c/o Alex Turtil, Photo Editor

c/o Alex Turtil, Photo Editor

Ask both students and faculty members at the University about the history of the High and Low Rise apartments, the junior apartment complex, and they will probably say something along these lines:  

“I heard that High and Low Rise used to be a low-income housing development,” Ethan Geiger ’24 said.

Nika Marohnic ’24, who accompanied Geiger to Pi Café, chimed in that she was also familiar with the rumor; many others appear to have heard this theory as well. But no one recently has managed to provide any concrete evidence or track down the rumor’s original source, and the tale always seems to hit an unsatisfying dead end. Was High/Low Rise really built as affordable housing? And, if it was, how did the University come into possession of the apartment complexes? I turned to archived articles from The Argus to investigate.

In the late 1960s, as Wesleyan moved to enroll women and expand its graduate programs, it became necessary to construct more student housing. In one effort to address this need, the University purchased a plot of land from the city, a patchwork of recently consolidated smaller lots between Church Street and Williams Street that sat southwest of a separate plot designated for subsidized housing.

These projects intended to integrate the two communities, bridging the gap between the low- and middle-income Middletown residents and the University’s students. According to a 1972 article titled “Construction Begins on Wesleyan Part of William Street Complex” by Steve Cohen ’76, the University’s plan originally included 128 student housing units. The school’s part was “originally conceived as an integral part of the city’s housing project,” which would construct 60 new public housing units on the adjacent site. Both developments were to be built by one architect, Ulrich Franzen, with one cohesive design.

“The wall between Wesleyan and Middletown is being penetrated,” former University President Colin G. Campbell said in a speech reported by The Argus at the groundbreaking ceremony for the city-sponsored affordable housing project in 1971. “Not only because college and city officials have had a continuing and constructive dialogue, although that has 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 beneficiaries of this removal of artificial barriers.”

As part of this arrangement, the University would receive $1.6 million in federal interest subsidies to support the construction according to a 1971 article in The Argus titled “Wes Gets $1.6 Million For Housing.” This subsidy amounted to about half of the total cost of High and Low Rise apartments for the school. According to Cohen’s article, the $3,265,100 budget for the University’s project had to be approved “in conjunction with the department of Housing and Urban Development.”

The national redevelopment efforts were so entangled with the University’s expansion that the HUD’s under secretary at the time, Richard Van Dusen, attended and spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. In a 1971 Argus article titled “Wes Gets $1.6 Million For Housing,” Van Dusen remarked on the “unique arrangement in having city and college housing built on one site with a cohesive design.”

At this time, various acts of Congress funneled state and federal aid to assist cities in the elimination of “blight,” which is defined as a deficient or deteriorating property or neighborhood. Middletown’s Metro South Urban Renewal Project, which enabled the University’s subsidized development of the area designated as “blighted” by the city, resulted from increased federal support for these types of initiatives.

“The undertaking of the project will promote the public welfare and proper development of the community by providing, through the redevelopment of the area in accordance with the Urban Renewal Plan, a cohesive neighborhood environment compatible with the function and needs of Wesleyan University,” the original plan created by Middletown Common Council stated.

The 1968 University Development Plan echoed a similar sentiment. “Together, the [Metro South Urban Renewal Project] and the development of Wesleyan University will immeasurably improve the health, welfare, and growth of the area,” the Development Plan reads.

Despite the positive spin pushed by the University plans, Middletown’s urban renewal plans in the late 1960s were just one part of a series of revitalization attempts that systematically targeted low-income immigrant and Black families for displacement.

Believing that clearing the “slums” or “blight” from the downtown area would solve the city’s economic woes, Middletown demolished traditionally low-income neighborhoods throughout the 1950s. First with the demolition of Water Street in the early 1950s, and then with the construction of the Route 9 Highway, the Middletown government’s urban redevelopment projects, funded by federal and state aid, “beautified” the city center by systematically disenfranchising specific populations, according to a senior thesis by Karen Horwitz ’98 citing a Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission report from 1952.

“There was a critical housing problem for the Black community,” former Middletown common councilman and clinical social worker Willard McRae said during an interview in 1976 for the Russell Library Oral History Project.

“Redevelopment was taking place and everyone else in the redevelopment area [around Water Street] had been relocated excepting the Black families,” McRae said. “The city’s solution for the Black families that remained was to erect what we called ‘Tent City’ which was literally some tents placed on a wooden foundation in what’s now known as Hubbard Park…which was little more than a swamp [in the springtime].”

In 1969, less than eight months after the approval of the Middletown Urban Renewal plan, the city razed an area on William Street. This displaced 107 families, most of whom were Black and a third of whom were living below the poverty line according to a Columbia University thesis published in 1993.

A few years later, in 1976, this event was described by the Black Women’s League in a collection of writings as a “virtual diaspora of Middletown’s Black Community.” While, according to city of Middletown documents, residential relocation assistance during the Metro South Project totaled nearly $1.3 million, this history demonstrates the city’s penchant for neglecting Black families during the relocation process. 

Although built on a different lot on William Street than the razed block, the subsidized construction of High and Low Rise was a product of the University’s active alignment with the goals of the city’s Urban Renewal project, the very project responsible for the demolition.

Less than six months into construction of the conjoining affordable housing and student housing development, “financial and legal technicalities forced the city to abandon its original plan” and the projects separated, said former University architect and facilities director Robert Wilson in Cohen’s 1972 article. The communities in what became Traverse Square and the High and Low Rise apartments remained deeply divided, despite their close proximity and the University’s stated goals of joint partnership.

Since the construction of Junior Village, articles in The Argus continue to highlight the strained relationship between residents of Traverse Square and the University’s students. When the apartment complex first opened in the fall of 1973, The Argus reported contrasting student positions on the proximity. One article by Peggy McIver entitled “William St. Apts. Opening Will Be ‘Down to the Wire’” mentioned that one “concern of students living in the apartments has been [a fear for] their safety in living so far off the main campus,” while another article entitled “New Apts. Offer Housing Options” by Marilyn Christopher, cites proposals for “a day care center or a baby sitting service…as probable catalysts to this community feeling.”

Complicating the University students’ efforts to engage with Traverse Square residents, former Head Resident for High and Low Rise Jim Gilson, told The Argus in a 1973 article entitled “Sophomore City Hasn’t Gotten It Together,” that “the [Traverse Sq.] parents haven’t wanted to participate. They have a fear that Wesleyan is imposing.”

In a senior thesis titled “Middle-Class Middletown? Wesleyan University and the Reinvention of Urban Space,” Stephanie Campbell O’Brien ’08 discussed the evolution of the University administration’s involvement with Middletown. She argues that the University eventually took on an attitude of “enlightened self-interest,” focusing only on efforts to improve Middletown that simultaneously served its own interest in making the city more attractive to its students. In the 2000s, the University’s approach to its Traverse Square relations reflected this evolving dynamic, as in 2005, when it proposed to erect a four-foot high railing between the two areas after a string of security incidents.

A 2019 article entitled “Unpacking the Relationship Between Junior Village and Traverse Square Communities,” by then-News Editor Kaye Dyja ’20 and then-Features Editor Sasha Linden-Cohen ’20 notes the University’s lack of communication and its insufficient investment in the relationship between the two communities. While the four-foot barrier was never constructed, the University allowed a playground between the two sites, initially intended for use by both children of graduate students and Traverse Square families, to fall into disrepair before it was eventually removed.  

“I grew up playing on that playground,” Middletown resident Tawana Bourne said in the 2019 article. “We used to play kickball, baseball, basketball, right there on Wesleyan’s area, between Traverse Square and 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.”

The High and Low Rise apartments illustrate just one component of a complicated relationship between Middletown residents, the University, and policies of urban renewal. While the proximity between the two communities was originally viewed as a positive effort toward integration, residual tensions continue to characterize their interactions. Although the apartment complexes were always intended to be student housing—disproving the current rumor on campus—the site must still confront its ties to community redevelopment and Middletown’s long history of housing discrimination.


 Ella Henn can be reached at ehenn@wesleyan.edu 

“From the Argives” is a column that explores The Argus’ archives (Argives) and any interesting, topical, poignant, or comical stories that have been published in the past. Given The Argus’ long history on campus and the ever-shifting viewpoints of its student body, the material, subject matter, and perspectives expressed in the archived article may be insensitive or outdated, and do not reflect the views of any current member of The Argus. If you have any questions about the original article or its publication, please contact Head Archivist Sam Hilton at shilton@wesleyan.edu