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Howard University is one of the black community’s shiniest gemsan institution that until this year annually produced more black college graduates than any other school in the country. For that reason and a host of others, D.C. loves Howardbut the community that surrounds Howard says that love is going unrequited.
The university’s relations with its neighbors have been tepid at best over the last decade. The conflict is a natural one: Howard, a bastion for the black middle and upper middle classes, sits square in the middle of a black working- and lower-class area. Community leaders complain about the condescending smugness they experience in dealing with Howard’s black elite. For its part, Howard struggles with the hazards of inner-city living. Howard students, many of whom come from suburban environments, make easy prey for criminals.
The crime has been thick around Howard for years, but recent events weigh heavy on the minds of school administrators. In March, Howard students Jerome Starks and Michael Willis were beaten with a baseball bat by a few locals after they had surrendered their wallets. Last year, a brawl erupted between some residents of Drew Hall, one of Howard’s dormitories, and some people from the neighborhood. It’s hard to dispute that security at Howard and in the surrounding community is lacking.
Partly because of crime concerns, Howard is now trying to wrest five campus streets from the city’s control. The plan would saddle the university with maintenance responsibilities, something university officials say they already perform, but Howard would gain the right to regulate traffic on those streets. Perhaps most importantly, though, Howard police would win control over them.
Whatever its fine points, the plan has all the makings of a community powder keg: a relatively rich university of middle-class students annexing property from a city that is famously touchy about its sovereignty.
Harry Robinson is vice president of administration for Howard and the prime architect of the plan to privatize the streets. “I must tell you,” says Robinson, sitting in his office in front of a massive map of the university, “I had no idea that anybody would object to this. Now, maybe I was naive about that, but I had no idea that we would have objections.”
Naive is a good word for it. When the proposal came to the attention of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, the vote was unanimously against Howard. The Pleasant Plains Civic Association also voted to oppose the proposal. Most surprisingly, Howard’s general assemblythe body that represents studentsvoted to oppose it. Many mentioned Howard’s consistent neglect of property it already owns: houses and apartments in the neighborhood that have tipped over into disuse and disrepair.
Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith wrote a letter to university president H. Patrick Swygert asking Howard to withdraw its application and saying that it’s not a “propitious” time for considering the street closings. “Howard University currently owns substantial holdings of vacant and boarded-up property…and has obtained funding in a major initiative to restore, rebuild, and sell these properties,” wrote Smith. “We should await progress on this much overdue endeavor…before removing public land from public use.”
The D.C. Council planned to discuss the measure at its Sept. 30 meeting, but, responding to the widespread opposition, Howard asked the mayor to withdraw the proposal before the meeting. But the issue is far from dead. Robinson and his staff were just buying time to work on lobbying the community to support the initiativesomething community leaders say simply isn’t going to happen. “I don’t think the council is going to take it up until they deal with community issues,” Smith says.
Tony Norman, president of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association, says Howard officials routinely act without regard for the community. “Howard is closed and very restricted in its dealings with the community,” Norman says. “The community doesn’t trust Howard. They have a very condescending attitude.”
The students don’t deny that tensions exist. “We don’t get along,” says Aprill Turner, a member of the students’ general assembly. “They think we’re stuck up, and we sometimes act like they’re not good enough. I don’t think closing the streets can help at all.”
And rumors are running rampant among both community leaders and students that Howard’s administration wants control of the streets so it can erect a gate around the campus and keep community members fenced out in the name of security. Some also fear that Howard might institute checkpoints to keep community members off campus. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Robinson. “We have every intention of keeping these streets open to the public.” Robinson says Howard merely wants to “take responsibility” for the streets.
But community leaders remain unmoved. “That’s the best joke I’ve heard in my life,” retorts Lawrence Guyot, chairman of ANC 1B. “I don’t wanna think about what they’re going to do if they close the streets….I think it’s pretty clear.”
But security is not the sole focus of the proposal. “I want to redesign 6th Street as an urban designer,” says Robinson, who is trained as an architect. “We want to send the message that you’re entering into a very special place. You’re welcome here.” In addition, Robinson cites the need to regulate the flow of traffic around the university. “We need to reorganize how people come into the campus,” says Robinson. “When I was a student here, you could drive through the campus. It was very dangerous for pedestrians. On any given Friday, you would have cars lined up on this campus.”
Beyond the specifics of the proposal itself, community and student leaders are annoyed that they weren’t consulted about the plan. “They didn’t inform anyone,” says Norman. “We found out by accident.”
John Hutto, an ANC commissioner and president of the Howard University Student Association, says students were not informed of the plan either. “This will be a lesson to Howard University. They never sought to bring people to the table. They never sought to talk to the ANC, the associations, or even to the students. We had to pressure them to come to panel discussions.”
Robinson admits that consultation with the community was not handled properly, but he points out that the past two student association administrations supported street closings.
Now that the proposal has been withdrawn from the council, Robinson plans to focus on community lobbying. “I’ll meet with anybody. This is my hometown,” he says. But victory may require much more than meetings. Community and student leaders appear to have their minds made up. “This is dead in the water,” says Guyot. “There simply is no way to sell this package.”CP