Best Downtowns: College Towns

 

If you can tolerate a little smugness and edginess, college towns are often the best towns of all – and college downtowns are often the best downtowns, especially in small cities.

College towns bring together smart and creative people, and those of us who like to associate with smart and creative people. The best college towns threaten to explode at any moment with youthful energy. In a true college town, the institution of higher education is the predominate feature. The school’s events and even the physical campus commingle with the rest of town to create one large entity. And because students are less likely to drive, college town downtowns are often wonderfully vibrant and pedestrian-oriented.

East of the Mississippi River, you’ll find a four-year college in seemingly every Podunk of 20,000 people. Important large universities are often located in fairly small towns. Indiana University, University of Virginia, Penn State and University of Vermont are a few examples. Not surprisingly, Bloomington, Charlottesville, State College and Burlington are great college towns.

California is different. Many large public universities – such as UCLA, UC San Diego and San Jose State – are simply one part of a big city. Schools in the California State University system are often “commuter schools” in suburban areas. The same is true of private schools. Even in college-oriented towns, there’s a big contrast between East and West. Take the difference between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Palo Alto, for example.

Cambridge, of course, is home to Harvard and is located amidst a collection of schools that includes Boston University, MIT and University of Massachusetts. When you’re walking around Cambridge, you can scarcely tell whether you’re on a city street or the Harvard campus. It all runs together in a glorious mix of classrooms, labs, offices, studios, housing, libraries, gathering spaces, churches and athletic facilities. Some of it is Harvard, some of it is public, and much of it is a quasi-public mix of Harvard, private enterprise and municipal.

Academically, Stanford may be the Harvard of the West. But Palo Alto is no Cambridge. Stanford lies on a campus so gigantic it is known as The Farm (and it’s not within the city limits). The campus is gorgeous, but there’s a reason that Stanford’s campus contains many parking lots: The town of Palo Alto is distant. Downtown Palo Alto is a fairly lively place that’s full of extremely well-educated people, but students and teachers can’t simply walk over for lunch or a latte or a draught during a free period. Nor is there a big college nightclub or arts scene in Palo Alto. The offices and labs of all the brilliant Stanford grads? Try Cupertino or Mountain View.

Still, California does have a smattering of true college towns, each with its own unique flavor. The best are remarkable places.  

1. Davis. Without the University of California, Davis would be just another valley town amid the tomato fields. But it’s impossible to imagine Davis without the university because it defines the town. Downtown Davis, located an easy bike ride from campus, is a lively place full of the usual college town coffee houses, nightclubs, bookshops and late-night pizza stops. But downtown Davis even has some offices where college students and grads might work. Neighborhoods near campus provide a nice variety of student housing. The open and inviting campus offers plenty for non-students, including recreation, and cultural and sporting events. Plus, practically everyone gets around via bicycle or foot. Davis is the prototypical college town.

2. Chico. In 1987, Playboy magazine ranked CSU Chico the biggest party school in the country. No one who attended Chico State during that era, or lived anywhere in the region, could argue against the ranking. But the days of 5,000-student, open-air keggers and the weeklong drunken orgy of Pioneer Week have ended.  That’s probably for the best. Still, Chico is very much a college town. One of the reasons we raved about downtown Chico one year ago in our list of the best mid-sized city downtowns is the downtown’s proximity to campus and student housing, and the energy that students bring to downtown. In fact, students and upstart businesses run by former students are all over town — including the giant Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

3. Berkeley. Forty years ago, Berkeley was the most famous – or infamous, depending upon your point of view – college town in the country. Birthplace of the free speech movement and home to daily anti-war protests, Berkeley truly did bubble over with youthful exuberance. Righteously liberal politics still dominate the city, and so does the UC campus. It seems like everyone in town has some connection to the school. Some portions of downtown and the University Avenue corridor have struggled over the years, but downtown Berkeley continues to evolve into one of the Bay Area’s great urban places. And Berkeley is similar to many East Coast college towns in that campus activities spill into town, and sometimes it seems as if there are as many non-students as students on campus.

4. San Luis Obispo. There is no question that SLO is one of the best small downtowns in California. And there’s no question that a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a college town. The college kids create a local market for downtown businesses – and the college kids want to stick around after school, so they are often underemployed in downtown retail businesses or launch their own startups so they don’t have to move. But the downtown and the college aren’t seamlessly integrated, like they are in Davis, Chico, and Berkeley. Cal Poly is a pretty typical ’60s California campus – suburban, with mostly undistinguished architecture. And it’s separated from the downtown by an auto-oriented commercial strip.

Honorable Mentions

• Isla Vista. Although the school is called UC Santa Barbara, the campus is located in the unincorporated area known as Isla Vista, (simply “IV” to locals). It’s an extremely bike-friendly community that exists in its present state solely because of the college. Unfortunately, because Santa Barbara is 10 miles away, IV is something of a student ghetto. And downtown Santa Barbara, although fabulous in many ways, is a little short of the youthful energy that UC students could provide.

• Arcata. An interesting mix of students, yuppies, artists, loggers and fishermen make up the home of Humboldt State. The tension inherent in that demographic mix helps create the feel of a college town circa 1972. But the town is welcoming and has a marvelous can-do, independent streak to it – much like the most remote of the CSU schools.

• Santa Cruz. Set amidst the misty redwood forest, the UC Santa Cruz campus provides a delightful academic setting. And located just up from one the state’s great beaches, downtown Santa Cruz is a funky, spunky beach town that has only gotten better since rebuilding after the 1989 earthquake. Unfortunately, the campus and the beach town are about three traffic-choked miles apart. The campus’s isolation causes the college energy to peter out before it reaches most of town, which seems to be just fine with some locals.

• Claremont. Although Southern California has no true college town, the home to The Claremont Colleges on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County is a fair approximation. The downtown, called Claremont Village, is a fairly thriving area right across College Avenue from campus. No hordes of college kids on bicycles here, but you’ll still find some of the usual college town offerings in an inviting, walkable district.

 

- The CP&DR Staff