Everyone can breathe easy now because there is finally new decoration up on SLU’s campus. No, not another statue, something much worse. It’s the glimmering blue neon light strips that have been going up on street lights surrounding campus over the past few weeks.
These lights echo those that tarnish buildings in Midtown such as Hotel Ignacio, Triumph Grill and the Drake Plaza Apartments, to designate SLU’s ownership of these buildings. Beyond the fact that they are horribly tacky, these new lights raise interesting questions about SLU’s relation to the city.
Are the blue lights meant to be nothing more than symbols of the university’s dominance and reign over Midtown? Or was that achieved when SLU received the permit to destroy the Pevely Dairy Complex? Maybe the placement of the blue lights determines who is supposed to belong where or who has the right to use which public spaces.
Do you have to be a Billiken to be in the blue-lined buildings? We could be attempting to tell people not associated with the university that they better watch out while they bask in the glow of the blue lights because they are playing by our rules now. Or potentially the blue lights are attempting to reinforce the purpose of our gates and fences; that is, to keep those who belong to us in, and those who do not out. Maybe they are meant to enforce boundaries between what belongs to us and what belongs to everyone else. They could be an attempt to reinforce the university’s arrogance.
Regardless, the blue lights do nothing more than continue the detachment of SLU from the urban fabric that surrounds it. It is this detachment that poses us as elitist, privileged and focused inward while our school remains situated in a neighborhood that has tried to hold on and continually redefine itself through decades of population loss, urban renewal projects and threats from SLU’s continued expansion.
SLU claims to support its Jesuit mission by creating a sense of community among students, faculty and staff to facilitate our development as men and women for others. Our university needs to broaden its idea of what community is and what it means. Our neighbors in Midtown are part of our community too, and by ignoring them, shutting them out or by posing them as threats to our existence, we fail to live out our mission as a university. It is going to take a certain sense of humility to begin to see our university not as the castle on the hill in Midtown, but as a mere piece of the neighborhood just as valuable as all the others.
It is this sense of humility that I expect and demand to see in the next president of this university. I hope we find someone who believes that we can still be one of the top Jesuit schools in the country without fancying ourselves the kings and queens of Midtown. Someone who does not believe that the role of a university president is to buy up properties, tear them down and rip up the neighborhood block by block, but instead sees his or herself as someone poised to lead and inspire a united university community.
A great president will recognize that in order for SLU to build and sustain a community in Midtown it needs to be sensitive to the needs and desires of our neighbors. So take down the blue lights, tear down the fences and break the locks on the gates. Let’s build a SLU we can all believe in.