdale must make their own way in balancing town and gown, for both are theirs; but for students, here only a brief four years, and for other non-permanent members of the college community, ideals and limitations must be held in balance. Perhaps it is useful to see the situation through a desacralized version of the Christian call to be “in the world, but not of the world”.
While students are here, at Hillsdale and in Hillsdale, it is their place. They should steward it and be a part of the community it has to offer. That means being open to relationships with locals, whether through church or work or food or shopping. That means protecting not just the college and its mission, but the people of Hillsdale and their culture. No matter how foreign the county fair and its food are to you, appreciate the richness of the community they represent, a community you have the opportunity to be a part of for a little while. The ideal should be to participate in and learn from Hillsdale the town as much as one is able.
That ideal must be tempered by recognizing limitations. Students are here at Hillsdale to study, and school comes first. Hillsdale College, through its mission, curriculum, and size, does foster a unique community built around certain shared values and purposes. That should never set the college at odds with the town, but we should acknowledge that it does create a distinction. Just as the man on the porch didn’t particularly care about national politics, or politics in general, the priorities of Hillsdale’s residents are different than the priorities of Hillsdale’s students and teachers.
Hillsdale is not the college’s town, and Hillsdale is not the town’s college. The college desires to be a national, even international school, and so the student and faculty culture will never perfectly reflect that of the town. But that is how it should be. The goal should be for Hillsdale to be a college town, for that is what distinguishes it from other small cities on the rust belt. But historic Hillsdale has merit and beauty in its own right, and while the college and town will certainly grow together, the town will be healthiest if its growth is parallel to, but not dependent on, the college.
The student who feels a stranger in a strange land in Hillsdale the town must first decide where their place is. After knowing where they come from and the significance of their home, they can learn to appreciate Hillsdale more. Those differences should, however, for all their foreignness, be felt not as lostness, but as an alternative. For four years, or for as long as you live here, you are presented with a different way of living, a different way of becoming human. Even as students study the liberal arts to learn how to be a human being, reading the literature and history of that subject, they live in a town of human beings living just such a story. While you are here, this can be your place, in some way. And its people, if not yours, can be people worth learning from.
Micah Meadowcroft is a junior studying history. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.
Image courtesy Elena Creed.