Author: Laura Scott
As the sun sets on a Friday night, traffic picks up and students living off campus start to quietly play music and gather on porches, opening doors and windows to let in the cool night air. Neighborhood residents are getting home from work and sitting down to dinner with friends and family. Whistles and the occasional distant cheer can be heard from the football field, where the high school teams are playing. Soon, Occidental’s students will bleed into the streets looking for a party, but they will be accompanied by the expectations and grievances of neighbors, some of whom have lived here longer than any current student has been at the school.
The routine clashes between students at a university and locals, commonly referred to as “Town vs. Gown” issues, reach back to the medieval age. As early as the 1200s, the rowdiness of young scholars attending newly-emerging universities in England annoyed town residents, who overcharged the students for room and board.
Tamara Himmelstein, assistant dean of students and director of student life, noted that while larger schools now have rows of student-specific housing surrounding the campus, Occidental students living off campus are completely interspersed throughout the blocks surrounding the school.
“We literally are sitting in the midst of a neighborhood,” she said.
These off-campus houses, often next to families, grandparents and young couples, are also primarily responsible for creating the party scene at Occidental. When students living off campus want to throw parties on the weekends, their off-campus contract with Occidental requires them to contend with the residential neighborhood setting. And many students do make an attempt to do so.
Rhiannon Johnson (junior), current house manager for Alpha Lamba Phi Alpha (Alpha), tries to preempt noise complaints to Campus Safety or the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) by handing out flyers to Alpha’s immediate neighbors in advance of their events. The flyers list the start and end times of events, whether or not there will be music and how many people the sorority is expecting. She also includes her phone number and the contact information for Alpha’s social chair and president. This gives neighbors who have complaints the option to contact students at the house before contacting the LAPD.
One of Alpha’s neighbors, Elizabeth Rosselle, has lived immediately next door to the Alpha house for two and a half years and appreciates the flyers.
“The group before, they would leave cookies and Hershey kisses and stuff … and the nicest notes,” Rosselle said. “Their notes were so cute that it didn’t bother you.”
While the parties are not ideal, Rosselle thinks she was louder and crazier in college, and she can typically reduce the noise level by turning on her fan.
Johnson has plans for improving neighbor relations this year, which include a neighborhood clean-up program organized by Occidental students living off campus in conjunction with the LAPD. She also extended an invitation to a nearby family to visit the house for tea or coffee at some point in an attempt to get to know the residents better.
Victor Clay, chief of Campus Safety, commended Alpha, as well as the Delta Omicron Tau sorority house, for communicating particularly well with neighbors and said Campus Safety almost never gets calls or noise complaints about their events.
The intersection at Avenue 46 and Paulhan Avenue, where CrossHouse, Baseball Home and the Zeta Tau Zeta (Zeta) House are located, is usually an easy place for Occidental students to start their search for a party. Charlie Caccamo (senior) is living off campus for the first time this year in Baseball Home, a distinction from last year’s Baseball House, which was at a different location on Avenue 46.
According to Caccamo, Baseball House, which was closer to neighbors, received so many complaints and risked so many fines from the LAPD that, by the end of the year, its residents did not think throwing mixers was worth the trouble.
Caccamo was excited for the start of a new year in Baseball Home, which the baseball team had rented in previous years. Baseball Home only has two non-Occidental student neighbors — one living next door and one across the intersection. The family who lives next door has trees separating their house, which Caccamo believes may help dampen the noise; Baseball Home residents also close all the windows on that side of the house during events.
“We definitely try to be as respectful as possible, because they’ve never tried to get us in trouble,” said Caccamo.
Cesar Maclino, the only resident on the corner of that intersection who is not an Occidental student, said he has lived there for 15 years and has yet to have a problem. He remarked that the students are not violent, usually leave a note in advance of parties and end their events early enough so they are not an issue.
Erik Lehman, a new resident on Alumni Avenue, said he and his partner were concerned about living so close to a college campus before moving in. Though they are about to experience one of their first weekends living so close to student residences, Lehman said they knew what they were getting into when they chose the house, having heard that Occidental is not a traditional party school.
Neither Clay nor Himmelstein had heard of the Community Relations Policy, an agreement intended to “help students guide their behavior during the time they are living off-campus,” according to the Occidental College website. Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) mandates that all students off campus must sign and adhere to the policy.
Himmelstein said the only policy she was aware of is a handful of “friendly agreements” between neighbors and the college. One agreement requests that the college only host one or two events a year in the Greek Bowl because of the way the amplified sound there projects to neighborhood houses; another is that weekend events be shut down by 1 a.m.
Himmelstein emphasized the importance of compromise on both sides. One way to discuss expectations is during community relations meetings. Organized by REHS, the meetings generally take place once per semester, which are attended by Himmelstein, Campus Safety, students, neighbors and LAPD. Johnson recalled that most of the neighbors who attended recent meetings had many complaints, but that this was expected.
“The type of neighbor who is attracted to a neighborhood meeting are the ones who have issues,” Himmelstein explained.
She said the majority of neighbors do not mind some noise, and that most students communicate with and get along with their neighbors, but extreme situations tend to be brought up at the community meetings. She does not believe the concerns raised there reflect the broader community’s ideas about Occidental students.
Koryeh Cobb, a senior and the president of Alpha, attended this semester’s community relations meeting and said most of the complaints neighbors had were about past residents.
When issues do arise, neighbors are able to prosecute students through the LAPD — which can potentially fine them for property damage or noise complaints — or address the issue through REHS’s conduct process. Neighbors can also call Campus Safety to dissipate events that are too loud or continue past 1 a.m. and to disperse large groups of students walking around the neighborhood. Clay said that a Campus Safety officer simply driving by the group of students is enough to scatter and quiet students. However, as a private security detail, Campus Safety cannot legally enter the premises of any private residence, even if the residents are Occidental students. That is when, if necessary, the LAPD comes in.
“We respond solely to assist [LAPD] and to monitor the activity,” says Clay. “We don’t try to replace the police, we just try to assist.”
Clay also lives in the neighborhood and said he thinks it is a welcoming and safe neighborhood. His biggest concern is making sure students are having the full college experience while also being safe. Clay stressed the importance of walking in pairs at night and designating friends to look out for one another when partying. Clay has two children in college himself — in the absence of being able to look out for them directly, he now extends his concern to Occidental students.
“You guys are kind of like my adopted family now,” Clay said.
Himmelstein said that the occasional extreme cases of property damage, throwing trash or urination are isolated incidents and students generally respect property. But these incidents have a tendency to stick in the minds of some neighbors, hardening them against future students and drastically lowering their tolerance for normal college antics.
“I do think that we have neighbors [whose] expectation in terms of quiet[ness] is beyond reach,” Himmelstein said. “No one should have to expect to have their property be urinated on and be okay with it. But when you live next to a college, you do have to expect that there will be some level of noise.”
Last year, ATO, Occidental’s unofficial football house, had a neighbor who leveled serious complaints against house residents. The conflict between the student residents and the neighbor nearly affected several house members’ abilities to graduate on time, and the neighbor moved away soon after the incident.
Himmelstein has to worry about neighbor complaints, too, when on-campus events get too loud, create crowds and take up street parking with visitors and vendors. As a result, the students in charge of organizing any on-campus event are responsible for writing and distributing a letter to residents. When they do not follow through, Himmelstein does usually receive complaints from neighbors.
Himmelstein even noted instances in which neighbors have shown up at events, walked up to the DJ and told them to turn down the music. She added that Campus Safety is good at playing interference whenever this happens, and the issue can usually be resolved by turning down the bass. Generally, it is the same neighbors who take issue with events, so Himmelstein emails some privately in advance and provides them with her contact number to notify her if they feel the music is too loud.
But despite the noise, there are advantages of living near a college, according to Himmelstein, who said that residing near a campus like Occidental’s improves property values, provides a place to jog and walk dogs and makes the neighborhood safer. Lehman appreciated the fact that students attract the kind of smaller stores and restaurants which he said are typical of college towns. Resident Sonny Gerasimowicz adds that having a college campus nearby will always keep the neighborhood young.
“Some of our events are certainly open to the community,” Himmelstein said, adding that speakers, lectures, family-friendly carnivals and Screen on the Green movie showings are all opportunities to include neighbors.
However, many neighbors felt there was a need for a better way to find out about these events. While many do take advantage of the landscaped campus by jogging or walking their dogs there and have considered gym and pool memberships, they are unsure about how they can participate beyond that.
For example, Gerasimowicz mentioned an interest in teaching an Artist in Residence course: he designed the costumes for the 2009 movie “Where the Wild Things Are,” is working on a Fantasia inspired graffiti art jacket and has stories about doing projects with Spike Lee and filming music videos in Iceland with a Swedish musician. However, Gerasimowicz is unsure how to approach the college about this type of opportunity. He also seemed to take an interest in college antics, excitedly describing the time he saw ATO’s lawn get forked.
Brea-ellen Crego and her husband have lived across the street from ATO for about a year. Crego said her brother and husband went to an ATO party once at the end of a night out and they had a great time — though the fun ended when she had to coax her husband down from ATO’s roof. Crego and her husband also walk their dog around campus frequently, and she added that Occidental students seem perfectly nice and well-behaved. ATO residents typically leave notes to let the Crego family know when there will be a party.
Those Friday nights, as students begin to wander through the neighborhood in groups, bouncing from one party to another and laughing and talking on the streets, Campus Safety cars quietly make their rounds. Just next door, Eagle Rock neighbors are closing their windows and turning on their TVs and fans. The two communities, brushing right up against one another — often with overlapping interests — could blend easily if the resounding need for a common forum for communication between them was resolved. The more information is communicated in advance and the more students and neighbors interact, the more problems can be quickly resolved, forgiven or avoided altogether.
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