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Xavier Magazine | March 25, 2017

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A Sense of Place

By France Griggs Sloat

It’s raining outside and Marilyn Hanrahan is getting ready to leave. She’s on her way to her first Xavier men’s basketball game, and she wonders how chilly she’ll be. Unable to find something of her own, she rummages through her husband’s bureau and digs out a white sweatshirt. She pulls it over her head, looks in the mirror and reflects on how odd it seems for her to be wearing anything with the word “Xavier” on it. But there it is, in big blue letters. The mirror doesn’t lie.

A Norwood native, Hanrahan lives three blocks from the University, but until 2003 she’d never set foot on campus. Never wanted to. Not after years of unanswered complaints. Not after years of students’ loud parties, disorderly conduct and disrespectful behavior. Not after the soured relationship brought on by the closing of Ledgewood Avenue and construction of the Cintas Center, spawning exaggerated fears of the University taking over. And wearing a Xavier sweatshirt was certainly out of the question.

But in 2003, she and some neighbors formed the West Norwood Neighborhood Association and called a meeting with Xavier administrators. They laid out their problems, their frustrations and their anger and, to their surprise, the administrators listened.

Their timing was perfect. For its part, the University just began engaging in its new vision of the “University as citizen.” Sparked by University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., the vision called for Xavier to take on a greater responsibility toward the larger community of which it’s a member. It established a new office, the Community Building Collaborative at Xavier, to lead the way and revamp how it engages with its neighbors. While solidly based on the Jesuit value of serving others, the vision also creates a win-win arrangement: If the neighboring communities are thriving and safe, then the campus is perceived that way as well. Everyone benefits.

The new approach is light years from the traditional heavy-handed tactics of most urban universities, which have historically made decisions without including the surrounding communities in the discussion.

But it’s also becoming more common—Penn in western Philadelphia, Temple in northern Philadelphia, even Yale in the notoriously shabby section of New Haven, Conn., now partner with their neighboring communities in order to create improvements rather than fighting with them.

Realizing people are the key to building such relationships, Xavier began extending olive branches to its neighbors by offering opportunities to come on campus—for community building, leadership training and, in a few cases, even basketball tickets and an invitation to sit in the president’s suite.

So, clutching her game tickets, Hanrahan takes the offering and heads toward Cintas in her Xavier sweatshirt, realizing she’s become a symbolic participant, if still a wary one, in the new dialogue between Xavier and its neighbors.

Sharon Muyaya was worried. She knew what had to be done to save the neighborhood elementary school in Evanston. Hoffman school, suffering from declining enrollment and low test scores, was slated for closure. Only a partnership with a reputable institution like Xavier would keep it open. But Muyaya had to convince school leaders that Xavier was the answer. So Muyaya made a phone call.

It was a huge step forward for Evanston and Xavier, especially with the tense relationship that’s existed dating back more than a decade. In 1993, Muyaya opened her mailbox and found a notice from the City of Cincinnati informing her of Xavier’s intention to close a section of Ledgewood Avenue. It was the first she or any of her neighbors had heard of the plan, and they didn’t like it. The street cut through the heart of campus and was a common thoroughfare for residents. At the public hearing, they let the University know just how mad they were.

“They didn’t even talk to us. It was very insulting,” says Muyaya, who became president of the Evanston Community Council in 1999 and pushed Xavier hard to change its ways. “People would say, ‘Xavier is just going to take over Evanston and do what they want to do.'”

Their message wasn’t lost on Xavier. “We realized if we had any relationship at all, it was bad,” says Gene Beaupré, director for government relations at Xavier. “We realized we did have neighbors, and we needed to develop a relationship with them.”

The bitterness spawned by the Ledgewood issue was a rude awakening for Xavier. In its aftermath, the University created the Community Building Institute, a partnership with the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, and began offering support to local communities. But Xavier needed to focus on Evanston, where residents have battled crime and drugs for years. So in 2002, it hired Byron White from Chicago to run both the institute and the new Community Building Collaborative.

“If Evanston isn’t a safe place, then Xavier isn’t a safe place,” White says. “If no ones wants to live in Evanston, then no one wants to be at Xavier.”

White’s office used the possibility for such a partnership to win a $400,000 federal grant and created the Evanston-Norwood-Xavier Community Partnership. It then leveraged the grant into more than $3.6 million in total funds for such initiatives as helping seniors keep their homes, clearing nearby business corridors of drug dealing and crime, and improving neighborhood schools. Finally, the office, which also hired former Cincinnati city planning director Liz Blume, could begin making some of its ideas actually happen, beginning with Hoffman and a leadership academy of neighborhood residents.

This fall, the mostly white city of Norwood and mostly black community of Evanston are staging a joint community festival on Xavier property along Montgomery Road. The festival is the creation of the leadership academy, which, says Hanrahan, was a wonderful experience. “I learned we’re all dealing with the same problems. We have so much in common. They’re people just like we are.”

What’s important to note, says White, is that everyone is still learning what works, what doesn’t and how to trust each other. It hasn’t been easy. “We have to change our thinking,” Muyaya says. “Xavier is not going away. Evanston is not going away. We are connected at the hip.”

Tom Williams remembers responding to a complaint of a loud house party near campus around 1999 when he was captain of the Norwood Police Department. After making his way through the front yard packed with kids, he found the three-bedroom house wall-to-wall with bodies. Even the bathroom and stairs were impassable. When Williams found the student responsible for the house, he asked how many students lived there.

“No one lives here,” the student said. “We just rent it and use it to party.” Williams was stunned. The next day, he called the owner and chastised him for being irresponsible. The streets of Norwood north and east of campus are pockmarked with rental housing for students—and are the source of most of the historic conflict between Norwood and Xavier. For years, the phones rang at City Hall with homeowners complaining about loud, rowdy students throwing parties during the week as well as weekends. Neighbors felt helpless as the Xavier shuttle bus pulled up to disgorge more revelers on their block. The problem was accelerated by the city’s poor enforcement of city building codes and by irresponsible landlords who put too many students in one house.

Those were the days when Xavier practiced a hands-off attitude toward students living off campus. Then, in the summer of 2000, the University got into a spat with former Norwood Mayor Joe Hochbein, who erected a metal gate on Cleneay Avenue to protest construction of the Cintas Center. He claimed he was worried about the onslaught of traffic through his city during games and events.

Although the gate was never actually closed, it took members of the University’s board of trustees to intervene before Hochbein agreed to take it down.

“A basic issue was we didn’t have person-to-person contact and relationships,” says John Kucia, the University’s administrative vice president. “From a trust standpoint, people weren’t really sure if we were going to do what we said we would do. I think we have, and that has added to our credibility and helped build that relationship.”

Williams also struck a more conciliatory tone with Xavier when he was elected mayor in 2004. He makes sure Norwood enforces an ordinance limiting the number of students living in one house to four and reports problem students to Xavier. For its part, Xavier upgraded its discipline code to apply to students living off campus and informs parents of behavior problems, and campus police respond to complaints with Norwood police.

“We have had some difficulty with student housing and behavior, but Xavier worked with us and with the students, and the problems are greatly reduced,” Williams says. “By merely sitting down and talking, we’ve eliminated 99 percent of the problems.”

Rasheedah’s home-cooking restaurant features African dishes in the Muslim tradition. But it’s hard to find, sitting on Montgomery Road in the Evanston business district behind a non-descript storefront that needs paint. It’s takeout only. But the food is good, and the owner, Rasheedah Majid, has visions of expansion and improvements—to her restaurant and the block. She wishes more Xavier students would come in, but they’re hesitant to walk to this edge of campus marked by empty storefronts and loitering men. And there’s good reason for the fear. Around the time that Evanston asked Xavier for help with its school, a man was shot dead in front of Perkins Lounge two doors down. The owner shut down for several days and sought support from the business committee to help clean up the area, which suffers from the effects of encroaching poverty, including the loss of home ownership to predatory lending and an aging population.

But a scrappy group of business leaders and residents is fighting back—and tapping into Xavier’s resources for help. Xavier business students are writing business improvement plans for some businesses, including Rasheedah’s. Computer science students helped a local Methodist church create a computer center for Evanston residents. Xavier provided the spare computers. And occupational therapy students are helping the Evanston Community Council’s housing committee assess elderly residents to determine how to help them keep their homes. Xavier plans to acquire a house in Evanston to be used as a demonstration home displaying modifications for senior homeowners.

Xavier also plans to establish a down-payment assistance program to encourage faculty and staff to buy in the neighborhood. White is exploring ways to stimulate new business. And the city is making street improvements.

“We need each other to make it work,” Majid says. It’s all good news to Dave Reuve, who owns a foreign auto service business at the intersection of Dana Avenue and Montgomery Road. He helped acquire a $200,000 city grant to upgrade lighting and storefront facades along the corridor and even bought the building next door for his scooter business. He plans to stay. The only thing standing in the way, he says, is the crime issue.

“People have to perceive it being safe. Once that’s done, it’s golden.”

As the men’s basketball team makes its way onto the floor to take on Southern University, Hanrahan makes her way into the president’s box with her husband, John, and 5-year-old son, Daniel. But while her family cheers Xavier to victory, she chats with Muyaya, her new friend and veteran community organizer.

At one point, Hanrahan is greeted by Kucia, whom she’d met once before—at that first meeting on campus in 2003. He notices her sweatshirt—and smiles.

A relationship is building, but the big test is coming soon. This year Xavier rolls out its new master plan, which envisions new buildings and development along Montgomery Road. People from the neighborhoods have been included in discussions about the plans, and that’s helping change the way residents think about the University, says Muyaya. But it’s not easy for older generations with long memories.

Maybe they’ll join the partnership. Others, like her and Hanrahan, already have. “John Kucia said he didn’t think he’d ever see me in a Xavier sweatshirt, ” says Hanrahan. “Neither did I.”

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