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Breaking Away: Exploring the “Town and Gown” Dynamic

Blog post by Dan Reid


All photos from the MCHC Collection

Breaking Away is a 1979 film which follows a group of young working-class friends in Bloomington, IN, who are struggling to find their place in the world. The film explores themes of class, identity, and friendship as the protagonist, Dave, pursues his dream of becoming a professional cyclist. When creating the exhibit for Breaking Away, I found myself navigating a tricky balancing act between providing historical and cultural context around the film’s setting, while also acknowledging the tension that can exist in college towns (commonly referred to as “town and gown” dynamics). The relationships between locals and university students can be complex, particularly in communities where the college or university is a significant presence. I wanted the exhibit to celebrate the link between the film, the community, and the central theme of class in America while avoiding any negative stereotypes.

Dr. Blake Gumprecht writes in a 2003 article “The American College Town,” published in Geographical Review, that college towns are unique urban areas that demand thorough examination. Peter Yates, the director of the film, recognized this when he chose Bloomington as the backdrop for Breaking Away. In a 1979 interview with The New York Times, Yates explained that he aimed to explore class distinctions in America: “Coming from England, I was always told that it didn’t exist here. But of course, it does.” By contrasting the perspectives of long-time residents and university students, the exhibit highlights the town and university dynamic that intersects with Yates’ investigation of class in America.

I find the relationship between a university and its surrounding town provides a unique lens through which to examine class. On one hand, universities are sometimes seen as bastions of privilege, with high tuition costs and selective admissions processes creating an environment that can exclude many potential nearby students. This can create a stark contrast between the students who attend the university and the working-class residents of the town who may feel alienated from the institution. At the same time, universities can also be engines of social mobility, offering opportunities for students from lower-income backgrounds to achieve higher levels of education and, ultimately, better economic prospects. The presence of a university brings economic benefits to the town as well, such as increased employment opportunities and a boost in local businesses.

By examining the town and university dynamic, one can gain insight into the ways in which class intersects with education, economic opportunity, and social mobility in America. In the case of Bloomington, Indiana, the setting of Breaking Away, the university and town dynamic serves as a microcosm of broader class issues in America. By exploring the perspectives of long-time residents and university students in the exhibit, visitors can gain a deeper understanding of these intricacies.

If you’re interested in learning more be sure to check out the Breaking Away exhibit before it closes in June. With a focus on the movie’s setting, the exhibit provides a glimpse into the film’s origins, shooting, and the complex relationships between local residents and university students.