An Aloof University Learns How to Be A Good Neighbor

Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has become a model for 'town-gown' ties that make a difference.

Not long ago neighborhood activist John Reynolds called Clark University an "arrogant presence" in Main South, the thickly populated, low-income neighborhood surrounding the campus in Worcester, Mass.

"There was a mutual disdain between the neighborhood and Clark," says Mr. Reynolds, retired from the Clark faculty, but long a critic of many university policies.

The insular campus in a city of 170,000 had busied itself with itself for decades. The Main South neighborhood slid into decline with a slumping real estate market, soaring unemployment, and too much crime. And Clark students were displacing residents.

Then Clark woke up to realize its future was intimately linked to the success of Main South - if it expected to grow, it had to become a working partner with the neighborhood. The result, now virtually a mandate for many educational institutions, has become a national model in Clark's hands.

The university, with a current enrollment of 2,700, carefully laid the ground work for an inventive, collaborative University Park Partnership (UPP) with Main South that now focuses on five objectives: physical renovation, public safety, education in the neighborhood, economic development, and social/recreational opportunities.

After nearly three years of implementation, the neighborhood is filled with enough initial successes that representatives from five other urban universities have visited Clark's 50-acre campus to see how it's done.

"I'm a cheerleader now," says Reynolds, who serves on the board of the Main South Community Development Corporation (CDC), the nonprofit organization that is the critical link in the vastly improved "town and gown" relations.

Other universities and colleges, including Yale University in New Haven, Conn., University of California-Berkeley, Arizona State in Tempe, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Howard University in Washington, have recognized the potential of such collaborations. To encourage this approach, several years ago the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), started the Office of University Partnerships in Washington.

HUD grants

Nearly $7 million in annual HUD grants have now gone to some 30 universities to help an array of projects linking campus and community. And three years ago, Clark was one of five universities in the country to receive a one-time $2.4 million grant to be used in various programs.

"This is an opportunity for universities to get on the other side of their walls to find out what communities need," says Mary Ellen Mazey, director of the Office of University Partnerships. "Everybody benefits in so many ways."

Nancy Rodriguez, a single mother with two children, recently bought a house in Main South through a loan provided by CDC. "Its great to move into a totally renovated house," she says. "I see Clark as nothing but a positive force to assist families and upgrade the neighborhood."

The most public sign of Clark's new neighborhood commitment occurred when Clark's president, Richard Traina, and his wife, Polly, moved into the Main South neighborhood.

A renovated Victorian on Woodland Avenue has been the president's home since April 1996. "We wanted people to know Clark was serious about the neighborhood," says Mr. Traina, "and this was a symbolic act as well as personal."

Clark also purchased five other properties along the street, and offers economic incentives, including a $5,000 home-improvement grant, to faculty and staff if they move anywhere into the Main South area. Nine faculty and staff have bought homes here since the start of the program.

The Clark/community venture really began quietly some 12 years ago. With the help of Seedco, a New York firm linking institutions with communities, and funds from the Ford Foundation, Clark launched the Main South CDC to renovate older three-deckers here and increase affordable housing in the area.

Eventually, with its housing successes, the CDC has become almost wholly independent of Clark. Although the university continues to provide the CDC with access to capital as a trusted neighborhood entity, the CDC operates with an independent community board, and has directly gained almost $8 million in federal, state, and local funds for community development.

The CDC now maintains a $6 million portfolio in renovated real estate in Main South and has helped 12 first-time home buyers to purchase homes for less than $95,000 with low interest loans. Some streets have been repaved, trees planted, and new neighborhood groups have formed. New houses will be built on vacant lots.

"Clark is making a commitment," says Steve Teasdale, executive director of Main South CDC. "They can't turn around tomorrow, after somebody has moved into the neighborhood, and say we changed our mind."

Buoyed by the CDC success, Clark broadened its effort with UPP's multifaceted approach, which is designed partly to reach out to the neighborhood with students, teachers, and mentors, and welcome children and neighbors onto the campus to demystify it.

Next step: schools

"Around 1992 we realized that housing alone will not revitalize a neighborhood," says Jack Foley, executive assistant to the president, a CDC board member, and Clark's main liaison to the community.

Knowing that families are drawn to neighborhoods with good schools, Clark and the Worcester public school system, after a year of planning, opened an elementary school in an abandoned school in the ethnically mixed neighborhood. Another school is under construction here using $20 million in city and state funds.

"I went from house to house telling parents about this school," says Donna Rodrigues, principal of the University Park Campus School, only a few blocks from Clark.

"I told them there would be no bells or public address system," says Ms. Rodrigues, who grew up in Main South. "There will be two and a half hour blocks of learning with the best teachers, lots of homework, and parent involvement. I will not allow a child to fall through the cracks, and we want them all to go to college somewhere."

The school started two weeks ago with 35 seventh-graders. Each year another grade will be added, up to the 12th grade.

Clark, using generous funds from local foundations, has full tuition scholarships waiting for each student after high school. In fact, in an extraordinary offer, anyone now living in Main South for five years, and who can qualify, will be admitted to Clark tuition-free for four years.

"This school is the gateway to education for my son because of the small classes and attention," says Carla Burrell. During the summer, each student was given a backpack filled with summer books.

"I'm going to school too," says Christine Kelly, a single mother with a son at the school. "I can come at night for GED [high school equivalency] classes because I stopped going to school at 16."

Professors and students from Clark's Hiatt Center for Urban Education will serve as teachers, mentors, or tutors at the school and bring its students to the campus for events, recreation, summer programs, and family nights.

With the cooperation of the Worcester police, a Neighborhood Alert Center was created next to the campus about a year and a half ago. Foot patrols and quick response to calls were the keys. "First we had an increase in calls," says Paul LaCava, director of Community Planning and Development for the Worcester police, "then a drop across the board in crime including prostitution, drugs, and building code violations."

Some skepticism

Maria Amarai, a Clark student from the Main South neighborhood, is somewhat skeptical of some of Clark's actions. "I don't approve of the president's house," she says, "even though he opens it to a lot of people. The only reason the streets are fixed is because he moved here. We complained about them for years. Why does it take a person with money in order to get something fixed in a neighborhood?"

President Traina says, "Clark has always been viewed with suspicion, but we think we did the right thing in moving into the community."

As for the future of UPP, Traina says Clark is a quarter of the way toward the neighborhood goals. Major work remains in attracting light industry to Main South, encouraging more faculty and staff to reside there, and creating jobs.

"We worked at community development for a decade before we achieved a good level of trust with the neighborhood," Traina says, "and frankly, our confidence in them took a decade. We know we are throwing a pretty big rock in the pond and the ripples will go out for a long time. But this effort will only have a favorable impact."

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