UL is the central asset of Lafayette: intellectually, culturally, economically, and to some extent, geographically. Currently UL seems poised to make some very large steps forward in enrollments, academics, athletics, fundraising and infrastructure. But that sort of growth generally creates problems around large campuses: on the one hand, there is urban decay that surrounds so many universities; on the other there is the fast-food, big-box pop culture that surrounds yet others. Many universities in fact deal with both simultaneously, where the neighborhood on one side of a campus may be ugly with run-down properties, and another is ugly with vapid consumerism.
Lafayette is growing rapidly, and as we do, we are seeing more and more urban blight, the decay of poorer neighborhoods, primarily on the Northside. There has been some discussion about this in City-Parish government, but no definitive plan of action has been proposed, nor even a plan of study.
At the same time there is the somewhat less-discussed problem on the Southside of Lafayette, a national phenomenon known as 'Generica'. The areas between the UL District to the Mall of Acadiana are filled with restaurants, stores, amenities, and even neighborhoods, that are identical to recent developments in any large city in the country. Except for the occasional locally-owned holdout, parts of the Southside are indistinguishable from parts of Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh or anywhere; hence the term Generica, 'generic America'. In opposition to the decline of poorer neighborhoods there is growth, but it is largely the growth of bland, mass-marketed, mindless consumerism.
So on one side of town we have physical decay; on the other we have cultural decay. I wish to extend those concepts of urban blight and Generica, and apply them to the neighborhoods that surround many universities.
Education is my passion, and the university is the highest expression of formal education. So when I travel around the country and even the world, I visit college campuses to see how they work, how they are laid out and landscaped, what architectural styles they use, what amenities they offer, and into which buildings an institution has invested the most economic and esthetic capital.
I also like to look at the area around campuses. At a few institutions, mainly older, more prestigious schools (Cambridge, Amherst, and Berkeley are some of my US favorites), the campus is bordered by 'educational extenders': coffee shops, ethnic & off-beat restaurants, bookstores, hobby shops, boutiques, artist's & artisan's workshops, and landscaping assets such as parks, biking & jogging paths, and other accommodations for outdoor activity & interaction. I call them 'extenders', because they provide environments conducive to continuing the conversations sparked in the classroom, thereby engaging the mind in a leisure* setting. These places also augment the educational experience by exposing students to new activities and cultures. This is why ethnic restaurants are key, because a student may or may not initially choose to participate in intellectual discussions in their free time, but they all have to eat. Inexpensive ethnic food serves as an excellent agent for breaking down our natural xenophobias to foreign flavors, foreign cultures, and with any luck, foreign ideas.
But unfortunately, that culture exists around only a few colleges. Much more common are three alternate scenarios.
First, around newer campuses the nearby environs are typically residential, or occasionally, open fields. Generally, these schools have not been around long enough to establish an impact on adjacent properties.
The other two conditions I frequently find around longer-established campuses are those that headline this article: university blight, and university bling.
It is surprising to me how many older, well-known schools are frequently bordered by eyesores, run-down rental properties inhabited by students and other low-income tenants. We live near the UL campus, and I am slowly getting an idea about how such university blight can occur.
A friend of mine lived on the other side of campus, and her story was typical of what I have heard other places. Most of the students who lived near her were pretty good neighbors. But even the best of them would occasionally have loud parties well into the night. These could sometimes be a block away, but the low-frequency woofers could still be heard-- and felt-- as she and her family tried to sleep. Usually if she or her husband got up, got dressed, walked over and asked the students to turn down the music they would, but it is much harder for young people to keep down their natural tendency for hoopin' & hollerin'. The Lafayette police were generally not much help. At times they called them repeatedly to report the noise with no effect. A student from one of the offending parties later admitted that the police had in fact shown up, but they just looked around, said nothing, and left.
Beyond parties, there is simply the nocturnal lifestyle of the young adult. There are doors slamming, car alarms honking as they are set (or worse, when they are accidentally tripped), loud conversations, tires squealing, or kids just sitting in their cars, but with the windows down and the radio blaring. She and her family were often awakened in the middle of the night by such things.
Beyond the noise, the properties themselves typically decline. Multiple tenants' and friends' cars were often parked on the premises, and the overflow often ended up on the lawn. The lawns died, leaving a dirt or shell-covered front yard, or the property later gets paved with unsightly concrete. Adding to that, disinterested landlords find that their property’s proximity to campus ensures them a healthy rent regardless of the building’s condition, and maintenance falls off: yards aren't mowed, weeds and poison ivy take over, shrubs and other plants are simply removed rather than maintained, houses remain unpainted. The properties get uglier and uglier.
It only takes decline in a couple of nearby properties to start a multiplier effect. It happened over a couple of decades at my friend's house. Families with young children, and older, settled couples, chose to move to quieter, more attractive neighborhoods. The departing landowners generally tried to sell to responsible parties, but many houses were sold to affluent families for their children to attend school. For a while, those families maintained the properties, but they nevertheless slowly decline as students graduate, and sell to other families. Typically, investors eventually buy them as rental property, and the decline generally accelerates.
Other owners simply die, leaving the property to heirs who may have no attachment to the neighborhood. Those properties are often sold to anyone who shows up, typically an investor. Apparently, many investors simply lie about their intentions in order to buy a property quickly, and then immediately turn it into a rental property. She says that 20 years ago on her block there was one small apartment complex, and only one of the eight houses was occupied by students (and it was already an eyesore). Since then several neighbors have died and others have moved out of the neighborhood. She eventually moved out too, and today six of the eight houses on the block are occupied by students, while another one sits empty. So far, the students and landlords have maintained the properties fairly well, but before she nevertheless could begin to see the in-creep of university blight.
The third typical situation that appears around colleges I call 'university bling'. Around some of the larger schools big investors build strip malls and apartment complexes, and lease property to the same fifty or so retailers and restaurant franchises that currently dominate American cuisine & culture. In effect, the all-encompassing temple of independent thought becomes encircled by the uniform, unquestioned materialism of Generica. Blighted properties may improve visually in this scenario, but they decline culturally: the besieging profit centers simply extend and perpetuate the popular culture in which most students have been immersed since infancy-- the same popular culture the university must overcome before we can engage students in the life of the mind, and in the culture of reflective civicism. Bling looks better than blight, but it’s probably worse intellectually: run-down housing may be ugly, but at least it leaves opportunities for thoughtful discussion.
So my concerns about blight and bling are more than wistful sentimentality. Both of these are threats to our economy, to our quality of life, and to our future. UL is the intellectual leader of Acadiana, and has repeatedly stepped up as an economic, cultural, and social leader as well. With those impacts, I have argued repeatedly (harangued, some would complain), that the University is the most important economic asset we have: it not only imports enormous wealth into our community in the form of government and tuition dollars, as well as the economic bonanza of residential students, but it is also our #1 growth asset. Look around Lafayette and consider how many of our professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, philanthropists, elected officials and community leaders were attracted to Lafayette either to attend college, or after formal training elsewhere the located here because of the attractions a college town offers. Among those are many of our native sons & daughters who left Acadiana but have chosen to come back home. Would Lafayette be so attractive to them without the deep and diverse culture that a vibrant college community generates, facilitates, and attracts?
So what happens to our chief recruitment asset, if it is parked in the middle of a slum? How many prospective students, athletes, and faculty might seriously consider some other school after seeing extensive university blight? How many tourists would return home from Lafayette, and voice criticisms of our city? How many highly-recruited businesses might look at the ugliness and wonder about our community priorities, particularly since so much of the rest of Lafayette is well-maintained?
In contrast, what happens to the University's ability to attract the best students, and to then train them to design our future, if the neighborhoods around our campus have the intellectual depth of a carnival, and a pervading local culture based exclusively on mass media?
Beyond those concerns, we simply need to ask ourselves what we want to see around UL. For those of us who have experienced the diverse delights of cosmopolitan communities, how could we not want that here? Who among us would not want to spend evenings strolling around eclectic neighborhoods, dining at exotic restaurants, sampling a wide variety of wine or beer at outdoor cafés, listening to a diversity of musical styles at off-beat night spots, browsing bookstores, bodegas and unusual shops, looking at art and talking with people of diverse (and often unexpected) viewpoints and experiences?
That concept apparently has a strong appeal here, because it is much of what we are already trying to do with the Lafayette Downtown, and to some extent is already present in the Oil Center. Both the Downtown and the Oil Center are adjacent to the University, so it would be natural to work with them to extend their influences around both sides of the campus.
So I would urge officials from all of the involved groups-- the University, SGA, Alumni Association, LCG, LEDA, the Chamber, LCVC, the Acadiana Arts Council, DTA/DLU, le Centre International, the Police & Fire Departments, the Sheriff, the hospitality industries-- to begin a dialogue about how we can steer the areas around UL away from the coming problems toward the sort of eclectic, intellectually lively developments that enrich the very best universities.
*The world 'school' is derived from the Greek word for leisure.