Student Ghetto through the years

Queen’s historian Duncan McDowell traces Queen’s student housing from the mid-1900s to today

Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall said the term Student Ghetto may have originated out of McGill University.
Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall said the term Student Ghetto may have originated out of McGill University.
Photo: 
Off-campus housing at Queen’s gained popularity in the 1980s after enrolment increased drastically.
Off-campus housing at Queen’s gained popularity in the 1980s after enrolment increased drastically.
Credit: 
Photo supplied by Queen's Archives

If successful, attempts to rename the Student Ghetto will change 30 years of history.

“It seems to work itself into common usage [in] the ’80s,” Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall said. The Student Ghetto refers to the residential area surrounding Queen’s campus.

“It coincides with the problems in that area, street parties and that kind of thing.”

McDowall said the use of the term “Ghetto” among Queen’s students may have come from McGill University. The student-populated area East of McGill’s campus was called “the McGill Ghetto” before Queen’s adopted the term.

“Historically it’s an enclave of an ethnic group,” McDowall said, adding that the term carries negative connotations of persecution. “It’s a very loaded term in some ways but in terms of Queen’s and McGill it doesn’t carry that connotation as well.” On Sept. 15 2011, the AMS passed a motion to rebrand the Student Ghetto as the University District. Prior to this, the area was called the Student Village — a name implemented by the AMS in 1998. The term failed to enter into popular vernacular.

McDowall said at Queen’s the term “Student Ghetto” is rooted in common experience, making it difficult to change.

“Unless something horrendous happens to discredit it, why would people change?” he said. “It’s easier to apply a term like the Ghetto to it because everyone understands the behavior within it.”

Housing at Queen’s has evolved since the school was founded in 1841.

Before permanent men’s residences were introduced in the 1950s, male students lived mostly in the Sydenham Ward area east of campus in boarding houses. Women’s residences were introduced earlier because of a belief that they needed maternal care. The first on-campus women’s residence, Ban Righ Hall, was built in 1925.

“Around the ’50s and ’60s, students became more like citizens. The idea of university as your ward fell away into society,” said McDowall, adding that students began to look off campus for housing.

“The increase of students living in the Sydenham Ward saw the first major frictions between the local citizens and students of Queen’s. They were acting in new ways, having parties and such,” McDowall said.

In the ’60s, the student population increased by more than 10,000 people.

To accommodate the influx of students, Queen’s tried to build residences as fast as possible.

“There was pressure for growth,” McDowall said.

The late ’60s saw campuses across Canada participating in demonstrations and protests for housing. At Queen’s, students camped out on Summerhill lawn and pitched tents.

“This is when student politics became really radical. It wasn’t just because students didn’t have space to live, it became ideological. Students saw it as a failure of capitalism,” McDowall said.

By the ’80s, off-campus student housing gained popularity.

“The surge of expansion at Queen’s occurred in a relatively small space,” McDowall said.

The Student Ghetto has always been a grey zone in terms of jurisdiction, he said.

“It was a civic area, yet under the sway of the AMS ethos,” McDowall said. “Behaviours could no longer be controlled by the AMS and the city has been reluctant to move into the vacuum,” he said. “That seems to me the issue [the AMS and city have] been grappling with.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.