I want to take a moment to highlight our two, extraordinary conference keynote speakers, Dr. Davarian Baldwin and Dr. Eugenia South. Baldwin’s book, In the Shadow the Ivory Tower, is a researched exploration and critique of how universities alter neighborhoods either by purchasing real estate or by developing empty downtown cores into “innovation districts.” Baldwin focuses on The University of Chicago, NYU, Columbia, Yale, and his own institution, Trinity College, and his insights are adaptable to Wake Forest and Winston-Salem. Though “the ivory tower” is a metaphor, it’s not hard to see how the bright, white buildings of Wake Downtown—repurposed RJR tobacco manufacturing buildings, no less—cast their own kind of shadow, and we invited Baldwin to headline the conference in order to make clear the implications of our locally focused academic work and the stakes for getting it right for our community.
Baldwin begins In the Shadow by noting that “[t]hose in the immediate shadow of the ivory towers have long been the first to experience the consequences of the entangled relationship between higher education and urban life [. . . ] The growing influence of these schools on entire cities solidifies their political authority over housing costs, labor conditions, and policing practices for everyone living in urban America,” thereby transforming neighborhoods in the image of the university itself.
Universities are not (or not always) the originating cause of urban transformation. Indeed, Baldwin explains that “when most of the United States had abandoned cities in the mid-twentieth century, higher education was one of the only institutions that remained.” Winston Salem is different in that regard. Here, no university existed in the center of downtown, and the condemnation of core, low-income residential and business districts in and around the east end of downtown, combined with construction of highways—which function as barriers as much as corridors—left an enormous amount of property in the hands of city leadership and their patrician allies, who eventually partnered with Wake Forest to develop that property.
Baldwin’s book demands that we think about not universities’ impact on neighborhoods, but also how we conceive of the cities that house them. That’s because “[t]he university has shifted from being one small, noble part of the city to serving as a model for the city itself. It is precisely the commercial amenities associated with ‘university life’—concerts, coffee shops, foot traffic congestion, fully wired networking, and high-tech research—that are sold today as a desirable urban lifestyle.” This is about who is served by (and who serves) these amenities, and how “university life” presumes one kind of work-life ratio and obscures another.
Baldwin’s examination of downtown campuses can also be the occasion to reflect on what stories get told about a district and whose stories are eclipsed. In Winston Salem, there is inadequate public memory of urban life before downtown development (try asking your academic colleagues what Bailey Park looked like before development and see if they can tell you), and the absence of public memory facilitates the dominance of one story over other histories and imagined futures. One goal for our conference is see beyond the teleological emphasis on “innovation” and “development” which currently hinges the past and future of downtown to IQ, and to learn how the city is experienced and imagined by those living in the shadows.
Baldwin’s talk will be an occasion to think about how our university motto operates institutionally, and Dr. Eugenia South’s second day keynote address will provide an exemplary model of university/neighborhood research that is “for humanity.” South’s Philadelphia-based Urban Health Lab works closely with local area neighborhoods and community partners to identify the links among race, place, and health, and to develop interventions that improve health outcomes.
In her research on the efficacy of localized interventions, South and her partners “found that after both the greening and trash cleanup [ . . .], gun violence went down significantly. The steepest drop in crime, up to 29 percent, was in the several blocks surrounding vacant lots in neighborhoods whose residents live below the poverty line.” The study involved cleaning and greening those lots, and the outcomes went beyond individual health. Rather, the study demonstrated “that communities with the highest need may benefit the most from place-based investment,” and the researchers helped lay the ground for developing networks of engaged research and teaching, community partnerships, and civic investment as a form of health care. Dr. South and her colleagues from the Urban Health Lab will lead a workshop at the conference on locally oriented health care research, one of four workshops conceived to develop and deepen engaged teaching and research for our universities and our neighborhoods.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you, but now you know why I’m so excited for these keynotes and for this conference!
Next month’s conference on The University and the Neighborhood, co-hosted by the Humanities Institute and the Office of the Dean of the College, will take place at a propitious moment for our faculty, our university, and the broader Winston-Salem community at large. The conference will explore ongoing and new work on engaged research and teaching locally and from around the country. We will examine how and why this work matters, and why it matters to get it right. The conference arrives while the university is staging conversations on strategic framing, and amid broader conversations occurring across the city about environmental racism, housing justice, and gentrification. While many of us pursue these topics in our academic work, we are also aware that universities in general and Wake Forest in particular are major economic and political drivers behind these issues, and not simply the objective basis from which we research them.
The crux of this conference, then, is the ethical and political imperatives that pertain to universities and neighborhoods, and we’ll dwell at that crossroads for two days as we ask: How can our work be resourceful for our neighbors? How do we sustain partnerships with our local-area community members? How can we learn our neighbors’ stories, and how can we help archive and share those stories for their benefit? What are the stakes for and how must we go about researching and telling our own story—the story of WFU’s impact on the physical and cultural geography of Winston-Salem? Working with our faculty, colleagues from OCCE, and guest scholars from several other universities, we will discuss how to pursue these questions.
The conference includes public keynote talks by Dr. Davarian Baldwin and Dr. Eugenia South. Dr. Baldwin’s book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower is a researched exploration and critique of the economic and cultural damage universities have done to their local area neighbors in Chicago, New York, and New Haven, and his findings are bracing for anyone concerned about Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Dr. South is an emergency room physician and public health researcher whose scholarship demonstrates how small, localized improvements in neighborhood greenspaces can yield significant public health outcomes. Dr. South and her team from Philadelphia’s Urban Health Lab will lead a workshop based on their findings on the second day of the conference. We will also have workshops on forming community partnerships, community storytelling, and participatory action research. You will see announcements with details about each workshop and a link for registration in the coming days.
I am so excited about this conference! It is the culmination of—and generously supported by—the 2018 Mellon Grant for Engaged Liberal Arts, and it showcases extraordinary work accomplished by our colleagues, while pressing us to learn more and do better. Across two days at Wake Downtown, colleagues from Wake Forest, WSSU, UNCSA, and from around the country will meet, share, eat and drink together, and think through the future of engaged liberal arts teaching and research, and the consequences of that engagement for the university and the neighborhoods of which it is a part. I hope you will join us.