As you may have gathered, I live in a company town. Three institutions of higher learning—two independent colleges and one large public university—draw thousands of students to my little burgh and employ thousands more of us townies.
Living in a college town has many perks, a fact real estate hustlers but a few short years ago exploited by marketing the laid-back life academical to gullible empty nesters. The pitch was short and sweet: live amongst faculty and students and you too will be immersed in a scholarly miasma of heady debate, controversial artistic endeavor, and exuberant youth with a thirst for knowledge.
As anyone who has observed the discarded beer cans after a weekend of youthful exuberance knows, those college kids are thirsting for more than book-learning. But don’t let a little detail like nightly noisy campus parties going strong at 1 a.m. deter you from living on the perimeter of a campus.
Those same real estate hucksters dreamed up a similar fantasy for land-rich, cash poor colleges looking for ways to spin hay fields into goldmines. Indeed, in the midst of the housing bubble, a new industry grew up, one in which a corporation had two branches, the first made up of impartial consultants who for a significant fee would conduct a market survey to see what interest was out there amongst the 55+ set for selling the family home and moving into new campus-side digs. The second arm of the corporation was—I see you are ahead of me here—developers of said digs.
More than one board of trustees grew intoxicated by market surveys that indicated Buster and Barbara Boomer’s eagerness to surround themselves with other on-the-go seniors and set up housekeeping in hastily constructed, densely populated condominium “communities.” More than one board of trustees was eager to unleash on their campuses a pride of cougars and a pack of horn dogs, if it meant that these marauding species kept the wolf from the college door.
Some of the more fatuous trustees were even coaxed into believing that such high-density housing, plunked down in a rural setting, was far kinder to the land than, say, a handful of single-family residences designed to preserve the bucolic, gentleman-farmer spirit of the neighborhood. But no, many a board bought hook, line and sinker the developer’s assurance that quick cash from a land-lease agreement and a continuing cash crop of rental payments was a green investment for all concerned.
That many of these developments are now stalled due to the caprices of the real estate market is a blessing in disguise for boomers and colleges alike. Maybe each will come to their senses, and realize that grown-ups (no matter how fervently they reject the nomenclature) and college students (of the pricy residential college variety) do not mix. They do not have the same intellectual interests. They do not have the same capacity for self-discovery. And they most emphatically do not have the same taste in adult beverages.
But, I digress.
I admit that I am a boomer who lives across the street from a college; in fact, I once sold the school some of my acreage so that it could expand its developable holdings. But I held on to enough of my land so that there is a comfortable buffer between me and the undergraduates.
No buffer, though, can insulate a resident of an academic company town from the hi-jinks of its governing bodies. In a community such as mine, town meetings come to resemble nothing so much as faculty meetings on steroids. They are not for the faint of heart, and if you attend one, better be packing your Robert’s Rules along with the No-Doze.
Town meeting time only rolls around once a year, though, and in between times the “select board” keeps my town safe from the dangers that lurk outside the comforting, cocooning certainty of its intellectual and moral superiority. In fact, back in the 1980’s when declaring this, that, and the other “nuclear-free zones” was all the rage, my town was among the first to jump on the bandwagon but presciently added a “reality-free” amendment to its no-nukes resolution.
I cannot tell you how well that humble amendment has served my town. Under its sheltering auspices we’ve been able to cancel high school performances of Leonard Bernstein’s ferociously racist musical West Side Story, roll out the welcome mat for sprung denizens of Guantanamo, direct the federal government to reduce military spending, impeach George Bush, and, most recently, ban town employees and representatives from conducting business with or traveling to entities and locations in Arizona.
The Arizona boycott also urges citizens and businesses within my town to do likewise. To comply with this suggestion, for the colleges and university that call my town home, this means true sacrifice: they will have to return donations from alumni who live in Arizona and cease asking them for additional gifts. The schools will not be able to send admissions recruiters to Arizona (a great place to find applicants who will beef up the institution’s diversity profile) or accept tuition dollars from current students who have the bad luck to be permanent residents of the state.
I’m sure these fine institutions of higher learning will find a way to cope with the loss of income. Maybe start charging a fee or two for all of those town-gown activities that give university towns such a great quality of life. Perhaps reduce the custodial staff that picks up the beer cans after a long night of parties. Maybe let the grass on the quad go uncut a little longer. Maybe decide not to make the payment in lieu of taxes that would otherwise have helped the town buy a new fire engine. Maybe even lease more land, this time to a strip-mall developer. The possibilities are endless!
So, all of you “active seniors” out there contemplating a move to Collegetown, USA: caveat emptor.