A town hall to discuss the University’s relationship with Traverse Square—a subsidized housing project located next to HiRise and LoRise—was organized by the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) on Wednesday, Nov. 20. The event, which was open to any interested members of the Wesleyan community, was hosted by the HiRise and LoRise Community Advisors (CAs) and moderated by Felicia Soderberg ’21. The event was attended by students, Public Safety Officers, University staff, and members of the North End Action Team (NEAT).
The town hall’s discussion centered on recent events—most notably, when a resident of LoRise was shot with a BB gun. While it was determined that the individual with the BB gun was not, in fact, a Traverse Square resident, the confrontation sparked a conversation on campus about the relationship between the residents of Traverse Square and students living in HiRise and LoRise, ultimately leading to the town hall. Attendees discussed possible solutions that could be implemented to improve the relationship between Traverse Square residents and University students.
At the beginning of the event, the University Jewish Chaplain Rabbi David Leipziger Teva asked attendees to take a moment to reflect silently on their thoughts and their expectations for the event.
“The first thing that I suggest is that you can not have a lot of expectations,” he said. “And if you could, just think of this as an opportunity to either learn something about yourself, maybe learn something about the people you live and share space with.”
Soderberg then asked everyone to speak to those around them about their experiences. She then asked attendees to break into small groups and think about specific concerns and possible solutions. Following these small group discussions, participants reconvened to share their ideas with the whole group.
Bryan Chong ’21, a HiRise resident, started off by sharing that he felt one challenge in attempting to improve the relationship between Traverse Square residents and students was a lack of information.
“I don’t feel like we’ve heard enough from literally all the other parties—which I think involves Public Safety, involves ResLife, involves people from the Traverse Square community, and even from the specific Wesleyan students who have been affected by negative encounters with the community—we just haven’t heard enough from them,” Chong said. “We don’t know what resources are on hand and we don’t even know the full extent of the problem.”
Shiv Khanna ’21 then asked ResLife staff what had been done to communicate with Traverse Square residents over the course of the semester about the complaints some students have raised.
“What did you do after the BB gun incident in regard to the Traverse Square community, all the vandalism that happened in LoRise, all the kids running around?” Khanna asked.
ResLife Area Coordinator for Program Housing Bill Ollayos responded to Khanna’s comment.
“In response to some of the different incidents, we’ve done different community-building initiatives with the children who live over there,” Ollayos said.
Director of ResLife Fran Koerting added that despite these initiatives, ResLife has not been in direct contact with adults living in Traverse Square.
In response to Ollayos and Koerting, Khanna suggested that ResLife initiate some sort of direct communication with Traverse Square residents to prevent the children who live there from walking onto University property and knocking on LoRise doors.
“They’re nice kids, it’s nothing against them, but I just don’t need it on a Wednesday to have a fear of having my backdoor knocked on, which is literally what happened last Wednesday,” Khanna said. “And my neighbors have had eggs thrown at them…. We’re allowed to play music. We do it respectfully during quiet hours and I just want to know how that’s going to stop. And it’s definitely gone down, I think the community engagement helps.”
In response, Koerting explained that for many children who live in Traverse Square, how they should interact with students can be confusing.
“I think it’s a little challenging because I think there are some residents of LoRise that have been inviting kids in, so the kids are getting mixed messages that some of the students that live there want them to visit them,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate with the families to let them know that there are some students that would prefer that the case and not be knocking on doors.”
During the town hall, there was also debate about the best way for the University to communicate with the families who live in Traverse Square.
“It’s very hard for us because we don’t necessarily have a direct contact person with the parents, other than the Housing Department and I think we’re a little nervous to bring too much attention to the Housing Department for fear of what they might do to the families in response,” Ollayos said.
“I don’t think going to the Housing Department is a bad idea,” Assistant Director of the University’s Jewett Center for Community Partnerships Diana Martinez said. “I think Bill [Vasiliou, the Executive Director of Middletown Public Housing] has been very kind and gracious and the students who run the Traverse Square Program, and I think unless you’re saying this specific house is a problem to Bill, just saying in general, we’d like to have a conversation or send out some guidelines…. I think he could be really helpful actually in communicating with people who live in the square.”
Students raised further concerns about having children mingling with University students at parties and their fear that children could expose themselves to dangerous situations.
“I’ve seen four-year-olds at a day party situation and it’s like, ‘This is uncomfortable,’” Pauline Jaffe ’21 said. “I am not their parent, but also, college kids leave things around. I feel like a four-year-old picking up like a beer can or something, or a red Solo cup, but they don’t know what was in it, I just feel like that’s unsafe. I think that there should be some guidelines on how we interact, or at least some guidelines on if a 12-year-old comes to your party, how do you still respect that they could be in your space, but that this isn’t the time for them to be in that space with you.”
“I think beyond just their being uncomfortable, it is a liability issue,” he said. “I think that’s what we need to see it as [such] because if a kid picks up an empty beer can and drinks it, and they suffer adverse health effects as a result there will be reckoning on someone—whoever that may be—and I think, I think we need to recognize that it’s a liability issue.”
This academic year, the CAs explained that they have hosted several events in partnership with the tutors and tutees who are a part of the Traverse Square After-School Program to try and mend the relationship between Traverse Square residents and students. These have included trick-or-treating and an ice cream social. In response to this, attendees questioned why much of the focus for the University’s community engagement events was on reaching out to the children who live in Traverse Square, rather than to their parents.
“I think that those [community engagement initiatives] are good things when nothing is wrong,” Jaffe said. “I think that’s a great way that consistently we can talk to people, but the way that—at least it’s coming across for me—it’s like something happened. That’s a big deal to the people it happened to, and we’re going to cover it up by giving them candy, like, and that’s I think a message that we need to kind of change.”
Chong followed by questioning communicating these concerns with children prior to parents.
“Why are we putting so much resources on engaging with kids who haven’t developed the mental capacity to appreciate the severity of certain situations, like being at parties with alcohol or egging people?” Chong asked. “So why did we not start approaching parents first?”
In response, one of the HiRise/LoRise CAs, Tara Nair ’21, explained that, because their schedules are more predictable, it is often easier and more convenient to communicate with the children.
“I think for us it’s because we were receiving mostly complaints about the kids, it does make a lot of sense to approach the parents, but I also think the parents are at work a lot and the parents’ schedules are a lot harder to pin down,” Nair said. “I think you’re right that like this needs to be a conversation that involves the adults as well.”
Dmitri D’Alessandro, a member of the NEAT Advisory Board, added that he believes it is a better strategy to speak directly to the children and teenagers, instead of having their parents relay the message.
“So I think there’s some conversations around that to be had, but you’re probably going to get a better result from treating them as capable decision makers and telling them that mischief towards their neighbors is causing so much trouble and letting them know what the implications of this can be, and approaching them and hoping to be able to engage that way,” D’Alessandro said.
Claire Isenegger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.