When some desperate PhD candidate someday submits a definitive cultural history of town-gown relations, here’s hoping the dissertation includes the story of the Great Burleith Private Garbage Truck Battle of 2011.
The controversy’s most recent iteration entered the public record late one night in the beige and taupe room at One Judiciary Square where D.C.’s Zoning Commission meets. Ron Lewis, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E commissioner, was facing off against Todd Olson, Georgetown University’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
In years past, residents of the affluent neighborhoods abutting the school had complained about the trash generated by students who rent houses there. So, last year, the school hired its own garbage trucks to supplement public trash collection. The city’s trucks come once or twice a week. The school’s come every day. Twice.
But if you think this sort of thing—a major research university prostrating itself before neighbors who resent a population of perfectly legal renters—would tamp down the animus, then you don’t understand the bizarre universe of D.C. campus politics. In this world, a university paying for private garbage service isn’t evidence of goodwill at all.
The bespectacled, tweedy Lewis began a cross-examination. “When the trash isn’t being picked up by your truck, it’s visible obviously, correct?,” he asked Olson.
“In some locations at some times,” Olson replied.
“And like most trash, it probably doesn’t smell so good, right?” Lewis shot back, springing the trap.
There you have it: The school’s effort to clean up stinky student garbage was clear and damning evidence of that garbage’s all-pervasive stink. Extra trash collection only means there’s extra trash.
For neighbors who’ve spent years battling refuse, rats, rowdiness, and other unpleasantness they blame on the presence of students, even a piece of institutional kowtowing—most locals would love twice-a-day garbage service!—comes across as a sign of disrespect.
It’d be easy to mock the sturdy Burleithers for seeing dark clouds in every silver lining. But the Great Burleith Private Garbage Truck Battle of 2011 is hardly the only case of collegiate neighbors making upscale Washingtonians act like sophomores who see a conspiracy behind the dean’s every decision.
In Wesley Heights last year, a neighborhood group demanded that American University prohibit students from hanging decorations in windows of a proposed new dormitory, lest they offend local aesthetic sensibilities. Residents near Georgetown University have pressured the school to institute shuttle bus service between the campus and M Street NW, should noisy students disturb residents while walking back to their dorms. The bus, having been duly established, is now derided by neighbors as the “drunk bus.”
And then there’s parking. In the neighborhood around George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus, as well as in American University Park, locals have pressured the schools to forbid students from parking in otherwise legal street spaces. Campus cops have gone so far as to write tickets on legally parked cars that simply look like they might belong to students—because, for instance, books are visible through the windows. Now neighbors are complaining about accidentally receiving such tickets.
What’s going on here?
To some extent, it’s just a local version of the tensions that happen everywhere from Palo Alto, Calif., to Princeton, N.J., and anywhere else that comparatively comfortable neighbors live next to comparatively entitled students. All the same, the specific nature of town-gown tension here also reveals a great deal about the District’s essence. It’s a place where the bureaucratic rules for campuses—much of the recent upheaval is tied to the schools’ decennial efforts to gain required approval for mandatory 10-year campus plans—encourage an adversarial system replete with exaggerated gripes and over-the-top demands. It’s a place where well-off locals, lacking an infrastructure to participate in national politics, have a long history of using back channel access to get their way.
And Washington is also a place that has never, unlike some other big cities, been quite comfortable with becoming a bustling, urban center. Ours is a town where there’s no agreed-upon answer to the basic question of whether we really want to allow a bunch of quiet-seeking residents to stifle a university’s growth.
The story of how we organize building on D.C.’s campuses works a bit like a seminar on how D.C. organizes itself.