Image credit: Cover of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower by Davarian L. Baldwin (Bold Type Books, 2021)

I never thought a university would foretell the future of our cities. But there I was, on a December afternoon in 2003, stepping out into the brisk South Side air after hours holed away in the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. I immediately heard chants of protest and saw people buzzing about. 

So, I followed the sound over to the main quadrangle, just outside the university’s administration building. There I saw a crowd of about fifty people surrounded by media crews and onlookers. On one side stood residents from the historic Black neighborhood of Bronzeville, alongside students and others chanting “U of C, look at your history!” while holding signs that read “Support the Checkerboard Lounge in Bronzeville.” And on the other side, university officials listened, mostly playing defense, with a silent chorus of furrowed brows.

The famed Checkerboard Lounge had been a cultural mainstay of Bronzeville, a “blues shrine” that had stood on 43rd Street since 1972. 

The lounge needed restoring, but instead of providing funding, the university put together a plan to relocate the lounge from its original spot to a university-owned building inside the Hyde Park neighborhood’s Harper Court shopping district. Outraged, Restoring Bronzeville advocates immediately charged UChicago with “cultural piracy.” For decades the city had turned its back on Bronzeville, but things were slowly changing, largely because of the sweat equity of local advocates working to turn things around.

Renovated hundred-year-old graystones, newly built condominium developments, and small shops slowly began to fill in the spaces between vacant lots and run-down storefronts. And many saw the Checkerboard as central to the economic revitalization of Bronzeville as “a heritage tourist destination.” 

But just when momentum started building around a modest neighborhood comeback, the university swept in and bought up one of the area’s best cultural assets. And UChicago’s backdoor deal resuscitated almost a century of local stories in which the school had either demolished Black neighborhood blocks or built institutional walls to keep Black residents away from campus. Here we go again, activists thought.

Of course, the university had a much different take on the story. School administrators and local stakeholders for the Hyde Park campus neighborhood argued that the Checkerboard acquisition was a simple economic transaction between owner and buyer. UChicago officials also explained that the relocation was an act of Black historic preservation. At the time, Sonya Malunda was the senior associate vice president for Civic Engagement at the university. She rejected any suggestion that UChicago did anything wrong in the acquisition. 

“I think that’s complete bullshit” is how Bernard Loyd responded to Malunda’s account. As he saw it, the university identified the Checkerboard Lounge as a key attraction for the Hyde Park campus neighborhood . . . and for no one else. He pointed out that the Harper Court shopping and entertainment district, where the Checkerboard would sit, was being renovated because there was hardly anything to do in Hyde Park. “Students were coming to the Checkerboard,” he exclaimed. 

In 2003 Loyd was working as a high-end consultant at the downtown business management firm McKinsey and Company. And there was one moment during the December protest when things got tense and he and Malunda squared off in a testy shouting match. As Loyd told me the story, I wondered how this corporate executive became such a feisty Bronzeville community activist waging battle with the university.

Loyd didn’t even grow up on the South Side, but he brought his broad perspective to the Checkerboard controversy. He was born to a white German mother and an African American military vet from Chicago, by way of Louisiana. I could still hear a German inflection in his voice while he explained why the Checkerboard meant so much to him: one of the things that kept him in the neighborhood was the Checkerboard Lounge. 

Just two hundred feet from Loyd’s porch steps stood the place known as “Home of the Blues.” Blues great Buddy Guy and local small-business owner L. C. Thurman opened the Checkerboard in 1972. And its “nicotine-hued wall of fame” held many stories about impromptu jam sessions that included Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Junior Walker, and KoKo Taylor, just to name a few. Long after blues’ popular appeal faded, university students, suburbanites, and both local and international tourists still came to pray at the altar of this “blues shrine.” As Loyd told me, “Anybody and everybody would trickle into the Checkerboard . . . and I was one of them.”

The city shut down the lounge for what was essentially a problem with the roof. And Loyd had even met with Thurman to address what he considered an easy fix. But he couldn’t believe how quickly the public story became “the University of Chicago is going to ‘save’ the Checkerboard by moving it south to Hyde Park.” 

Loyd knew something else was going on. When he met with UChicago officials, such as Vice President of Community and Government Affairs Hank Webber, they told him the university was very interested in preserving a community landmark by finding a “mutually agreeable location.” And Loyd believed the best solution was to save the Checkerboard in its original location, within its historic cultural context. But when asked about that solution, Webber told the press, “We don’t make grants to for-profit institutions.”

As a business consultant, Loyd then wondered why UChicago was willing to renovate a building for free and rent space to the Checkerboard at less than half the market rate in Hyde Park. He certainly didn’t blame Thurman for taking such a sweetheart deal. But if the university was so invested in preserving a historic landmark, why not do it in Bronzeville? He believed that UChicago saw the steady stream of students and faculty going to the lounge and wanted that kind of magnetic pull for its own “entertainment district” in Hyde Park. 

UChicago’s chess moves on the Checkerboard Lounge were about much more than a simple neighborhood squabble. The Checkerboard controversy points to a new reality affecting anyone who cares about urban America. Higher education exerts an increasingly powerful hold over our cities and those who struggle to survive in its shadows. Schools have become the dominant employers, real estate holders, health-care providers, and even policing agents in major cities across the country. 

And the lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color that stand in the immediate path of campus expansion, while in deep need of new investments, are left the most vulnerable. These residents face increased housing costs or even displacement amid university land developments. Many of the same Black and brown urbanites also toil in the low-wage sectors of the higher education workforce as groundskeepers and food service staff. And they often endure violence and surveillance from campus police forces.

Those in the immediate shadow of the ivory towers have long been the first to experience the consequences of the entangled relationship between higher education and urban life, or what I call the rise of UniverCities. But the story here is bigger than campus neighborhoods. The growing influence of these schools on entire cities solidifies their political authority over housing costs, labor conditions, and policing practices for everyone living in urban America.

In times of meager state funding, colleges and universities have had to find new ways to shore up their fiscal stability. Urban development is higher education’s latest economic growth strategy. And building profitable UniverCities helps schools offset a drop in state funding. Campus expansion projects meet the increased demands for upscale housing, high-tech laboratories, and plentiful retail options that will attract world-class students, faculty, and researchers. 

As urban campuses continue to grow, all city residents will be living in the shadows of ivory towers. Indeed, urban universities and their medical centers—the “meds and eds”—stand as one of the most central yet least examined social forces shaping today’s cities. In today’s knowledge economy, universities have become the new companies, and our major cities serve as their company towns. 

But unlike Amazon, Microsoft, and other info-tech industries, higher education claims responsibility for our public good. It’s time we investigated that promise, asking whether a school’s increased for-profit ambitions can undermine the interests of the public. In fact, the presumption that higher education is a public good has for too long distracted critics and urban residents from getting to the heart of the matter: what makes universities good for our cities? We need fewer assumptions and more analysis.

When most of the United States had abandoned cities in the mid- twentieth century, higher education was one of the only institutions that remained. A core group of colleges and universities used public urban renewal money to bunker themselves behind the walls of campus buildings or demolished city blocks—and away from the growing “invasion” of Black and Latinx residents. 

But starting in the 1990s, young professionals, empty nesters, and the children of suburban sprawl began to seek a more urbane lifestyle. And municipal politicians and real estate developers from different cities started competing with one another to capture the potentially lucrative new tax base and its consumer dollars. At the same time, colleges and universities were looking for new revenue streams in the face of tight state budgets. The interests of university and city leaders converged when the college campus was reimaged as the palatable and profitable version of a safe urban experience.

The university has shifted from being one small, noble part of the city to serving as a model for the city itself. It is precisely the commercial amenities associated with “university life”—concerts, coffee shops, foot traffic congestion, fully wired networking, and high-tech research—that are sold today as a desirable urban lifestyle. Residents have flocked back to cities looking for these university-style urban experiences. And city schools are finding ways to generate new revenue in the for-profit realms of low-wage labor management, health care, applied science, and real estate.

The urban planning model of UniverCities is celebrated for providing needed capital to institutions of higher education and for generating a vibrant kind of urban life with cultural activities, sporting events, and student energy that can entice nonstudent residents to resettle in once-struggling cities. Social scientist and “prosperity” expert Richard Florida used the term creative city to describe these enlivened urban locales that attract wealth-building entrepreneurs and the workers they employ. 

There is no question that higher education institutions can deliver positive community outcomes for their cities. But a central question remains: what are the costs when colleges and universities exercise significant power over a city’s financial resources, policing priorities, labor relations, and land values? 

Despite all of the triumphalist rhetoric surrounding higher education’s expansive reach across US cities, Black and Latinx communities that largely surround campuses don’t experience the same levels of prosperity. These neighboring communities of color frequently sit in zones of relatively cheap and sometimes divested land, while holding little political influence.

Residents near city schools are also subjected to racial disparities in policing. Residents in Black and brown neighborhoods that surround predominantly white schools grow especially weary when university police have jurisdiction to patrol their blocks but are driven by a mandate to protect the campus. A 2003 University of Pennsylvania Police report found that the department stopped Black people in a car or on foot more than any other racial group. And between 2012 and 2015, seven cases involving excessive force and violation of civil rights were filed against the same police force. Four of these cases were settled out of court and dismissed. Penn officials also point to the “Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training” required for all police officers in the state of Pennsylvania. But the training fails to curtail the broad discretion that campus officers are given when making arrests and determining the appropriate amount of force.

Students and staff of color face similar kinds of surveillance. Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, got forced to the ground at gunpoint by Yale police in 2015. Reportedly, the officer let Blow get up after learning he was a Yale student, as if that kind of rough treatment would have been acceptable for a mere New Haven resident. Ultimately, Yale conducted an internal investigation and found that the police officer did nothing wrong while also oddly acknowledging that “the student [Tahj Blow] who was detained endured a deeply troubling experience.”

The long-simmering racial injustice of urban policing came to a boil in the summer of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the world to confront a series of killings that included George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks on a digital feedback loop. The terror was unrelenting. Yet these deaths galvanized years of grassroots organizing into a social movement that called for the abolition of the current policing apparatus as a state-sanctioned expression of white supremacy. Both community and student activists have also reignited long-standing critiques of campus police. But this time policing, for many, became a window into a deeper analysis of higher education’s broad political and economic impact.

As this critical moment forces us to reckon with higher education’s wide-ranging influence over our cities, we can’t keep discussing colleges and universities in purely educational terms. UniverCities are all around us, yet we fail to examine the consequences of schools embracing an increasingly for-profit approach to their urban surroundings. Our blind spot to this shift largely comes from the assumption that higher education is an inherent public good, most clearly marked by its tax-exempt status for providing services that would otherwise come from the government.

But it’s here that a critical paradox has emerged. Nonprofit status is precisely what allows for an easier transfer of public dollars into higher education’s private developments with little public oversight or scrutiny. City colleges and universities pay virtually no taxes on their increasingly prominent real estate footprint. 

Even public universities, which are in fact government entities, use their public-good status to shelter their own interests in for-profit research or even the financial security of private developers and investors that sit on their campus land. Schools also reap the benefits of police and fire protections, snow and trash removal, road maintenance, and other municipal services while shouldering little financial burden. Homeowners and small-business owners take on the weight of inflated property taxes caused by urban campuses while the cost of rental properties skyrocket.

It is time for a broad examination of higher education’s growing for-profit influence on our cities. And this conversation must take place now, before it’s too late and America’s cities have fully ceded our public resources and public control to these tax-exempt “hedge fund[s] that conduct classes.” Urban colleges and universities are increasingly setting the wage ceiling for workers, determining the use and value of our land, directing the priorities of our police, and dictating the distribution of our public funds in cities all over the country. We regularly rail against the high price tag and diminished value of higher education. But public discourse remains overwhelmingly silent about the consequences of turning the US city into one big campus.

When Richard Florida introduced us to the “creative class,” many dying cities could finally see a future after the fall of factories. Florida prophesied that innovations produced in hospitals, laboratories, tech start-ups, and design studios would power the economic rebirth of cities. He explained that in order to attract creative types, cities must redesign their landscape around a “street level culture” that blurs the lines between work and play. 

Florida has recently pulled back on his grand claims about the creative city, admitting that the increased settlement of creative types can actually heighten inequalities. But all across the country, urban stakeholders are still scrambling to build a creative city with a dynamic array of lofts and workstations adorned in glass and steel facades that spill out onto a teeming blend of cafés, galleries, bookstores, and street life.

But again, the urban realities of town-gown relations mean that many people are left out of the “public” that benefits when the private interests of colleges, universities, and their medical centers chart the course of struggling cities. We must rethink the uncritical celebration of “creative cities” by prioritizing desperate urban issues, from affordable housing and health care to equitable policing and living wages. In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower is a call for greater public oversight as universities take control of urban America.

How do flourishing urban colleges and universities act in the public good when the very people we pass on campus (and pass on the way to campus) are paying the cost of the school’s prosperity? The very notion of a university’s public good has been used as justification to underwrite multimillion-dollar tax-exempt endowments. Higher education has made way for a massive contingent of low-wage labor, increased racial profiling, and the elimination of affordable housing, retail, and health care in campus neighborhoods. 

But that’s not the only story. Activists, residents, and students have fought hard against these changes and pulled progressive university administrators along to model alternative ways of relating to their cities. It is my hope that readers, whether they are part of the ivory tower or in its shadows, will grapple with these new challenges. 

The future of urban America depends on it.

This article has been excerpted from In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities by Davarian L. Baldwin. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Read an interview about In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower between Davarian L. Baldwin and Claire Potter.

Davarian L. Baldwin is a historian, cultural critic, and social theorist of urban America at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.