The Howard town-gown divide: Opinions vary widely, split along racial and economic lines
| By Jewel Edwards |
Howard University, the black research institution located in Northwest D.C., has historically been viewed by nearby residents as a remote beacon on the hill, says Khalil Abdullah, a reporter for New American Media. Abdullah, 63, grew up in the nearby neighborhood of LeDroit Park in the 1950s and ’60s.
“That’s one of the different sub-stories of Washington and the black bourgeoisie,” Abdullah says. “The school had no connection with the community. It tended to operate above the fray, as a shining beacon.” Abdullah says that class distinctions often separated individuals associated with the university and those from the surrounding neighborhoods, such as LeDroit Park and Shaw.
In the present day, a similar paradigm exists, with gentrification playing a large role in how student-community relations are perceived. Individuals connected to the community and the institution see gentrification as either a positive or negative contributor to how the students interact with their neighbors. However, though LeDroit Park and Shaw are undergoing gentrification, not all areas have experienced significant class and economic changes; LeDroit Park remains 91 percent African American and the average household income is $25,000, while the average income in Shaw is $65,000.
Tensions remain between African Americans who attend the institution and those who do not, both students and residents say. Relations between students and community members are reflective of the various economic and social changes occurring within the community and among Howard students, they say. Opinions of student-community relations differ based on who is asked and appear to be split along racial and economic lines.
Dean of Residence Life at Howard University, Marc Lee, says tensions between students and members of the community have leveled off in recent years According to Lee, members of the community who used to view Howard students as pretentious are rapidly leaving the community. Individuals of higher economic and social classes now occupy much of the neighborhood, and their primary complaints about the students are noise-related.
“Students used to get into fistfights with the locals,” he said. “It was like, ‘You’re a young black man going to college and I’m a young black man who isn’t,’ and the tension as a result of that led to fights.” The quarrels declined as the demographics shifted. “Now the biggest complaint we receive is telling students to keep it down.”
Howard University professor of film and media, Alonzo Crawford, has a different opinion concerning how gentrification has affected student-community relations. Crawford, 68, has lived in LeDroit Park for over 30 years and witnessed firsthand the change in the social and economic makeup of his community. Unlike Lee, he finds that gentrification has soured relations between the community and students. White residents often lump students and black residents together and suspect students of criminal activity or view them as a threat, says Crawford.
“Is there tension? Absolutely, ever since urban renewal. They (white residents) have been saying, ‘How can we get these black people out of this neighborhood?’ ” says Crawford.
He says one way newer residents frequently express their dissatisfaction is through parking conflicts. “They don’t want Howard students to park on their streets and so they go online and write about it,” says Crawford, referring to a listserv that LeDroit Park residents regularly converse on.
“During every (Howard University) event, they sensationalize, and they say, ‘See? We shouldn’t let them be here.’ ” Crawford says that the email listserv is a forum for the LeDroit Park community to express racism and discrimination against blacks and Howard students.
“I’m a filmmaker, so I like to watch people,” says Crawford, “and that’s one of the things I’ve observed.”
Like Lee, Crawford thinks little animosity exists between African Americans who attend the school and those who live in the community. “I don’t think that tension between blacks exists much anymore because there aren’t many black people here,” he says. “LeDroit Park has got to be about 60 percent white now,” he estimated.
For some older African Americans, however, sentiments about student-community relations echo Khalil Abdullah’s: Howard University remains a remote institution with aloof students who are often unwilling to mingle with locals.
Long-time LeDroit Park denizen “Popcorn” Harris, 49, a colorful fixture around the neighborhood, finds Howard coeds stuck up and arrogant. “I’ll try to speak to them and they’ll just keep on walking. It’s like they think they’re better than me,” he says.
The negative interactions happen so often, he says, he used to think students were being taught to avoid locals in their classes. He would like to see the university put forth more effort to have their students break down social barriers between the locals and themselves.
Shaw residents Gwyn Zowdro, 30, and, Jill Anderson, 31, both Caucasian, often jog near the university and say that they operate in separate spheres from the students.
“We’re a little old to be interacting with college students,” says Anderson jokingly. Still, she says she seldom encounters any except for students outside of the Metro stop, and relations between herself and them are fine.
James Allen, 32, who moved into Shaw two years ago for his career, has similar opinions. He finds Howard students elusive and rarely interacts with them. “I think it’s a shame, because why go to school in an urban environment and not interact with it?” he said.
No students acknowledge that gentrification played a role in their perceptions of the community. Howard University senior Janaye Graham, 21, thinks that many Howard students attend the school with biased ideas about D.C. city life.These preconceived notions, she says, color their perceptions of the locals as being black and indigent.
“A lot of Howard students are from the suburbs,” says Graham, who is from Mt. Airy, Md. “So they have preconceived notions about city life and the people being lower class. Some of the locals make assumptions about the students being snobby, too.” She says that just walking to the Metro can be an ordeal, because when a local attempts to speak to a student and is ignored, residents often curse at them, which reinforces student’s stereotypes.
Many Howard students say that the way in which they relate to the community has everything to do with the environment they hail from. “I’m from Detroit so this is nothing,” says, Gabrielle Wayford, 18, a freshman. “It just depends on where you were raised and what you are used to. I know some people who do not want to go anywhere by themselves.” Freshmen Paij Mears, and Jasmine Catch, both 18, agree. Both regularly explore their surroundings because they are used to an urban environment.
They find that exhibiting respectful behavior towards residents elicits positive feelings back. “I feel like relations are good between students and locals as long as we don’t get too rowdy over the weekends, because it’s kind of like a pride of race thing; we’re students and we’re doing something useful with ourselves. Some feel like we’re taking advantage of an opportunity they never had,” says Mears.
Howard University provides plenty of opportunities for students to participate in outreach activities around the city, but the school could encourage more service within the immediate community, says Gabrielle Wayford. “We do a lot of walks for charity and that sort of thing, but we could be doing more immediate things.”
Christopher Marshal, 25, who has resided in Shaw for most of his life, expresses slight discontent with what he views as Howard’s lack of involvement with the community. “It would be helpful if they were to give back by doing things for the neighborhood,” he says. He can’t recall, from recent memory, any time that Howard students or the University itself has done anything in the way of community service. By contrast, Thomas Myron, 49, a 1991 alum of Howard, says that Howard does perform community service in the area. “They go out into the community and do service every year. I love that they’re giving back and I think they’re doing a wonderful job,” Myron says. Perceptions of Howard community service efforts appear to be split based on an individual relationship with the University.
Marc Lee of the Office of Residence Life says that he does not think that the LeDroit Park Day of Service, an annual event dedicated to the beautification of the neighborhood that is usually scheduled in April, took place this year.
However, the University’s website reveals that, “Student commitment to volunteerism is on the rise nationwide and at Howard University.” The Howard University Volunteer and Community Service Program, which promotes student involvement in activities both on and off-campus, declined to comment for this story. Calls and emails to the Department of Communications at the University were unreturned.
Senior Alonzo Heard, 21, summed up relations between Howard and its surrounding community with a sentiment that combines the positive and the negative aspects of University-community relations.
“You have to understand that Howard has been a fixture in this community since before 1867. That’s a long time,” he said. “Things aren’t always perfect, but we’ve learned to live together in peace.”