Saturday, April 03, 2010

Book Review: The American College Town

I didn't think it possible, but there's at least one person who is more passionate about studying college towns than I am! He is Blake Gumprecht, geography professor at the University of New Hampshire and author of the 2008 book The American College Town (TACT). I only recently learned of the book, and ordered and read it immediately.

At roughly 350 pages, TACT is a true academic study of its subject matter. In terms of background research, Gumprecht claims to have visited over 150 college towns (even with my own expansive definition of "college town," I've probably visited more like 45). Further, TACT offers other scholarly elements, such as formal definitions, statistics, histories, and typologies of college towns. Gumprecht's main tool of analysis, however, is the theme. TACT ultimately distills the major characteristics of college towns into eight themes, each of which is given its own chapter. Further, Gumprecht selects one particular college town to exemplify each theme. The themes and their exemplars are as follows:

*Campus as public space (i.e., green, parklike spaces; architectural and aesthetics, such as sculptures; hub of social and cultural activies). Gumprecht uses his own graduate-school alma mater, the University of Oklahoma in Norman, to explicate the public-space theme. I have never visited OU, despite being relatively nearby in northwest Texas; I'll have to get there some time!

*Off-campus housing/neighborhoods (i.e., fraternities/sororities; "student ghettos;" and "faculty enclaves"), for which TACT features Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell, as its case study. Regarding student housing, Gumprecht notes the tranformation -- in Ithaca and nationally -- toward more luxurious digs. "Where undergraduates in earlier periods would snap up cramped and dingy apartments in beat-up old houses, a new breed of students prefers modern buildings with greater amenities, while still wanting to live close to campus" (p. 96).

*Student-oriented commercial districts. Establishments that appear to be more common in college towns than elsewhere include: "coffee houses, bookstores..., pizzerias, bike shops, record stores, copy shops, and ethnic restaurants," bars, "movie theaters showing independent and foreign films, art galleries, live music venues, natural foods stores, T-shirt shops..., juice bars, and outdoor recreation suppliers," vegetarian restaurants, and "student-oriented religious organizations." TACT uses Kansas State University in Manhattan (the "Little Apple") and its "Aggieville" district as the focal example. Invoking his typology of college towns, Gumprecht also contrasts the agriculturaly oriented K-State/Aggieville to the more cosmopolitan attractions of Lawrence, Kansas, home of his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Kansas (KU).

*Social, political, and environmental awareness, for which Gumprecht focuses on Davis, California and its University of California campus. TACT describes Davis's pioneering efforts in creation of bicycle lines, recycling, food co-ops, and zoning/growth-control, noting also instances where the town has failed to live up to its progressive reputation.

*Eccentric and colorful characters one encounters in a college town, using Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia, as an example. "College towns provide conducive settings for people who wish to follow non-traditional life courses because they offer relatively cheap rents, lots of flexible, low-wage jobs, and a constant influx of new people with new ideas" (p. 190).

*The sports culture, especially with college football in the South, as exemplified by Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

*Economic development, often high-tech or biomedical, taking place adjacent to universities, as seen through the lens of Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the University of Michigan. I attended graduate school at U of M and certainly noticed the corporate plants on the edges of campus. I don't know that economic transfer is a more salient aspect of UM/Ann Arbor than Gumprecht's other themes; however, most other college towns are probably not so heavily involved in economic development as is Ann Arbor.

*"Town vs.Gown" tensions, as seen in Newark, Delaware, home of the University of Delaware, which is near where Gumprecht grew up. TACT focuses on three inter-related sources of conflict between colleges and their host towns' local citizenry: student drunkenness/rowdiness; conversion of single-family houses into student apartments; and universities' creation (or expansion) of their own stores, restaurants, and other amenities, which some fear will hurt local businesses, increase traffic, etc.

TACT's concluding chapter offers projections on the future of college towns. Such towns have changed dramatically in some ways in recent decades. As Gumprecht notes about the host town to the University of Kansas, "Lawrence now sprawls four miles beyond Iowa Street, which was essentially the western edge of town when I was a student [in the late 1970s and early 1980s]." Other potential sources of change include online distance education and college towns' attractiveness as "bedroom communities" near large cities and retirement settings. Despite all this, Gumprecht remains confident that college towns will retain their essential character, in part because many non-student newcomers to these towns come because of their desire for the college-town lifestyle.

Repeatedly throughout the book, I kept nodding in agreement with Gumprecht (mentally, if not physically). He and I are clearly on the same wavelength in a lot of our thinking about college towns, particularly on how compactness is one of a college town's chief assets and how college-town cultures must develop "organically" (p. 345) and cannot be created simply by having real-estate developers simply open up some student-oriented establishments across the street from a campus.

As much as I liked the book -- and I highly recommend it -- I'm not without a few quibbles. Madison, Wisconsin, a town of which I've grown quite fond in recent years, was not one of those featured in TACT, perhaps because it is also a state capital and thus is not singularly dominated by the university. I would argue that Madison rates highly on most or all of the themes identified by Gumprecht, plus it offers a uniquely beautiful environment, ensconced between two lakes. Also, I am more accepting of college-town-like neighborhoods within larger cities. Neighborhoods such as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Chicago's Lincoln Park by DePaul University, offer similar amenities as smaller college towns and, in my view, have identities separate from the larger cities of which they are a part.

In conclusion, if you live in a college town, are thinking of moving to one, or are just curious, The American College Town is a book for you.

ADDENDUM: Gumprecht maintains a website with collections of photos he has taken at numerous campuses. See the links section to the right, under "Others Who Photograph Campuses."