On the Status of Student Power in Ann Arbor

‘Perfect Storm’ Brewing in A2

The
other day I sat down with Dale Winling to talk about a couple
organizations he recently launched. Dale is a first year PhD candidate
in Architectural History at the University of Michigan. He has
undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Western Michigan
University and is from a town outside of Kalamazoo. I met with Dale to
talk about two organizations he has founded in Ann Arbor: the New West
Side Association is a neighborhood association targeting students in
Ann Arbor’s west side, and the Ann Arbor Alliance, a membership
organization open for members from anyone in Ann Arbor. The NWSA has a website and blog, and was written up in the Daily and on Arborupdate.

We
talked about the role of students in Ann Arbor politics, which has been
in recent years very small. This is something I have long bemoaned: in
a city where over 1/3 of the population consists of students and
renters, that community plays a minimal role in city politics. Furthermore,
instead of treating this massive affront to democracy as a problem to
combat, city leaders have been all too content to build a status quo
which excludes most of the city from meaningful political participation.

Although virtually all freshman live in the dorms, by their senior year
almost every undergraduate at the University of Michigan will live off
campus in a house, apartment, or fraternity or sorority.

However,
I believe have been a number of recent developments indicate a group of
student and renter citizens has coalesced which will seriously contend
for power in the city. A perfect storm is brewing which could
revolutionize Ann Arbor politics. The key components have fallen into
place: an alternative media structure open to new voices (blogs,
Arborupdate, student media), progressive public policy (the engagement
of planning students), and viable political candidates. (Yes, the triad
is similar to Wellstone’s formula for a “winning politics”)

First,
through the activism of a small group of blogs, there has developed an
online community interested in engaging in local issues. This website
has played a role in that, as well as Arborupdate (which I founded last summer), and Ann Arbor is Overrated, among others. Arborblogs, an effort to create a directory of Ann Arbor blogs has flourished under the able control of George Hotelling,
and plays a role in connecting the Ann Arbor blogging community.
Arborupdate in particular has become a venue where voices who otherwise
not have a platform, like graduate student June Gin, can pose the question:
“Will [Ann Arbor] continue to be a diverse, multi-cultural community
where arts and ideas flourish? Or will it be transformed into a
commodified playground for wealthy bored people? … Is urban apartheid
part of our “Cool Cities? vision for Ann Arbor?? Second, there has also
been interest building in the larger political community in engaging
students in city council politics – College Democrats has discussed it
at meetings and at least one student has run recently for City Council (Rick Lax).
The issue of the greenbelt engaged students in unprecedented levels in
local politics. Furthermore, the increase in knowledge and interest in
community planning and design by undergraduates has been fueled in no
small part by popular history professor of Matt Lassiter and the
general coming into vogue of New Urbanism. This heightened level of
activity has been a long time coming: My junior year as an
undergraduate a friend organized a Student Neighborhood Action Project through the student government and a class to pick up garbage in the Student Ghetto (and hold a barbeque).

Furthermore,
the existing city politicians have done much to fan student organizing
in the past few years. The eminently reasonable and limited proposal
introduced for Accessory Dwelling Units in the city was smacked down
by the City Council in 2002, which subsequently fueled much organizing
by Students for PIRGIM. City government was restructured to eliminate
the planner and move more power to the council members and neighborhood
associations. A draconian towing ordinance hit many students unawares
with large fines that were reduced
after an uproar. Murmurs of a couch ban last summer sparking
unprecedented vocal participation in local politics many who had not
spoken up before. (See my post on the role of blogs in the controversy)

Most recently, I have heard of perhaps the most encouraging sign yet: a serious student contender for city council.
Eugene Kang is a lifetime Ann Arbor resident who will be running in a
primary against a moderate democrat. And that brings me back around to
Dale’s groups. We spoke how the two could be resources for tenants,
advocates for progressive city planning based on the principals of New
Urbanism, and a badly needed voice for the downtown renter community in
Ann Arbor politics. I believe the combination of a large number of
engaged undergraduates and professional planning students provide both
the political base and intellectual resources to advance an agenda
dedicated to affordability, sustainability, and inclusively. Ann Arbor
doesn’t have particularly bad policies, however an atmosphere of
complacency and pessimism about what is possible for the city hangs
around the Guy Larcom building on 5th Ave. If they set their
minds to it, students, renters, and their allies could be a potent
political force who could fundamentally re-shape the city’s politics
and also urban form.
Imagine a city where tenants’ rights are
a top priority, the planning commission and council aggressively
pursues an agenda of dense, sustainable development, and new and
radical ideas to provide affordable housing are earnestly explored. If
they set their minds to it, students like Dale Winling, Eugene Kang,
and June Gin – and their supporters – could begin to make this vision a
reality.

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Author: Rob Goodspeed