Town vs. Gown: Students And Local Learn to Get Along

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Ask any student in England and they'll tell you that Manchester University is a hot choice for high school graduates. It's not just a seat of learning, it's a city on the cutting edge, ever expanding, and leaving its smoky industrial roots in the dust.

Call me a banner-waving student, but I would choose my vibrant, multicultural university over any other school in the country.

Manchester has one of the busiest and most thriving student populations in the world; the student body alone could exist as a mini-metropolis. Each year more than 80,000 students flock to its universities, colleges, and music schools. Once there, they storm the pubs, clubs, shops, and laundromats as well as the famous cafes and Indian restaurants.

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But this annual student invasion isn't necessarily welcomed by Mancunians. Students may be a local money generator, but residents don't have to admit to liking their young neighbors.

It's not hard to see why the schism is there. Students are an independent lot. They are self-sufficient, and generally do not interact with their neighbors. They live on streets that house more than 80 percent of their own kind. They eat in their own cafes and socialize in their own pubs.

They can stay in the Student's Union Building, run their societies and clubs, direct their plays, and house their debates without contacting the "outside world." Over the years, they have grown more isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods, while the tension between them and locals has increased.

Although I found student self-sufficiency admirable as a "fresher," I knew locals considered us aloof or even arrogant. Manchester residents felt sidelined when they saw advertising campaigns geared only to students, or they noticed "student markets," which allowed only students to purchase goods at special prices. The fact that students tend to come from a higher economic bracket than their inner-city neighbors has exacerbated the tensions. Even the differences in accent between many students and their neighbors created unease.

It's a vicious circle - locals suspect that students consider themselves "better," and drain the government's money (through free tuition and housing subsidies), while students are nervous about their aggressive neighbors. Attacks on students aren't rare; break-ins in student homes are common.

These tensions worried me at first. I expected to find diversity at Manchester, not division. We students loved our city, but we were not loved by it. Fortunately, however, over the past year renewed efforts have been made to help bridge the gap. Many students have become more involved in outreach programs to teach in local Moss Side (one of the poorest communities in England), work with kids in play groups, or organize after-school workshops. In small ways, the animosity in the community is dissipating.

Tara Meddaugh, a senior English major, told me of her small contribution toward better town/gown relations. After she completed a course of theater workshops for local kids, a grateful father offered to bring his entire family to see her in a play.

"He said that I had boosted his daughter's confidence, and that it would be important for her to see me in the play."

It may seem like a small thing, but it's these events that are helping to break the boundaries of the vicious circle.

It's not easy for a university to operate smoothly in an inner-city area, but it's not impossible. There may not be much to unite locals and students - but somewhere lurks a bond, a mutual love for a city heading for greatness. With a little effort and understanding, we can live side by side without tension and resentment.

* Caitlin Shannon is a junior studying English and American literature at Manchester University in Manchester, England.

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