Howard Street: A Soap Opera
The racing track squirmish of the 1930s was short-lived, confined to its time, and largely unknown. The soap opera that is Howard Street is the more well-known town and gown issue that persists to this day.
Wheaton, in many ways, has built itself as a self-sufficient institution, not needing to rely on the town for much, but Howard Street has been a point of contention for years. The first street ever named in Norton, between Route 140 and 123 in the town’s center, Howard Street happens to cut through a section of campus in which Wheaton has slowly acquired all of the surrounding lands over the years.
In 2004 Wheaton president Dale Rodgers Martial failed to negotiate ownership of historical Howard Street. Martial asked the town selectman if they could give Wheaton the road since Wheaton has owned the surrounding land since the early 1990s. The college had also paid to have a waterline placed in Howard Street at the cost of $500,000 (although it was mostly at the benefit of dormitories) and According to a Sun Chronicle article, President Martial said the town had spent an estimated $10,000 in the past 12 years or more to plow and police the street.
“Thus for all practical purposes, Howard Street is a college street,” said Marshal.
For the college, the appeal of owning Howard Street would be that they would no longer have to deal with the town every time a modification is made, but townspeople and some selectmen opposed the idea of giving away Howard Street at no cost.
“We will not be abandoning the street until we know what Wheaton is offering,” said selectman Bob Kimball.
Finance committee member William Goveia saw the transfer as reasonable, “This is not a big deal.” He said Wheaton “has done as much as any organization does in town”.
At the end of the day, however, the fate of Howard Street was in the hands of residents in the town hall that day, and Wheaton’s offer of $200,000 was determined to be not enough. The proposal did not receive the necessary votes to pass.
Selectman Bob Kimball who supported the transaction after hearing Wheaton’s selling price wrote in 2021,
“This issue [Howard Street] has been a long tenacious conversation between the college and the town” He continued, “The old townies, most of which have passed on and moved on, always had an issue with the college and the lack of real estate taxes paid to the town, even though the college is one of our larger taxpayers.”
Howard Street remains an unresolved issue to this day.
2003 Tensions over Iraq
A year prior to the Howard Street case, the Iraq war was announced. A Wheaton student hung an American flag upside down on an on-campus “Theme house”, (A themed on-campus student apartment). This particular one was political-science-themed. There was also a small protest accompanying this flag demonstration on April 4th where students held up upside-down American flags. One student is seen holding a sign saying “Support our troops bring them home”.
According to a Sun Chronicle article in 2003, the students received “harassment, death threats and a four-inch rock thrown through their living room window.” and “The students removed the banner because they felt unsafe, but they still held the same stance on the war.” Public Safety made the students evacuate their home twice because of death threats. One member of the house said, “ It’s ironic that people say we ought to turn our flag upright to show that we support the troops fighting for our freedom when we’re not even safe in our own town,” Bickford said. “ We’ve been subjected to terrorism.”
The Sun Chronicle also wrote an editorial on the incident. They claimed that the perpetrators of violence against the students should be prosecuted, but they are “ pleased that the Wheaton students have removed their inverted flag — which many veterans and others find offensive — but deplore that they were intimidated into doing so.” They also said that they “applaud the students for replacing the flag at their student residence with a sign bearing the text of the First Amendment.”
The flag replacement did not settle tensions, however. The incident was an immense disruptor of the bubble.
“This demonstration of Freedom of Speech definitely set the town and college back a few years. The anger from our veterans over the upside down flag caused quite a roar.” He continued “The flag incident stirred up the negative emotions again between the townies and Wheaties! I knew all of the veterans who were involved and can assure you they attended the TM [Town Meeting] in 2004.” Said Bob Kimball when asked if there was a connection between the Iraq protests and the defeated Howard Street proposal.
Bubble-breaking actions that come outwardly from the college often blend into a mush of tensions for many locals. Whether it is Wheaton as an institution asking for a piece of land, or students protesting against traditional views, maintaining things as “the way it has always been” is essential to many locals and any time the college breaks the bubble, whether it is as an institution or through students’ independent actions, it threatens this core of status quo.
The blending of tensions between the Iraq War flag demonstration and the ownership of Howard Street is an example of the spillover of student town tensions into administration town tensions. Students’ independent actions affected the college president’s efforts to buy Howard Street. Colleges often fail to notice what Bob Kimball described: the Norton residents involved with student town conflict are also often the residents who attend town hall meetings and vote. The cause and effect seems so obvious but is somehow constantly overlooked by higher education.
Another aspect often overlooked is how well-intended efforts towards interaction can have consequences when bubbles have been formed, and colleges become out of touch with a town’s priorities.
As I have seen from Colby and Wheaton’s past attempts to become involved in town affairs, the effort from a college to break the bubble can be hard- Colby today, and Wheaton in the 1930s approached the issue of the bubble worrying about the town image. But even when coming from good intentions, bubble-breaking actions often come coated in intellectualism, and college’s failure to shed this, or even recognize it as existing plays to their disadvantage. — whether it is referencing New York City Writers in a Town Hall meeting, or suggesting a town’s fine arts scene be revitalized when 72% of kids are on free or reduced lunch.
The transition from Colby to Wheaton
In my senior year of high school I started to spend less time physically on the Colby Campus, I slipped into more of a town “local” role. The only time I get a taste of the inside bubble is when I would pick up Colby’s student paper, The Echo, to see what other college journalists are up to. Last spring I stumbled across an article called, “The poor don’t understand the rich, and the rich don’t understand the poor”. The title immediately took me aback. In the article, Arts & Entertainment Editor, Milo Lani-Caputo, uses vivid imagery to explain the beautiful, the ugly, and the culture shock of his experience growing up in rural Maine and attending an elite liberal arts college.
Milo is a current junior studying physics, who grew up in a town not far from mine where he lived next door to Amish communities and worked summers as a farmhand to save up money for the school year. Coming to Colby as a first-year, he found some things were very different from the small-town life he was used to. Milo describes himself as “Too nerdy for my hometown, and too country for Colby” but he also holds a great appreciation for both places.
When talking about the rural experience Milo writes,
“Some think that rural people are racist, intolerant, ignorant, the list goes on … I can’t say that some rural people don’t match this description — they do. Certainly, some rural people are dismissive of higher education. But the majority of the country folks that I know are compassionate and tolerant. They take good care of their families and their communities and they are proud of their way of life. They don’t feel that they need to have a college education to live their lives,” he writes.
I wondered if Milo’s statement about rural folks holds true in Norton, and how this plays into Wheaton’s town involvement.
Liaisons between Norton and Wheaton
There are, of course, positive liaisons between Norton and Wheaton. There is Melanie Barrick, owner, and founder of Sweet Stuff Bake Shop whose business has been close with both Wheaton students and the Norton community. There is late Wheaton professor Paul Helmrich who was an involved member of the Norton community, having served on the Norton Finance Committee for over 50 years.
There is Bill Goveia, lifelong Norton resident, 45 year Norton town official, Sun Chronicle columnist, and Wheaton supporter.
In an interview with Goveia I asked what could be done to encourage involvement both ways, he mentioned the rebuilding of linking programs that don’t exist anymore. Gouveia remembers the name of his pen pal from Wheaton when he was in grade school. “It made the college more than just a place,” He said “It was all relatively minor, but you don’t see it being promoted that way (anymore)” He mentioned.
“You would think that a college would be smart enough to reach out to the people themselves. There are probably limited rewards to it… What difference does it really make in the end… until you need something? And, the college hasn’t really needed a lot,” he said. “I know the college can do more, and I know that the town can do more, it just takes effort, time, and commitment.”