Every new Saint Louis University student learns about the so-called ‘Shady Shell’ and is warned to never go past the Fox Theatre into North St. Louis. By attaching these stigmas to parts of the city, SLU students insulate themselves in what is widely known as the SLU bubble, according to Norman White, an associate professor of criminology at SLU. The student-led Breaking the Bubble discussions, organized by White, aim to help SLU students learn about the divides that exist in St. Louis and provide opportunities to start breaking down these barriers.
The stigmas that SLU students have created, according to White, extend past the Shady Shell nickname and the Fox Theatre warning. The warning to SLU students to never go past the Fox Theatre is a manifestation of the Delmar Divide, a socioeconomic division along Delmar Boulevard that separates some of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Louis from their more affluent surroundings. In addition, the university itself was once called the ‘Oasis in Midtown’, with a clear implication that the rest of Midtown was not well-off. These terms, according to White, display one way that SLU students form bubbles around the university and the surrounding neighborhoods.
The first Breaking the Bubble discussion occurred on Sept. 26 after two years of planning. These meetings were inspired by some of White’s students who were motivated to address the topic of the SLU bubble. According to White, one of the main problems that he wanted to change at SLU, partially through these discussions, was to help students view the North St. Louis communities in a different light.
“We don’t understand places that are just down the road. This leads us to make assumptions that aren’t true. Instead, we need to view these people as another one of us, rather than as ‘others,’” said White.
Junior Alanah Nantell, who attended the discussions, also believed that the first step in breaking the bubble around SLU and its neighboring communities was to understand the people in the neighborhoods.
“We need to know and connect with the people,” said Nantell. “It’s more than just going and helping for an hour or two; we need to live with them as a part of the same community to understand them.”
White believes that after SLU students form this understanding of their community, they will become more open to going past SLU’s campus and working to improve St. Louis’ impoverished areas. Current groups and programs that aim to serve these places include SLU Corps and the Sweet Potato Project. SLU Corps has a partnership with Angel Baked, a bakery employing North St. Louis youths to bake cookies. The Sweet Potato Project provides valuable employment to North St. Louis youths by helping them create and sustain a business selling cookies made with self-grown ingredients.
These programs are similar to many that White has helped students participate in over the years. SLU students have taken part in major community cleanups in the past and can also join tutoring programs for disadvantaged children in St. Louis. These programs, according to White, are in line with the Jesuit mission of serving others, which is why White believes that SLU is ideal for these discussions.
“SLU is the perfect place for me to be doing what I do,” said White. “The students here are motivated and really want to help their surrounding communities.”
The second of the four discussions will take place in November and will cover the effects of urban planning on the North St. Louis community. White hopes that the remaining discussions will help students learn more about North St. Louis and the problems facing the area.
“It’s easier to ignore the problem than it is to solve it. The inhabitants of these communities are the invisible people of St. Louis,” said White.
However, with enough awareness, White believes that SLU students can lead the way to breaking the bubbles around SLU’s campus and the neighborhoods of North St. Louis.