Zerby deserves better

The columns presented a false picture of student-community relations.

The two-part column “Out with the blue, in with the green” by John Hoff, published Dec. 1 and 8, painted an incomplete and often false picture of the University’s relationships with our community neighbors.

In what I believe was wholly inappropriate, columnist John Hoff belittled a memorial that was created in the community after the tragic house fire in 2003.

It’s important for readers to know how engaged our campus neighbors were in the grieving that we all did in the wake of the house fire that killed three University students. Many members of the Southeast Como neighborhood came to campus to take part in the remembrance service for the students. Even though they hadn’t known these students personally, they felt a connection as neighbors.

Southeast Como neighborhood leaders, who have long worked for better housing conditions for students and all residents, took the initiative to create a memorial and reached out to the University and to student-leaders to take that important step together. We consulted with the families of the deceased students and organized a memorial event in Van Cleve Park that was both thoughtful and meaningful. The memorial plaque and the birch tree planted in memory of the students were made possible through contributions from the Southeast Como Improvement Association, the Minnesota Student Association, the University Landcare Department and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. I don’t think your columnist could have been present when all these people were working together with grace and integrity, nor could he have spoken with anyone who took part that day, or he would have known better.

Long before the fire, the Southeast Como neighborhood had reached out to student-residents and campus leaders to work together on issues of common concern like street lighting, safety and rental housing conditions. It’s the Southeast Como neighborhood that organizes the annual Como Cookout each fall, an event designed to bring together students and long-term neighborhood residents to welcome students who have just moved to the community. The neighborhood organization changed its bylaws to add student seats on the board and to make it easier to recruit and retain student board members. Clearly, this is a community that is working to include student residents as full participants. We appreciate their thoughtful and inclusive leadership.

No matter whom one supported in the 2nd Ward Minneapolis City Council election, your columnist took some unworthy swipes at retired 2nd Ward City Council member Paul Zerby. It needs to be pointed out that Zerby led the charge for the new pedestrian-level street lighting on 15th Avenue Southeast. It’s being installed right now because the community is listening to student concerns. Zerby made sure that, for the first time, polling places were created on our campus in locations of greatest convenience to student voters. Zerby also, in a time of very limited resources, convinced his colleagues on the council to support more regular and systematic inspections of rental properties. He was an early advocate for the police and the courts adopting a restorative justice approach in the 2nd Ward. The restorative justice program we have now has given more than 400 students the opportunity to perform community service and keep their records clean as an alternative to heavy fines and criminal charges for first-time offenses.

There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate on neighborhood issues. But misrepresenting our neighbors and their dedication to a strong and healthy relationship with the University is simply unreasonable.

Jan Morlock is the University director of community relations. Please send comments to [email protected]