Stop calling our neighbors ‘locals’

It isn’t an endearing nickname and you know it

Temple University, problematically perceived to be a well-lit island amidst the shark-infested waters of North Philadelphia, has become a new-aged example of Manifest Destiny. The issue of gentrification is catching fire with campus organizers and student activists, with stadium-centric discussions highlighting the eagerness of the university to conquer new territory.

Former President Theobald, who said in an interview last year with The Temple News: “I wouldn’t doubt when I’m ready to retire [Temple] will be part of Center City as it slowly moves its way up Broad Street,” appeared eager to colonize a neighborhood Temple has claimed to wear with pride. What matters more than rich history, community roots and the preservation of the cultures and livelihoods of pre-existing residents? Attracting and coddling suburban kids who think the world is theirs to “improve” without truly understanding its dynamics. Rather than investing in the community to revive it from the ground up, improving schools and public aid programs to better its living standards for all, it is easier to simply push eyesores further towards the outskirts of town.

Beyond issues of square footage or border patrols, the most deplorable side effect of this imperialism-in-miniature are its larger sociopolitical implications. Temple students have made it apparent they believe their presence in North Philadelphia is not a privilege, but a right. This entitlement leads to disrespect, which Temple has attempted to counteract with its Good Neighbor Initiative. However, the final sentence of the briefing found on the initiative’s website is a laughably inaccurate depiction of the relationship between much of the student body and the community:

It is the University’s hope that students integrate into the rich fabric of this diverse community and make a positive contribution to the North Philadelphia neighborhood.

Temple's Good Neighbor Initiative's flyer shares tips on taking out trash, sorting recyclables and how to have an off-campus party without upsetting the neighbors.

Temple’s Good Neighbor Initiative’s flyer shares tips on taking out trash, sorting recyclables and how to have an off-campus party without upsetting the neighbors.

“Integration” is low on the list for most students, many of whom prefer to capitalize on an “us” versus “them” mentality instead. It parallels the racist narrative of settlers civilizing a savage land, with many viewing the “native” community uninhabitable in its current state, only improved with white-washing. A false sense of superiority, a defense mechanism used to ease insecurity and the sting of being somewhere one is not particularly wanted, is inextricably bound with racism.

Unsurprisingly, the Princeton Review’s ranking of strained “Town-Gown Relations” features Temple University as #18 on its short list. Temple loves advertising its rankings around campus and the city – for once, it should be ashamed of making the top twenty on a national ranking.

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When students refer to our neighbors as “locals”, we know what you’re really saying. Contrasted with the scholars on campus, “locals” are the “others” who are different in (often) color, socioeconomic background and history. They are the butt of racist, classist North Philly jokes – the faceless criminal behind every TU Alert and loud bump in the night. It is a modern day minstrel show, concealed by insidious coded language deemed acceptable in polite society. A harmful stereotype left uncriticized when given a seemingly harmless misnomer.

It’s not enough that the surrounding community is made into non-human outsiders. Students then have the audacity to act like infiltrating their neighborhood gives them street credit. Leaving the suburbs for a fleeting moment to earn an undergraduate degree is not exactly Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

It’s lighthearted fun to complain to friends about being broke college students, while the economically underserved are held in contempt. These conditions are assumedly temporary for students moving onto bigger and better things, but no empathy is granted to those with different prospects. Black culture is fair game for party playlists, but scorned when otherwise not fulfilling the needs of the white majority. White college kids who love Black culture but scorn the Black people around them represent a regressive, hypocritical mentality.

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These double standards are a slap in the face considering the number of students inciting noise complaints, leaving trash and trails of vomit on the sidewalks. It is a level of disrespect unthinkable in a predominantly white, middle class community. Temple University’s attempts to regulate these types of behavior unfortunately do not solve the deeper issues – the complete absence of care for the wellbeing of unimportant and undeserving “locals”. Will a $1,500 fine really promote acceptance towards the community?

The solution is not to trade in “local” for another interchangeable, coded slur, but to actually see the surrounding community as a diverse population of individual, valuable lives. Remaining distant or unfriendly (avoiding introducing yourself, never asking for your neighbor’s name, refraining from a simple “good morning”) shows you view them as the insignificant “other”. The first step to beginning to be a good neighbor, as Temple calls it, is to take the initiative to show consideration as you are a guest in someone else’s home.

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When students finally acknowledge North Philadelphia community members as the full-fleshed human beings they are, we can begin to move in the right direction as guests in their home. “Locals” are more than blemishes on a would-be pristine campus. Put the incendiary coded language, prejudice and contempt to rest. Instead of reinforcing racial, socioeconomic stereotypes and overusing a joke that is already stale, dare to challenge the divide separating Temple from the rest of the community. Encourage others to bridge the gap as well.

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