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No longer ‘sleepy, idyllic, and unhurried,’ State College continues to evolve

by on May 31, 2018 2:30 PM

As a history guy, I naturally tend to see events as taking place within a larger context. Recently, I’ve found a book that does this for me in both history and geography. It’s The American College Town, by Blake Gumprecht, a professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire, published in 2008.

Like many residents, I came here as a student and accidentally never left. I was immediately attracted to State College and Penn State; they just seemed like a natural fit. I think I instinctively understood that it was a unique kind of place. I found arts experiences, big-time sports, a major library, and a diverse mix of people. It also had the small scale that put almost everything I needed within walking distance.

Later, as university archivist with an interest in both institutional and local history, I realized it was something of a “company town,” dominated by a single industry that often seemed like it had too much say over local affairs. But over the years, I increasingly saw the college town as having unique qualities compared to other types of communities.

That is the conclusion that Gumprecht also reached, and it’s why he conducted his study of 60-some communities to draw this portrait of the character of American college towns. The similarities and the differences between State College and his many examples, and how those characteristics have evolved over the years, are what make the book so interesting.

As a work of geography, it explores the nature of the distinct localities that set the college town apart. The park-like character of the campus as open, public space; the residential sectors of “fraternity row, the student ghetto, and the faculty enclave;” and the business centers that focus on college life and town life are the key categories.

But there are also cultural characteristics that distinguish college towns from others – social and community activism, as well as progressive politics sometimes mark off college towns from surrounding areas. The strong concerns with larger public issues, tolerance for the somewhat unorthodox among the citizenry, and the transient nature of college town populations as well as the sometimes overwhelming commercialism of big-time athletics are also endemic to many college towns.

Gumprecht also explores the problems that many college towns increasingly face, especially where students represent a large portion of the population. Rowdy student behavior is only the most obvious issue.

Adult residents, even those who work on campus, can find living in a college town to be a mixed blessing. Despite all the benefits, one still might occasionally hear “this would be a nice place to live if it wasn’t for the students.” Reality check: State College, where the college preceded the town, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Penn State and its students.

Gumprecht’s description of the issues that face many college town governments rings true to our experiences. In the 1960s and ’70s, students became less interested in the constraints of living on campus. The university increased enrollments here by almost 15,000 while building no new dormitories. Developers were happy to meet the need through downtown apartment towers, converting old homes to rentals, and, more recently, with suburban student apartment complexes.

In town, student rentals changed the tenor of life in residential neighborhoods, driving families to the edges of the borough and to housing developments beyond. Working taxpayers were replaced with student renters and formerly well-maintained homes became more decrepit. Lawns behind rental houses became jumbled parking lots. Residential neighborhoods near campus, with century-old houses, have become “student ghettos.”

At the same time, downtown businesses have changed their character as well. Once having a retail mix that supported the needs of both adults with families and students, most of the downtown business district is now focused on students and visitors. Professional offices have largely moved out of downtown, along with larger “footprint” businesses like grocery stores and movie theaters.

Cooperation between university administration and town governance has also shown strains. University development planning has not always seen adequate consultation. Penn State does pay a subvention to the borough in lieu of taxes. It now provides its own police and emergency services, although fire protection still comes from town. Student behavior, traffic, and parking can be contentious issues, but there is more collaboration now than ever before.

The end of borough annexation and the failure of municipal consolidation several decades ago has spread the challenges of university growth to the surrounding townships and regional government. But what does the future hold for our community?  

Modern college towns, and certainly State College, are no longer “sleepy, idyllic, and unhurried.” We will retain our youthful and transient population, but with an increasingly hi-tech ambience that brings its own impacts on the cost of living and economy. Incremental growth and gradual evolution in the same directions is most likely.

 

Lee Stout is librarian emeritus, special collections, for Penn State.

 

 

 

 



Lee Stout is Librarian Emeritus, Special Collections for Penn State.
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