From his seventh-floor suite, Dave Davis directs Northwestern University’s “repository for complaints.” Or, as it’s formally known, the Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations. Davis is something of a town-gown middleman, serving as the first point of contact for residents’ concerns regarding the University, and ensuring NU community members, including students, are “good neighbors.”
Usually, his job consists of handling resident concerns and fostering partnerships between NU community members and Evanston residents and organizations. COVID-19, however, has made Davis’ job much, much more complicated.
When the quarter began, resident emails reporting student misbehavior flooded his inbox. Non-compliance with mask wearing and social distancing, as well as accounts of large gatherings, were among the most common concerns.
“I was receiving complaints daily,” Davis says.
Since mid-October, complaints have slowed to a trickle, but tensions between Evanston residents and NU students remain, Davis says. The University and the city have at times clashed, from NU’s exemption from property taxes to recent conflicts surrounding Welsh-Ryan Arena’s potential hosting of for-profit events. Still, some residents say University community members and Evanston residents have maintained an enriching and productive coexistence, with partnerships like the Leadership and Community Engagement program fostering pathways for student service.
The pandemic, however, has cast doubt on NU’s role, causing residents to worry about student behavior that spreads COVID-19. But it seems for the most part, students are doing their best to act responsibly and safely. With underclassmen permitted to live on campus for Winter Quarter, residents say they’re balancing their concerns with appreciation for proper student behavior.
“People in the community are concerned about students coming back, as we should be.” says Carol White, who has lived in Evanston for 28 years. “But I think the community can be all too ready to blame students for things.”
A Complicated History
Starting the school year during a pandemic isn’t the first controversy concerning NU’s place in Evanston. Property taxes for Illinois residents have risen in recent years, but not for NU: Illinois law exempts land universities own and use for educational purposes from property taxes.
The University’s 240 acres on the Evanston lakefront, Ryan Field, Welsh-Ryan Arena and property in Streeterville are all tax exempt — to the detriment of the Evanston community. A 2017 memo suggests that if NU’s property was no longer tax-exempt, it might generate nearly $5.9 million a year in additional revenue for the city.
Tensions have recently come to a boil over 7,000-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena. In November 2019, aldermen approved a temporary zoning amendment allowing NU to host professional sporting and for-profit entertainment events at the arena. Although events remain on-hold due to COVID-19, the zoning amendment raised concerns about disruption for nearby neighbors.
In an October 2019 statement, 7th Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle condemned NU’s proposal for its impact on her constituents.
“These residents bought their homes with the understanding that the athletic campus was used for collegiate sports and commencement events,” she wrote. “They did not bargain for an additional set of major events attracting a non-collegiate audience with unknown regard for NU and its neighbors.”
Still, NU students, faculty and staff have also contributed greatly to the community, some residents say. The Leadership and Community Engagement program, Center for Civic Engagement, and ‘Cats give Back all embed students in community causes.
Evanston resident Bob Hercules says his experience with off-campus students has always been positive, though some problems have emerged this year.
“Northwestern has been a great boon to our economy and to our culture,” he says. “The students, for the most part, have been fantastic. In 24 years, it’s only been this past year that it’s become more and more of an issue.”
Preparing for the Quarter
This fall, as students nationwide prepared to repopulate college towns, a dominant narrative emerged: students would return to campus, flout safety standards and inevitably transmit COVID-19 to neighbors. In the University of Iowa’s hub of Iowa City, that narrative seemed to unfold. After students returned to campus, cases from parties spilled into Iowa City, making the mid-size city a pandemic hot-spot.
This summer, as University administrators prepared to bring students back to campus, residents worried about the spread of COVID-19.
“There’s a huge amount of press about what's going on on [college] campuses,” White says. “Given that that's a hot topic in the media, and then you live in university town, it’s going to be a pretty automatic question or concern.”
University administrators hosted a community town hall to receive resident feedback about its return-to-campus plan August 25. Three days later, President Morton Schapiro walked back the plans, announcing that first- and second-year students would no longer be allowed on campus.
David Schoenfeld noticed an uptick off-campus students returning to Evanston in July. Schoenfeld serves as a Community Representative on Evanston’s Northwestern-City Committee, a special committee of two University representatives, two community representatives and First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske.
During the summer, University-supplied testing was limited, and many residents worried students’ lax behavior could disrupt community efforts to curb COVID-19 cases.
“I heard from a lot of people who didn't feel comfortable going to the shops and groceries they’ve been going to,” Schoenfeld says. “You didn't know how well the students were complying with precautions the community had gotten used to abiding by.”
The Return to Campus
Despite residents’ concerns about student behavior, NU has yet to experience a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak. Since March, the University has reported 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases. At the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 230 UIUC community members tested positive in one day.
Hercules’ house is practically embedded in NU’s sprawling campus. Living across the street from the Foster-Walker Complex, he describes students typically housed in Plex as “quiet” and “courteous.” For Hercules, nearby off-campus students haven’t become disruptive, and he remains sympathetic to the mindset of young adults — “Students will be students” he says.
Most students Schoenfeld encounters wear masks, he says. Like many residents, he characterizes the situation in Evanston rationally — “It could be worse,” he adds.
For off-campus students, life feels different — and much quieter — in apartments and sidewalks that were crowded last year. Aware they’re “outsiders” in Evanston, some students have a heightened sense of respect for their neighbors, Medill sophomore Grayson Welo says. She says she remains “extra cautious” within her apartment building, wearing her mask constantly and often waiting to ride the elevator alone despite its four-person limit.
“I don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable,” Welo says. “I tend to err on the side of caution.”
Medill second-year Kacee Haslett, who has kept her circle of friends small, says she believes Evanston residents “probably resent us more than we’d like.” Still, her interactions with neighbors haven’t been varied: multiple adults have thanked her and her friends for wearing masks.
At Northwestern, confirmed cases have remained relatively low. In Evanston, daily active cases have fluctuated between 30 and 150, though as cold weather drives people inside, cases in Evanston (and within Northwestern) are rising. In some ways, this data may obscure the full story, says White, the longtime Evanston resident. While city COVID-19 data includes positive cases among NU community members, the public dashboard doesn’t differentiate between cases among Evanston residents and those among University members.
White has attempted to persuade the city to separate the data. However, city officials including Health & Human Services Department Director Ike Ogbo have confirmed the city is not considering differentiating the data for privacy reasons. Without this distinction, White says Evanstonians are more inclined to fault students for rising cases.
“If I saw an Evanston number that said we had 100 new cases, I have concerns that people in the community will say ‘it’s just because students are back,’ she says. “But if five of those cases are students and 95 of them are community, this community needs to be woken up.”
White says this data breakdown would provide a clearer roadmap for both NU and city officials to implement virus mitigation strategies.
Dealing with Complaints
Davis says the office attempts to “get in front” of these issues, and this proactive approach guided its community-wide public health campaign.
At the quarter’s start, University officials dotted the campus with signs reminding students to follow health guidelines and visited off-campus students, knocking on doors at the quarter’s start and reminding students of COVID-19 behavioral guidelines. Davis says administrators concentrated their visits on students living in “problem homes.”
“Despite some of these efforts, there are still the bad actors, simply because we can't control all of our students and their behavior,” he says. “If we do receive credible reports of the complaints, we certainly will investigate these claims.”
To Schoenfeld, students should shoulder the greatest responsibility in keeping the community safe.
“Students are adults,” he says. “They better behave like adults.”.
But he says NU administrators still aren’t doing enough to encourage compliance among students to health guidelines, such as monitor off-campus students.
“The University definitely has a responsibility to communicate expectations to students who return,” he says. “They can step up and take responsibility for setting the expectations and enforcing them.”
When it comes to flouting guidelines, students likely aren’t entirely to blame. Welo says she’s noticed some Evanston residents near her apartment not wearing face coverings in public. From Davis’ walks around the Fireman’s Park neighborhood, he says “nine times out of ten” students are wearing masks. For now, he’s comfortable with NU’s place in Evanston, he says. With Winter quarter presenting the return of thousands of students and a potential uptick in cases, Davis says students have to continue to comply.
“In this moment, I think we're doing a good job,” he says. “It seems like the strategies we put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID are working. But we have to remain vigilant. We can't become complacent. And we'll continue to do the right thing here at the University and in partnership with the Evanston community.”