A few weeks ago, I spent some time in Detroit with the Ford Institute on the Sleight Leadership Fellowship trip. The visit was designed to give select students hands-on interaction with the revitalization of Detroit. Throughout the week, we spoke with urban planning experts, community organizers, business leaders and journalists. They were all trying to answer a question that will ultimately decide the fate of many post-industrial American cities: What can we do to save Detroit?
All of them had similar answers. Many experts called for strong public policy from the city government regarding everything from land use regulations to getting city services like trash collection and the fire department back up to par. Everyone agreed that Detroit needs a stronger education system to keep people in the city. But the most consistent refrain was that we, college students and young people, can have a hand in the rebirth of one of America’s greatest cities. All we have to do is crawl out of our suburban castles, move to the city, and take part in one of the greatest projects in modern American history.
Albion has long held the title of “Little Detroit.” Being halfway between Detroit and Chicago, as well as being another hub of mid-20th-century American manufacturing will do that to your city. A lot of the challenges Detroit faces, Albion faces in microcosm: a declining population, lack of a clear economic motor, an abundance of vacant housing and a failing or nonexistent school system. Both could use the help of young people to rebuild and reinvest in the city. However, there is one major difference between Albion and Detroit besides size: Albion has a relatively large population of young people already in town, tucked away at Albion College.
Experts that spoke with us on the Sleight trip attested to one particularly valuable thing young people were doing in Detroit: buying up vacant or blighted homes for low prices, investing in those homes, fixing them up and, in turn, beautifying the city. People are coming together in incredible ways in Detroit, and it’s beyond the scope of this article to articulate all the ways how. They’re using vacant land to build urban gardens with the help of the skills and human power of their communities to do what the city, state and federal governments haven’t been able to do for decades, and that’s to make Detroit a fun place to live again.
When you consider these developments, it makes you think about what we can do here. Why couldn’t something similar happen in Albion? It’s obviously a much harder sell to get young people to move to a small town in mid-Michigan rather than the cultural and economic center Detroit is, even in its tougher years. But we don’t really have to convince young people to move to Albion. There are a thousand-plus of them crammed into a square mile or so of the town that is Albion College’s campus.
However, according to the Albion College student handbook, “Albion affirms the educational benefits inherent in the residential aspect of the undergraduate experience, and as such requires all students to reside and board within the College residential system.” That means that as Albion College students, we have to live on-campus, in College housing. There are only a few ways to exempt yourself from this requirement: commuting (if you live within 25 miles of the school), if you’re married (our generation? Get married? HA!), if you have legal dependents (like, on-your-taxes dependents), if you’re a veteran, or if you are older than 23. Very few Albion College students right now fit those exemptions. You can also petition to live off-campus based on “extreme or unusual circumstances.”
I’m going to cut through a lot of bullshit here: I know that Albion is a residential college. I know having students living on-campus is a part of the College’s mission. But maybe if we want to truly be involved in our community as a College, (and the College is publicly very interested in doing so, if events last semester prove anything) we need to let students live off-campus. Doing that will do incredible things for Albion College and the town of Albion.
Keeping students in one specific part of town reeks of segregation: that certain populations should live in specific areas. I’m sure the College doesn’t intend for their residence policy to create a disconnect between the town and the gown, but it does. No matter how much money the school pours into projects like the Bohm, or how many community parks it helps to open, the College can’t close that gap. Initiatives like the Build Albion Fellows program are a great step in the right direction, and I applaud Mauri Ditzler and Andrew French’s attempts to bridge gaps between the College and the community. But it’s not enough. We need to be shifting the tone of the conversation. It’s not how the College can help the community. It’s how the College can be a part of the community. And right now, with this housing policy, the College isn’t trying to be a part of the community.
Having students live off-campus would give them opportunities to meet people they would otherwise be insulated from during their time at Albion College. Last semester, I started walking my puppy around town when he visited me at school. I ran into some wonderful, beautiful people. For some, times were hard and they were just trying to get by in a place that they loved. Some were College alumni who felt truly at home here and came back after 30-plus years away. Either way, I would have never met them had I just stuck to campus.
I’m not saying students living off-campus is a cure-all for Albion’s problems. But it’s certainly part of any sustainable solution. The College’s support for community revitalization efforts in Albion is hollow if it’s not accompanied with this philosophy underpinning it: that students can and should be an active part of their host community. Demanding that students live within a certain part of town is the worst kind of ivory-tower academic aloofness. I know that the school has lots of empty space to fill in its dormitories. Seaton Hall stands empty, and the school has been hard-pressed to find ways to use the space. But one day, Albion will have the students to fill those dorms again. When it does, it will be time to open up the ivory tower and let students become a bigger part of the rebirth of one of America’s greatest small towns
But just imagine students moving into those houses for rent on Superior street. Imagine loft apartments above the shops. Imagine kids fixing up their houses and living in Albion over the summer. Imagine students’ dollars for food and groceries staying in the Albion community because they can walk to places to eat rather than driving to Jackson or Marshall. Imagine another bar popping up because students could walk to and from it easily. Imagine that people who live in the town of Albion go from being “townies” in many students’ eyes to becoming neighbors. It would be something beautiful.