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College Hall may not literally be an ivory tower, but it’s close. Along with adjoining Chapel Hall—both built in the 1870s in Gothic revival style—it forms the historic and administrative center of Gallaudet University, the world’s leading institution of higher education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The hallways are quiet and filled with august reminders of the university’s past, the offices are spacious and tidy, and the world beyond the high iron gates surrounding the campus seems distant.

Up on College Hall’s third floor, Fred Weiner lays out a foam-board map of the campus. His interpreter points out a centipede walking along 6th Street NE, and Weiner, Gallaudet’s director of community relations, brushes it off with a sweep of his arm before launching into an explanation of the university’s plan to open up its campus to the neighborhood. In the process, his hand returns to the stretch of 6th Street between Florida Avenue and Union Market.

“What we want to do is create a sense of place,” says Weiner, who is hard of hearing. The interpreter signs my questions to Weiner, but he speaks clearly, with disarming wit. “You know, people keep talking about this area as becoming a destination place. So we see because of our location that this is a critical anchor to draw people into the market area.”

At the heart of the Gallaudet 2022 Campus Plan, for which the university is currently seeking zoning approval, is a new main entrance at Gallaudet’s southwest corner, the intersection of 6th and Florida. Currently, that area of the campus isn’t terribly inviting. A high brick-and-iron wall and the warehouselike Appleby Building—which houses Gallaudet’s transportation department and university vehicles—seem at home on the industrial strip along 6th Street, but not at a university.

The campus plan envisions a wide-open entrance at 6th and Florida, allowing students and neighbors to pass between handsome, glassy new buildings, with no gates or fences in sight. Gallaudet planning director Hansel Bauman expects the redevelopment of that spot to be complete by 2016.

While anyone can walk into Gallaudet during the daytime, its two front gates don’t exactly look welcoming. A more inviting main entrance—without fences and the exclusivity they signal—is a noble goal, particularly given the neighborhood’s history. In the 1980s, the area around Morton Place and Orleans Place NE—barely half a block south of Gallaudet—was known as the Strip, where middlemen tossed foam footballs full of cocaine to dealers with impunity and drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III launched his murderous career. After a series of deadly shootings next door in Trinidad, in summer 2008 the Metropolitan Police Department set up checkpoints  for anyone entering the neighborhood (a tactic that was later deemed unconstitutional).

Weiner recalls a troubled neighborhood when he arrived at Gallaudet as a student in 1979, 11 years after the 1968 riots torn through nearby H Street NE.

“The neighborhood was still suffering the aftereffects of the riots and the devastation of H Street,” Weiner says. “So for us, a lot of our college experience happened right here on the campus. And if we wanted to go out into D.C., to restaurants or bars or whatever, we’d go to Georgetown or to Southwest, where the waterfront district was.”

Recently, crime has steadily decreased, with reported incidents near campus declining from 56 in 2009 to 35 in 2010 to 31 in 2011, the latest year for which Gallaudet has reported crime figures. Gallaudet and Trinidad claim a good working relationship, with Gallaudet staff and students living in the neighborhood and Trinidad representatives weighing in on changes to the campus. But it’s not in the direction of Trinidad, to Gallaudet’s east, that the campus is opening up, at least not initially. Rather than create a portal between the campus and its immediate neighbors (and the students and staff who live there), the university will focus on its southwest corner, leading to the burgeoning office neighborhood of NoMa, the Metro, and the newly yuppified Union Market.

Obviously, there’s plenty of logic there. The NoMa-Gallaudet station is the newest stop on Metro’s Red Line, having opened in 2004, and it has helped make Gallaudet’s location a draw rather than the drawback it had long been. Likewise with NoMa and Union Market, which signal a new white-collar ethos to Gallaudet’s west, accompanied by rising property values.

These physical changes to Gallaudet are part of a broader glasnost engineered to open up the university to its neighbors. The school plans to ramp up its culinary education offerings to join the growing food movement in the area that includes Union Market and Union Kitchen Share. The university hosted an event with the Office of Planning in December to discuss ways to encourage the city’s culinary industry, which Weiner says has lower barriers to entry for deaf workers than many other industries.

And Gallaudet has made steps to engage with its immediate neighbors to the south and east. The university offers free sign language classes to members of the community, and turnout has been strong enough to require a lottery. Weiner says attendees have been an even mix of residents of Ward 5—which includes poorer neighborhoods like Trinidad and Ivy City—and Ward 6, whose Capitol Hill-area communities have grown increasingly expensive in recent years. The university also held a class for local business owners about a year and a half ago, with a turnout that Weiner estimates at about 15 or 20.

Gallaudet has worked to break down the perceived boundary between its deaf students and hearing neighbors. For some of those neighbors, the actual boundary will have to wait. Although Trinidad residents can still enter through a side gate on West Virginia Avenue that’s open during daytime hours, some are frustrated that the grand new entrance will face away from them.

“I find that a little bit interesting,” says Kathy Henderson, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5D, which includes Trinidad. “We’re their immediate neighbor. NoMa’s a little bit farther. I think it’d make more sense to try to find ways to connect with your closest neighbors rather than going down the road to connect with other neighbors.”

Henderson finds it all the more confounding given Trinidad’s close ties with Gallaudet. “We’ve had a good rapport over the years, and when they initially wanted to do some improvements to the university, they came to the community,” she says. “They’ve been pretty open. We consider them to be valuable stakeholders, and we think they’re well-intended.”

Gallaudet hopes to continue opening up its campus after its renovation of the Southwest corner in 2016. The end goal is still an open campus on all sides, with the possible exception of the northern area where an elementary and secondary school are located. Although the physical transformation will begin in the west, Weiner does hope that “down the road” the university will open the corner facing Trinidad. “Ultimately, we’d love to remove all the fences,” he says.

For Gallaudet, it made sense to start with the school’s western half “because of the Metro stop and the high-density development you see in the NoMa district,” Bauman says. “It just was a natural step.”

But if Gallaudet’s goal is to move away from its former bunker mentality, with the Metro serving as an escape portal to more desirable areas, and toward its immediate neighborhood, then starting with an orientation toward the west is a potentially fraught move, particularly in an area surrounded by rapidly upscaling corridors. The timing certainly raises questions about why Gallaudet waited for its surroundings to gentrify before opening up.

Weiner stresses that the “changing nature of the neighborhood and economic development in the area” is just “one factor” in the decision to open up the campus now. It coincides with changes in the deaf community, as technological advances and civil rights gains allow deaf people to interact more with their hearing neighbors.

“I grew up at a time when there was no captioning on TV,” says Weiner. “I was not able to reach out and communicate with people beyond the deaf community. Students who come in through our doors today are accustomed to interacting with people not like themselves.”

Weiner adds that when he attended Gallaudet, about three-quarters of the students came from schools for the deaf. Now, a large majority come from public schools.

Still, Gallaudet is counting on further changes to its surroundings. “We’re imagining an open campus,” says Bauman. “But that’s going to have to follow as the community gets safer. It’s significantly safer than it has been, but it’ll take time.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Due to an editing error, the article originally described Trinidad residents as having to walk around Gallaudet University’s exterior to its entrances on Florida Avenue. In fact, there is a gate on West Virginia Avenue.