One-Way Views of Town-Gown Relationship Will Never Resolve Issues of Inequality

Will Rubenstein, Contributing Writer

The One Town Campaign’s community forum at the Oberlin Public Library on Feb. 13 was ostensibly a discussion of the so-called No Trespass list, an opaque and capricious College policy that bars certain Oberlin residents from entering much of the core of their hometown under threat of arrest — but with the regrettably rare occasion of extended and public dialogue between town and gown, other long-simmering issues were plainly visible under the surface. Applause crescendoed at the mention of topics like the College’s non-payment of city property taxes, the less-than-visible transformation of off-campus rental properties into College-owned Village housing, the paucity of public services outside the College and even the use of demeaning monikers like “townie,” sending a clear message that intra-community relationships in Oberlin are too deeply fraught for a single revised College policy to do more than scratch the surface.

The few voices in the crowd that seemed to push against the consensus of the event struck a common chord of self-reliance. Town residents shouldn’t need free access to the College’s resources, went their reasoning, and since College students (or at least our families) pay so much in tuition, why should anybody who doesn’t jump through the hoops for an OCID get to use facilities like Mudd, Philips or Robertson? Implicit in this line of argument is a view of town- gown collaboration as a one- way street, with lifelong Oberlin residents having little to offer the College apart from drain- ing its resources and hopefully adopting its values. In fact, such premises are central to the underlying problem.

As much as Oberlin’s outward ethos is one of egalitarianism and social justice, going about our studies in a bubble of privilege guarded by invisible policies like the No Trespass list is a blow not just to the communities we implicitly shun, but also to the progressive education we claim to seek. The College does foster a diverse student body in many ways, but its model of residential education still caters as narrowly as possible to a homogenous group of 18- to 22-year-old dependents who enter college shortly or immediately after completing secondary education. Aside from abetting the infantilizing near-universality of dormitory housing and cafeteria dining, such uniformity can result in academic dialogue on wealth and inequality devoid of relevant personal experience, leaving even the most progressively oriented middle- or upper-class students to grasp feebly at questions that many people without the opportunity to attend Oberlin College are never able to escape.

Concerns like these do not end on Commencement Day: Without systematically facing the day-to-day realities of a broader spectrum of human experience, we can’t hope to effectively campaign for social justice, equality and democracy once we depart Oberlin College for the real world out- side. Witness the other notable public gathering on Feb. 13, a demonstration against recent hate-based vandalism of posters in academic buildings, which boasted many more College students in attendance than the One Town Campaign’s forum later that evening. Of course we should welcome any effort to combat racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice, but how can we expect to respond proportionally to the vocal or violent expression of similar prejudices if this is our reaction to offensive graffiti simply because it happens to pierce our bubble? What is solidarity with the oppressed supposed to mean if the only oppressor who can lift the veil of apathy and get hundreds of students up and marching is an anonymous troll with a Sharpie?

Several community forum attendees articulated potentially fruitful responses to the No Trespass list and the town-gown divide, such as clearly defining the offenses that can land a person on the list, instituting variable “sentencing” for different offenses and age groups, outlining consistent and transparent procedures for making these decisions, opening more College events to community involvement and reaching out to the community more visibly regarding all of the above. These sorts of admittedly worthwhile steps nonetheless all involve Oberlin College as an active subject and the City of Oberlin as a passive object. Without emphasizing the town-gown relationship as a two-way street of critical importance to gown as well as town, we risk abetting a rescue narrative that casts the College as a shining city on a hill for the poor, benighted townsfolk and “integration” as little but cultural assimilation, a hostile takeover of their community to reshape it as part of our community.

If this is our approach as a privileged bourgeois institution, then we might as well erect physical walls around our all- but-gated community, advance a producer/moocher dichotomy drawn straight from Ayn Rand and go join the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, who at least are honest about such attitudes. On the other hand, if we seek a genuinely progressive or even revolutionary approach to issues of socioeconomic segregation and inequality, then we need to embrace the diverse communities outside our cloistered academic bubble in searching for something more substantial.