Fanning the flames between town and gown

    Popcorn represents all that is wrong with college life. The dorm food staple thrives like a culinary cockroach in the appliance-deprived, nutritional wasteland of on-campus living. The rank, buttery scent of popcorn cooking in the common room microwave while you try to study can be nauseating. Burnt popcorn is even worse, combining a poor choice in food with an even worse sense of time.

    My problems with popcorn might seem petty, but I have a point. See, the next time you burn a bag of popcorn and set off the fire alarm, or are hustled out into the chilly October night because someone else did, you are passively a part of an issue that once forced Northwestern and the town of Evanston into a Supreme Court showdown. But even then, the nation’s highest court failed to resolve matters long-term.

    Revelers in Fountain Square, Evanston, in 1876, a year before Evanston took Northwestern to the Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of Northwestern’s archives.

    In short, every time the Evanston Fire Department rushes to save the burning wreckage of a dorm only to arrive and find a smoldering popcorn bag, it costs Evanston a little bit of money. Most of that money comes from taxpayers. And Northwestern does not pay property taxes.

    You can see where the train comes off the tracks. And while the recent donation of a fire truck by University President Morton Schapiro to Evanston was meant to take some heat off the issue, history tells us that the rancor over the University’s tax-exempt status is not so easily extinguished.

    The University’s tax-free roots derive from the temperance movement of the 19th century, for which Evanston later became renowned. In 1855, Northwestern’s trustees sent the Illinois legislature an amendment to their original charter, stipulating the prohibition of “spiritous, vinous or fermented liquors within four miles of the location of the said University.” Written into another part of the proposed amendment was the sentence: “All property of whatever kind or description, belonging to or owned by said corporation, shall be forever free from taxation for any kind and all purposes.”

    It should be observed that the Northwestern trustees were neither as cunning nor as business-savvy as they might seem to be in hindsight. They were probably much more concerned about prohibiting the sale of alcohol than dodging taxes when they drafted the amendment. After all, the Evanston of 1855 was a fledgling village (it wasn’t even incorporated until 1863), founded for the purpose of serving Northwestern. It would have taken incredible foresight to devise a way to gain tax-exempt status from a city that hardly existed at the time.

    But as the University grew, the town did too, gaining more autonomy as a suburban refuge from dank Chicago. In 1873, as behooves most people aged 10 to 20, Evanston decided to test the limits of authority. The town slapped Northwestern with a $10,000 tax bill. Northwestern, knowing what it had been guaranteed by law, fought back.

    The Chicago Tribune reported in 1878 that Northwestern owned several thousand acres of land in Evanston, which it rented or leased to the town for “every imaginable purpose.” Both Evanston and the University devoted large resources to the case and after five years, and several appeals, University v. People reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Northwestern’s tax-free status, with the Tribune reporting that “under this decision the University may hold any land or other property free of taxes, so long as the proceeds of such property are supplied to the support of the University.”

    When news of the decision reached University President Oliver Marcy, he excitedly imparted the news to a group of students, telling them, “You may build bonfires!” As word of Marcy’s pronouncement spread, the celebratory fires got a bit out of control, rising “in a blaze of glory” according to one student. So in many ways, Northwestern’s donation of a fire truck this September can be seen as a belated, but fitting gesture for its showboating over the court decision of 1878. Even though it will probably be used to put out dorm popcorn fires.


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