I recently reported that the city may vote on a law which would prohibit upholstered furniture on porches in the city. Although the proposal is allegedly for “fire safety” reasons, it’s actually a callow move by those in the city who, while enjoying the amenities of a college town made possible by a large student population, resent any expression of student culture which may have a negative impact on their property values.
Before I continue, I want to make this perfectly clear: the city council HAS NOT banned couches on porches! The matter is not even on their agenda, and although COULD take place before the end of the summer I believe such a proposal can be defeated by vocal and smart lobbying.
Overt anti-student sentiment should have no place in city politics. Ann Arbor is nearly 30% populated by students, and some city residents must understand the few remaining independent book, music, and coffee shops are made possibly the presence of the students whose SOLO cups and loud music they loath. If they desire the entire city to be perfectly neat, there are plenty of perfectly pretty and totally boring Michigan towns they could move to. If they like being able to go to a political protest or attend an unusual film, they must realize that means tolerating students.
Yes, students have a responsibility to be good neighbors, however couches on porches do no harm. The supporters of the ban view them as a fire danger, however I struggle to understand how a couch on a covered porch is more or less of a fire danger than a couch in a living room, frequently pushed up against a tangle of wires. (Most I suspect are too damp and moldy to burn, and none of the house fires in Ann Arbor I remember in the last four years started on the porch) Fires start in kitchens, because of faulty wiring, and because of lighting. Fires do not start on porches any more than any other room of the house where there might be furniture present. The supporters of a ban have also implied they should be banned because they have been burned during student riots in other cities (Ohio State and Michigan State University come to mind.) Although that is perhaps true, I have never heard of a couch being burned in the street in Ann Arbor in recent years. Furthermore, even if the couches were banned, the slumlords of the student neighborhoods leave enough flammable material around that a good bonfire wouldn’t be particularity difficult to fuel – with brush, scrap wood, and perhaps the old furniture jamming many a rental house basement and attic.
Finally, as much as Ann Arbor prides itself as being a “cool” city, actions like the one in question are decidedly uncool and are perhaps part of the reason local venture capitalists are short new businesses to fund: creative young people leave Ann Arbor in droves for other cities: Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, and Boston. [A disclaimer: I serve on Ann Arbor’s Cool Cities Task Force, which will be issuing its report in the next two weeks.] Professor Richard Florida identifies three characteristics of a “cool” city in his widely acclaimed book, Rise of the Creative Class, which he calls the three “T”s: talent, technology, and tolerance. While Ann Arbor certainly has the first two, it is frequently lacking the last component. Being tolerant includes being tolerant of those with different lifestyles – and part of the lifestyle of many students involves upholstered furniture on the porch and, gasp, holding parties that last later than 10 PM at night. Yes, Ann Arbor has city laws which are much more tolerant of people of different backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations than most places in Michigan, however banning couches sends a loud and clear message to young people: YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE. That’s not a message I think the city council either should send, or should want to send to their constituents.
In the end, this issue isn’t just about couches, its about a certain class of mostly wealthy property owners being overrepresented in city politics. This is the reason why Ann Arbor has rolled back its liberal pot laws by piling on court fees, has exorbitant fines for snow removal towing (they all have garages, after all!) and refused to accept an extremely limited ordinance which might allow a few graduate students and old people to live in “granny flats.” People who are willing to stand up for the interest of the city’s renters, students, the poor (that remain), and many other virtually unrepresented communities must involve themselves in city politics. The deadline to file to run for city council as an independent is in the end of July, and although city leaders have done their best to gerrymander students, it’s difficult to gerrymander 1/3 of the city! The November election should elicit high turnout, which I believe would work to the advantage of a candidate representing students. There’s discontent brewing, and I think the time is right to stage of coup in city hall.