'Charter'd Streets': Macalester and the City

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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

The English Romantic poets, witness to the rapid urbanization of the British landscape, were among the first to write about the awesome energy and beauty, along with the ghastly squalor and cruelty, of the modern city. William Wordsworth stood on London's Westminster Bridge in September 1802 and marveled at

A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.1

His contemporary William Blake gazed at the same city and saw something altogether different and less majestic:

I wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And Mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.2

One can only imagine what Wordsworth, Blake and the rest of the boys would have made, two centuries later, of a world in which the city increasingly is becoming the only landscape many individuals ever see. As I noted in my last column, the urbanization of the planet is proceeding apace: currently about half the world's population lives in cities and within a quarter-century that proportion will increase to 90 percent within the United States and 60 percent worldwide.

Leaving aside the complex question of the extent to which this accelerating urbanization is to be celebrated or mourned, it seems clear that it cannot be ignored and therefore that the work of liberal arts education--the work of Macalester--must and should be affected by the changing demographics of the places from which our students will come and to which they will go. It is true that certain forms of intellectual and creative labor--the understanding of analytic geometry or the structure of carbon or the construction of iambic pentameter--may be seen as independent of time and place. It is also true, however, that the work of being a scientist or teacher or artist will be deeply affected by, should in some sense be responsive to, life in an increasingly urban world. We at the college should think about this as we go about our business.

One of the most promising and distinctive features of Macalester is our location in the heart of a vibrant and evolving urban area. While no small number of colleges and universities are so situated, only a handful of these are residential liberal arts colleges of our particular kind and quality. Thus we are afforded opportunities unavailable to most of our peers to enrich the academic and co-curricular lives of our students. I speak not merely of the opportunity to sample the vanilla latte at nine different coffee shops, but of the opportunity to teach different things, or to teach things differently, because we are bordered by Snelling and Summit Avenues and not by rows of corn and alfalfa (against which, I should note, I bear no grudge). One of my more deeply held beliefs is that it is the responsibility of all faculty and staff at Macalester at least to think about the degree to which their work is or should be affected by our position in the Twin Cities, even if the quite sincere and legitimate answer in some cases is "very little."

The extent to which people are already both thinking about and taking advantage of our location is insufficiently known by many on and off campus. During this semester alone, Adrienne Christiansen in Political Science is teaching a course on "Women and Politics" that focuses on the Lake Street area in Minneapolis; Judith Howard and Beth Cleary in Theater and Dance are partnering with the local Resource Center of the Americas and Patrick's Cabaret to create an installation and a performance; Peter Rachleff, Paul Solon and Lynn Hudson are collaboratively teaching a history course on the "Global and Local"; David Itzkowitz and Peter Weisensel, also in History, are offering students the option of completing a public history project for their senior seminar; Michael Griffin in Humanities and Media and Cultural Studies has students working on a documentary film on Lake Street; Julia Hess' anthropology class on "Globalization" is also working with the Resource Center of the Americas. Given the space, I could compile a list several times this long with examples of other exciting curricular and co-curricular efforts that draw upon, benefit from and--in some cases--provide benefits to the city we inhabit.

And before anyone observes that the Twin Cities are not to be confused with New York or Boston or Los Angeles (certainly the case), let me add the following: we comprise the 15th-largest metropolitan area in the United States and are home to the largest Hmong, Somali and Liberian populations in the country and to one of the largest urban populations of Native Americans. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of the population composed of people of color in the Twin Cities nearly doubled. Moreover, 15 companies listed in the Fortune 500 are headquartered in the Twin Cities, more than any city in America other than New York and Houston. 3 If we ever get to the point where we have exhausted the educational possibilities in our backyard--a point so far beyond the horizon as to be invisible--we can perhaps begin to ponder re-location to some alternative metropolis. Until then, there is plenty for us to learn, create and support right here.