Kristen M. Clark

Beyond the divide

By Kristen Daum

The State News

 

Stand in the middle of East Grand River Avenue, and you're at the divide between two worlds.

 

To the south, a sprawling academic institution opens its doors to more than 45,000 students for about nine months out of the year. To the north lie residential and business districts that serve the permanent residents of a city sprung from that institution's birth.

 

In East Lansing's first 100 years, the void between MSU and city residents has grown larger, and East Lansing-MSU relations have become rockier. But efforts in recent years have tried to mend negative feelings between students and other community members.

 

Even as the East Lansing community comes together to celebrate the city's centennial, some city officials have said they are concerned that students don't see the distinction between MSU and East Lansing: They are two separate entities, and there are residents who live completely separate from the university.

 

Acknowledging a difference

When East Lansing city council member Bev Baten was taste-testing various entries for the centennial ice cream flavor contest last month — she noticed something: A majority of the 98 flavors that were supposed to commemorate East Lansing's 100th birthday were related to MSU.

 

"They're two different bodies of government," Baten said this week. "We don't govern the campus, and the campus doesn't govern East Lansing. If people say they don't see a difference, it's because they haven't been here long enough."

 

Because East Lansing is a college town, some students said the distinction between the campus and the city might not be as noticeable.

 

"I know the difference personally," environmental studies and applications junior Amy Motzny said. "The campus boundaries are pretty distinct. But students who live closer to campus might not see the difference as much because of all the student housing near nonstudent residents."

 

In the past, there have been several instances when the MSU environment spilled into East Lansing's neighborhoods, which didn't bode well for relations among residents.

 

Most recently, 3,000 students took to East Lansing streets after the MSU men's basketball team lost in April 2005 to North Carolina in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Police teargassed students, and revelers caused $5,775 in damage.

 

The fallout caused tensions for students and residents, and officials have since attempted to repair the relationship.

 

Even with the city's efforts since then, journalism freshman Lynsey Tomak said she sees East Lansing and MSU as interchangeable communities.

 

"East Lansing in general is considered the area of MSU," Tomak said. "If you were comparing East Lansing and Lansing, I'd say there's a huge difference, but with East Lansing and MSU, it could be considered the same.

 

"I sometimes forget that people have houses and families here. I just don't think about it."

 

But the age gap between students and permanent residents could be helpful for the city, said Jack Thompson, 75, a long-time East Lansing resident.

 

"There's a blend because regular people in East Lansing are well-educated and the students are being well-educated," said Thompson, who also is president of the East Lansing Historical Society. "They understand each other. The people that live in East Lansing have been around students for many years."

 

This blend can make the boundaries fuzzy, Motzny said.

 

"If you live in East Lansing or if you move here, you have to realize you're moving to a university town," she said.

 

Bridging the gap

In as many ways as East Lansing and MSU might be different, there are ties that connect the two communities.

 

One noticeable example for student drivers is the two separate police forces that have jurisdiction within East Lansing: The MSU police and the East Lansing police.

 

"We work closely together," MSU police Sgt. Florene McGlothian-Taylor said. "If we need assistance on a backup call, like a traffic stop on campus, we might call for assistance, and they might do the same."

 

East Lansing police Chief Tom Wibert echoed the importance of sharing information and resources between the departments.

 

"The relationship between MSU police and East Lansing police is kind of like that best friend that you had in third grade," Wibert said in an e-mail. "We play with each other's toys and trust each other without question."

 

MSU's Community-Student Liaison Rachelle Woodbury serves as the neutral link between permanent residents and MSU. When city and MSU officials communicate across geographic boundaries, Woodbury said it helps create a more unified community.

 

She said the collaborations between MSU and East Lansing officials, such as on campus and city development plans, have paved the way for healthy discussions about what's good for all sides.

 

"If neighborhoods are upset with the university or the university feels like the city is going ahead with something without talking to them — they have a chance to talk that out before it's done," Woodbury said. "There's always more to do, but I think we're on the right track."

 

An ongoing reflection of this unified front is city officials' long-term effort to redevelop the East Village, which they hope will provide the area with a mix of retail, entertainment and residential properties.

 

Although the land bounded by East Grand River Avenue, Bogue Street, Hagadorn Road and the Red Cedar River is not university property, MSU officials have been among many key players since the beginning of the project.

 

"Since it is so close to campus, there is a strong interest on the part of the university on making that a very viable area for students, faculty and staff," said Ginny Haas, MSU's director of community relations. "We're working very closely on many things and getting better all the time. (Residents) really believe that the university and the city are partners."

 

And city officials do recognize the university as part of the community.

 

When the East Lansing City Council received its first look Tuesday at the project's initial designs, several council members — including Baten — stressed that the East Village shouldn't look out of place against the backdrop of MSU's collegiate architecture.

 

"We've tried to make it walkable, but people don't come to East Lansing to see downtown East Lansing," Baten said at Tuesday's work session. "They come to the university to see the university."

March 2, 2007 • News • Page 1A

Winner: 2nd place, In-Depth Reporting - 2007 Region 4 Mark of Excellence

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