Letter to the Editor: “Deactown” threatens property rights

Signs advocating against student housing do not target students, but developers, writes Professor Dean Franco.

Cooper Sullivan

Signs advocating against student housing do not target students, but developers, writes Professor Dean Franco.

Dean Franco, English Professor

As much as I admire the editors and journalists of The Old Gold and Black, I am disappointed by the paper’s September 21 mischaracterization of my neighborhood’s opposition to new student housing in the residential areas across from campus (“Wake Forest Students are Advised to be More Respectful to Their Neighbors”).  The lawn signs referred to in the article do not object to students but to new student housing.  My neighbors and I are specifically responding to the threat of new housing development on Freds Road (perpendicular to Friendship Circle).  A 15 acreforest has been purchased by College Corner Properties and it is very likely that the owners will clear-cut the land to build cheap, disposable housing like the blight on Polo road just north of campus.  We oppose the destruction of our neighborhood, not by individual students but by a real estate developer who has no hesitation about ending what has been a tranquil way of life for generations of residents. We also object to the way that developer’s project is silently hinged to the university’s broader expansion—its self-declared right to claim any and every acre of Winston Salem as “Deactown.”

Students are not the main threat to our neighborhood, though I understand why they are everyone’s presumed antagonist.  It’s easy to obscure the university’s encroachment into the residential neighborhood over the decades by focusing on individual students’ behavior, as if it was simply a matter of conduct and personal responsibility.  However, the issue is not how students behave but how and why the university leans on the local area to absorb the housing problems created by its admissions and growth plan. Yes, many students living in the area haveparties, make a lot of noise, discard trash along the road and on lawns, and generally disrupt the 9-5 lives of their adult neighbors.  That’s not unique to Wake Forest and it’s been true of students as long as there have been students (it was true when I was a student.  Hell, I was that student).  Meanwhile, my adult, home-owning neighbors run their power tools at all hours of the day, spewing out noise and air pollution, and drive too fast on my street.  The truth is, it’s hard for all of us to be good neighbors, and being a good neighbor is a constantly negotiated task.

This ethics of the neighbor are summed up by the straightforward logic of substitution:  do for me what you’d want me to do for you.  But the politics of the neighbor are difficult:  where we live and how we live are determined by a political economy over which most of us have no control.  In a city where the biggest economic and political driver is Wake Forest, the university creates the conditions that the rest of us have to live in.  Given that the university’s over-admission of students all but mandates that students live in the neighborhood, it has created the conditions that increase demand for property, and which facilitate the spread of students onto my block.

When the owners of the property along Freds Road exert their right to clear and build, the deer that live in the forest will move on or die, along with the hawks and owls that roost there.  The temperature of the neighborhood will increase at least 2-3 degrees, traffic will triple, noise will increase.  The entire character of the neighborhood will change, and property values for residents will decrease.  For its part, the university will continue to tut-tut and issue missives about student conduct, as if it had nothing to do with determining the conditions that destroyed a neighborhood.   Wake Forest will tout character and leadership, and expect students to be the flag bearers of these virtues, but will never dare to challenge the shibboleth of property rights, let alone lead in a way that is good for the human welfare of its local-area residents.  The well-intentioned admonition of students’ behavior is simply the further administration of the university’s cynical expansion and ruthless betrayal of its motto, Pro Humanitate.That’s what those signs are about.

Update Oct. 7, 2022: An earlier draft of this letter was errantly published in the Oct. 6 print edition and online. The letter above is the version that has been edited by the author and most fully reflects his thoughts.