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Archive for Friday, April 16, 1999

KU PROFESSOR LOOKS AT LAWRENCE AND THE NEW MILLENNIUM

April 16, 1999

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A KU associate dean taught a class last spring called "Biography of a City: Lawrence." Today, he talks about the past and future of the city he calls home.

Dennis Domer has led students and historic preservationists through the alleys of Lawrence's 19th-century business district -- perhaps not as glamorous as field trips to Rome or Greece, but in Domer's eyes, just as important.

"Being knowledgeable about the larger world but ignorant about where you live doesn't make much sense," Domer said last year in a Lawrence Journal-World story.

Domer is an associate dean of architecture and urban design and associate professor of American studies at Kansas University. Last spring, he taught a class, "Biography of a City: Lawrence," which brought together 30 speakers who explored the history of the city's cultural, social, economic and political life.

The Journal-World recently asked Domer to talk about Lawrence's history and future in light of the new millennium.

Here are his thoughts.

What five words would you use to describe Lawrence's history?

The Kaw, downtown, Old West Lawrence, East Lawrence and railroad.

What five words would you use to describe Lawrence's future?

Douglas County, South Lawrence, Alvamar, automobile and South Lawrence Trafficway.

How are Lawrence's history and its future entangled?

Historical decisions concerning the physical city both create and eliminate future possibilities. The economy and politics of the 1970s assumed that the downtown would be the thriving business and entertainment center of the 1990s. The economy and politics of the 1990s assume that South Lawrence will be the strongest of many commercial centers in the 21st century. Decisions and assumptions in the past create the future of the physical city.

What can Lawrence learn from its past?

Money, and where and how it is invested, determines the future of the city.

What effect do you believe growth will have on Lawrence?

Lawrence, as a city, will lose its identity, just as Overland Park and Olathe have lost their identities. Lawrence will be just one of many suburbs of Kansas City, and Douglas County, as a county, will be the most important political entity in the future, just as Johnson County is the most important political entity today in south Kansas City. Lawrence will merge with Douglas County just as Kansas City, Kan., merged with Wyandotte County. Lawrence is fracturing into a polycentric city, and neighborhoods around these centers will associate with their center not with the downtown center which will still exist but not as the primary business district.

Lawrence has enjoyed a rich past and a reputation as a cultural center of the Midwest. Do you think that tradition will continue, or as more growth occurs, will Lawrence lose some of its unique qualities?

Lawrence is becoming like EveryCity, USA. The homogenization of the United States will overcome Lawrence, and it will have fewer and fewer recognizably unique characteristics. Chain commercial entities will slowly eliminate local commercial firms, and the business images these chains present will look just like the images in every other city. Uniqueness, locality, regional expression -- all this will become increasingly difficult to find.

Outside Quantrill's Raid, what major turning points has Lawrence experienced?

World War II was the great watershed for Lawrence and the United States. Quantrill's raid pales in comparison. In fact, Quantrill's raid is hardly important at all and is much overrated in its effect on the future of Lawrence. The G.I. bill brought thousands of new students, and their babies created thousands more students who turned KU into a megauniversity. Vietnam and the closing of KU: KU has really never recovered from this disaster. This turn of events, the closing of KU, which alienated the university from the Kansas Legislature and the people of Kansas, affected not only faculty salaries but the whole university budget. In the next year there were no raises in the budget, and it took a while for the negativity to wear off. Consequently

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from that time forward, KU has increasingly dropped away from the first tier of public universities and by all measures, except for a very few departments and the physical campus, is now clearly a second tier public university. Many of our departments have no distinction at all. At this point, we have to do an enormous amount of public relations just to remain in the second tier. Before this turn, KU was clearly in its halcyon days and in the same category as the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and the University of Indiana, among others. No longer. Unfortunately, this cannot be easily changed, no matter who the chancellor is or who comes into our faculty. I don't think we have a single Nobel Prize winner. Perhaps we will get one, but I doubt it. All first tier public universities have some. We would have to get a $200 million gift to change, and perhaps we'll be lucky. KU has never been funded well (since the war), and in part this tragedy accounts for faculty salaries that are far behind our peers. This gap will never be closed. The South Lawrence Trafficway (also is a turning point). This divided Lawrence into at least two irreconcilable camps, and we will not come together again. Not even in a generation will we come together again because the city is splitting apart for other reasons mentioned above.

How has Haskell Indian Nations University and its longstanding tradition as a school for American Indians shaped Lawrence?

Haskell had very little impact on Lawrence until the South Lawrence Trafficway controversy. Then Haskell came into its own as a powerful player, largely because white politicians again overlooked the importance of Native Americans. Haskell was strongly criticized because it did not just give in to the white man's desires and because it did not just give in to the capitalistic aggressiveness and the interests of developers that had so easily destroyed Native Americans in the past. Eventually, the Haskell administration did give in to money, but the students still haven't. As long as the students don't give in, Haskell will have an important role to play.

How has Kansas University impacted Lawrence, and how will it remain a major player in the city's future?

Early on KU shaped early Lawrence more than any other social-political-economic entity. In the future KU will still be significant but will have less impact because it remains largely a medieval institution and cannot change as fast as our society. Information will no longer be gathered or disseminated in ways the university has become used to over the centuries. These changes will make the university much less important as centers of knowledge.

What has most surprised you about the changing face of Lawrence?

The biggest surprise for me was the involvement of Haskell in the South Lawrence Trafficway controversy, the silence of KU in this matter and the miscalculation of Baker University on the issue.

-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is dgruver@ljworld.com.

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