When people talk about the relationship between the University of Southern California and its surrounding neighborhoods, they often use the phrase "love-hate."
Some community activists complain that the school is an arrogant giant that buffers its mainly middle-class, Anglo students from the poorer Latinos and blacks outside its gates, while allowing fraternity parties to trash the streets. Nevertheless, they say USC provides a good anchor and a positive identity to the diverse area just south of downtown Los Angeles.
USC people, on the other hand, worry about crime on campus and Fraternity Row and derisively compare the neighborhood's social amenities to UCLA's upscale surroundings in Westwood. Yet while USC considered moving to the suburbs 30 years ago, today it proudly stresses its location so close to the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill and the sports facilities made famous by two Olympics.
Now, such long-held ambivalence is about to be tested as USC plans new political and financial initiatives in nearby residential and commercial districts. "We are much more aware that we are not an island," said Cornelius Pings, USC's provost and senior vice president in charge of academic affairs.
The university is leading a movement to create a neighborhood council by March to give a bigger voice and sense of common purpose to the 100,000 people who live in the area around the campus and the many businesses, museums, churches and social agencies there. The proposed council is funded in part by a Ford Foundation national program aimed at helping 18 urban schools and medical centers improve their neighborhoods.
And, USC recently formed a corporation to construct and restore housing for students and faculty and new office buildings for academic and private research near the main campus and the medical school in Lincoln Heights. In what is seen as a measure of the school's seriousness, Gerald Trimble, well-known for guiding the redevelopment of downtown San Diego for the last 10 years, was named president of the new USC Real Estate Development Corp.
Some area residents and businessmen remain angry over USC's past expansions and real estate purchases and suspiciously eye the initiatives as Trojan horses; they fear an army of displacement is concealed within. Others are optimistic that the school, whatever its motivations, really means to help the area. And yet others, uncertain, are watching closely.
'Community Be Damned' Attitude
"SC's attitude was 'the community be damned.' There are lots of words that that has changed now. It remains to be seen. There is a great deal of hope but an extraordinary deal of distrust," said Michael Thomson, a developer of a nearby shopping center and the chairman of the citizen review panel for the city's Hoover Redevelopment Project, which surrounds USC.
Alex Norman, a UCLA professor of social welfare who is a consultant to the neighborhood council, is not surprised about the suspicions. He compared USC to a powerful beast that built its own cage and pretty much stayed inside it: "As long as the animal is caged, you can throw rocks at it. But what happens if it comes out of its cage? People worry 'Will it run amok?' "
USC officials insist the council idea predates the realty firm and is not a public relations front for it; the council might even come to oppose some USC building projects, they say. And the goal of the new corporation is incremental improvement, not overnight gentrification, said Pings, who is also the chairman of its board.
Asked if the school is seeking a Westwood-style setting, Pings replied: "In the sense of a more developed area, with quality offices, services and intellectual activities, yes, we would aspire to that. But we do not see ourselves involved in any mass clearance of land."
Sees 20 Years of Improvement
Norman said he foresees the neighborhood as much improved in 20 years but, unlike Westwood, remaining racially and economically integrated. "I think we are on the verge of something that could be a pattern for not just the state, but the nation," he stated.
Some American urban universities, like UC Berkeley, Harvard and Georgetown, are surrounded by cosmopolitan neighborhoods with some very expensive housing, fancy restaurants and swank shops. Yet many other city schools, like the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Columbia in New York and USC, saw their surroundings decay after World War II as the middle-class moved to the suburbs and poor, minority families moved in. Town-gown antagonism resulted, centered on issues of race, crime and real estate.
"Having any institution that big and that apparently financially sound to be in the middle of a community so financially unsound is like having a rich person living next door to a poor person. The poor person is going to resent the rich person," explained Paul Hudson, vice president of Broadway Federal Savings & Loan in Los Angeles and the chairman of the steering committee for the neighborhood council.