The American College Town

Article excerpt

The American College Town by Blake Gumpreoht University of Massachusetts Press 2008 438 pages ISBN: 978-1-55849-671-2

Reviewed by M. Perry Chapman

In the preface to his book The American College Town, Blake Gumprecht asserts that he was compelled to write it after he discovered that no book specifically dedicated to college towns had ever been published. Those of us who have a fascination with college towns should be glad that he gave in to that compulsion. Gumprecht adeptly draws from the factors that make college towns such unique places among American communities. His unabashedly personal take on the college town is seasoned by his own experience in several such communities - as a youngster, an undergraduate, a Ph.D. candidate, a reporter, a university librarian, and, currently, an associate professor and chair of a university geography department. He has experienced college towns from almost every angle.

The book is an illuminating read for anyone drawn to a good yarn about what makes college towns the idiosyncratic places that they invariably turn out to be. Moreover, Gumprecht's reportorial instincts bring life to the history, social patterns, personalities, and politics that define the localities he has chosen to discuss. His role as a geography scholar gives dimension to what college towns mean in the larger fabric of American places and, importantly, to the colleges and universities around which they have grown.

This combination of perspectives plays out in the organization of the book. The caveat at the beginning is that the book focuses on "towns where colleges are clearly dominant" (p. 1). Thematic case studies concentrate on small cities that host large, complex universities with undergraduate enrollments that are "at least 20 percent of a town's population" (p. 2). The story lines are built around the powerful, and sometimes overwhelming, impact that large universities and their populations and policies have on the small to mid-sized towns around them. He avoids large cities where the influence of the colleges in their midst is diluted by the scale and multiplicity of forces at play. Still, Gumprecht's chosen model makes enormous headway in dissecting the college town and its complicated relationship with the institution in its midst.

The introductory chapter, "Defining the College Town," is an overview filled with history, observations, and facts describing the general characteristics of college towns in the United States. Readers of this journal will find information they intuitively recognize: college towns tend to be more liberal, cosmopolitan, and eccentric than the larger regions in which they are located; they have more youthful, better educated, and more affluent white-collar populations than most "regular" towns; they have more transient resident populations and more economic disparities within those populations. A sobering statistic is that nearly a quarter of the residents of the college towns studied live below the federal poverty level, twice the national rate. We are reminded that college towns possess a quality of cultural life disproportionate to their size, but also that tensions inevitably arise when expansive institutions with exuberant student populations come up against a resident population seeking a tranquil civil life. Gumprecht makes the revealing observation that 70 percent of the colleges located in contemporary college towns were established between the Civil War and World War II, making academic communities an integral part of America's civic fabric during one of the country's most robust periods of geographic and socioeconomic development. Although the college town is unique, as Gumprecht reiterates numerous times, it has had a fundamental influence on American life out of proportion to its numbers.

The American College Town centers on eight thematic chapters, each presenting a case discussion of a particular town and its university that Gumprecht has determined to be prototypical of the chapter theme. …