In 1855, the trustees of what was then North-Western University sent an amendment to their charter to the Illinois legislature. The amendment was comprehensive, barring the sale and manufacture of all liquor within four miles of Northwestern. Within decades the amendment would turn “Heavenston” into a hub of the temperance movement.

Attracting far less attention and looking almost like a legislative afterthought, the fourth clause of the amendment was simple. It appended to the University’s charter a short but comprehensive modification: “That all property of whatever kind or description, belonging to or owned by said corporation, shall be forever free from taxation for any and all purposes.”

A brief history of money

Relations between Northwestern and Evanston are at something resembling a historic high. The University has dropped off the Princeton Review’s list of most strained town-gown relations, no one hollered about blowjobs or brought any fucksaws to school this year and despite students’ best efforts, the noise from Dillo Day concerts caused a bigger stir than any off-campus parties. Evanston’s property tax rates are two percentage points higher than those of any other municipality in Cook County, but no one has proposed bleeding money from Northwestern to lower those rates.

That last one marks a turning point. For what feels like the first time in decades, financial relations between Northwestern and Evanston are harmonious. Credit Northwestern’s donations to the city, or perhaps the $2 million brought in for Evanston by building permit fees for campus construction, but these days there’s a palpable sense of partnership between the city and the University. As Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl wrote in an email, “We plan to have the best town-gown relationship in the nation and we will get there, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Though rowdy students and haughty academics have done their part to harm University-city relations, the heart of the tension between Northwestern and Evanston has always been money. Take the property tax amendment, long a source of contention. It was intended as a way for the state government to support the University and to acknowledge the scholarly contributions it makes to its community without having to spend money.