On the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 9, a group of students were in the backyard of their LoRise apartment. At around 6 p.m., they started moving back inside. A few minutes later, the students noticed that the table in their backyard had been flipped.
As Connor Cady ’21 and Malcolm Roesser ’21 began moving the table inside, they heard four pops; Cady had been hit in the arm with a BB gun. He called Public Safety (Psafe), and Psafe immediately called the Middletown Police Department.
The next day, Psafe sent out an all-campus email informing students of the incident. According to the email, the BB gun was fired from a non-campus residence adjoining Wesleyan property.
“Within 15 minutes of police arrival three juveniles were detained and questioned,” the email read. “As of the time of this notice, the suspect who fired the BB gun has been identified and is in police custody.”
Since then, discussions about the relationship between the University and the neighboring Middletown community—particularly the subsidized housing complex Traverse Square—have been reinvigorated on campus. According to Executive Director of the Middletown Housing Authority Bill Vasiliou, the police have since determined that the individual with the BB gun was not a resident of Traverse Square and is no longer in custody. Nonetheless, the conversations that have been sparked in the wake of the incident have remained centered on the relationship between Traverse Square and Junior Village, which is comprised of the LoRise and HiRise complexes.
The night that the email was sent, a student wrote a post on a WesAdmits Facebook group condemning the students for calling the police. This post, which has since been deleted, drew much traction on the page, as well as in conversations on campus. While some students defended the group of LoRise residents for calling Psafe to respond to a safety concern, others called into question the students’ decision, pointing to what they saw as unequal power dynamics between mostly white University students and the residents of Traverse Square, who are mostly people of color.
But the complicated “town and gown” dynamics, between Middletown and the University, that exist are hardly new—and hardly began with the BB gun.
History of Junior Village and Traverse Square
The Traverse Square housing complex was constructed in the 1950s. Around the same time, the University set out to build the LoRise and HiRise buildings, which were originally conceived of as graduate student housing. The intention of the building projects was to construct an integrated community, where students and residents would be offered an opportunity to build more meaningful relationships.
This “grand experiment,” as Vasiliou called it, eliminated the street that once bisected the block between Williams Street and Church Street, enabling the University to construct a large playground in its place. Both LoRise and HiRise, as well as Traverse Square, were home to many families. As Vasiliou explains, the playground offered a shared space, and there was, for the most part, a positive outlook on community-building efforts.
“[The University] wanted to mix the newly built Traverse Square low-income families with families from Wesleyan graduate school programs and create a mini-community, where they could have a symbiotic relationship,” Vasiliou said.
Former University President Colin G. Campbell said, in a 1971 speech reported on by The Argus, that the vision for a joint community was initially successful in bridging the town and gown gap.
“The wall between Wesleyan and Middletown is being penetrated,” Campbell said. “Not only because college and city officials have had a continuing dialogue, although that certainly helped. But also because students and faculty and townspeople have come to know each other better. There is a greater involvement of each in the life of the other and both City and University are the beneficiaries of this removal of artificial barriers. We hoped that integration would be real rather than token, and for that reason aimed for a unity of design that would minimize visual barriers among different groups of residents and between the area and its neighborhood.”
In the early 1970s, however, the University began to shift its focus from graduate to undergraduate programs and started increasing the undergraduate population. LoRise and HiRise were converted from graduate housing to undergraduate housing, contradicting the intent of the construction as a collaborative living space. Then, after years of neglect, the playground fell into disrepair, and eventually, the city tore it down for liability and insurance purposes, according to Vasiliou.
“I grew up playing on that playground,” said Tawana Bourne, a Middletown resident who grew up in Traverse Square and whose children and nephews attend the student-run Traverse Square tutoring program. “We used to play kickball, baseball, basketball, right there on Wesleyan’s area, between Traverse Square and Wesleyan.”
Since the removal of the playground, the patch of land that sits between the two communities—owned by the University—has remained undeveloped.
“It was something that Wesleyan [built], to provide the playground for the benefit of all people in the neighborhood,” Vasiliou said. “After the demographics changed, after they repurposed the building, they weren’t willing to continue.”
In 2005, after a spike in on-campus security incidents throughout the early 2000s, the University put forth a plan to construct a four-foot high railing between the William Street residences and Traverse Square, citing concerns over a three-foot drop and issues of harassment. In a student-led discussion about the project, however, students and professors protested the construction, voicing concern about what such a border would represent and communicate, according to an Argus article about the discussion. Ultimately, the barrier was not put up.
“Essentially, it’s the misdiagnosis of a problem,” Professor of History Demetrius Eudell said at the meeting in 2005. “You can see empire being enacted at the local level at Wesleyan.”
“Suddenly after thirty years, it’s a fall hazard?” Ethna Riley ’06 asked at the meeting. “[There needs to be] a balance between the practical implication of what this will entail and [we] also need to consider the symbolic message.”
Junior Village and Traverse Square today
Today, the relationship between Junior Village and Traverse Square is maintained by the five coordinators of the Traverse Square tutoring center.
“Wesleyan doesn’t manage [the relationship],” Andrew Callahan ’20, one of the coordinators of the tutoring center, said. “If anyone manages that relationship, it’s the five of us coordinators…. [Traverse Square residents] never interact with anyone at Wesleyan except for the tutors, or the people they run into at LoRise. There’s no other relationship, which is terribly unfortunate.”
As the primary intermediaries between the two communities, the Traverse Square coordinators have had to rethink the nature of their positions.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out where our roles end, because we do go into this community and we are coordinating this tutoring program, but we’ve also been forced to be liaisons,” Callahan said. “That’s not in our job description…. I’m running this tutoring program, and as it happens, it makes me and the other coordinators the closest thing to a representative for each side that these people experience. No one from Traverse Square is represented at Wesleyan, and no one from Wesleyan is represented at Traverse Square—except for the five of us.”
According to the Area Coordinator of Program Housing and Apartments Bill Ollayos, The Office of Residential Life (ResLife) has been trying to improve the relationships between Traverse Square and Junior Village by connecting with these coordinators and planning community events. Earlier this semester, ResLife hosted an ice cream social and a trick-or-trick event for the children at Traverse Square, and, as Ollayos explains, they are in the planning stages of creating an event that would bring together ResLife staff members, residents of Junior Village, and Psafe officers. ResLife is also planning on working more with the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships to think of new strategies for community building.
Despite these steps, however, there has been minimal outreach to the residents living in Traverse Square on the part of the University.
“There has not been a direct communication from ResLife to the residents of Traverse Square,” Director of ResLife Fran Koerting said at a town hall in HiRise on Wednesday.
Some students living in Junior Village said that the relationship with neighboring Middletown residents has been fraught since the beginning of the semester.
“The first day we moved in, we were outside and they were out here running around, and we were fine with it, obviously,” Roesser, one of the students involved in the recent incident with the BB gun, said. “But the first day they broke a table, catcalling all the girls who were moving in.”
Roesser also said that his residency was burgled earlier in the semester, which he says was reported to Psafe, though it’s unknown who stole their belongings.
“It was over 3,000 dollars worth of stuff,” Roesser said. “They took our TV, they broke my computer. They didn’t take it, but they took the keys off it and poured water on it, and I had to get a new one. They took a lot of our controllers and a lot of our video games and all the cash out of our wallets and stuff like that.”
A former resident of HiRise reached out to The Argus, saying she also had a negative experience with a group of kids that led to her calling Psafe.
“I lived in [HiRise] last year, and one night while laying in my bed with the lights off, a rock—or a ball I didn’t see exactly what it was—hit my window and shattered it,” Hayley Lipson ’20 wrote in a message to The Argus. “At that point, I turned on my light to see what happened, as I wasn’t sure what happened. By the time I had determined it was my window (my blinds were closed) and I looked outside, I could see young kids running away, didn’t see their faces as they were not facing me and it was dark. At that point I had a shattered window and glass on my floor, so I called Psafe to come check it out.”
Lipson said that, when Psafe arrived, they determined that the incident was an accident. However, whenever she heard children playing outside her window, she still felt nervous.
“Knowing that kids play there and what had happened, it definitely made me feel unsafe in my own room,” she said. “Even if they had been able to figure out who the person was, I wouldn’t have done anything about it as I am pretty sure it was unintentional…. [H]earing the children play outside my window still made me uncomfortable following that because I was afraid of my window being broken again.”
Bourne, a resident of Traverse Square, however, has seen a strong disconnect between the University and Traverse Square.
“I grew up out here, and I went to [Traverse Square tutoring center], and my kids are involved in Wesleyan activities,” Bourne said. “So we’re very connected with Wesleyan…. We grew up with Wesleyan being a staple to our environment. Now, it’s like everything is shut down, the kids have nowhere to play. So you see them mostly on their games. There’s no basketball courts…. Wesleyan still participates in the [tutoring center], they still help the kids with school. But I think there’s a disconnect between the University and Middletown and Traverse Square.”
Vasiliou, too, feels as though the University has made a conscious effort to distance itself from the Middletown community, and particularly, Traverse Square.
“I believe Wesleyan has…created a moat around the University,” Vasiliou said. “Now I don’t know if it’s intended or not, but they’ve definitely done that. You know what the moat is—High Street, Washington Street, Vine Street, and Church Street. So, you are now essentially a self-contained entity.”
Vasiliou further said that the University has not reached out to him at all, and suggested that there must be a much stronger, consistent effort to engage the two communities if the relationship is ever going to improve.
“Nobody has reached out to us whatsoever,” he said. “[The] housing authority is always willing to sit down, talk to our neighbors, work out issues with our neighbors. Our doors are always open, and our ears are always available.”
Members of the Wesleyan community—including the coordinators of the Traverse Square tutoring center—have supported this position, and have also expressed frustration and disappointment at the behavior of and role that some Wesleyan students have played with Traverse Square and other Middletown residents.
“It’s really disappointing to hear how negative the conversation has been,” Katie Cahn ’20, a coordinator working at Traverse Square, said. “There’s no realization or awareness of the context of the whole thing…. [This situation is] also all surrounding, like, interacting with kids…. These are children! These are literally children!”
Others have also expressed frustration at the fact that Wesleyan students don’t recognize the effect of their transience on these relationships: While students come and go, residents of Traverse Square live here year round.
“[The children of Traverse Square] think of this as, you know, in some sense, their space,” Assistant Director of Jewett Center for Community Partnerships Diana Martinez said at a recent town hall organized by ResLife in HiRise. “We’re not here all year, and these spaces sit vacant for many months, and then people move in and they’re like, ‘Oh, people are here.’”
Cahn expressed a similar sentiment.
“When we’re not here, the kids are constantly playing around in this area,” Cahn said. “Then, on some arbitrary date, we all come back, and they’re no longer allowed in their backyard.”
Despite the division between the communities, the coordinators at Traverse Square are hoping that the recent incident will help to re-engage members of the University community with Traverse Square residents.
“[F]or us, this email is what it took for people to understand that this relationship is not good,” Callahan said.
Future steps for the communities
As tensions have persisted throughout the semester, the Traverse Square coordinators, ResLife, and other concerned students have shifted conversations towards seeking tangible solutions to mend this relationship.
At various community events, such as a meeting at the University Organizing Center and at a town hall hosted in HiRise, students have articulated the pressing need to increase the number of volunteers and resources for the Traverse Square tutoring center, among other concerns.
Emily McEvoy ’22, the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s (WSA) Community Committee Chair, also mentioned efforts to create a module on WesPortal—similar to the one residents of wood frames take—that would require residents of LoRise and HiRise to take a quiz about how to respectfully coexist with their neighbors.
Students have speculated that the discrepancy between requiring a module for wood frame residents and Junior Village residents is due to the administration’s perception that residents of Traverse Square are less concerned with the behavior of their neighbors than residents of Home and Brainerd.
“If you live on Brainerd or Home or any of those quiet streets, there’s a ‘living in community’ portal,” McEvoy said. “[It’s] a module that you have to go through at the beginning of the year if you live on one of those quiet streets, because there are Middletown residents who live there too. But when you live in LoRise and HiRise, you don’t have any of that.”
Students have also voiced a need for a greater understanding concerning the potentially severe consequences of calling the police on Middletown and Traverse Square residents.
“[Wesleyan students need to understand] what happens even when the cops are called and what are the implications of this 15-, 16-year-old person having this on their record,” Callahan said. “People need to understand that that may mean that their family has a hard time getting places to live, understand that this person may not be able to find a job, or go to college. People don’t understand that they’re changing people’s lives, potentially.”
According to McEvoy, the WSA is now hoping to expand conversations regarding student consent with Psafe when calling the Middletown Police Department. Director of Public Safety Scott Rohde explained that Psafe mostly calls the police on a situational basis and doesn’t follow a concrete plan.
“It’s very hard to say that there is a neat, cookie cutter that is always the case because every situation is different,” Rohde said.
Despite these plans, members of both communities have most commonly asked for the University to take a bigger role in establishing a better relationship between Junior Village and Traverse Square. What exactly that role could look like, however, is still unclear.
“If there’s one thing that can come out of this situation in a positive way, it’s that Wesleyan will at least start caring about that community and treating them like it’s a community of Middletown,” Callahan said.
Sasha Linden-Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kaye Dyja can be reached at email@example.com.