Taking on town-gown relations in Northfield


Fifteen years ago, as a first grader in Northfield, Annie Eckoff used to fight with her best friend over whether Carleton College or St. Olaf College was “better.”

Eckoff’s dad coached basketball at Carleton and her best friend’s mom worked in the admissions office at St. Olaf.

Now a senior in biology at Carleton, Eckoff has plenty of St. Olaf friends. But she still notices the college rivalry that is a hallmark of this unusual town, which is home to not just one but two world-renowned liberal arts colleges.

And she’s gotten used to the fact that on the whole, Northfield roots for St. Olaf more than for Carleton – simply because more high-schoolers from town go on to become “Oles” than “Carls.”

Northfield has more “home town kids to root for at St. Olaf,” Eckoff says.

Whether a college student or a local homeowner, shopkeeper, or the chief of police, everyone has a different view on town-gown relations in Northfield.

Stream of Shoppers

“The colleges take their role of being good neighbors very seriously,” said Mark Taylor, Northfield’s chief of police. “The relationship between the colleges and the city is a partnership. Both look for ways to work together.”

Downtown, shop owners love the stream of shoppers that flows from the west (St. Olaf) and from the east (Carleton). But few shopkeepers talk much about student spending power or having a captive customer base on the campuses.

Rather, they talk more about the pleasure of meeting and talking with students, and working with them on class projects, thus becoming almost an extended part of the campus social and intellectual life.

“I interact all the time with students,” said Carole Christensen, the owner of Antiques of Northfield. “I hope the students gain something from being in Northfield.”

Campus Life

Other shopkeepers stress that while the two colleges benefit Northfield’s economy greatly, it’s often in more indirect ways than straightforward retail sales.

“People know Northfield because of the colleges,” said Phong Nguyen, manager of Northfield’s Walgreen pharmacy. “People in the Twin Cities don’t always know about Northfield, but they know about the colleges.” The colleges thus act as magnets attracting visitors and new residents from far beyond city limits, he said.

As for students from Carleton and St. Olaf, their view of the town-gown relationship often depends on how frequently they manage to escape the self-contained “bubble” of campus life.

Erin Venker, a St. Olaf student, has lived in town for four years but has made few relationships off the St. Olaf campus.

Ups and Downs

“To be completely honest I haven’t witnessed a relationship” between St. Olaf and Northfield, Venker said.  “Maybe that’s my own fault though, because I stay on campus so much.  I feel like my only relationship with the town is the people I’m friends with at school who are from Northfield.”

By contrast, Andrea Rockwood, a Carleton senior,  lives in an off-campus apartment in downtown Northfield and sees significant links between the college and the Northfield community.  She says the relationship has ups and downs.

On one hand, Northfield residents appreciate the variety of cultural life that the colleges bring to the town, such as concerts, performances and lectures, she says.

On the other hand, college partying sometimes grates on neighbors living close to campus.

Night Life

“The residential areas, especially right around Carleton’s campus, don’t like the college night life,” Rockwood said.  “A lot of people were mad that the college decreased the number of off-campus students this year, and would like to blame it all on the college wanting more money.

“But actually, some of that is in response to the displeasure of the community,” Rockwood added.  “College students have very different schedules and life styles than residents, and that inevitably that creates friction.”

Overall, though, Rockwood sees the relationship between Northfield residents and college students as positive, with students often getting the benefit of the doubt.

“Being Minnesotans, Northfield residents are naturally inclined to be nice to everyone,” she said.