Your ELi: Town and Gown

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Saturday, August 29, 2015, 3:00 am
Ann Nichols

The author on graduation day 2006 with Chris Marshall (in red cap) and his housemates.

The students are back.

Depending on where in East Lansing you live, that may just mean that there are longer lines at Meijer. If you live where I live, it’s different. Because I live on a street where we are the only permanent residents, and every single other house is a student rental.

All of our neighbors just moved out, then the cleaning and maintenance people came, then new people moved in. There are new neighbors next door, across the street, and behind us. These neighbors are mostly under the age of twenty-two, and many have never lived on their own.

When we bought this house, I really had no idea what we were getting into. I grew up in the area, in a suburb far from campus. My father was MSU faculty and we were often on campus, but we were not hanging around in East Lansing at night. When I hit the age of putative maturity I went away to a small liberal arts college in a dry town in the middle of corn fields, where “partying” meant leaving the library at 10:00 on Friday night.

For a few years, I struggled with living where we do now. It was noisy on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, home game days, St. Patrick’s Day, Homecoming, Halloween and Welcome Week. The neighborhood flower was the red plastic cup. Boys urinated off porches after dark, bottles were smashed in the street, and furniture was occasionally burned.

I was mad about thumping bass, and a “smoking patio” for a huge house not far from our bedroom window. I had a small child, we needed sleep, and my attitude was that students should become “civilized.” I was always mad. I cried a lot.

Then we made friends.

First my son made friends, riding his motorized toy Jeep around the neighborhood. Our student neighbors fed him ice cream, played Nintendo with him, and talked to us about where they were from and what their majors were. Soon it was much easier to walk across the street and say “hey, your bass is kind of loud” than to call the ELPD.

Then I made a friend, a member of MSU’s Community Relations Coalition (CRC) named Chris Marshall. Before classes started in 2006, he sat on my porch and we talked for hours about town-gown issues in the neighborhood. We made a plan, and together we worked that year to bridge the gap between permanent residents and students in the neighborhood.

Somewhere during that year, I changed. Our lives changed. I was shy about meeting students, but happy to bake for them. My husband became highly adept at meeting students as they moved in, carrying a container of homemade cookies, and initiating a warm conversation about how we were happy to lend corkscrews, shovels and jumper cables. He always mentioned that we were pretty chill about noise except for loud bass, which rattled our bedroom windows.

We made friends with our street, with reality, and with the annual invasion. For many years, there was a “Brownie Brigade” in this neighborhood in which permanent residents baked and delivered brownies with pamphlets telling new student renters who we were, and that they lived near a doctor, a lawyer, and a guy who knew how to fix cars, all of whom were happy to help them.

I ran the “Brigade” with ELI’s Publisher Alice Dreger, who is my neighbor, one street over. The model was that we met and greeted students as one would meet new neighbors in any neighborhood, and that because we treated them like equals, they rose to the occasion. And it worked.

In the years we’ve lived here, we’ve had some broken bottles, but we’ve also had experiences that have made our lives better and richer. One year, about a quarter of the MSU hockey team lived across the street, and at the end of the academic year, goalie Jeff Lerg remembered that he had promised to shoot baskets with my then eight-year-old son. Lerg came over on the day he moved out, to take Sam down to Valley Court for a shoot-around.

We have been invited to keggers, we have taken students in when their heat was off or they locked themselves out. We have had a cello/guitar/singalong jam on our front porch, and we have had an MSU football player living up the street set fire to a chair after an Elite Eight win only to run to our house and apologize to my husband for setting the fire. We have had a young man across the street rake our whole yard after he figured out that I’d hurt my back and my husband was traveling for work.

We made friends. We have real neighbors. It’s not traditional, and it’s not what I expected, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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