By Mackenzie Mohr
Entirely East Lansing staff writer
East Lansing resident Bonnie Wheeler is no stranger to life in a college town. Whether students around the corner are practicing trombone or she is digging up little treasures in her garden, she enjoys her life in East Lansing.
“I’ve lived in the (Red Cedar) neighborhood for 28 years, so I know the neighborhood pretty well and obviously just love it,” she said. Wheeler, a student counselor employed by Michigan State, and her husband both who chose stay in East Lansing after completing their degrees.
Households neighboring their home on Lilac Avenue are filled with unique individuals including a retired horticulture professor, a young international family, and a champion diving coach.
Wheeler’s neighborhood is one of three neighborhoods in East Lansing that is populated largely by both students and permanent residents. The Oakwood and Bailey neighborhoods north of campus also have high local-to-student ratios.
Cohabitation and cooperation
A community initiative to address issues of student behavior and neighborhood relations was sparked by student riots after the 1999 Final Four basketball tournament. Then-president M. Peter McPherson formed a task force with multiple initiatives addressing town and gown relations. The Community Relations Coalition is one of those initiatives, said Olivia Seifert, the coalition’s intern coordinator.
“Other institutions have similar groups, but they’re focused a lot more on student behavioral issues and healthy behaviors,” she said. “We formed as a non-profit so that it wouldn’t be the university, it wouldn’t be the city, but it would kind of be both.”
Because the coalition aims to serve a broad group of community stakeholders, Seifert said, board members include property managers, long-term residents, people from the city and the university, students, as well as Greek life council members.
Seifert oversees one public relations intern and nine neighborhood interns employed by the Community Relations Coalition. Initially, the internship program was not part of the organization, but it has grown to be the vehicle through which the coalition operates, she said.
“It’s very easy to personalize the (internship) experience and kind of connect it to what you’re interested in,” Seifert said. One intern is interested in environmental sustainability and has been working on recycling initiatives with the city’s environmental specialist, she said.
The interns are involved with different East Lansing committees like the celebrations committee, which anticipates community disturbances such as couch fires after basketball games, said Seifert.
“The celebrations committee (does) a lot of meeting ahead of time to talk about messaging and how to talk to students about celebrating in a way that’s still respectful,” she said, “not burning couches as an example.”
Aside from committee involvement, Seifert said, interns regularly distribute information about life in East Lansing to permanent and temporary residents by doing door-to-door outreach. Planning small-scale events such as ice cream socials, block parties, and neighborhood clean-ups, as well as exhibiting model citizenship, are also expected of Community Relations Coalition interns.
Outreach and involvement
A large part of the coalition’s mission is community building among students and permanent residents.
Interns are required to live in either Red Cedar, Oakwood, or Bailey neighborhood so they can understand and fulfill their role in the community, said Seifert. “The interns participate in things like neighborhood associations, different committees … they have a neighborhood partner that they work with who’s a long-term resident,” she said.
Wheeler, a resident of the Red Cedar neighborhood for nearly three decades, is one such partner. Catie Musatics, a communication senior and neighborhood intern meets with Wheeler regularly at her home for coffee and conversation. “Basically it’s for social capital in the neighborhood and to have a neighborhood contact,” said Musatics. “We usually just meet up and we talk; nothing too formal.”
The coalition gives residents a way to get to know more students and to send messages if early-morning house parties become an issue, said Wheeler. Musatics and other interns are kept up-to-date with partying activities in the neighborhoods and they visit houses that have been brought to their attention.
“We’ve had somebody stop by just to say ‘hi’ and talk to us about concerns ever since (the coalition) started,” Wheeler said, “and that’s always kind of nice to find out what’s going on and it has cut down on the ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both sides I’m sure.” The coalition is a reminder that many who live in East Lansing are employed by the university and consequently rely on the student population, she said.
Bringing the community together
A non-profit organization, the Community Relations Coalition chose to partner with the East Lansing Rotary Club to host the city’s first-ever Taste of East Lansing festival, said Seifert. Proceeds went to both organizations, but the Rotary Club will specifically use the money to help fund the renovation Patriarche Park, she said, directly benefitting the East Lansing community.
The event, modeled after the famed Taste of Chicago, brought local food vendors to an accessible location where students and residents could sample the city’s cuisine. For a $2 ticket, festival-goers could have a slice of pepperoni pizza from Goomba’s Pizza, taste a plate of pesto cavatappi from Noodles & Co., and indulge in a mousse from Spartan Signature Catering, among others.
“The overall goal is to do something that brings out all the different members of the community,” Seifert said.
Three weeks before the event, the interns were still ironing out details regarding waste removal with the health department, said Musatics, which was a huge undertaking. Less than one month before the event, she said, they only had one food vendor signed up. “We had no clue what it would take to plan this event,” she said, “we should have started it back in September.”
Seifert said the event will grow and likely be taken on by the city because there has always been a need for a festival during the academic year. Taste of East Lansing brings students and residents together to celebrate their city, a feat the coalition is constantly working to accomplish.