Over the past year or so in Ann Arbor, local blogs have emerged as the most — and perhaps the only — effective entity in coordinating and promoting student interests in local politics. While the local homeowner-run neighborhood associations have continually pushed their anti-student agendas on the city — through the proposed porch couch ban, stiff resistance to the construction of North Quad and new restrictions on side-street parking, to name a few examples — the campus political groups that should be working to organize a student opposition have generally responded with apathy.
In the absence of any campus-based organization with the strength and initiative to challenge the anti-student establishment, bloggers and their readers have taken a strong interest in the workings of Ann Arbor’s city government. This online community has filled an important gap where traditional campus groups have failed. Campus student groups essentially ignored the proposed porch couch ban last year; it was dropped only after readers of local blogs, which vigorously opposed the ban, pressured city council members via e-mail. Blogs won an important victory for students despite their limited resources, functioning without the concrete membership and infrastructure that characterize traditional campus organizations. Rather than using colorful handouts to broadcast their positions to indifferent students on the Diag, bloggers engaged their readers in meaningful discussions, convincing them and inspiring them to take action.
As the couch ban demonstrated, blogging makes it easier than ever to bring together students who live across Ann Arbor but share the same goals. Students living near the stadium no longer need to tire their feet to be richly connected to those who live across the city; a borderless community has emerged that students can use to take action. Traditional methods like flyering and chalking seem obsolete in comparison. With the technology bloggers are using, as Tom Friedman would say, Ann Arbor is flat.
For this reason, we believe the recently established New West Side Association — the city’s only student-run neighborhood association, based on the borders of the Old West Side Association, and a child of the local blogging community — represents a real opportunity for a revitalized local student activism. The group’s formation is an exciting step toward incorporating new technology to organize students and promote their interests in the city.
For years, a development that could meaningfully increase student influence over city policy has seemed hopelessly out of reach. Ann Arbor’s ward system effectively dissipates the student vote in city elections by splitting up student-dominated neighborhoods among its five wards. But student-run neighborhood associations could develop voting blocs within each gerrymandered ward, forcing council members to listen to students’ concerns. These geographically based groups could help organizers to be effective in going door-to-door to register students within the neighborhood to vote. By focusing on city council races specific to each ward, these groups could maximize student influence.
Still, student groups based around neighborhoods are not enough. Neighborhood associations have been successful for Ann Arbor homeowners in large part because of homeowners’ concern with property values and the proximate nature of their interests. Student renters, on the other hand, rarely stay in the same neighborhoods for more than a couple of years and tend to have interests that span the entire city; most are more concerned with legislation that affects students citywide than whether their neighbors’ lawns are presentable. Groups like the New West Side, for this reason, should also focus on developing an overarching organization to promote student interests; their experience with online organizing will help them unite students with similar interests citywide.
The New West Side stands out as group with a unique potential to reverse the recent trend of local apathy among students. A concrete group will be important in reaching out to the many students who do not read blogs, but its savvy use of technology will grant it a swiftness and interactivity that other organizations lack. Hopefully similar groups will form in other wards, and an overarching organization will soon emerge to consolidate student interests. In the question of which came first, the organization or the website, the New West Side Association defies tradition, but it may be this aberration that brings it success.