Wright Center is a chance to engage
The debut of the Wright Center marks Kenyon’s first physical foray into downtown Mount Vernon. While Kenyon has long engaged in various projects and community-building endeavors in Mount Vernon, there has never been a College-affiliated building in the city.
The express intention of the building, and the Office of Community Partnerships within it, is to encourage Kenyon students to engage with the wider community — in the words of Karen Wright, the city that “feels 100 miles away but is actually only four.”
As students begin to carve out a more obvious space for themselves in Mount Vernon and Knox County, they should remind themselves to be thoughtful. It is not a new phenomenon for colleges and universities to wish to become more involved in their local communities.
But all too often, this engagement results in a relationship of all taking and no giving. Ongoing efforts by the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University to extend into surrounding neighborhoods of Philadelphia ended in a brutal wave of gentrification.
The areas surrounding these campuses now prioritize students over the few residents that have not been forced to move away.
We do not want to gentrify Mount Vernon. We do not want to become an imposing presence. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Kenyon students become nothing but loud, crass and disconnected strangers that refuse to form true connections with local residents. After all, much of the money for the renovation came out of the Ariel Foundation, a Knox County institution not affiliated with the College but rather with a local company.
The Mayor of Mount Vernon, Richard Mavis, envisions the goals of the Wright Center as a two-way street. He does not envision film students that presume they have the right to take up space wherever they please, or raucous groups invading coffee shops and leaving five-percent tips. He does not envision Kenyon students and Mount Vernon residents living lives that are closer only in geographical terms.
The new Office for Community Partnerships, which is housed in the Wright Center and aims to foster new relationships between the College and the surrounding community, is a promising beginning to bridging the divide between Kenyon and Knox County.
While this office could represent just another example of recent administrative bloat, we will choose to be more optimistic and hope it performs valuable work in ensuring Kenyon does not come across as the gentrifier of Mount Vernon.
As more Kenyon students begin to take the shuttle to the front steps of the Wright Center, they should consider the ramifications of their presence there.
What does it mean to engage with the Mount Vernon community in a way that is honest, mutual and respectful? We should keep this question in mind as we move into what will likely be an important moment in Kenyon’s history.