Town and Gown: Looking closer at Syracuse and Aurora

These days, it appears that there is a push in many circles to break down the ‘Ivory Tower’ and bring the resources of academia to the aid of the surrounding communities. Numerous colleges have begun programs in service learning, where students work at charities as a form of education; at SU, anthropology graduate students (like myself) can take a class in ‘collaborative action research’[1] for their methods requirement.

These relatively minor academic pursuits have recently become more substantial. In cities like Binghamton and Syracuse, politicians and pundits are looking to the Academy for the solution to the problems of our declining city-centers. It is undeniable that a large University can have tremendous economic and cultural effect upon the surrounding community, but before we throw ourselves completely upon the Ivory Tower (or the art world), it is probably a good idea to examine the possible effects. So, for the purposes of comparison and discussion, I would like to bring up the contrasting examples of Syracuse University-Syracuse and Wells College-Aurora.

Syracuse University is, according to the Post-Standard newspaper, the largest single employer (7,371 employees) in the city and undoubtedly numerous other business and individuals survive on the existence of the students in the community (see the SU Economic Impact Report for more info). Over the past 20 years Syracuse has continually declined in population and wealth; on any drive through the city one can’t help but notice rows of abandoned houses and empty stores.

With the arrival of Nancy Cantor, the University’s new Chancellor, SU has adopted a policy of community engagement called: “Scholarship in Action.” The new Chancellor has attempted to bring SU and Syracuse closer together in order to build the community.

One of the biggest projects is the Connective Corridor. Corridor is a proposed link between the University and Downtown; according to the website:

When completed, the Connective Corridor will consist of a vibrant pedestrian and bicycle pathway with distinctive landscaping, lighting, benches, historical information, and public art spaces. An accompanying public shuttle bus route will be offered free of charge to riders commuting between cultural venues, shops, hotels and Syracuse University.

The design will hopefully bring traffic to poor neighborhoods between the Armory Square and University Hill. Also included is a plan to clean up Onondaga Creek and turn it into an ‘urban forest.’ This will build upon the earlier project, The Warehouse, which turned an abandoned downtown warehouse into an art gallery and school of architecture.

This plan, of course, still in the future, though I’m excited about the possibilities. One of the Chancellor’s plans for students to ‘Explore the Soul of Syracuse’ was to give all of this year’s Freshmen $50 gift cards for them to use Downtown. The problem with the cards was that they were set up through Mastercard… meaning they were useable anywhere a card could be used. According to a recent story in the Daily Orange (the independent student newspaper), few of the cards have found there way Downtown, but wer instead used at chain stores in the mall or for online purchases.

While the jury is out on Syracuse and Chancellor Cantor’s plan to restore prosperity to the city, the community is not as ambivalent in Aurora, NY. Wells dominates Aurora economically even more so than SU to Syracuse. The village has a population of 720 and the college has roughly 200 employees and 500 students (according to Wikipedia).

In 2001 Wells College joined with alumnus Pleasant Rowland (creator of the American Girls company) to restore its buildings in downtown Aurora. In an attempt to “improve the historic character and attractiveness” of Aurora, buildings were destroyed and exteriors were altered. By 2002 the Aurora Coalition, a community preservation organization was formed to stop Rowland and Wells—who they accused of remaking the town without any public input and of destroying or remaking historic structures in the name of ‘historic recovery.’ The town has become polarized over the issue and legal measures have been undertaken (and have largely failed). Many fear that Aurora is being gentrified and that locals will be forced out of their community by Rowland’s ‘improvements’.

The Aurora example shows us the possible difficulties that our communities face when they turn to the Academy for revitalization. This is different than relying upon a corporation—because a university is either a non-profit or a government agency—and is not solely motivated by the profit margin. However, our local communities must remember that while collaboration with a University (or a philanthropist like Rowland) can bring tremendous resources to bear that would be otherwise unavailable, their collaboration can also mean the community losing power over its own development. In the worse case, the community can be transformed beyond recognition and the locals can find themselves gentrified out of a home.


[1] Collaborative action research is a form of research where the researchers works in partnership with a community organization in order to help them to answer their questions.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for "getting it right" about what is happening to my hometown, Aurora. Living through it has been something of a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

Thanks also for putting our situation in perspective, in terms of town-gown relations in other communities.

Aurora has 720 inhabitants -- including students and summer people. Full-time, year-round residents number only around 300 people, many of whom are employed by the college or otherwise related to the college. The impact of college action therefore is a hundred-fold stronger than in a larger and more business-diverse community.

Losing any say in our own destiny as a community and being forcably molded into some rich woman's fantasy village has indeed been a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

Anyone reading in this blog about Aurora, New York and the effect Pleasant Rowland has had on a once beautiful community should realize that before Rowland began her activity in Aurora, the village was an exceptionally lovely, funky, harmonious, friendly and fun place to live or to visit. It was a real community in every positive sense of the word, and a real rarity in today’s world.

As a result of Rowland’s efforts, the village has been transformed, all right – transformed into a miserably polarized and decidedly unfriendly and unhappy place. She has torn the community into a number of groups.

1) There are those support her. Some support her because they like what she has done to fix up the buildings and feel that she is somehow elevating their own status in life. Others (a very few, since Rowland owns everything) support her because they stand to benefit financially from her presence. Neither group seems to mind the undeniable damage Rowland has had on the people- to- people interaction in Aurora. They seem to prefer to align themselves behind the status or the money, or both.

2) There are those who support her because they more or less have to – their livelihoods depend on it. They fear the loss of their jobs if they speak out against Rowland because she owns, or controls as landlord, all the retail businesses in Aurora. She also owns the Mackenzie –Childs facility, one of only major local employers. The other major employer is Wells College, and Rowland controls Wells through the “influence” she has on its president, Lisa Ryerson. It is believed that Ryerson takes orders from Rowland simply because Rowland is dangling so much money before the college. The widespread perception is that Ryerson ceded control of Wells to Rowland several years ago, and that Ryerson’s role at Wells now (at least pertaining to the large amount of property Wells owns in Aurora,) is one largely of figurehead.

3) There are those who do not like Rowland and who do not like what she has done to their hometown, but for reasons of apathy or inconvenience, do not resist her. They patronize her businesses because it is too inconvenient not to. These people try to remain neutral in all this. The problem with that approach is that in such a deeply divided town the size of Aurora, it is impossible to remain so. Rowland has created a situation in which the simple act of buying a loaf of bread, ordering a pizza, or going out for a beer makes a statement and carries social ramifications. Another example of the social strains she has created.

4) There are those who actively resist Rowland’s seizure of their hometown. There have been ongoing protests, and even a lawsuit undertaken with the intention of stopping Rowland’s literal and figurative bulldozing of the village. The active protesters are in a minority in the village, but have a certain degree of silent support (see Reasons 2 and 3). These people are admired by some (again, see Reason 2 and 3), and are highly disliked by Rowland’s supporters.

When you have these 4 emotional groups going at each other within a small village, you can see what kind of atmosphere exists in Aurora. Rowland has pitted neighbor against neighbor, destroyed decades-old friendships, and even placed strains within marriages. Rowland takes all this strife in stride from her home in Wisconsin. She has shown no interest in alleviating, or even acknowledging, the trouble she has created for the people of Aurora. She does only what she wants, and nothing else, or nothing more.

When she first returned to Aurora, Rowland initially claimed she wanted to “help” the village. Instead, by any objective examination of the social atmosphere, she has wrecked the place. I believe that a generation may need to pass before the hard feelings Rowland has created in Aurora are able to subside.

York Staters said...

Thanks for all your comments everyone, this is obviously an important and passionate issue for the residents of Aurora and I wish you the best.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments about Aurora.

One quibble/question: Rowland a "philanthropist"?

It does not appear that way to people who live in Aurora. Her "Aurora Foundation" is not a foundation, it is an LLC.

More power to her if she wants to make more money, but it is offensive to disguise her business here as a "philanthropist's" "foundation".

Rowland build a new inn, a new store and remodeled some buildings, but she also divided the community and took over the town in ways that people who do not live here cannot imagine. Now, Aurora is bereft of the unusual spirit and community that it had until Rowland's arrival.

Anonymous said...

The formal name of the entity Pleasant Rowland uses to strangle Aurora is " Aurora Foundation, LLC".

In an effort to deceive the press and the public, she has hijacked the word 'foundation'. You are correct in mentioning its misuse. I think that whenever anyone starts a business operation, they ought to throw the word 'foundation' into its name.

Pleasant Rowland has done a lot of deceiving in Aurora.

Anonymous said...

The battle still rages in Aurora. To read more - a lot more - about the conflict in Aurora, try this link:


Anonymous said...

More about the mess Rowland has made of Aurora: