[gr2] Our city is obviously full of cool people, right? So why can’t our downtown match students’ noticeably interesting personalities? Is our town hip enough to keep up with what we add to it? Unlike Ann Arbor and up-and-coming Royal Oak of southeast Michigan, East Lansing needs to spice itself up as a place where students want to spend time. We do have killer house parties – according to Playboy, we are such “professionals” at partying we don’t even need to be named in the top party schools list. While plenty of students are content with college life consisting of kegs and football, many yearn for a little more culture. East Lansing needs some life injected into it if we want to compete with other more attractive cities.
Each year a group of new young people, both freshmen and transfer students, move to East Lansing. For most, it’s quite a change from their hometowns, whether they hail from a town known for cow-tipping and smoky bowling alleys, or a suburb of Detroit where it’s only a short drive to some of the biggest musical acts and plays in the state.
Tracy Garfield, interior design freshman, is in love with East Lansing. Garfield calls Northville, Mich., home; she claims her town doesn’t have nearly the amount of things for people her age to do as in East Lansing. On a Saturday [vintage3]afternoon she can be found with a huge smile, grazing the racks at one of the hottest spots on Grand River, Urban Outfitters. “The nightlife is the best part of moving here,” said Garfield. Although she has been here only since the end of August, she doesn’t anticipate leaving on the weekends very often. She said there is more to do here than at most other college towns in Michigan.
Perhaps if the “city” life is brand new to you, East Lansing seems kicking, but what if you‘re a big city type, such as from Chicago? Dan Perl, accounting sophomore, is a Windy City native. “I miss the diversity,” he said. “There is so much to do and see there.”
While East Lansing cannot be judged against one of the most thriving cities in America, we could be a lot cooler. The few funky, unique shops and restaurants like Curious Book Shop and Flat’s Grille are scattered only [flats2]sparsely between large corporate chains such as Steve and Barry’s, Moosejaw and Barnes & Noble. As of the end of September, there were nine “For Lease” signs on Grand River alone. Why aren\’t companies scrambling over each other to claim a spot on our main drag? Is it because we don’t give them the kind of business necessary to stay open?
City management board member Tim Dempsey is very supportive of independent operations in the city and said, “The owners tend to be very hands-on and the stores operated very well. Of the independent stores that close, 90 percent fail not because of the location, but because of their failure of operation.” These failures are resulting in what seems like a mood of driving out the little guy, and this is upsetting the locals.
[espresso] Graduate student Julie Heinlein sipped an iced coffee at Espresso Royale, the place to be typing away on a laptop or listening to an iPod during the day, and to watch local acts on the small stage at night. She said she’s attending MSU simply for the aquatic ecology program. With such a specialized area of study, Heinlein had to go where the opportunities were. For her, this meant moving from Ann Arbor to East Lansing. She misses Ann Arbor dearly and adds, “[T]he city should have a lot more to offer for such a large university.”
One suggestion: an art theatre, since we lack anything of the sort. In edgier cities, small theatre venues that show indie flicks find their place among the coffee shops and boutiques. The only theatres in the area are corporate giants such as NCG and Celebration Cinemas. In a cool city, we would have a few places to see local bands play. In East [scene]Lansing, bands play mostly at bars, but when a large number of the students are underage, we can only hope to hit up a cool house party with a guy (or girl) and a guitar. As a college town, we should be a community that opens its doors to creative minds; local artists should thrive here. But as much as students and residents love art and culture, the lack of a passable selection of galleries hinders creative minds.
Lori Mullins has recognized these possibilities and has taken significant steps in making East Lansing a better place. Mullins is the chairperson of what is called the East Lansing Cool Cities Partnership. This is a program where cities [peanut2]get a sum of money from Gov. Jennifer Granholm to be spent on projects that revitalize and make Michigan cities more attractive. Its main concern is for the young professionals in the area to thrive, and focuses on the city community as a whole. The five parts of this project include growing opportunities in arts and culture, housing, jobs, business and social networking.
This year East Lansing was among the few that were awarded this grant totaling $100,000. Apparently even good ol’ Granholm thinks we’re too lame, and she works right down the street. But, as Mullins said, “Granholm’s office offers continual support to the city of East Lansing.”
Cool Cities Coordinator of Michigan Karen Gagnon said East Lansing was a prime candidate for the grant. Our city met the specific criteria needed to apply: we have a 2-4-year educational institution, a local historic district, thriving arts and a local Cool Cities board. Specifically, East Lansing was given the money to revitalize the neighborhoods, which, in our case, includes the downtown area. The money is looked at as a catalyst grant. East Lansing, in addition to getting the money, also gains access to several resources in order to class up our town.
Gagnon is extremely passionate about what she does: bring vibrancy back to Michigan cities. The Cool Cities program is a national project, and whether or not a city actually receives a grant, they are welcome to have a board geared toward the Cool Cities idea. “Michigan is seen as the birthplace and home of this growing project… Even New Orleans has [grill]recently contacted us for ideas on how to rebuild their city,” said Gagnon. New Orleans has long been seen as one of the most cultured cities in the world, and they are now asking Michigan how they can bounce back.
Landon Bartley, urban planning graduate student, is one of the few students involved with the East Lansing local Cool Cities advisory panel. In November 2003, when the committee kicked off, he was an MSU student and very interested in where East Lansing was going. Now, two years later, Bartley has seen his friends graduate and move on to cooler cities such as Austin, Chicago and New York. He understands why they would want to get out of East Lansing and agrees the city doesn’t do much to grab the attention of young professionals.
Bartley has made it a goal to help change that. He loves Pittsburgh, and after one of his visits there, asked himself why there is such a life in that city that seems to be missing here. He realized Pittsburgh has a young professionals group that gives people in the area an immediate social connection. He wanted to bring that concept home to East Lansing. He has worked to create a group called the “Grand River Connection,” which puts 24-35-year-olds in contact with each other as a means for community. He hopes this movement will keep our graduates here, which could definitely help out the community. The more MSU grads who stay in the city, the more creative minds are at work to improve the city as a whole, which, according to Gagnon, is of high focus in Michigan. “I would rather see people say, ‘Hold on, we can make this place better,\’” Bartley said.
If more people actually wanted to make East Lansing better, we could rid ourselves of cheesy bars like The Dollar [bar]that, in all of its Western glory, makes us look pretty shoddy. We could have more places like Mac’s, which although not much to look at on the outside, has amazing charm and life inside. We have plenty of greasy pizza joints for the drunken scavenger, but how about more exotic ethnic restaurants? Standard fare in East Lansing is a delicate diet of sub sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza and fast food. While Lansing has its share of ethnic eats, students can’t get much more than Americanized Chinese and Mexican food east of Harrison Road. What about an Italian or French bistro? Perhaps we could choose between Guatemalan or authentic Polish food one night and Ethiopian or fondue the next?
“I’d love to see nicer sit-down restaurants, but maybe they are thinking that poor college students are their main market,” Corey McGilton, chemistry sophomore, said. McGilton also wishes there were more places he could go to art shows. He often visits the Kresge Art Museum to see the students’ work and would really enjoy being able to walk around downtown and see more “artsy and creative places.”
Gagnon knows East Lansing students are looking for a more vivacious city. The grant money we have gotten is predestined to connect the east and west sides of our downtown. The idea is to have “really cool walking paths with gathering places all around. Young people want to gather,” Gagnon said. Because we received this grant not long ago, a meeting about this has yet to take place. However, because this is the government’s money, there will be a deadline on when the city will begin working on making this a more \”walkable” town. Gagnon hopes it will be in the works by the end of this year.
Behind-the-scenes action for East Lansing offers a lot of hope. Ideas are constantly being thrown around and shaped. For instance, instead of having a movie theatre downtown, which would require a lot of space and parking, the thought of starting a small performing arts center is in the works, according to Dempsey.
Another goal, which would help students search TheFacebook, Google their second-grade teacher and even (gasp!) study, is to make the whole city wireless. Mullins believes this initiative could get students out from behind their dorm room [lease2]facades and back into the city’s life. East Lansing is a city of students, and the possibility of taking advantage of technology and making the downtown connect with those studying could be the next step in creating a hipper city. Looking toward the future, there are hopes to create a more vibrant, unique and even quirky culture and life around the city.
Enri Dani, no-preference sophomore from Royal Oak, hopes we will become a little cooler and supports more art represented in the city. Dani’s dad is an artist and he can appreciate how much art can impact the feel of a city. Dani misses the culture and more diverse life of his hometown, a city that, in 2003, was named one of the ten most enlightened cities in the United States by Utne, an alternative arts and culture magazine. He notes these days, it’s “all about being indie and kids would really grasp onto that scene if it was in the city.”
Now the future of East Lansing is in the hands of those who really care about the residents. As of now, our city and state governments are in the first steps of turning the city around. And students, faculty and long-time residents are [vacant2]demanding a city that can keep up with us, after so many years of being a step behind the rest. Getting a small grant from the government is a start, but we will need a lot more dedication and work to turn this place around, including the help of interested students like Bartley.
Our city holds so many memories and stories of those who attend MSU. Instead of just reflecting on East Lansing after graduation, we could be a hot spot where students want to stay once they get their degrees. What makes a college town unique is the energy people feel when they’re in the area. Hopefully our biggest claim to fame won’t be that Playboy thinks our parties are sweet. Maybe we’ll never be considered one of the ten most enlightened places, but with all our potential, it would be a shame to see nine “For Lease” signs on Grand River ever again.
Have any suggestions on how we could become a cooler city? Send them to letters@thebiggreen.net and we’ll publish them.

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