The Battle of the Barry Bulge

Inside his spacious, secluded office on the Barry University campus, vice president Timothy Czerniec plots the future. Literally. Standing over a map on a large conference table in the middle of the room, Czerniec guides a visitor through an aerial view of the roughly 120-acre tract Barry owns in North Miami-Dade. "Here are the east 40 [acres], the west 40, and here," he says, pointing at the westernmost expanse on the map, "is the old Biscayne Kennel Club property, which we bought a couple of years ago."

Czerniec is excited. Prominently displayed behind him is a white hardhat emblazoned with the red-and-black Barry University crest, which the VP in charge of business and finance dons for promotional photos of new projects at the rapidly growing institution. The 60-year-old, onetime girls-only college in Miami Shores has more than tripled in size since Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin was named president in 1981. A campus that once was contained on 40 acres between 111th and 115th streets, from NE Second to Miami Avenue, may soon extend all the way to Interstate 95, six city avenues beyond its previous boundary.

Right now, Czerniec points out, the only building on the open land across Miami Avenue that he calls the west 40 is the Barry Health and Sports Center. But not for long. On the way are a state-of-the-art, 78,000-square-foot student center, a new residence hall, and more parking lots. The VP is most proud of the $11.9-million student center. "This," he beams, "may be the biggest project Miami Shores has ever had come down the path at one time."

And, adds Czerniec, there's more where that came from. "Everything is possible," he says, flipping through the master-plan book prepared by the university's architectural firm, a kind of fantasy blueprint for the future. "A new intercultural community center, a 1200-car parking garage, a conference hotel, everything."

Barry has money to build as well as what Czerniec describes as "positive political relationships" with the Village of Miami Shores. When the school expressed interest in the old kennel club, for example, the village agreed to rezone the property for educational use, forgoing tax revenue in exchange for an annual lump-sum payment from Barry. "I think [Miami Shores] looked at the situation," explains Czerniec, "and said, “It's better to have Barry there.'"

But there is already a there there. Barry may be the fastest-growing institution in South Florida with the least bit of wiggle room. The school's existing campus and its adjacent properties -- all roughly four blocks wide -- are virtually wedged into the surrounding suburban landscape.

And portions of that landscape are not exactly the ideal backdrop for a college brochure. "The issue north of here is a concern to us," Czerniec admits, staring down at the invisible line on the map that runs from the tidy, nicely painted homes south of 111th Street in Miami Shores, through the existing Barry campus, north to a four-block stretch of NE Second Avenue populated by strip malls, gas stations, and storefront churches in various stages of upkeep.

Sandwiched between Miami Shores and the City of North Miami, this predominantly Haitian and Latino working-class neighborhood in unincorporated Miami-Dade has suffered from years of county neglect: insufficient street lighting; lack of sidewalks (only in the past few months has the county begun to install sidewalks in the 50-year-old neighborhood); little, if any, code enforcement; and almost no police presence. Single-family dwellings have been illegally subdivided to accommodate multiple renters. Disabled cars and loose litter dot overgrown front lawns. Dogs wander the streets. A few years ago, when the Village of Miami Shores, citing security concerns, barricaded every street from NE 104th to NE 111th, preventing cars from traveling between NE Second and Miami avenues and funneling a disproportionate amount of high-speed traffic north onto the once-quiet neighborhood's residential streets, nobody at the county objected.

Spilling over into this neighborhood from its original home in Miami Shores, Barry is promoting what it believes to be a revitalization of the area. The school's increased role in the community may indeed benefit residents.

If Sister Jeanne's incredible, ever-expanding Catholic university doesn't gobble them up first.

When Barry College opened in the fall of 1940 (the school wasn't designated a university until 1981), room to grow was the least of the founders' worries. The college, initially five buildings in Miami Shores, was little more than a family affair, a fledgling school for women founded by a sibling trio of Irish-Catholic clergy: Mother Gerald Barry of the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan; Monsignor William Barry of St. Patrick's Church in Miami Beach; and Bishop Patrick Barry of St. Augustine.

The Barrys acquired their land for the very reasonable sum of $40,000 through purchasing agent John Thompson, a Miami lawyer and eventual law partner of Florida Sen. George Smathers. Four years later, when the school added the adjoining parcel to the west, doubling the size of its property holdings, Thompson was the mayor of Miami Shores.

With its quiet residential neighborhoods, manicured lawns, and elegant homes, the Shores gave Barry a picture-postcard setting. Barry College provided the tiny village with a claim to one of the few colleges in South Florida and a hedge against whatever development might one day spring up to the north of the exclusive community.

Barry's enrollment grew slowly but steadily, from 45 students in 1940, to 290 in 1950, to almost 800 in 1960. The early curriculum was precisely what one would expect of a women's college in which all the dorms were named after the Virgin Mary: courses in religion, philosophy, English, secretarial science, and home economics, all designed to produce young ladies less equipped for employment than for marriage. Indeed photos from the Fifties and early Sixties, showing young, mostly white women in pleated skirts (never pants) walking the palm-tree-lined campus, suggest the college more closely approximated a finishing school than an institution of higher learning.

The school changed slower than the times. Barry went coed in 1975, but men didn't make up a significant portion of the student population until the mid-Eighties. The sexual revolution of the late Sixties and the equal-rights fights of the early Seventies produced nontraditional career options for women, but Barry still primarily trained its students to become teachers, nurses, and social workers. At the beginning of its fifth decade, in 1980, the school remained what it had always been: a small, conservative, Catholic college in a quiet, middle-class suburb of Miami. Like most of the students it had produced up until that time, Barry knew its place.

Then Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin arrived. Named Barry's fifth president in 1981, O'Laughlin had big ideas for the school. "I didn't see why we couldn't be like Loyola, like St. Louis University, like Notre Dame," she remembers, naming three of the nation's largest and most successful Catholic-affiliated universities. O'Laughlin herself came to Barry from St. Louis, where she had been executive assistant to the school's president. "I was the first woman the Jesuits ever let into that office," she says, with lingering satisfaction.

Sitting behind her desk, wearing a black suit and white silk top, O'Laughlin, who has been a nun since the age of seventeen, looks every bit the corporate CEO. Only the emerald-crusted gold cross around her neck and the photo just over her shoulder of her with Pope John Paul in Rome give Sister Jeanne away.

For twenty years O'Laughlin has beat the pavement looking for financial support for Barry from the South Florida civic and business community. "Honey," O'Laughlin confides, sounding less the nun and more the girl she once was from Depression-era Detroit, "I went to Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, you name it. I was so desperate for money, people said, “Sister Jeanne, you'd go to the opening of an envelope.' And they were right."

O'Laughlin's fundraising forays became the stuff of campus and local legend. "Some guy told Sister Jeanne if she dressed up in a white gown with a feather boa and sang “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina,'" relates Barry vice president of institutional advancement William Fenton, "he'd give her a million dollars. She did it." A few years later, another potential benefactor dared the nun, who had never danced, to kick up her heels at the United States Ballroom Championships for two million dollars. No problem.

Sister Jeanne cultivated lucrative personal relations with South Florida's power elite. She became the first female member of both the Orange Bowl Committee and the Non-Group, a collection of business people and civic leaders that, depending on whom you talk to, is either a superoctane version of the chamber of commerce or Miami-Dade County's shadow government.

Her prominence was most evident during the Elian Gonzalez custody struggle, when the nun's house served as the site for the reunion between the child rafter and his Cuban grandmothers. After initially supporting the grandmothers' right to return to the island with Elian, O'Laughlin mysteriously reversed her position, arguing he should be allowed to remain in the United States. The flip-flop made her a central figure in the ongoing controversy (see "The Flighty Nun," February 24, 2000).

It did not, however, hamper her ability to fundraise. The $120 million capital campaign Barry completed in 2000 exceeded the school's goal by $20 million. Most of that will go toward expansion.

"I've been a builder," O'Laughlin boasts. Indeed. Barry has more than tripled in size since O'Laughlin was named president. Enrollment, more diverse than ever (47 percent of Barry students are identified as either black or Latino), has risen from approximately 1700 to more than 8000 students, with 6000 of those attending classes on the Miami Shores campus (the rest are registered at 22 Barry satellite campuses and extension centers throughout the state). Subsequently the number of campus buildings has mushroomed from 16 to 54. And O'Laughlin is not done yet. "If we can sell the house I'm living in, we can build a graduate medical building," says the 72-year-old wistfully. "I want to build one more building before God says, “That's enough.'"

People will not send their kids to school in an urban setting they perceive as depressed, dilapidated, and unsafe, no matter the number of new buildings on campus or the quality of education. That's why God invented college towns. This point was driven home to Sister Jeanne in 1992, when she had her purse snatched during a lunchtime trip to a convenience store a block north of the Barry campus. Following the attack, which left the nun shaken and slightly bruised, she bemoaned what the world, and in particular her little part of it, had become. "Twelve-thirty in the afternoon," she observed. "And you can't go to the corner store anymore."

In truth the area had become more unseemly than unsafe: noisier, busier, and more rundown. White middle-class families, empty-nesters, and retirees had been replaced by Haitian and Latino working families with school-age children. The new residents had less time and money than their predecessors to sink into their homes. Many rented from absentee landlords who rarely visited their properties and did even less maintenance. Paint faded. Grass grew. And after the Shores installed barricades, traffic increased.

In 1994, fewer than two years after her mugging, O'Laughlin instituted her "Pockets of Pride" program, a combination cleanup and crime watch she hoped would improve the area around the campus. The program generated more criticism than positive change, mostly from Miami Shores residents and civic leaders who did not want Barry officials linking, even rhetorically, their tidy village to "troubled" unincorporated Miami-Dade County. It eventually was discontinued.

Undeterred, Sister Jeanne in 1995 formalized Barry's commitment to changing the area by launching the Academy for Better Communities (ABC), a neighborhood outreach initiative. ABC, which partners with local organizations, banks, schools, and clinics to enhance welfare services and counseling programs for local residents, in 2000 received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The organization is investing the money in the general vicinity of the campus.

Programs like those sponsored by ABC -- ranging from health services to housing fairs -- constitute a more progressive approach to town-gown relations than that usually adopted by elite institutions of higher learning, says executive director Jacqueline Mondros. "The attitude of places like Stanford, Yale, and Columbia was always, “Let's buy up the area,'" cites Mondros, a former assistant dean at Columbia University's School of Social Work. "Now there's a full-fledged movement on the part of universities to reach out to surrounding neighborhoods in more meaningful ways. Barry is part of a national trend toward much more fluid boundaries."

Urban universities, many catering primarily to white, middle-class students, historically have had tense relationships with the multiethnic, multiracial communities in which they are located. For instance Columbia University has always engendered a great deal of resentment among the residents of neighboring Harlem. The same is true of Yale University, a school with the second-largest endowment of any American university, located in a city -- New Haven, Connecticut -- that for decades has ranked consistently among the poorest in the United States. The source of the conflict often is the perception that these privileged institutions grow richer at the expense of poor, minority populations, either by exploiting them as a source of cheap labor or displacing them to make way for expansion. Sometimes both. The charge typically has carried a great deal of truth.

So, as Mondros points out, universities have become more enlightened, providing an expanded range of services to their host communities and generally trying to forge reputations as good neighbors. They have not necessarily curbed their acquisitive tendencies, however, and the consequences can be disastrous for people who, in every sense of the term, "don't fit."

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), for example, has all but completed a wholesale demolition of that city's historic Maxwell Street neighborhood -- an African-American and Mexican-American enclave that is the birthplace of electric blues -- to make room for a $500-million luxury condominium development dubbed University Village. "The school's main justification for destroying the neighborhood [which bordered the campus] was that it wanted to build parking lots, two dormitories, and a business school," says Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Chicago's Roosevelt University and a leading opponent of the UIC project. "The real purpose was what in the Sixties [politicians] referred to as “urban renewal' and we more accurately called “Negro removal.'"

Balkin remembers being initially optimistic about the school's stated commitment to the neighborhood, which included luring new businesses to the area. "We said, “Okay, Maxwell Street is a retail district with some empty storefronts. Bring in other kinds of businesses, create a mix of local and national stores.'" UIC, though, had other ideas. "Almost all of the buildings in the neighborhood were torn down," says Balkin, audibly upset as he talks on the phone from his home in Illinois. "There is a sliver of a remnant left: a few people who refused to move, a tailor shop, and a black Baptist church that's scheduled to come down." On the way, corporate retailers like Starbucks, McDonald's, and the Gap.

While UIC is a public institution with state backing and more resources than Barry currently possesses, there are similarities. UIC, like Barry, serves a diverse student population, a fact that didn't keep the school from razing the Maxwell Street neighborhood. (Minority students, according to Balkin, didn't particularly rally around minority residents.) And UIC, like Barry, houses a neighborhood outreach agency: the Great Cities Institute, which, according to its Website, "brings together resources from the community and the university to help strengthen the quality of life for the benefit of current residents, businesses, the university, and other institutions." The agency, says Balkin, undoubtedly does some good, but it chiefly functions as fig leaf to what would otherwise be seen, accurately, as the university's naked self-interest. "When people say [to UIC], “You shouldn't be doing what you're doing on Maxwell Street,'" explains Balkin, "[having the institute] allows the university to say, “No, no, we've done research. We have urban-policy experts.'"

"The biggest obstacle is how distrustful people and local institutions are of collaboration," laments ABC's Mondros. Behind her, taped to the sliding-glass door to her office, is a post-9/11 souvenir, a full-page ad from the New York Daily News declaring, "I Love New York More Than Ever."

"[In Miami-Dade County]," she sighs, "there are little fiefdoms. People are afraid of throwing in with you." Mondros cites a recent example. "We tried to start a health-access program in this neighborhood, but we couldn't get the public schools [we had targeted] and the neighborhood clinic on the same page, so we ended up changing [community] partners, moving to different schools."

If ABC's good intentions have been met in some quarters with undue skepticism, it is also true that Barry's continuing expansion is a legitimate source of worry for area residents, particularly local merchants who find themselves on the frontlines of the university's northern offensive.

In early 2001 Barry informed the commercial tenants of a two-story strip mall the school owns two blocks from campus, at the intersection of NE Second Avenue and 117th Street, that it planned to convert the building into office space for, among other things, the growing ABC. The school gave the six Haitian-owned businesses, including a restaurant, a small grocery store, and a sewing-machine repair shop, a two-month deadline for vacating the property.

"Barry came and said they wanted to improve things, make changes," remembers Bevens Durandis, owner of Best Deal Sewing-Machine Repair, a ten-year tenant. "We tried to find alternate spaces for them," explains Rolando Barrios, ABC's director of neighborhood revitalization, "but none of the proprietors really wanted to look."

Instead, they went to Leroy Jones for help. Jones, director of the Neighbors and Neighbors Association, an activist support group for black merchants, was struck by the irony of the situation. "Barry was going to put six businesses out of business to help businesses [through ABC's programs]," smirks Jones. "It didn't make sense."

Jones, who relishes his status as a known firebrand, approached the university on behalf of the business owners. "I asked Barry if they were going to give these people some financial assistance," he remembers. "They said, “No, we're giving them two months.'" (Barry University maintains it waived rent for the tenants after notifying them in February 2001 they would have to move.) Jones, however, says there was more at stake than simply the well-being of the merchants. "The [chain] convenience store across the street," he notes, "doesn't sell Haitian products like Green Variety [one of the businesses that faced eviction]. Where were people from the neighborhood going to buy those things?"

Jones initiated a grassroots campaign, handing out flyers and urging area residents to complain directly to the school. "One day," he says, flashing a gold-tooth-capped grin, "I knew Barry couldn't take incoming calls, the phones were so tied up."

He also contacted O'Laughlin directly. "When I wrote Sister Jeanne," recounts Jones, "I told her that was a good thing she had done for Elian, who's not even a citizen of this country. But what about these six businesses, their nineteen employees, and their kids?"

Jones hit a nerve. O'Laughlin made a personal visit to the property. "She came and said she wanted to know if the business owners were “real,'" recalls Jones, still miffed by the protracted negotiation. "What the fuck does that mean?"

Eventually Barry agreed to grant the existing tenants three-year leases, with two additional one-year options. Jones credits his campaign. "I whupped Barry's ass," he crows, before adding the episode is probably the beginning of a long fight. "They're not buying up the neighborhood as quickly as other schools [around the nation]," says Jones of Barry, "but they're buying."

It would be hard to argue with Jones. The two-block stretch of NE Second Avenue north of the campus already includes, besides the strip mall, the ABC offices, Barry's School of Podiatry, and the Barry University Villa, a motel that years ago was converted into university housing. In addition the school owns eleven houses around the immediate perimeter of its campus, on NE 111th and 115th streets.

And administrators do not appear averse to buying more. "The owner of that [other] strip mall [on NE Second Avenue] has let it go to the dogs," observes Tim Czerniec, referring to the scene of O'Laughlin's 1992 mugging. "We don't own it," he sighs, "but I wish we did."

If Barry appears to some to be talking out of both sides of its mouth -- or perhaps, with two separate voices, one emanating from the school's business offices, the other from its do-good agency, ABC -- officials at ABC maintain that ultimately what's good for the school, including campus expansion, will be good for the community. "The Upper Eastside," says Mondros, referring to the newly rediscovered and already prohibitively expensive neighborhoods of Belle Meade and Morningside to the south, "is a gentrification movement. We're doing something different here." Rolando Barrios agrees. "We're encouraging businesses that can support the needs of both residents and students."

Which doesn't mean businesses like Bevens Durandis's sewing-machine repair shop. Sewing machines may be fairly common in immigrant, working-class homes, where women often do alteration work to earn a little extra money or to save their families the expense of a tailor, but college students and administrators have no use for them. On the other hand, it wouldn't be hard to imagine a computer store in the space where Durandis's business currently resides.

Sitting in his shop, a little more than a block from the ABC offices, surrounded by the metal carcasses of sewing machines he scavenges for spare parts, Durandis ponders the future. He is a heavyset man with a gray-streaked goatee and soft, brown eyes. His attire on this December day -- black leather jacket, blue jeans, and work boots -- hints at the unseasonably cold weather outside. "When I know that I'm eventually going to lose this place, what can I do?" he asks. "Barry has a plan -- for themselves." Durandis, though, doesn't begrudge the school its success. If anything he'd like to share in it. Or, as he puts it, his palms facing up: "Hey, I'd like to send my kids to Barry University, too."


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