Many college and university towns grapple with how to bridge the town-gown divide – a phenomenon in which a place that harbors two communities (the university and its student population within a town and local residents who live there full-time) experiences a sociocultural disconnect between these groups of people. While higher educational institutions bring economic growth, diversity and a youthful energy to their surrounding areas, local residents aren’t always accepting of the shifts to their established towns. Today, we’re shining the light on how two college towns – Berea, Ky., and Merced, Calif. – are balancing the needs of both students and local residents through the Levitt AMP Music Series in order to foster connections, build relationships and create a larger sense of community.
Opportunities to bring students and residents together in Berea
The City of Berea, Ky., located in the heart of Appalachia and just 45 minutes south of Lexington, is a community of nearly 16,000 people, of which more than 90 percent are white. In contrast to its surrounding area, Berea College is more diverse with around 40 percent of its students identifying as people of color and about 9 percent from other countries. This trailblazing college was founded in 1855 by minister and abolitionist John G. Fee as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. Fee and his colleagues put their lives on the line to remove barriers to higher education. Since 1892, the boldly inclusive institution has also provided a high-quality education to its students—many of whom are from underserved areas of Southern Appalachia—completely free of charge.
While tensions have long existed between the college and the town, Ali Blair, Project Lead for the Levitt AMP Berea Music Series, said free Levitt concerts have created an exchange of ideas that wouldn’t have been possible if students and residents weren’t gathered together at the concerts. “We are a place for those intersections to happen, and for people to get introduced to new things and realize that, well if you’re dancing in the grass together and you’re both vibing on the same music, even if you don’t understand the lyrics, there’s good things happening,” she said. More recently, the growing student population, the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the killing of Kentucky-native Breonna Taylor have accelerated these conversations during the past year.
Levitt AMP Berea concerts have been presented to the community every summer since 2017, with the exception of 2020 due to the pandemic, and each year has brought new opportunities for engaging with the student population. For example, Blair and her team adjusted the dates of the concert series to better align with the college’s academic schedule, booked student dance troupes to perform during intermission, and offered booth space and stage time for students to share with the community the work of student organizations.
Additionally, over the past five years, Blair noted that the Levitt AMP Berea team has increased its emphasis on selecting artists to perform who embrace equity, diversity and inclusion, exploring these topics in their music. For the 2021 season that kicked off on Saturday, July 3, Levitt AMP Berea hosted a number of talented artists who the residents of Berea wouldn’t normally get the chance to see. The Afrobeat ensemble The AfroPhysicists, for example, do more than create joyous energy during their performances – they mix traditional sounds of their African culture with discussions of race, rights, and many other contemporary issues. Blair looks forward to more interaction among students and Berea natives, whether that be from hiring Berea College students as Levitt AMP Berea interns or receiving a shoutout on Berea College’s radio station. Progress is brewing!
Excitement builds for Merced’s first live music series
The city of Merced is located in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley and is home to more than 83,000 people. The area is known for its beautiful scenery and agricultural history. Aside from farming, the city’s main source of employment is the University of California, Merced. The newest addition to the University of California system was introduced to this area to accommodate the rapidly growing population – one that is highly diverse with a population of 50 percent Hispanic and Latino as well as 20 percent from international origins. Established in 2005, UC Merced has quickly changed the city into a college town with more than 9,000 students attending the university and over 200 established clubs and organizations. There continues to be promising growth for the school, as it has received a significant increase in fall admission applications for the 2021-2022 school year.
UC Merced’s Executive Director of Arts, Kim Garner, said the university applied to become a Levitt AMP grantee in 2019 so students would know the city of Merced has a lot to offer, while simultaneously promoting the university as a vehicle for economic growth and an advocate for bettering the quality of life in the area. She also hopes that through this grant, both the local residents and Merced students strengthen community bonds to build their town’s core identity. “If we can bring this sort of vibrancy of free, live music to the park and reinvigorate that area, placemaking, the whole thing, and do that consistently over the fall where we’re having both audiences mixing together, strengthening that fabric, building relationships and friendships, that is a win,” said Garner.
With concerts put on hold last summer due to the pandemic, next month marks the first season of the Levitt AMP Merced Music Series. As a new Levitt grantee, there is already a huge amount of excitement for Merced’s inaugural series. While the lineup won’t be released until August 2, a single Save the Date post on social media has already generated considerable enthusiasm. Garner hopes providing students with free transportation will help get audiences to the grassy area in front of Applegate Park’s Open Air Stage to listen to great live music under the stars. She is also very excited that each concert has a community organization partner (for example, the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working with Levitt AMP Merced on one event), which reinforces the importance of community involvement and promises to foster relationships between local residents and the university. Their concert series begins August 27. Keep up with UC Merced Arts for updates!
The ongoing efforts of Levitt AMP Berea and Levitt AMP Merced to integrate the student populations into larger community life are already making an impact, setting the stage for creating spaces filled with excitement, live music and community. We can’t wait to see their 2021 seasons flourish and their towns unite!