SD Cityscape Diary
A holiday visit to Bloomington
Monday, January 3, 2011
U.S. University towns. They have a certain feel and a certain milieu. They are magnets for state pride. They’re colonies of liberal, secular thought in conservative states. They can be like Bloomington, Indiana, home of IU.
I’ve never been a Hoosier. But my relationship with Bloomington goes back more than 30 years to when my brother enrolled in Indiana University’s music conservatory. Today, my sister-in-law and her husband are art-history professors in Bloomington. I spent the Christmas holidays there.
Bloomington looks like a small Midwestern town. It has a tidy town square with a county courthouse at its hub. But there’s plenty of evidence that this place is well-populated by educated classes. Small towns don’t typically have so many bookstores and so many grocery stores that offer exotic fare. You see a very strong town/gown dichotomy around here. This was brought to wonderful light in the movie Breaking Away.
Spend some time talking to the townies and you realize that Bloomington is more Southern than Midwestern. You hear it in their speech patterns and you see it in the local geography. Drive south of Indianapolis and the Midwestern plains give way to rolling, forested hills. Rivers flow south to the Ohio River and that truly reflects the cultural orientation of southern Indiana.
The religious nature of the place is seen in bumper stickers and rural church assemblies. A large number of Indiana license plates include the expression In God We Trust. IU academics call them “God plates.”
I visited during the Christmas break, when the university was reduced to its bare bones, which were missing the live flesh of IU’s many thousands of students. The bones of UI are an array of silver-gray limestone buildings surrounded in a layer of snow. The limestone clad gives the campus its characteristic, native look – the stone having been mined in the local countryside.
My in-laws, Giles and Diane, have lived in Bloomington for about a dozen years. Like most professors they came from elsewhere, in their case the University of Toronto. Just this year they moved several blocks east on 1st Street to where the homes are bigger and the student rentals fewer. Yet their limestone home is still just a half dozen blocks from campus.
Big ten campus communities are a part of my heritage and I’ll always feel at home in places like Bloomington. All over the country, financial pressure and dwindling tax revenues are forcing the great public universities to rely more and more on tuition, fees and endowments. So, from the middle of the Hoosier state, I’ll wish them all the best.