On a January night, I hit the streets with Georgetown’s Student Neighborhood Assistance Program, which is designed to make sure neighbors get immediate relief from disruptive students. According to Georgetown spokeswoman Stacy Kerr, the SNAP patrols are part of a suite of mitigation efforts that costs the university about $1 million a year.
Just after midnight, I’m in the back of one of two SNAP trucks that patrol Burleith and West Georgetown. In the front is Cory Peterson, an area coordinator for the university’s Office of Residence Life. Peterson wears a heather gray sweatshirt and windbreaker, dark blue knit skullcap, and comfortable sneakers that add up to a look that’s more R.A. than peace officer.
At 12:30 a.m., we come across a few small knots of students. It’s easy to see why neighbors find them to be a constant source of noisiness: In a group of five high-on-life 21-year-olds, normal outside voices get amplified and bounce against the rows of houses on an otherwise silent street.
“It’s rare that MPD would come upon a situation that we didn’t know about first,” Peterson says, describing the close relationship between the cops Georgetown hires on weekends and the SNAP patrol. And, at least on the night I’m with them, this seems true. Peterson monitors every individual we pass, and takes notes on a clipboard about how many students he sees. The loop the West Georgetown truck makes takes about 25 minutes, if there are no stops.
When Peterson notices a guy we saw on the previous loop still lingering on the same corner, we pause while Peterson watches him. “Looks like he’s texting,” he says. We move on. Next time, the texting guy is gone. Peterson sees another man hanging around outside of a door, and we wait to see if the woman who opens the door knows him. She appears to, so we move on. Peterson notices a recycling bin is knocked over. The driver hops out and sets it back upright. We move on.
Generally, louder students quiet down quickly when they see the truck coming. (Neighbors like Cruse are quick to note that the noise returns once SNAP turns the corner.) Some snap their fingers at us—apparently it’s a thing they like to do—like preppy extras from West Side Story.
Around 2 a.m., we encounter a drunk couple leaning on a picket fence and arguing loudly. Peterson politely reminds them that there are people upstairs, asleep. The woman interrupts him sharply to declare that she and her sparring partner are fine. He points to the house behind her, asking her to remember the residents.
“Where?” she asks.
“That house,” he says.
Eventually, she huffs that she didn’t realize they were being such a problem. For the first time that night Peterson seems a bit rankled. Shortly afterwards, another drunk kid, who had been quietly making his way home with a few friends, suddenly yells at the truck: “Suck my cock!”
Peterson shrugs it off. “I’ve been called worse,” he says.
There are two takeaways from my night with the SNAP patrol. First, universities—with dollars, with their own internal discipline system, and with the help of earnest killjoys like Peterson—can change the dynamic in a student-heavy neighborhood. But second, they can only change it so much. In the end, if you’re going to have students, which most urban economists would tell you are a very good thing for a city, you’re going to have silly string on your boxwoods, no matter what you do.
But would you want to be the person who has to explain that to a bunch of longtime residents occupying $900,000 houses?
Some neighbors have their own solution in mind: Get rid of those damn kids. One Burleith proposal is that Georgetown build enough dorm space to house all of its students on campus. The only complicating factor: What if the students want to live in the neighborhood?