St. Paul colleges work to keep the peace with their neighbors

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2007 - 8:50 PM

The beginning of the school year puts significant strain on relationships between renters and permanent residents as a new crop of students learns the ropes.

The plat map in John Hershey's office has pins everywhere. There are blue ones, red ones, yellow ones and even one with a little red flag attached. The file cabinet is filled with hundreds of folders, each with an address of a rental property in the neighborhood surrounding the University of St. Thomas.

Hershey is St. Thomas' neighborhood liaison. That means two things: He's the point person for complaints and he's never going to lack for work.

"I'm never going to sit around in September wondering what to do," Hershey said with a laugh. "There's always going to be sophomore guys."

This weekend is more than just the unofficial end of summer in the neighborhoods around the many private colleges in St. Paul.

It marks the beginning of a nine-month period in which parking can be scarce, traffic increases and the volume is sometimes turned up.

And that can lead to conflict. Which is why St. Thomas, Hamline, Macalester and other colleges work with their permanent neighbors to keep the peace.

"Sometimes we have Camelot, other times we don't," said Hamline vice president Dan Loritz.

Macalester's Tim Welna described the relationship as "very fragile at all times."There's 2,500 of us on campus between students, faculty and staff. Any one of us can do something stupid and upset the neighbors."

Re-education starts again

That colleges can have problems with their neighbors is far from a new phenomenon. College students live a very different life than many homeowners. There are students, after all, who don't think anything of staying out to the wee hours on weeknights. The neighbor might have to leave for work before 7 a.m.

Jim Marti, president of St. Paul's District 13 council, knows the next few weeks can be trying.

"I look upon it as a re-education process and it occurs yearly," he said. "We encourage people either individually or through a block club to introduce themselves to a house full of renters and say, 'We're your neighbors.' I've heard people suggest bringing over cookies; that can't hurt.

"What that tells people is that this isn't a free-for-all, you're in a neighborhood, but we're not ogres and we're not going to call the cops instantly."

Riley Bosch graduated from St. Thomas last spring and lived in a Grand Avenue house in which some of the neighbors were permanent residents. His neighborhood relations were largely good.

"If we were loud, they'd come over and talk to us," said Bosch, who is now starting dental school at the University of Minnesota. "I have buddies who lived in some rowdy houses, and they had some problems with neighbors.

"Once the fire's lit, it makes it a testy situation."

That's part of the reason Hershey will spend a good part of this weekend visiting students moving into some of the rental houses around St. Thomas.

"I'm going to visit 30 to 40 houses that I know have sensitive situations," Hershey said. "Maybe the neighbor across the street is sensitive about her parking spot and I'm just going to say, 'Be smart, fellas.'"

Where problems arise

While alcohol and parties can fracture neighborhood relations, the problems don't all have to do with kegs on the porch, bottles in the yard and vomit on the sidewalk.

Hershey said many of the messages he gets on his voice mail -- some of which are emotional calls left at 2 a.m. -- have to do with noise.

"It's six or seven kids walking back from their friend's house and so what if it's 12:30 in the morning, they're just talking," Hershey said. "They're not even really being bad, but six kids make noise. Or they're sitting on the front porch because they're smoking and they can't smoke inside.

"Sometimes it's just a little thing. You and I have had a few beers and it's 2 a.m. and we're standing by my car and I'm about to drive off and we talk for a half-hour and it's noisy and we throw around the f-word a bunch because that's what college kids do sometimes. That's really pretty low-key in the scheme of things, but it is now April and you've had a litany of things that's bothered you since September and this is the straw that broke the camel's back."

There are certainly things people on both sides of the town vs. gown battle can do differently.

Students might want to ponder that the neighbor's fourth-grader has been in bed for hours when they get home from a night out on Grand Avenue. Residents might want to give their new rental neighbors the benefit of the doubt before deeming the students the next Animal House.

'User guide' for neighbors

Because of that, the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee has put together a "User Guide for Neighborhood Relations" that is filled with information for both sides.

Because while the relationship can be rocky -- especially when schools expand their footprint into the surrounding neighborhoods -- colleges value their relationship with the neighbors.

"We want our neighbors to use our campus," Welna said. "We want them to teach their kids how to ride their bikes there or take the dog for a walk. We want them to use this little urban oasis.

"Part of my job is to remind everyone that as an institution, we are a citizen of this community and we have to act like that. It's not an us vs. them situation."

But at times, that's exactly what happens.

Said Hershey: "The thing kids say to me is 'Why didn't they talk to me?' Well that's human nature and that's why I have a job."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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