Archive for Sunday, February 1, 2009

College character: Author’s experiences in Lawrence influence writings on university towns

A “quintessential” Kansas University experience: Seeing a basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse.

A “quintessential” Kansas University experience: Seeing a basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse.

February 1, 2009

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KU students gravitate toward the nightlife — and that includes The Cadillac Ranch,  2515 W. Sixth St.

KU students gravitate toward the nightlife — and that includes The Cadillac Ranch, 2515 W. Sixth St.

Mary Wheeler, Prairie Village, shops at the Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St.

Mary Wheeler, Prairie Village, shops at the Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St.

Lawrence includes a mix of national and local retailers. Maksin Smith, 6, and his brother Dmitri Smith, 10, watch James Fouche-Schack play chess at Borders, 700 N.H.

Lawrence includes a mix of national and local retailers. Maksin Smith, 6, and his brother Dmitri Smith, 10, watch James Fouche-Schack play chess at Borders, 700 N.H.

Dan Kozak, of Topeka, is a familiar sight in downtown Lawrence, performing music for passers-by at Seventh and Massachusetts streets.

Dan Kozak, of Topeka, is a familiar sight in downtown Lawrence, performing music for passers-by at Seventh and Massachusetts streets.

Blake Gumprecht isn’t the first person to describe Lawrence as “the quintessential college town.”

And he won’t be the last.

But he is the first to be so profoundly affected by his time here to, decades later, write a book on college towns — with Lawrence as his “quintessential” example.

The Kansas University graduate’s new book, “The American College Town,” explores the unique nature of the places that shape our higher education experience. In the book, available on Amazon.com, he delves into how cities centered around universities are different and why those differences — from politics, to housing to personality — exist in the first place.

And though Lawrence isn’t featured as a case study in one of the book’s themed chapters — Gumprecht says he was too familiar with Lawrence to be objective — its imprint is all over it as the author uses his own experience in numerous anecdotes.

“Lawrence certainly had a large role in my view and perceptions,” Gumprecht says. “It affected me in ways that are probably even greater than I realize.”

College town DNA

So what, in Gumprecht’s eyes, sets college towns apart from your run-of-the-mill municipality?

In the book, he highlights several distinguishing characteristics that college towns share. They include the ideas that college towns are youthful, highly educated, comparatively affluent, transient, cosmopolitan and unconventional places. He also points out:

• College-town residents are more likely to work in white-collar jobs.

• Living costs — especially for housing — are higher than other cities.

• Residents are more likely to rent, live in apartments and have roommates.

• The quality of life is high in college towns.

And how is it that these themes seem to run through college towns big and small? It’s all in the strange makeup of each place, says Gumprecht, who graduated with a journalism degree from KU in 1983 and now is an associate professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire

“It’s those basic demographic differences that shape the housing districts, politics,” Gumprecht says. “It basically comes down to college towns being so demographically different.”

Different, even though the differences between themselves are so great. Bill Tuttle, who has been a professor at KU and lived in Lawrence since 1967, has lived in numerous college towns — alike in the ways Gumprecht describes, but different in as many ways as they are the same.

“I grew up in Detroit and spent a lot of time in Ann Arbor (Mich.), and I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin (in Madison, Wis.), and I spent a year at Berkeley (Calif.) and I spent a year in Palo Alto (Calif.) at Stanford, and I spent a year at Harvard in Cambridge (Mass.),” Tuttle says. “These are all kinds of college towns. Of course, they are really, really different.”

How does Lawrence stand out to Tuttle?

“I think what makes Lawrence unique is it’s not as big as these other places. I think Madison’s population must be 300,000 or 400,000. Austin, Texas, just grew, I think, exponentially almost in the 1980s,” Tuttle says. “But what I think what’s wonderful about Lawrence is it didn’t get that big and it probably won’t get that big. Well, let’s hope it won’t get that big.”

Studying the places where people study

Though college towns big and small are full of research-minded individuals, Gumprecht says he was surprised to find that so little research had been done on the towns themselves. But upon closer examination, it isn’t that hard to understand. He gives two main reasons.

“One is that for academics at research universities, like KU and, where I am, the University of New Hampshire, scholars are expected to develop a national and international reputation,” he says.

The other reason he gives is that many professors are the children of professors and, therefore, have spent the majority of their time in university towns.

“Some have lived in college towns their whole lives. They just sort of assume this is just how life is,” Gumprecht says. “I’ve encountered this again and again.”

Gumprecht himself has spent many years in college towns. He grew up minutes away from Newark, Del., home to the University of Delaware. After separate pre-graduate and post-graduate stints in Lawrence, he went to Norman, Okla., and later to Columbia, S.C.

But, he says, none of those towns are the same as Lawrence — the one that shaped his ideas the most. The quintessential College Town, U.S.A.

“I lived in Lawrence’s student ghettos, hung out in its rock clubs and record stores, observed eccentrics like the ‘Tan Man’ who sunbathed shirtless on campus even in winter, and first came to appreciate many of the features of college towns that define them in my mind,” he writes in his introduction. “Most of what I learned in college I learned in town, not in classes.”

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