The past few years have seen one interesting byproduct of town-gown planning politicking: Students, who in D.C. once focused on the big story of national politics, have gotten involved in the most mundane local level by running for Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Winning an ANC—there are a few Single-Member Districts where dorm residents make up the majority of constituents—presumably puts students in a position to rebut some of the charges against their ilk.
I meet Deon Jones, an AU student and ANC 3D commissioner, at the university’s student hub, the Mary Graydon Center, in January. Jones says his district includes fewer than 40 non-students; one house in his constituency is the D.C. home of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Clean-cut and dressed in a slim black peacoat, tie, black pants, and shined shoes, the Atlanta native has come straight from Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church at Rhode Island Avenue and 4th Street NE. He carries his choir robes in a small, wheeled suitcase.
A sophomore who lives in the dorms, Jones is empathetic to the neighbors, to an extent. “AU is doing the biggest development they’ve ever proposed, so in some ways you can understand how that may frustrate the neighbors,” he says. On the other hand, he points out that Westover Place, the gated community of neighbors who are most vocally opposing the new development, was itself an opposed development during its construction in the late ’70s.
When it comes to town-gown animosity, “the peak period for our campus plan were the first few meetings. ‘Anti-AU’ was the bandwagon,” Jones says, laughing. “I always say, ‘I’d rather drive a BMW than a bandwagon,’ so I tried to see all the sides.”
In the half-empty Nebraska Avenue Commuter Lot—home of the future East Campus—Jones gestures to where commercial buildings will sit facing Nebraska Avenue NW. “It needs to be something here,” he says. “American needs dorms. Students are tripled up and others live off-campus because of the lottery. This can’t just be a parking lot for all of its life.”
Jones says Barack Obama’s election inspired him to run a write-in candidacy for an open seat on ANC 3D at age 19. His relatively short time dealing with the campus plan has been an eye-opener. “When I think about local politics, it’s so dirty and so special-interest, it leaves little room for compromise.”
It’s easy to think that Jones would make a very nice neighbor indeed.
But it’s not likely that people like him will actually ever resolve the perpetual conflict over D.C.’s campuses. In part, that’s because town-gown battles are the kind of diversity divides that are truly intractable: Different people, with different interests, that are going to stay different.
Which is why, if universities want to find a way out of their decennial maze, it might be less about mitigating some students’ lack of neighborliness and more about playing up their own charms. The sad thing about D.C.’s dysfunctional relationships with its colleges is that almost no one makes a case that ought to be obvious to anyone from a less-educated ZIP code: Being next to a campus is a great amenity.
Universities have libraries. They have ball fields. They have lectures. Georgetown and GWU have world-class hospitals. Would you rather live near one of those, or in just another tract of middle-class houses whose residents lead quiet lives?
D.C.’s colleges, if they really want to get neighbors on board, could do more to advertise these positives. Yes, they allow locals to join gyms. They allow people in adjacent ZIP codes to audit classes. And they occasionally invite neighbors to discount sports games and cultural events and lectures. But they don’t advertise it enough. They should be blanketing the neighborhoods with fliers, sending out student ambassadors, and helping spread the word that living in Burleith or Wesley Heights or Foggy Bottom means getting access to great stuff you wouldn’t have if you washed up in Chevy Chase or Dupont Circle. The smart thing to do—especially for institutions in the business of being smart—is to switch their focus from damage control to playing up the positives.
Of course, even the most generous access to campus amenities would only win so much love.
Karen Cruse of West Georgetown, for instance, says she knows all about the lectures and film festivals and campus Shakespeare productions and the like. “There are a lot of positive things,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t get upset about the negative.”