The Walls of Troy: Pandemic and Exclusion at an Urban University

tags: Los Angeles, urban history, colleges and universities

The built environment clarifies social roles and relations . . . in the absence of books and formal instruction, architecture is a key to comprehending reality.

—Yi Fu-Tuan, Space and Place: Everyday Perspectives of Experience

My first in-person year at the University of Southern California (USC) was largely defined by navigating COVID protocols. Like most universities, USC Student Health required all students to submit their vaccine (COVID and flu) and booster information to our student health website. Additionally, all 50,000 students were required to test every 7 days. Test and vaccination information was linked to a symptom check through USC’s Trojan Check phone app, which determined if a student was in compliance with the university’s COVID protocols. Compliant students received a unique QR code to present to USC “Security Ambassadors” (private security guards hired to patrol a 2.5-mile radius around campus) at one of the four open checkpoints, the only points where students, faculty, staff, and visitors could enter campus. Merely getting onto campus was a multistep process that led to 8 a.m. frustration for those of us who hit snooze one too many times.

This became routine: updating Trojan Check, daily symptom checks, swabbing my nose once a week, and being herded through the campus’s entrance along with all the other students trying to make it to class on time. Monitoring, restriction, and the exclusion of community members felt normal. It created a campus visibly separated from the world around it, a place where students had access to resources like quick and easy testing that the broader city of Los Angeles did not. Of course, this was all done in the name of public health. But while we all navigated this new normal, it was hard to ignore the infrastructure that made this whole system possible. The perimeter walls and fencing around USC provided the exclusionary capabilities deemed necessary in a public health crisis, but they were erected long before COVID-19. 

In March 1955, USC president Fred Fagg Jr. smiled as he crouched over a small pile of bricks laying on a wooden foundation. Trumpeters played in the background as students looked on and other university officials joined Fagg on the lawn for a photo. This moment, memorialized in the Los Angeles Examiner, marked the groundbreaking for the “Walls of Troy,” the fence and wall that eventually came to surround the entire perimeter of USC’s University Park campus in South Los Angeles. 

The purpose of the Walls of Troy was reflected in the 1960 Master Plan, which outlined USC’s next stage of development in South LA. As they moved into a new decade, the Board of Trustees sought to establish a campus with a distinct identity amid the increasing need for land and the “surrounding urban issues,” a phrase that alluded to the broader community’s predominantly Black population. The walls were just one, very noticeable way that USC became a distinct campus separate from the surrounding area. The privatization of public spaces, like University Avenue (now a pedestrian mall), was already underway. Architect William Pereira developed a cohesive landscape and architectural plan to reinforce a sense of place. The 1960 Master Plan and its 1966 revision created a campus that was distinct from the surrounding area while closing it off to those without institutional affiliation. 

USC may have coded its exclusionary practices as institutional development, but South LA residents have always known the walls’ implicit purpose: to separate campus from the surrounding neighborhood. This became especially clear in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts rebellion. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History