Students once had a voice, but it is hard to find any traces of it now.

On the walls of Gold Bond Cleaners on Maynard Street, there are a few paintings of what the neighborhood used to look like. Between Nickels Arcade and the building New York Pizza Depot is now in, there was a quaint old Victorian house, with a big front porch. The McDonald”s restaurant that replaced it now sits abandoned. It will make way for the eight-story Collegian retail and condominium project and its million dollar-plus penthouses, when ever the developer can get enough tenants to warrant construction.

In 1974, students rallied to save the old house from the wrecking ball. In their minds, McDonald”s was an element they did not want in the student neighborhood. They wanted the last house on Maynard Street to remain because it was a neighborhood fixture in a concrete canyon.

Although the students who tried in vain to save the last house on Maynard Street were progressive activists, many protested just to protest, interest in local issues wasn”t limited to just agitators. It was more main-stream to be interested in city politics, after Watergate and before the Gulf War.

Even the Greek system, which is today one of the most apathetic and isolated sectors of campus, defended their rights as student residents in the city in 1987 when residents in the North Burns Park area tried to restrict their housing.

Students complain about rent constantly. After Evanston, Ill., Ann Arbor is the most expensive Big Ten city. Although students may find a student-oriented city issue like high rent annoying, there hasn”t been a movement or even a broad-based study committee to see what can be done about it.

Hopes to regain lost voices

Twenty years ago, the attitude would have been different.

“But things aren”t that way anymore,” said Eric Feldman, an LSA senior who is chairman of the College Democrats, referring to the era when students had an active role in city politics and were the primary force in molding Ann Arbor into the city it is today.

But Feldman doesn”t believe the lackadaisical “90s and the decrease in civic-minded college students represents a total loss of hope. Feldman says that by showing students the power they hold, they are likely to realize the role they can play in Ann Arbor politics.

According to the U.S. Census, people aged 18-24 make up 24 percent of Ann Arbor”s population and 32 percent of the city”s voting age population. “Proportionally, students should make up one-third of the city council,” Feldman said.

Currently, students do not hold any seats on the council. Throughout the 1970s, the third party student-rooted Human Rights Party held multiple seats on the council, pressing progressive issues. Before ward boundaries were redrawn in the early 1980s, students had a better chance in winning certain areas of the city. Ann Arbor was one of the first cities to enact human rights ordinances and also became famous for its $5 marijuana possession fine.

Because of student activism on the council more than 20 years ago, Ann Arbor can claim to be one of the most female-friendly cities in the nation and can boast an openly-gay state representative that represents the city.

Students pushed progressive issues on the city before they were broadly accepted. But today, people don”t recognize how important students were in making Ann Arbor such a progressive place. The city and the University benefits from the students who made Ann Arbor an oasis of open-mindedness in the often-stifled Midwest.

But Feldman said the Human Rights party back then represented progressive causes more than student issues. He said that even though the current way the wards are drawn end up disenfranchising University students, that doesn”t mean that students cannot make a difference right now.

During the city council elections in November, Joan Lowenstein (D-Ward II), lost her seat. She faced a tough battle in the 2nd Ward because it is heavily conservative, Feldman said. If you look at a map, the 2nd Ward includes the Hill-area residence halls a gold mine for Democrats. But voter turnout among students on the Hill was abysmal. Lowenstein lost by only 43 votes.

“If we would have had a month (to get out the vote), the Democrats would have had that seat,” Feldman said.

Feldman, along with Michigan Student Assembly President Matt Nolan, said city council members do not represent students who live in their wards. The only way to change that is to get involved.

“The most effective way is to get students involved in the community. Then you have personal capital invested in something instead of political capital,” Nolan said.

Feldman said the College Democrats have been working more closely with the Washtenaw County Democratic Party and Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje. And although students may not have a particular interest in the politics of a eight-story condo tower, they should be interested in how future development near campus like the Collegian could affect rent in off-campus student housing.

“Rent is something that affects everyone off-campus,” Nolan said.

But the mechanism that promoted student empowerment 20 years ago a strong coalition of students doesn”t even show up on local political radar. While the Michigan Student Assembly may be able to tackle limited University issues, the assembly as a whole has been mired in petty political bickering for years and has been unable address student issues off-campus.

Nolan said if MSA were to address rent issues, it would take a strong individual within the assembly who has an interest in such an issue.

And looking at the make-up of the current assembly, it”s no wonder why student empowerment has died and shows why it will take a miracle to revive it. Imagine what MSA could do for student issues including off-campus ones if it attacked each one with the zeal a few members of the assembly did regarding Fall Break. (To MSA reps: Imagine how it would look on your resumes if you pushed a rent ordinance or student neighborhood initiatives on the city council?)

But we cannot blame MSA for everything, even if it is a convenient and often comical scapegoat. The blame must be spread to the student population as a whole. Sadly, something that affects students living in the city like rent isn”t as cute or cuddly as a penpal project with elementary school students.

In a city that has been shaped by students, it is a sad fact that, as the city changes, our voice for the most part is silent. I hope that when I return to Ann Arbor in years to come, that will change.

Michael Grass is a co-editor of the Daily”s editorial page and an LSA senior. He can be reached via e-mail at mgrass@umich.edu. Part I of “Whose Ann Arbor?” can be accessed at http://www.michigandaily.com/articles.php?uniqid=20020111e5.

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