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CWRU students and residents confront the 'invisible line' around campus

Volunteers for the group Know Your Neighbors greet residents and students at Case Western Reserve University. [Delaney Jones / Know Your Neighbors]
A group of students staff a table at an outdoor event of Know Your Neighbors.

As a student at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Delaney Jones often heard scary talk from other students and university employees about places she should avoid around campus.

"Particularly you hear a lot, 'Don't go under the bridge on Euclid Avenue,'" Jones said. "'If you go under the bridge, it's the ghetto and you'll get shot.'"

The bridge she’s talking about is the one that separates Cleveland from East Cleveland, an inner-ring suburb that’s struggled with depopulation and crime.

Jones heard about other supposed no-go zones, too, including the Glenville neighborhood north of the university, and Hough, to the west.

She got curious enough about the prevalence of those messages that she eventually helped conduct a campus-wide survey. In it, more than three quarters of Case students said they'd been warned to steer clear of at least one of the neighborhoods bordering campus.

A railroad bridge over Euclid Avenue at the western border of East Cleveland is widely regarded as a boundary CWRU students do not cross. [Google Maps] 

"I don't think that it's intentional on the university's part or on any particular individual's part," Jones said. "But I do think the narrative that ends up being informally spread among students is to not engage in the predominantly Black neighborhoods around campus, that those neighborhoods are solely defined by poverty and violence."

At a time when the nation is waking up maybe more than ever to racial inequity, Jones — who’s white — said she and some of her fellow students felt an urgency to challenge that narrative.

So last summer, they started an initiative called Know Your Neighbors, which oversees a variety of online and in-person events and networking opportunities, all in the name of helping students and residents get to know each other.

"It's really about building relationships," Jones said of the program. "There's these huge structural issues that we talk about all the time, (such as) racial equity. And you can make policy changes, but if people's cultural attitudes don't change, then your policy changes aren't going to be super effective."

An Invisible Line

Relationships, on the other hand, are what truly change minds and shatter stereotypes, she said. So far, some of the specific events the group has organized include monthly online book discussions and a "Community Palooza" featuring live music and dance performances by neighborhood artists.

Know Your Neighbors co-founder Delaney Jones (top row, center) joins an online discussion group. [Delaney Jones / Know Your Neighbors]

An Instagram account allows people from both on and off campus to share stories about themselves. There’s even a “buddy” program, where interested students and residents can sign up for what are basically arranged friendships.

"There's a need on both the oppressors’ side and the oppressed side to know who we are," said Gwen Garth, an artist and activist who lives in the Central neighborhood west of campus. She participates in Know Your Neighbors' buddy program.

Garth, who’s Black, said growing up on the city’s East Side, she got messages that Case wasn’t for her the same way students have been told to avoid surrounding neighborhoods.

"Case Western Reserve was always that line," she said. "There's an invisible line that says, 'I don't belong there,' or 'I ain’t going over there,' so you don't go there."

The cost of that division, Garth says, is that Black people are cut off from educational and cultural opportunities that are a short walk or bus ride away from their front doors.

On the other side, she said, the mostly non-Black students at Case never get to challenge stereotypes they might hold about Black neighborhoods. (CWRU's student body is only 6 percent Black, a near-inversion of the 93 percent Black population of surrounding neighborhoods.)

Artist and activist Gwen Garth, shown in her studio, says the divide between CWRU and neighborhoods hurts both residents and students. [Justin Glanville / Ideastream Public Media]

Avoidance Through Omission

According to Garth and Jones, messages that students shouldn’t bother with Black neighborhoods can come through omission, not just overtly negative word of mouth.

On a windy afternoon on Case’s campus, about a dozen first-year students clustered around a young woman with a megaphone as she conducted a tour. She didn't speak negatively about surrounding neighborhoods, but most of the attractions she recommended were right in University Circle, or Downtown.

There was talk of professional football and basketball teams, for example, and local museums.

CWRU administrators said they know they have work to do to invite neighborhood residents in and encourage students to get out.

Julian Rogers, director of  community relations for the university, said blurring old boundaries is no longer just a matter of "doing the right thing," but remaining competitive among prospective students.

"Students are demanding this," Rogers said. "You can see this from the Know Your Neighbors campaign that during their time here, they want it to be meaningful. And service, making a contribution is something that students feel is very important."

Know Your Neighbors has recently begun to host outdoor gatherings. [Delaney Jones / Know Your Neighbors]

He said the university has been hosting events designed to appeal to families who live nearby, like a “play date” for adults and kids. His office has also started tracking how many neighborhood residents come to public lectures, or use campus resources like the library.

A Nationwide Shift

Those are the types of activities that urban universities across the country are using to engage residents who might otherwise feel alienated, said Ted Howard of The Democracy Collaborative, a think tank that helps institutions such as hospitals and universities find ways to benefit surrounding communities rather than operating as self-contained islands.

In the past, Howard said, institutions have focused mostly on spending more of their budgets in surrounding neighborhoods to build community wealth. Now, the conversation is turning more to the kind of relationship-building that Know Your Neighbors is leading — again, for practical and financial reasons as much as altruistic ones.

"At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, the more the university got engaged with the community, the more alumni donors liked it and started contributing more money, because they remember how bad (relations) used to be," Howard said. "So it can lead to this virtuous cycle."

CWRU hosted a 'community play date' on its campus in 2019. [Case Western Reserve University]

That jibes with an early finding of the Know Your Neighbors program at CWRU. The 80 students who've so far participated in the program have reported feeling more connected to Cleveland — and more likely to stay in the region after graduation — than they would if they hadn't taken part.

Rogers and Jones are exploring how to keep Know Your Neighbors active now that Jones has graduated (for now, she continues to run the program on a volunteer basis with the help of an intern in Rogers' office). Some options include making it a nonprofit, or a program within the university — though Rogers said that could detract from the program's grassroots appeal.

"Residents see it as authentic, and I think to some degree that's because it's not directly connected to the university," he said. "But at the same time, I don't think it matters that much as long as (the initiative) remains true to their mission."

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.