Peter Marshall wants to sanitize Ann Arbor.

Paul Wong

The owner of English Language Arts, Inc. in Nickels Arcade is advocating a proposal that would explicitly forbid panhandling in a 1.7-mile radius surrounding the State Street business district. Marshall defends his position by claiming to The Ann Arbor News that panhandlers have instigated, “incidents that range from a repetitive nuisance to real danger where people felt frightened.”

Marshall’s proposal is one aspect of a larger plan for Ann Arbor’s homeless population. Other proposals currently being considered include the construction of a 24-hour alcohol detoxification center and a permanent facility for treatment of individuals with mental health problems. These additions would improve Ann Arbor, give the city’s homeless opportunities for individual empowerment and instill personal responsibility. The construction of these centers coupled with a committed effort to improve and expand the Loose Change for Real Change program are signs of a city government that is dedicated to improving the lives of the homeless.

But there are signs that the city is not solely concerned with helping its homeless population. The composition of the panhandling committee is troubling. The taskforce’s slant toward retail and business interests is disconcerting. They are primarily concerned with creating an environment that is conducive to retail sales and commerce – a goal that is unfortunately in opposition to the interests of the homeless.

The motivations of the panhandling taskforce align smoothly with other city projects, most notably the revitalization of State Street. The city’s courtship of national chains and the prohibitive rents that are slowly driving local businesses out of the areas with the heaviest student traffic show that the future of Ann Arbor may not mesh with the city’s past.

The celebrated era of Midwestern quirkiness and bohemianism could be abruptly ending in Ann Arbor. The dominance of business interests on the taskforce reveals city leaders’ intentions for Ann Arbor’s future. For the city, it is the voices of commerce that will be listened to and consulted in the ongoing debate over Ann Arbor’s future.

The panhandling committee is engaged in serious work that will have a significant effect on the future landscape of downtown Ann Arbor. Their work will color the city’s downtown neighborhoods and provide the framework through which the conditions of the city’s homeless will either be alleviated or stubbornly persist.

And that’s precisely why Peter Marshall’s proposal should be rejected by the City Council.

Peter Marshall wants to remove the vaguely threatening, the foreign and the distressing. It would be easy to accept this course of action. Combine a ban on panhandling with the establishment of a detox center and a mental health facility, and it becomes a compact bargain – you don’t bother us, we’ll give you treatment. Your conscience is clean and guilt-free. Everyone wins.

Marshall’s proposal and similar initiatives throughout the nation threaten to disrupt the development of good citizens. They allow individuals to forget the failures of humans and society. They allow individuals to live without recognizing the darkness beneath society’s pristine facades. They obstruct the cultivation of social responsibility that arises only when individuals realize that there is suffering, life is not universally comfortable and everyone is not taken care of. Looking a man who has lived a life of continual struggle in the eye, no matter how undesirable or difficult this task may be for some, fosters compassion and humanism.

Peter Marshall’s philosophy of active complacency is a bankrupt Panglossian ideology. It is a rejection of our individual responsibilities for what ultimately will become the acceptance of the smug doctrine that we inhabit a perfectly just and infallible society. He advocates a callow solution that encourages individuals to ignore and neglect the trauma of life.

Hide the unpalatable, conceal the unseemly. Purge the improper, efface the indelicate.

Peter Marshall wants to sanitize Ann Arbor – and if certain individuals listen to him, he will be well on his way.

Zac Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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