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How an influx of college students can change a neighborhood

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Karin Winegar
Karin Winegar: For students, our neighborhood is a launching pad; for many of us, it's a destination.
Photo courtesy Karin Winegar

Karin Winegar is a St. Paul journalist and author. 

Ah, spring, when parents arrive to pick up their college children and decide which IKEA pieces to keep and which to toss in the trash.

I cruise down alleys this time of year, swerving to peek — almost but not quite without embarrassment — into dumpsters, poke into trash cans and prod boxes overflowing with what's being jettisoned. It could furnish a village, many villages, this torrent of unwanted student stuff. 

Here are area rugs, futons and sofas, tables and bookcases, TVs large and small, bags and boxes of kitchen supplies (largely untouched) from spices to pasta. Here are bottles of shampoo and cleaning supplies (again, largely unused). Here I find usable furniture, bike helmets, oven mitts, kitchen knives, perfectly good pens, reams of paper that should at least be recycled if not used.

And one day, in a conjunction of coincidences nearly impossible to imagine, I sifted through a box and dredged out a shiny silver Apple laptop computer. Just then a young woman bearing more boxes came around the corner toward the trash cans.

"Look at this," I said to her, after explaining that I am a neighbor, not a crazy bag lady. "Who would be throwing out a perfectly good laptop?"

"Eeeeeek!" she shrieked. "It's mine. I put it in the wrong box! Ohmygod, thank you. My life is in there!"

This is one of the better (if appallingly wasteful) aspects of living in a college neighborhood where student housing has sprawled over the years, not always with happy effects.

The issue of limiting the conversion of owner-occupied homes to student rentals is currently on the table before the St. Paul Planning Commission: a one-year moratorium on such conversions ends Aug. 11. The commission recently heard comments on a proposal to limit the number of student homes around the University of St. Thomas. It calls for a 150-foot buffer between new and existing student rental housing, and it would not apply to owner-occupied duplexes.   

With more than 30 years' experience in this target neighborhood, my position is: Please, yes, for God's sake, limit it. In fact, can we reduce the number of rentals? 

My block was all owner-occupied homes when I moved here. Now there are only two of us owners living on the south side of the street and three on the north side of the street. 

What's changed is not just traffic and parking congestion, problems of property upkeep, litter and noise; it's neighborliness. Many student renters don't introduce themselves and can barely be bothered to say hello or make eye contact. Many of them don't seem old enough to live on their own, judging by their lack of toilet training. On one occasion I pulled up to my curb to see two college boys —  one in the house to the east, one in the yard to the west —  urinating in broad daylight.

"Knock that off or I will call the police!" I said.

"Sorry!" said the boy in the yard.

"Hey, I live here," said the other, the one taking aim from his front steps.

No, you don't really. You park here, you have a place to sleep and study and order in pizza. You definitely drink here and screech and bellow in the streets at ungodly hours. One of you stole my husband's car and drove it until it ran out of gas, leaving a key on a St. Thomas lanyard jammed in the ignition. That episode cost us $750 in repairs. 

But you don't live here. For you our neighborhood is a launching pad; for many of us it's a destination.

Those of us who live here say hello to each other, swap vegetables from our  gardens — Got cucumbers? I've got raspberries! — borrow ladders and snow shovels and walk the puppy for the owner who can't get home during the day. We know where a spare key is hidden and we help if someone calls to say he has left the stove on. We commiserate when someone's parent is ill. We plant trees and decorate for the holidays.

Worst of all, your bad  behavior forces us to be grumps, geezers and nags: I have absentee landlords' numbers on speed dial, I'm on a first-name basis with the UST community liaison officer, and I can dial the St. Paul Police nonemergency number in the dark. This is not who I wanted to be when I grew up.

We were you, you know. We loved loud music and dancing 'til dawn. But most of us did it on campus, not in houses 15 feet from a neighbor who really needs sleep.