The Rise of "UniverCity"Historians in the News
tags: urban history, urban renewal, gentrification, colleges and universities
From New York’s Upper West Side to the South Side of Chicago, and from downtown Phoenix to the entirety of New Haven, universities are remaking American cities in their image.
In his new book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Cities, Davarian L. Baldwin examines how urban universities are straying from their purported mission of educating students and fostering innovation for the common good. Instead, their activities are increasingly oriented toward capital extraction and accumulation — at the ultimate expense of working-class urban residents.
Davarian Baldwin is an urbanist, historian, and cultural critic. He is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Baldwin about the enormous and unequal impact universities have in the realms of employment, real estate, policing, and health care.
In your book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, you compare university towns to company towns. You looked at New Haven, Hartford, New York City, Chicago, and Phoenix for examples of this dynamic, though it’s hardly restricted to those places. How big of a footprint do schools have in these and other university cities?
Columbia and New York University (NYU) are two of the biggest landholders on the island of Manhattan — so large that, at one point, they were actually only surpassed by the Catholic Church. University of Southern California (USC) is the largest private employer in Los Angeles County. The University of Chicago fields one of the largest private security forces in the world, with jurisdiction over fifty thousand nonstudent residents on the city’s south side. Yale University and its hospital make up one of New Haven’s largest landholders, and Yale deploys a private armed security force with policing jurisdiction over the entire city.
So the physical and economic footprint can’t be overstated. But I also think about footprint in terms of influence. The political authority of Columbia in West Harlem, NYU in Greenwich Village, Washington University in St. Louis, and Arizona State University (ASU) in downtown Phoenix are astounding. They have the ability to either flout or rewrite zoning laws and to shelter millions of public dollars on campus acres. Ultimately, we are witnessing higher education’s gaining control over not just economic development but also urban governance, a process I call the rise of “UniverCities.”
The trade-off for that kind of influence is supposedly that universities make cities vibrant places to live. What kinds of changes come with university expansion? Who enjoys them, and who misses out?
University development often involves commercial corridors like University of Chicago’s Harper Court, or USC Village, or the Shops at Yale. We can expect new construction and facilities like the gleaming towers of St. Louis’s Cortex development, or Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, or the glittering glass and steel that we see in the proposed partnership between Virginia Tech and Amazon in Northern Virginia.
Some of the change is undeniably worth celebrating, such as when the long-standing Pittsburgh Technology Center actually cleaned up a brownfield that had been polluted by a former steel company. And there’s no question that universities bring people and ideas together and promote innovation.
But there’s also a cost for those living in the shadows of these ivory tower developments. These expansions raise housing costs and displace residents in neighborhoods that are largely filled with working-class people of color. Campus police forces surveil and profile those same residents and are rarely held to public account. Higher education also has broad control over a city’s labor force, which it uses to lower wage ceilings and suppress collective bargaining efforts of low-wage support staff.
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