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Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: The City as Campus

The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago by Sharon Haar
University of Minnesota Press, 2011
Paperback, 264 pages

Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago, trips into the city were rare and therefore special. These included visiting museums and taking in the occasional play or other event with the family, as well as organized school field trips. A number of the latter were part of an Urban Studies class in high school, one of which included my first visit to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). We walked around the campus, an assemblage of brutalist buildings, but our goal that day seemed to be Hull House, located on the eastern edge of campus. Nothing could have been more different from UIC than Hull House; the former appeared modern and big while the latter was historic and tiny next to the campus buildings. Situated next to the campus's "front door," Hull House spoke to a history that UIC displaced, but reading Sharon Haar's account of "urbanism and higher education in Chicago" that relationship is hardly the whole story.

Haar, an associate professor of architecture at UIC who has written a good deal on education, looks at various colleges across Chicago (University of Chicago, IIT, Roosevelt, Columbia College, etc.) in this book, but she focuses on UIC and the urban renewal that enabled its existence west of the Loop 50 years ago. She begins the book by going back to the 19th century and the origins of Hull House. It is used as an exemplar of a social institution geared towards improving the city be being embedded within it. Women at Hull House learned by doing and by being part of the community, not in a learning environment segregated from its environs. While Hull House was never articulated as a school -- it was much more multi-faceted and flexible, morphing over time depending on changes happening around it -- it serves as a model for universities and other higher-ed schools that do not separate themselves from the cities they serve and call home. In this sense it is the anti-UIC, which is a campus built from a tabula rasa achieved through "slum" demolition. The irony of Hull House's preservation as a museum at UIC's front stoop is quite evident, even, to a lesser degree, to me all those years ago.

Haar's in-depth history of UIC's realization, which occupies the middle chunk of her book, is fascinating. It's a history I've always wanted to discover, ever since seeing it for the first time in person; years later, after moving to Chicago, I grew skeptical of the school's urban merits, especially as it expanded to the south and east through even more demolition. Haar covers this latest UIC expansion alongside other urban schools -- the others are concentrated in the South Loop -- that are knitting themselves into their surrounding communities, a 21st century version of the Hull House. While Roosevelt, DePaul, Columbia College, and others should be commended for their various efforts in preserving and activating parts of the South Loop, I'm not convinced that UIC's latest expansion should be held in such high regard (this is not to say Haar does), since it involved the demolition of buildings at the historic Maxwell Street Market, the preservation of some building fronts via Disney-like facadectomy, and the creation of University Village, bland middle-to-upper-class housing. UIC did not so much knit into the surrounding community as fabricate a community that may over time serve the same ends as what the South Loop institutions are doing today.

Haar ends the book by speculating on the future of higher education in urban settings. Based on her analysis of UIC and Chicago, it's not surprising that she sees the South Loop schools heading in the right direction. Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion and Harvard's expansion across the Charles River are used as examples of how schools are dealing with growth in and around their urban campuses. While they are not trying to recreate the walled-off campuses of yore, their efforts illustrate the contestations that come with expansion into communities. This is most evident in the prolonged, yet unsuccessful fight to block Columbia's use of eminent domain in its northward expansion. Columbia's high-profile, large-scale plans easily overshadow what other schools may be doing, but hopefully its realization will not make it the model for moving forward. Even as it is rooted in the westward movement of office space in Chicago's core, the South Loop's mix of preservation and new construction (admittedly not much of the latter is architecturally interesting) is a better model for creating vertical campuses within vertical cities.

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