In the pages of TechNews, I’ve written at length about my experiences of our university’s neighborhood of Bronzeville, and of the broader south side beyond it. Today, rather than waxing poetic about our surroundings as a way of passively encouraging students to get out of the campus bubble, I want to be more direct about my motivations for all that previous coverage.
I believe that Illinois Tech has continuously failed to introduce new students to the south side of Chicago in any reasonable, informed fashion, and has by extension failed to meaningfully engage with the community around it at the ground level. These failures stem from administrative messaging that changes substantially from department to department, a general lack of oversight of individual sentiments expressed by authority figures during SOAR (orientation) and Welcome Week, and a general lack of firsthand experience with the south side among students, staff, and faculty alike. These combine to sustain a self-perpetuating fear of Bronzeville and the neighborhoods beyond it that is almost entirely uninformed by anybody’s real understanding of the south side.
In a spring 2016 article, I told the story of an “introduction to campus” session hosted by my assigned peer mentor (a student position that no longer exists) during my first year here, a session that turned into a lecture about the dangers that supposedly lurked off Illinois Tech property. I was explicitly told not to venture off campus, something that was not part of the script for peer mentors, but which permeated many of their discussions at one point or another. This same sort of rhetoric is continually echoed today during the process of welcoming new students to Illinois Tech, and not just in ways that aren’t directly endorsed by the powers creating these welcome experiences.
TechNews has learned, via reports from a SOAR leader, that each introductory session hosted by Public Safety for new students over summer included specific language warning students not to head south of 35th Street. Anybody with more than a passing understanding of our city should know how uninformed such broad-painted “tips” are. In Bronzeville, 35th Street is just one major east-west corridor, extremely different in character from 26th Street, 31st Street, Pershing Road (39th Street), 43rd Street, 47th Street, and 51st Street. And even along each of those corridors, many north-south streets divide sections that are themselves very different from each other. For instance, 47th Street is much quieter to the east of King Drive than to the west. How many of the people telling students not to go south of 35th Street even know what the corner of 47th & King looks like? Do you?
Setting arbitrary boundaries impacts not only our view of Bronzeville, but of other neighborhoods as well. If a student who’s never set foot in Chicago (or even a lifelong Chicagoan who’s never gone south of Chinatown) is told not to go past 35th, they take that advice to be universal. It doesn’t matter whether the advice-giver meant only to implicate Bronzeville itself in their words: now Hyde Park, West Elsdon, Pullman, Englewood, South Shore, Beverly…they’re all off limits. Students deserve to be able to experience the full range of what Chicago has to offer, and dictating a strict southern boundary cuts them off from a large part of that experience in a way that has significant race and class ramifications.
Public Safety cannot justify a rule of thumb excuse for its recommendations when those recommendations amount to fear-mongering and write off an entire section of the city on a fundamentally shaky premise. Neither can anybody who finds themselves telling students to stay north of 35th. Some of these pervasive attitudes toward the south side arise from decades when simply walking through Bronzeville was a more dangerous activity than it is today, and these attitudes need to be actively combated in order to bring our student body’s understanding of the area around it in line with contemporary reality. There is a long chapter of Illinois Tech’s history through which the university attempted to wipe out the neighborhood it was in, and then to distance itself from the socioeconomic problems that remained. To come to terms with our role in Bronzeville’s darkest chapter, we must embrace its recent progress.
There is work being done in some corners of campus to change how Illinois Tech views the community around it. Many IPRO classes collaborate with community organizations to embed students in projects across Bronzeville, and our Office of Community Affairs has focused since 1989 on creating positive structural relationships within the neighborhood. I, for one, have written a number of articles here in TechNews detailing some of the great arts, culture, and food across Bronzeville. But much of that work is disconnected from our students’ daily lives, and none of it is enough if we keep telling students, informally or not, to fear the south side. We will never truly connect with our vibrant surroundings if we aren’t unified in our desire to do so. We will never overcome the historic segregation of and disinvestment in south side communities if we’re continuing to contribute to it.
So please, stop spouting that line about 35th Street. It doesn’t do anybody any good.