Zink: In Political Union talk, Tisdahl well intentioned but lacks solutions


Sydney Zink, Columnist

As a new student, I’m still learning the basics about our University’s president and about my major’s department heads. Therefore, I have not yet finished familiarizing myself with the key players of the Evanston community. The Northwestern University Political Union facilitated a broad introduction to one of these leaders, hosting Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl  on Wednesday for an open discussion on town-gown relations. The tense discussion laid out the relevant town-gown issues but lacked in compromise or resolution.

The conversation quickly turned to Evanston’s “three-unrelated” ordinance, which has been a matter of significant concern among students who want to share housing with friends off campus. Despite student criticism of the ordinance as being worthlessly antiquated, Tisdahl held her ground, saying, “I’m not supporting phasing (the ordinance) out.”

She did, however, make a point of wanting to increase diversity among housing options and judged the cost to rent a house of being “too high … artificially inflated.” Too many students occupying one house, she said, is one reason for this unfavorable inflation, thereby turning students’ arguments against or about the three-unrelated ordinance back upon themselves. She acknowledged though that a key reason students wish to share off-campus housing is the very high price students must pay for housing and claims she wants to keep Northwestern students, including graduate students, housed and integrated in the Evanston community.

However, her statements appeared a stale reminder of false hopes, and students remain allayed with fear of penalization or eviction landlords as well as frustration with both the continuance of the ordinance as well as the hoops they go through to pass inspections. One student mentioned a student who had to move all belongings associated with a resident — furniture and all — out of the living space in anticipation of an upcoming inspection. The reality is that although Tisdahl pushes reassurance that evictions haven’t and won’t happen to students because of the ordinance, the ordinance is still creating a great burden to students.

The reasons behind the ordinance’s existence, despite its reputation among students, are nevertheless understandable. Tisdahl cited numerous complaints filed by Evanston residents about excessive, blatant noise or other debauchery occurring in student dwellings off campus. She also says she will not support the transformation of such houses into “slum”-like environments from risky physical alterations, deliberate disregard (primarily on the part of landlords) for basic safety requirements on the property, and concerningly high occupancy numbers in houses meant for fewer people.

As for constructing this ordinance to appeal to students, I suspect the Evanston community would respond: “Haven’t we accommodated them enough already?” A strong undercurrent of Tisdahl’s talk was about the prevalent “Northwestern bashing” going on in town hall meetings and generally carried in town members’ sentiments. Whether you or most Evanston residents agree, many residents affected by Northwestern’s activity — voicing concerns on a variety of matters ranging from its concerning drinking culture to the proposed installation of a visitors’ center — would unfavorably regard Evanston as a “college town.”

Northwestern students, in return, ask more of Evanston as well, including better lighting in off-campus areas and looser housing ordinances. Tisdahl, upon being prompted about Dillo Day, said that the concern in the community is how Dillo Day debauchery seems to extend throughout the year. However, considering how widely concern has spread on campus recently about NU’s drinking culture and how expressively unsettled students continue to be about this “nonexistent” brothel law, I am not quite satisfied with the degree of prevalence Tisdahl credited towards these top-level concerns during her visit.

She prides herself on closing The Keg, which, after reopening, now cards people while it continues to await its appeals process. But she still places NU’s drinking concerns in its own hands when stating that she would be “very pleased” if President Schapiro took another look at alcohol at NU, leaving suggested action described in broad passivity. I do agree that drinking concerns fall upon us as a university instead of being her or Evanston’s responsibility, but I also think there is a fourth wall between Northwestern and Evanston that she demonstrates to remain unbroken, perpetuating the NU bubble.

On the other hand, in speaking of the NU bubble, I think communication needs to extend with greater awareness in both directions. Tisdahl’s closing words were that “no matter how hard we work at this, there will always be problems that crop up” and stressed that so long as there is goodwill on both sides, both NU and Evanston, town-gown relations have potential to improve. One student described such relations well as a double-edged sword, which extends beyond improvement strategies to internal sentiments of each group of both appreciating and facing difficulties from the other.

Tisdahl comes off as somewhat removed from student concerns. Her good intentions remain clear but she still asserts practicality of her claims in defense of how she approaches the issues. NU and Tisdahl both seem to share this current state; they come off to each other as more self-defensive than empathetic, but at the same time both are trying with best intentions to change themselves to least obstruct the other and work beyond that base level to hopefully continue and expand means of beneficial synergy.

Sydney Zink is a Communication freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].