I have lived all of my adult life in Mt. Pleasant, most of those years in a Midwest “half-house” built in 1896 by John Kenney, an early developer of the South Neighborhood. Oliver and Emmeline Troutman bought the house in 1918. For some it is still “the Troutman house,” though my husband and I have lived in it longer than any other owners. When I first came to Mt. Pleasant in 1969, I enjoyed walking around this neighborhood, usually in the evening, when I could catch glimpses of the interiors of the houses that lined Washington, Main, and University. At that time many families still lived in these houses, but a shift was underway as the fast-growing university loosened its requirements that students live in dormitories. The old houses near campus became prime targets for developers who carved them up into apartments, hoping to benefit from the increasing demand for off-campus housing.
By the middle of the 1970s my husband and I found ourselves in a perpetual battle with city planning bodies, especially Zoning Board of Appeals, who somehow saw it as their duty to cater to developers. The variances and special use permits they approved led to increased density in the neighborhood, which in turn led to parking lots instead of back yards, front yards littered with trash and discarded furniture, and noisy parties. The neighborhood that had once been a logical choice for a new professor who wanted to be within walking distance of campus—my husband, for example, in 1968—lost nearly all of its appeal.
Some of us have stayed, of course, because we love our houses and streets lined with mature trees. We like being a ten-minute walk from campus, the public library, the downtown stores, Island and Millpond Parks. We’ve had good experiences with most of the university students who have lived on our block, and so we believe it is possible for households of all ages to live together peaceably in this neighborhood. Indeed, a neighborhood is healthiest when men, women, and children of every age and profession live in it. Those who reside here for a few seasons before moving on to their professional lives infuse the neighborhood with energy. And those of us who remain here year after year can be models for them of responsible civic behavior: for enjoying our music without inflicting it on our neighbors; for keeping our yards clean; for driving with care; for greeting one another with a smile or a wave, as neighborliness demands.
In the 1980s the city revised the zoning for this neighborhood, hoping to clean up the mess made by variances and loopholes. But now we seem to be losing the city’s support for preserving the integrity of this neighborhood. The planning bodies have agreed to higher density in exchange for new housing that mimics the style of the older residences. This makes no sense to me when the university is projecting a decline in enrollments in the coming decades, and numerous apartment complexes—only 60% occupied, I have been told —have risen up outside the city limits.
If Mt. Pleasant succumbs once again to permitting greater density, I can imagine the neighborhood south of High Street and north of the campus becoming a dormitory without a housemother. It will be more difficult for both year-round residents and students alike to resist a “them” and “us” mentality. We will lose more of the historic homes that remind us where we have come from, and we will lose the opportunity to enhance the education of the students who live among us.