I grew up on the New Jersey Shore, in string of towns of Monmouth County. The particular towns in which I spent most of my childhood — Holmdel, Lincroft, Colts Neck and Navesink — were hilly, marked by large open fields, horses and farms. Most of these towns have, in the years since I left, been filled with new subdivisions, housing built for commuters to Wall Street and midtown Manhattan. But the world I grew up in was marked by beautiful, open areas.
The one quasi-urban area around which we were organized was Red Bank, a small city (a large town, more accurately) located on the Navesink River, which is not really a river at all but a shallow salt-water inlet that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. The heart of Red Bank was a few blocks of late 19th century three-story buildings that had local shops on their first floors, with small offices above. Red Bank was where your dentist was, and the stores where you bought shoes in September when school started. Red Bank, though, went through periods of struggles in my childhood, particularly as large malls opened nearby in the 1970s. It is a thriving town again now, filled with artists and filmmakers and restaurants you would expect to see in Manhattan.
I say all this not to indulge in some form of nostalgia, but to show that, when I came to Hamilton, New York last July, I was struck by how familiar it seemed, how the hills reminded me of the Colts Neck of my childhood and how I could squint my eyes in the small downtown of Hamilton and imagine I was back in the Red Bank of my youth.
I suspect that many of the changes I saw in Monmouth County — the huge housing development that suddenly emerged, the new strip malls built overnight on the newly-widened four lane roads — won’t happen here. Changes to Hamilton will likely come from different forces. Some of these will come from state initiatives. Governor Cuomo has shown an interest in regional development, and has put real money behind his plans. Other changes will come from emerging industries. Chobani employs large numbers of people and re-engages rural areas that had seemed destined to a perpetual quiet.
More likely, though, the Village of Hamilton’s future — and the changes it might see — will be created in concert with changes at Colgate. We are linked, and linked profoundly. Any changes in Colgate’s housing policies will alter the housing situation in town. Many shops — though clearly (and happily) not all — will continue to be linked to the comings and goings of Colgate students and their families. As the campus changes its appearance, so too will the look of the village change. We are symbiotic neighbors.
It is only fair to say, though, that colleges and universities make for complicated neighbors. We bring speakers, and students, and energy. We host concerts and large events. We provide a somewhat guaranteed level of economic activity. But we are also loud neighbors, and occasionally hungry ones. Universities always grow, in some way, and new buildings arrive with new parking and street patterns that alter the nearby areas. Twenty-year old students, awake and on the streets at 2 a.m., are leading lives very much in conflict with neighbors who must be at work at eight the following morning. Students come and go, residents stay — and the difference in timeframe leads inevitably to difference in behavior. It is fair to say that there is not a single town-gown relationship in this country unmarked by squabbles and occasional fallings out.
What then for Colgate and the Village of Hamilton? Where will our relationship go as the University begins to think about entering its third century? Hopefully, we will plan together. Hopefully we will recognize our differences and make our peace with them. Mostly, though, I hope that as Colgate thinks about new faculty programs, and new residence halls and new investments in the arts, that we keep the village at our planning tables. And as Hamilton thinks about its own future, hires its work force, plans its buildings, and writes its laws and ordinances, I hope that it remembers that, for most Colgate student-citizens, Hamilton is very different and very far from “home.”
I am new here. I am still getting to know this campus, and this village. I live in both; I am citizen of both town and gown. We all are. You cannot be on campus and not be in Hamilton. Despite it’s very real picturesque charm, Hamilton is not some backdrop, a movie set backdrop for one’s college years, but a place with history and challenges and dreams of its own.
I came here because I could imagine working very hard, for many years, trying to make Colgate as strong as it possibly can be, to make it an ethical place of inquiry and exploration, a place of arts and sciences. It was also a chance — all of ours, actually — to imagine the future of a new hometown as well.
So perhaps this column is just an early promise to my new hometown, our town. An early promise to think of our future together. But it is a promise I intend to keep.