St. Paul and St. Thomas: Good neighbors make good neighbors

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Families, retirees and houses full of energetic students have lived side by side on the St. Paul streets surrounding the University of St. Thomas for more than a century. Neighbor relations are often contentious – colored by a history of loud, late night student parties broken up by the St. Paul police responding to resident calls. This year, both a neighborhood block leader and the school hope that extending a warm welcome will prove good neighbors make good neighbors. 

Selby Avenue

Betsy Schneider has been the block leader for 10 of the 26 years she and her family have lived on tree-lined Selby Avenue just a few blocks from the University of St. Thomas. She often meets new neighbors while out walking her dog. Usually Schneider invites them to join the email distribution list she maintains for spreading news such as when the city will plow snow, alerts about break-ins and the details of the annual block party.

This summer she met Olivia Pieschel, one of five seniors at St. Thomas who moved into the old “super party house” on the block. Schneider recalls “a few parties that were totally out of control; kids puking in the streets and trying to get into cars that weren’t theirs.” But instead of assuming the girls would behave like the former residents, she introduced herself, invited them to join the block club email list and exchanged phone numbers.

Schneider’s openness surprised Pieschel. “We knew the girls that lived in the house before us and they told us that the neighbors were not very nice; that they had gone around and introduced themselves and they got the cops called on them all the time,” Pieschel said.

Schneider openly admitted, “I’m not perfect, I’ve called the cops more than once on our block, if it seems like it’s getting out of control, we’ll call.” But, she added, as the mother of three college-age kids living in off-campus homes, “I’m trying to turn over a new leaf and I figure, kill them with kindness and they’ll realize that they are living in a neighborhood and not a college town.”

“When we moved in, we were kind of scared and so we just kept to ourselves,” Pieschel said. “Then I saw Betsy that one day outside our house and she was so nice and so inviting, she kind of opened us up to the rest of the neighborhood as well.” Pieschel and her roommates provided bios about themselves to be circulated to the block club and some offered to walk dogs or nanny.

Pieschel said she believes open communication to be an important part of neighbor relations when it comes to student parties too. She suggests students tell immediate neighbors that they plan to have people over for events like homecoming. Ask them to call the students before the police and then respect their neighbors by quieting down or leaving.

“I know a lot of friends that, if they have neighbors that are mad at them, they just get mad back and they’re like, ‘well you shouldn’t live next to a college, what do you expect?'” Pieschel said. “But I do feel like they were here first, this is their home and we are just living here a couple of years while we’re at school, so we should be the ones being respectful to them.”

On September 11, the whole block will be getting together for their annual party and Schneider’s family, and as Pieschel and her roommates are looking forward to the party and beyond.  

“I feel like there is mutual respect,” Pieschel said. “So it will be a good year.”

Neighborhood Fest 2010

For its part, the University of St. Thomas held its 29th annual Neighborhood Fest on Thursday, July 29. The band Ticket to Brazil supplied a bossa nova beat in the upper quad as burgers and hotdogs sizzled on grills, students played beanbag games and youngsters waited patiently with their parents for pony rides. Everyone mingled at long tables over ice cream and watermelon

Local resident Cristiana Giordano has been coming since her children were born and, though she has no problem with the university, said, “I think it’s a very neighborly thing to do – acknowledging that there are times when they are an inconvenience.” But she doubted that people in the area with “strong opinions” about expansion or neighborhood issues would come to the event.

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, disagreed and said that, even during more strained times, members of the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee have been among the 500 people who usually attend the annual event. Even though he feels the university and neighborhood cooperate and collaborate pretty well, the event is just “a big party.” He was especially glad to see the addition of a petting zoo attracted so many families to campus.

Center for Senior Citizens Education Director Jan Viktora used the event as an opportunity to reach out to area seniors – some of whom are part of the 2,500 students 55 and older in their programs each year. She enjoyed recognizing students at the event with their grandchildren and the chance to introduce the center to new people who attended.

Local newspapers and newsletters spread event details to neighbors and students such as Orientation Leader Alicia Lemere. She’ll be living off campus this year and said without an event like Neighborhood Fest, “there’s really no other way for the community to get together.”