Toward a College Town with Care

Author: Ed Cohen

For much of its history Notre Dame kept its students cloistered.

When Father William Corby, CSC, first was president, 1866-72, students were forbidden from leaving the grounds without the permission of the president, vice president or prefect of discipline. In the 1920s students weren’t allowed to drive automobiles, and priests patrolled sections of downtown that were ruled off-limits.

Today students are actually encouraged to get more involved in the South Bend community. Through organizations like the Center for Social Concerns, more than 1,500 volunteer in South Bend schools or with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity and other worthy causes.

Yet probably because of Notre Dame’s long desire to distance its students from urban temptation, South Bend has never become a college town in the mold of Ann Arbor, Michigan, or State College, Pennsylvania.

That may be about to change as the University has entered into a partnership aimed at revitalizing the city’s Northeast Neighborhood, directly south of campus. The most visible and dramatic change would be shops and restaurants on Eddy Street south of Edison Road. But organizers also want to make the residential areas adjacent to Eddy safer and more attractive. There’s hope that new commercial development could provide job opportunities for low-income residents of the neighborhoods and that revitalization would boost stagnant property values for homeowners, many of whom are elderly.

If all goes as hoped and planned, the Northeast Neighborhood could become a place where students and faculty and townspeople live and dine and shop together at the very border of campus. Just like in a typical college town.

“Our goal is nothing short of revitalizing the Northeast Neighborhood to be the most dynamic place to live in South Bend,” says Lou Nanni ’84, ’88M.A., executive assistant to President Malloy.

Money will be needed to make that a reality, and a lot has come forward already. Last year Notre Dame made a five-year, $750,000 commitment to help launch a nonprofit coordinating group, Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization Inc. Another $1 million over five years has been pledged to the organization by three of the city’s other large employers — Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, Memorial Hospital and Health System, and Madison Center and Hospital — along with the City of South Bend.

Part of the organization’s work will involve applying for government grants for such purposes as renovation of parks, construction of multifamily housing and storefronts, loans for home renovation, and assistance for people hoping to buy homes in the neighborhood. Over the next 10 years the group also will seek to attract $200 million in private investment, according to Karl King, its president.

Not all of the Northeast Neighborhood needs revitalizing. Many Notre Dame faculty, staff and alumni still live in Harter Heights, the neighborhood across Angela Boulevard and west of campus. But most other parts of the northeast quadrant of the city, other than the elegant Jefferson Boulevard area, are considerably less well off. One of the poorest is just south of campus and east of Eddy. There the median household income was $18,640 in 1997, according to adjusted census figures, which is about half the city average.

Although its crime rate is not much different from other parts of the city, the poorer parts of the Northeast Neighborhood have been the scene of a few shootings in recent years, and there are known crack houses. According to census figures, the region has lost about 20 percent of its population since the 1970s. The percentage of owner-occupied houses, which tend to be better maintained than rentals, has from fallen from 90 percent in 1970 to about 50 percent today.

Despite the proximity of Notre Dame students, employees — and, during football weekends, tens of thousands of fans — there has been little new retail development in the area for years. A telling event occurred in 1998 when the Goodwill thrift store and no-frills Aldi grocery near the Five Points intersection of Eddy, Corby Boulevard and South Bend Avenue pulled up stakes for other locations. Notre Dame decided to buy the buildings rather than have them sit vacant or be purchased by unsavory businesses. Likewise, the University has snapped up many houses close to campus over the years to keep them from falling into the hands of slumlords. Notre Dame now owns more than 30 properties in the neighborhood.

The University has long wanted to do more than just accumulate properties, Nanni says, but there was never a vehicle for a coordinated effort. That changed last year after King, who represents the neighborhood on South Bend’s city council, began mobilizing support for the proposals contained in a 1998 development consultant’s report.

King, a retired partner in the Crowe Chizek and Company accounting firm headquartered in South Bend met with a neighbor, John Phair, who heads a real estate development company, The Holladay Group. Phair had been studying the near northeast side of South Bend in connection with his company’s bid to build new offices for Crowe Chizek, which had announced plans to triple its 400-person workforce. Where would all the new accountants live? The Northeast Neighbhood would be convenient, if it could be improved.

Phair hired an architect to combine his firm’s ideas with the findings King showed him from the consultant’s report. The architect created display boards showing potential improvements to the area like shops along Eddy Street. He and King then began showing the boards around town, starting with groups of residents.

King’s lobbying led to a Saint Patrick’s Day lunch last year at the Morris Inn with Malloy and South Bend’s Stephen Luecke. King says Malloy told him that years ago, when Malloy and Father Dave Tyson, CSC, were Notre Dame vice presidents (Tyson has been president of the University of Portland since 1990), they wanted to do something along the lines of what King was proposing, but they couldn’t find anyone to work with.

Nanni, formerly the director of South Bend’s renowned Center for the Homeless, says colleges with declining neighborhoods at their borders typically hope the problem will simply go away. Then a student is assaulted, raped or even murdered, and trustees want to buy up all the property and “gentrify” the neighborhood.

“That’s rebuilding a neighborhood,” King says. “That’s not revitalizing.”

The plan laid out in the consultant’s report calls for creation of a safe and attractive community but one still ethnically diverse. In fact, Notre Dame is considering offering employees subsidized loans or help with down payments to build new homes in the neighborhood. Some officials believe that having a neighborhood with diverse shops and restaurants within walking distance of campus could help in recruiting faculty who would find a “university village” environment appealing.

One of the primary goals of the revitalization plan is to reduce the number of rental houses in the Northeast Neighborhood. More than 800 Notre Dame undergraduate and graduate students live in the neighborhood, many in single-family houses in poor condition and carved up into apartments in violation of zoning ordinances. The proposed retail development along Eddy Street envisions student apartments above shops and restaurants. That would remove the transient student population from the neighborhood’s permanent residents.

“Notre Dame kids are good kids,” says Nanni, “but they typically move off campus for one year and let their hair down. Who would want to live next door to that or be a landlord renting to kids like that?”

Jim Roemer, Notre Dame’s director of community relations, says the University has both altruistic and selfish reasons for wanting to revitalize the Northeast Neighborhood.

“Altruistic in the sense of living out the Gospel of loving your neighbor,” he says. “Many of these people are less fortunate than we are. There’s also the strained relationship between students and neighbors, with the students all having nice stereos and color TVs and fairly recent cars, and next door are people struggling to survive — and they’re all black and the students are all white.”

The selfish reasons? Roemer says high crime in a nearby neighborhood might discourage parents from sending their kids to Notre Dame.

In the past, vacant land separated campus and the neighborhood, but the territory is shrinking. Ground was broken last year on the new performing arts center at the extreme south end of campus near Angela. And a new headquarters for Notre Dame’s joint medical school program with Indiana University is being constructed at Angela and Notre Dame Avenue on the site of the demolished Northern Indiana State Development Center.

“We used to have a greenbelt around us; that’s gone,” says Nanni. “We can either sit back and wait for something to happen, or we can be pro-active and give back.”

Roemer and Nanni both acknowledge that suspicion exists among neighborhood residents as to the University’s motives in the revitalization effort. Some thought Notre Dame forced out the thrift store and grocery, which were popular gathering places, to take over property.

Partly to counter that impression, the University earlier this year remodeled the former Goodwill building to create the Renelda Robinson Community Learning Center. (The former grocery continues to be used by the University for storage and a physics lab.) Named in memory of a long-time neighborhood leader, the center opened in late February and offers a variety of free and low-cost educational and recreational programs. Many of the programs are run in cooperation with Notre Dame departments and involve student and employee volunteers. The offerings include training for senior citizens on how to use the Internet, tutoring and preparation for SAT/ACT and GED tests, step aerobics and salsa dance lessons, and piano lessons for children. The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies of the Mendoza College of Business will operate an incubator for new businesses, and the college’s longtime Tax Assistance Program for low-income taxpayers will be available. A clinic operated by Saint Joseph’s medical center will perform various health screenings and offer health education classes.

Notre Dame invested about $400,000 to remodel the building and outfit the center with computers and other equipment. The University has committed to raising the center’s estimated $300,000 annual operating budget.

“Notre Dame sees the value of people in their neighborhood developing themselves,” says director Jay Caponigro, formerly director of the Center for Social Concerns’ urban programs and justice education.

Jacquee Dickey, who has lived in the neighborhood since earning a master of divinity from Notre Dame in 1985, says “this is an important symbol that says Notre Dame cares, and it gives hope” to those in the poorer neighborhoods.

“More than likely it will be the envy of other sections of town.” says Dale Grayson, a retired podiatrist who has lived in the Northeast Neighborhood since 1967.

Organizers have made it a point to involve community residents in every phase of the revitalization effort. Plans for the Community Learning Center were developed through consultations with neighborhood residents and some 50 religious, civic, government and business entities, together with some 25 Notre Dame academic and support departments and student organizations. The board of Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization Inc. includes seven neighborhood residents, one representative each from the hospitals and two from Notre Dame and the city. Notre Dame will have a strong voice in any development plans because the University owns not only the former Goodwill and Aldi buildings but about 30 wooded acres at the southeast corner of Eddy and Edison. Nanni adds that the Community Learning Center was constructed with the understanding that it could be moved if its current location was needed for worthwhile commercial development.

How fast revitalization of the Northeast Neighborhood occurs depends at least in part on organizers maintaining community support for the project and building on the momentum from the launch of the formal revitalization organization.

Neighborhood leaders sound optimistic.

“There’s good enthusiasm, and there’s more than a reasonable amount of commitment,” says Rev. Tim Rouse, pastor of the First A.M.E. Zion Church on Eddy near the Five Points intersection. He’s also a member of the revitalization organization board. “We look for some great advances with this organization.”

Adds another community representative on the board, retiree Tom Taylor, “It sounds good to me so far. It’s something that’s really needed in the area. It’s just a matter of getting it together and getting it done. I think it will be well-received.”

King, the city council member, calls the next 12-18 months “a golden period” for the effort because of work that will be going on in the neighborhood. In addition to construction of the medical school headquarters and the performing arts center, the state highway department will begin reconstruction of the South Bend Avenue roadway around the Five Points. He’s hoping the activity will spark the interest of developers. He notes that speculative buying of property has already begun in the vicinity but adds that the revitalization “is supposed to be about the people who already live there, not about people coming in from the outside to make money.”

“You don’t want just new buildings,” King says, “you want things to last in [residents’] hearts and give them hope for the future. You want to turn that sense of depression around. You want them to feel this is them giving themselves back their neighborhood.”

With so much community and financial support, could anything possibly derail the effort? Nanni, who calls the effort “critical to the soul of Notre Dame,” says the whole plan will fall apart “if we don’t listen to each other.”

“There is still an environment heightened by fear. Unless we can break down the walls of distrust, break down barriers of race and culture . . . all of this stuff isn’t going to work.

“All of the issues of race and color are going to come up in the process. We’re going to have a lot of bumps. It’s not going to be easy. It never is. But I do believe we can do something great here.”