Here comes the neighborhood

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

“Something there is,” Robert Frost once wrote about the barriers between places and people, “that doesn’t love a wall.” The virtual walls of space and cultural separation that long divided Notre Dame from the surrounding community, erected largely to protect students from South Bend’s allurements and problems, have been crumbling for decades. What remains is about to come down fast.

Like many of its higher-ed peers in towns across the nation where the current economic downturn has compounded pressures on weak local economies, the University now sees its future firmly joined to the city’s. Setting aside traditional town-gown tensions over student misbehavior and foregone property tax revenues, neither party finds much wisdom anymore in that famous snippet of folk wisdom—"good fences make good neighbors"—that Frost’s prescient narrator lamented.

As development along Edison Road and Eddy Street forever blurs the barriers that have distinguished the southern edge of campus from South Bend’s Northeast Neighborhood, the common goods of high-tech research, entrepreneurial partnership and economic revival frame a still-tenuous but increasingly hopeful future.

South Bend has struggled with standard urban problems for decades: high dropout and crime rates and blistering interurban competition to attract high-paying jobs and corporate investment. For its part, the University engages in community issues—it supported the creation of the Center for the Homeless, offers educational programs through the Robinson Community Learning Center, moved its Community Relations office downtown, and sends thousands of student volunteers and community-based research dollars into local projects, mostly through the Center for Social Concerns and its off-campus partners. But its stand-alone capacity to boost the local economy and work with South Bend toward common quality-of-life goals has limits.

“We’re the largest employer in town, and that’s not good because we’re not big enough,” said John Affleck-Graves, Notre Dame’s executive vice president, during a spring meeting with University staff. Rather than going it alone, though, Notre Dame and South Bend are leveraging their collective resources to pull in a powerful array of public and private partners.

March brought word that a consortium of leading computer chip companies had selected Notre Dame to lead the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery (MIND). Separately, Innovation Park at Notre Dame, an incubator for a host of new research-driven ideas with solid market promise, is now under construction between Edison and State Road 23.

“Everybody in town is excited about that,” says Jackie Rucker ‘83, Notre Dame’s director of community relations. “Technology just adds to that sense of where Notre Dame can help with the growth of the local community.”

Just as important as drawing new brainpower, jobs and investment is making sure they stay. University officials hope the Eddy Street Commons—a blend of restaurants, shops, hotels and housing going up south of campus—will become home to generations of top-flight faculty, professionals and graduate students. Home to anyone, really, who likes the idea of walking or biking to work, eating lunch across the street on the new Irish Green and catching an evening show at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

University officials say such strategic partnerships are just a few more steps forward, albeit big ones, in a new era of symbiosis that will continue to identify further opportunities around the city.