As part of PeaceAble Cities’ “Evanston Evenings” program, city residents like Acting Executive Director and Co-Founder Joey Rodger invite small groups of students over for dinner with the sole purpose of getting the Evanston and Northwestern bubbles to collide.
And collide they do. When McCormick senior Alex Wilson mentions he will be running his first marathon a few days later, Rodger’s face and those of her neighbors, who are co-hosting the dinner, light up.
“We’ll watch for you on Sunday,” Rodger says to the student she met just two hours earlier. “I think that’s just terrific.”
This apple crisp and ice cream-laden event is just one small piece of the town-gown relations puzzle. It is no secret that students and city residents do not always look favorably upon one another, something that Rodger wants a part in changing. She leads PeaceAble Cities: Evanston a group that wants to end violence and promote respect in the city.
“Unless the people who live in Evanston have a specific, role relationship in Northwestern, like they’re faculty or staff or have kids there, it’s very hard to cross that boundary between the town and the gown,” she says.
Town-gown relations is a historically sore subject for all those involved, and has been even more so in recent months. But now that some time has elapsed since the three-unrelated, or “brothel law” controversy, it’s easier for all of those groups to assess the dynamic in a more unbiased way.
It is true that the situation is far from perfect. However, now it seems that relations are better than they have ever been, despite whatever scandals and conflicts have occurred in recent memory. The city and the university are upping their efforts to connect with things like Evanston Evenings, student-resident ice cream socials and continued discussions between both groups, who say they are generally pleased with where the dynamic is headed.
“We have a great mayor and a wonderful city manager and a great group of aldermen,” says University President Morton Schapiro, decked out in a purple shirt and tie, as to be expected. “I think they recognize that we’re together and it’s not just making the best of it, but having Northwestern make Evanston an economically and otherwise vibrant city.”
There is a reason Northwestern and Evanston officials like Schapiro need to spend time convincing their constituents that the city-university connection today is just fine. Relations had been strained long before Schapiro and Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl were even born.
Northwestern came into being in 1851, three years before the City of Evanston was named. From the beginning, the university wanted property tax exemption before Illinois made educational institutions exempt under law, an issue that slowly made its way to the Supreme Court in 1878 after several legal appeals and reversals. Northwestern won University v. People, according to Jay Pridmore in Northwestern University: Celebrating 150 Years, a brief yet definitive account of Wildcat history that sits on a shelf at the University Archives.
When Acting University President Oliver Marcy heard the news, he advised students to build bonfires in celebration. “The fires rose in a ‘blaze of glory’ as a student recalled, and did nothing to salve the town’s wounds,” Pridmore writes. But the “Hundred Years’ War,” a term coined by Chicago Magazine in 2003, had only just begun. Disputes about taxes and other issues – everything from a president siding with Cuba in the war for independence to an effort to put a hotel tax on the Allen Center – sparked heated and often impolite debate between the city and the university.
Surprisingly, for years and years the most notorious university opponent was former Alderman Jack Korshak, a ‘Cat himself (Law ’36). He made national news by supporting a tuition tax at Northwestern and other universities in 1990, a cause that stirred controversy but never came to fruition.
Then-University President Arnold Weber recalls hearing Korshak speak at a class reunion where he “slammed the university” by encouraging his former classmates to refrain from contributing to Northwestern in any way. “It was almost as embarrassing as the sex object,” he says, referring to former human sexuality professor John Michael Bailey’s agreement to allow an after-class sex toy demonstration during winter quarter 2011. Weber, who was president between 1985 and 1994, is quick to point out that although relations were often frustrating, it was never as if the whole city council was anti-Wildcat. Evergreen issues like student alcohol consumption and zoning laws were minor rifts, he says. “The lesson is there’s always going to be tension.”
Weber’s prediction is true, as current students and residents know after taking one look at the 2011 publicity of the three-unrelated ordinance, not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “brothel law.” But is there really as big a disconnect as there seems to be between different Evanston groups, or is the “brothel law” a magnified bump in the road?
Word spread through campus in the days leading up to a town hall meeting about how the city was preparing to kick people out of apartments and houses if they violated certain safety restrictions, most notably having more than three unrelated people in the same building. According to Eric Palmer, Evanston’s community information coordinator, the ordinance has likely been around since the 1940s at the earliest. Elaine Autwell, the city clerk’s secretary, says it has not even been amended since 1983 and Tisdahl repeatedly says that there will be no changes in enforcement and no specific student targets.
“The whole thing was a wonderful example of misinformation in the Information Age,” Tisdahl says, putting the emphasis on “wonderful” as she rolls her eyes. “I do think that President Schapiro is a great guy and we talked about it quickly. I think he’s been tremendously helpful in resolving town-gown problems as they come up.”
Alderman Delores Holmes presides over Evanston’s 5th ward which includes the Fireman’s Park neighborhood west of North Campus. She says in terms of housing issues, she is always looking out for the students’ safety.
“I’ve been in some places that are not very safe,” she says. “If you can’t get in and out, if you don’t have windows in the basement, no one has any business living down there.”
Underneath all the communication barriers and frustrations last winter, the “brothel law” myth may be something that ultimately bolsters relations. City manager Wally Bobkiewicz, Tisdahl, Schapiro and local police officers all speak to how communication between the two sides is an important area for all-around improvement, in order to quickly and effectively handle situations like the “brothel law” confusion. But those events are not the majority of Evanston-Northwestern interactions.
“The problem is that whenever we get publicity about the brothel thing or about the fall with the pictures [of the house party ] and Gawker or the residual fallout from Dillo Day, that’s the story,” Schapiro says, laughing. “The reality is we get along really well with this city and it’s a great city.”
Although many credit Schapiro and Tisdahl with turning the tide in town, he cringes at the suggestion. He credits his and Tisdahl’s predecessors with building momentum in the right direction. “Sometimes I worry a little bit if people think it’s the Liz and Morty show,” he says. “‘They saved the day, riding in on their white horses.’ That’s not true.”
There’s a third, often overlooked part of the Evanston dynamic that seems to get much less time in the spotlight than Schapiro and Tisdahl: area businesses.
Evanston Chamber of Commerce Board President Dan Mennemeyer says he rarely hears complaints about the university from business owners. Most of the time, they are appreciative of all the money students, faculty, staff and all their visitors bring in. “It kind of pains me that the university feels compelled to defend their economic impact because of the pressures of a few,” he says. “I think that as a whole, most people in Evanston have no problem with how the university operates here in Evanston.”
While areas such as the Central Street Business Association may benefit from student business on game days, it’s not an on-going source of revenue like for stores in the downtown area, Mennemeyer says.
The university’s special assistant for community relations, Lucile Krasnow, says that it can be assumed that Northwestern reels in hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Though she admits, it’s almost impossible to count and track the actual number. “We’re the biggest employer in Evanston,” she says. Krasnow notes that “we’re a magnet for visitors.” She rattles off all the people who frequently visit downtown — students, faculty, parents, fans of football opponents and fans of prospective students, to name a few groups. They frequent the retail stores Mennemeyer describes. Krasnow uses Taco Bell as an example of a high-traffic place that sustains itself primarily on Northwestern business.
But Northwestern also helps the economy in ways other than bolstering retail sales. In 2010, the university worked with all residence halls to encourage census participation. The end result was that 98.3 percent of on-campus students and 98.8 percent of students in Greek houses participated, as compared to the overall Evanston rate of 76 percent, Krasnow wrote in an email. That level of student participation secures almost $4.8 million in state and federal dollars for the city each year until the next census. What Krasnow — and others — say is that revenue sources like that one, along with donations to the city, philanthropic efforts like Dance Marathon and the retail strength provide many alternative revenue streams.
Krasnow says the university’s presence creates revenue streams and consistently and constantly works to enhance partnerships, but Tisdahl says she still pushes the university for a PILOT, or a payment in lieu of taxes. The mayor may not have a physically intimidating presence, lounging meekly in a muted pantsuit behind an enormous city council desk, but she is biting in wit and quick to make her opinions heard.
“Oh yes, I’ve brought it up, like a dog with a bone,” Tisdahl says smiling. “I don’t give up on it.”
Even without the extra cash, Tisdahl says she likes how Schapiro is handling city relations. She smiles, talking about Schapiro and his administration giving the city a fire truck, an ambulance and countless other contributions. “I know that Morty wants to have relations be as good as possible and he knows that that’s what I want,” she says.
The moment Schapiro arrived in town, he and Tisdahl formed a relationship. “She reached out to me on day one,” Schapiro recalls. “Before I knew where my office was, pretty much.”
Although the heads of both sides are on good terms, no one in Evanston, student or not, would say relations are perfect. They never will be. But their progress is noticeable, and noticeably good. It might not always be clear on the macro level, with Gawker tainting the image. Northwestern is a university, after all, with typical alcohol and rowdiness issues from time to time. “The residents like the students, except when they’re drunk,” Tisdahl says after pausing, struggling to sum up the city’s general perception of their neighbors. “Then, they don’t like them as much.”
All it takes is one look at the micro level, though, to see how residents and students can enjoy themselves together. At Rodger’s PeaceAble Cities dinner table, topics range from the “brothel law” to off-campus drinking to completely unrelated issues like the Dallas Cowboys, the future of Facebook and stay-at-home dads. Both groups knew plenty of people who had less-than-stellar impressions of either students or residents.
“A lot of people I know kind of carry the attitude that Evanston could have it so much worse,” says Weinberg sophomore Jeffery Arnier. It is not uncommon to hear remarks about how Northwestern is not an overwhelming party school in the same category as many other Big Ten institutions. Rodger’s solution to the bitterness is finding more ways for students and residents to connect and develop a support system, not unlike what Evanston Evenings offers. “Student living is in a bubble,” she says. “It’s an intense, wonderful bubble, but it’s a bubble. And it’s a temporary one.”
“How can those of us who live here reach inside the bubble and say, ‘Good for you, right on,’” she says, pointing out that students can always benefit from words of encouragement as they pursue their goals.
If both sides keep making efforts to reach out to one another, like Rodger and others are doing, Northwestern could see the end of an era. The Los Angeles Times’ description of the university being “praised as a municipal sugar daddy and damned as the town’s No. 1 deadbeat” in a 1990 piece about the tuition tax debacle may become a thing of the past.