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The American College Town , By Blake Gumprecht, associate professor and chair of the UNH geography department
Overviews: Samuel Ligon '89G, Tilar Mazzeo '92 and Dorothy Pettit '67, '68G, '76G and Janice Bailie
In Their Own Words: William K. Millar, Jr. '68, David Cowdery '76, Andy Wilbur Remeis '86, Susan Lord '86 and Rod Story '59
Also of Note: Salim Tamari '67
News from Theatre and Dance alumni: Steve Freitas '07, Michael Graziadei '01, Maryann Plunkett '76, Basil Harris '94 and Libby Stevens '06

The American College Town
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book cover

Blake Gumprecht has lived in or around college towns for most of his life. When he lived elsewhere, he writes, he longed for the mix of "sophistication and simplicity" that college towns offer, not to mention the "weird movies, adventurous bookstores, and contrary people" that often distinguish them. His second book, The American College Town (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), is an exploration of the factors that characterize college towns, from the college campus itself--an American invention--to their status as bohemian islands. Gumprecht, an associate professor and chair of the UNH geography department, uses a humanistic and historical approach, and in places, his book reads like a memoir: it's a fascinating study.

The geography department is one of the smallest at UNH, but its scope of study is perhaps one of the broadest. "Geography is a very diverse discipline that is allied with the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities," Gumprecht says. "Any subject has a geographical element, so we're inveterate borrowers. Geographers are all over the place, pun intended." His research stems from his curiosity about what gives a place its personality, and his first book was about the Los Angeles River. Both of his books have won the J.B. Jackson Prize, the most prestigious award for cultural geographers who write about the United States. He is the first person to win the award twice.

book cover

It took Gumprecht 10 years to write The American College Town, and it is the first full-length study of its kind. He started with 60 study towns and compiled enough material to fill three file cabinets and a 6-foot-long book shelf. His eight chapters focus on traits that make college towns exceptional, and each includes a case study of one place; for example, his chapter on college towns as havens for iconoclasts focuses on Athens, Ga.

While Durham isn't one of Gumprecht's focus towns, readers will learn a lot about it. He finds it to be part of a peculiar variety of town specific to New England and akin to Orono, Me., Kingston, R.I., and Storrs, Conn., where the local population is smaller than the enrollment of the university. Gumprecht wonders why in these towns the growth of the university didn't stimulate residential and commercial development like it did in other towns. The best explanation, he says, comes from a University of Maine colleague who suggests that because the colleges were founded 250 years after European settlement, "the region's urban network was already fixed, which may have made it more difficult for emergent college towns to compete."

Gumprecht says his interest in college towns "stemmed from my perception that they aren't 'real' places. I needed to come to grips with that, having retreated to college towns many times in my life." Ultimately, he finds that their alternative "realness" is their virtue. "They are part of what makes life different in these United States," he writes. "They reflect the singular nature of American higher education and the indelible characteristics of American culture. They are distinctive, memorable, lively, and ever-changing." ~

Anne Downey '95G, a freelance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine, received her Ph.D. in English from UNH.