(Reading Time: 6 mins)
Where I live there are two colleges in the area. One is a well-respected liberal arts college—of the kind that sprung up in a small towns throughout the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century. The other is a community college, one of the largest in the country, and students there get a good practical education. The liberal arts college has around 3,000 undergrads, while the community college has about 30,000. The one is religiously affiliated, the other is government funded. The first is over a century-and-a-half old, the second is less than 50 years old.
So the differences are manifold, but three facets especially intrigue me: their locations, their layouts, and their parking lots. I think these three elements are integral to both colleges' identities, but they are also reflections of how cars have shaped colleges. The differences between the two school's hinge on that single factor—the car.
First, consider the characteristics of each.
Locations. The liberal arts school is just a couple blocks from downtown. It is integrated into the community and integral to it in numerous ways. One of the few streets to cut through campus is "College Avenue." The commuter train that runs through town is likewise "College Avenue Station." Students frequent the local coffee, ice cream, and sandwich shops, and they regularly use the local library as a place to study. The college is actually named after the town, and was founded only 2 or 3 years after the town was incorporated.
By contrast, the community college is on the edge of town, accessible by a four-lane boulevard running along it's north side. The closest restaurant is a Wendy's probably a mile away. Another street cuts through campus, complete with a stoplight and a crosswalk. The school is identified by the county where it resides, rather than being named after the town where it's located. (You wouldn't know what town it resides in, actually, if you didn't live nearby.) The name suggests that its students commute in daily from all around the county.
Layouts. For the liberal arts school, only one or two streets cut through the campus. The rest terminate on the perimeter. I think more streets used to cut through, but they've been diligently rooted out. In their stead, sidewalks cut across the grassy campus at odd, natural angles like sinews conjoining the clustered buildings. There's plenty of grass everywhere—a sloping lawn unfurling in front of the campus's inaugural building. Students are regularly lounging there on blankets, ignoring the book-bags beside them.
For it's part, the buildings at the community college run end-to-end in a column along the boulevard for half a mile or more. They do not cluster. There is no center to them—except for the nominal "Student Center." The sidewalks run along between the buildings and parking lots. There's grass here too, even an arboreal preserve of some kind, I'm told. But as you drive down the boulevard the most prominent feature is the parking lots. The alphalt lots serve are the naked buffer between the buildings and the boulevard. Of course, they also make for easy access.
Parking lots. When I first started thinking about these two schools, it was the parking lots that I thought of first. At the community college, the parking lots are prominently displayed and easily accessed. The buildings are set back much like a strip mall.
At the liberal arts college, the parking lots are visible, but they are not prominent like this. They don't draw the eye to them. They are at the perimeters of the school and in the corners. Instead of centralized parking lots, the campus is clusters of buildings connected by sidewalks.
Cars. Obviously, the history of both schools plays a role here—one was founded before cars we invented, the other after. I think this is telling. I think it's the car that most directly influenced the locations and layouts of these two schools.
Without the car, the community college could not have settled on the edge of town, so far from the necessary amenities to college life. Actually, the community college expects the car because the students can't live on campus. They commute in each day. The car made it possible for the community college to divorce education from dorm life, local groceries, and eating establishments.
The liberal arts school, on the other hand, had to be integrated with its surrounding community, near food and complete with housing. Students had to center their whole lives—working, eating, studying, sleeping—on and near campus. When it was founded, students didn't have cars to give them the choice.
Community. But this is the most interesting aspect to my mind: Of these two schools, the college that has best cultivated community is not the "community college." Ironically, the term "community college" popularly connotes a lack thereof. Rather, it's the liberal arts college. It's the one that clusters together, complete with sidewalks where students pass each other every day or two, and coeds lounge on the lawn. Community life at the liberal arts college is more cohesive precisely because the streets have been rooted out and cars have been relegated to the edges and people are walking around, even if they're ignoring each other as they pass.
The community college doesn't have that. It's bifurcated by streets and centered around parking lots, by cars that split people apart and atomize their lives—so that eating, sleeping, studying, and even drinking are things they do away from campus and away from each other.
Why is this relevant to us? It's instructive because it provides a tangible microcosm of what cars mean for community. If we are struggling to understand what cars mean in our lives, in our cities and suburbs, then the community life at community colleges can show us.
Liberal arts colleges hearken back to a time before cars. We idealize them and romanticize them because they embody a way of life that's simpler. But these old liberal arts colleges have inadvertently retained a culture before cars—of what towns were like when people walked everywhere, ran into acquaintances, stopped to talk, and tried to evade wearying personalities.
We joke about the "bubble" that such colleges create for themselves, but my guess is that towns were once enclaves of a very similar, and even deeper sort—yet without knowing it.
Community colleges, on the other hand, came of age after cars had reformatted our lives. Cars reformatted colleges too, especially "community colleges." But more than colleges themselves, cars reformatted community.