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COVER STORYSept. 29, 2006

Shell of a Town

What local colleges have a better student life than College Park? Strayer, AU, Georgetown, GW, Southeastern, GMU, Howard, NOVA, Catholic, Montgomery College, Marymount, Gallaudet, UDC…

By David Morton

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
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All you really need to know about the nightlife in College Park, Md., boils down to one word: faggot.

Apparently lots of faggots wander around the few bars in the city’s small commercial district, getting on people’s nerves. Those in the know say you should definitely avoid the Cornerstone Grill and Loft at the corner of Route 1 and Knox Road, one of the three main drinking establishments catering to the University of Maryland’s more than 34,000 students.

“I don’t want to deal with the faggots,” says Mark, a 19-year-old freshman, on a recent Saturday night. He’s on his way to R.J. Bentley’s Filling Station, the Cornerstone’s neighbor and chief rival. The Cornerstone just has too many guidos, he says. “They spike their hair in this onion bloom.”

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

Five junior women, Bentley’s regulars, offer detailed support for the contention: The Cornerstone is very Greek, plays “black-girl music,” and is filled with kids from New York and New Jersey who wear heels and gel up their hair. At Bentley’s, though, the dress is more casual. It plays “white-girl music” (the girls themselves are white), and it hosts a big contingent from Baltimore prep schools. If that’s not reason enough, three of the girls say they got their faces licked by random guys at the Cornerstone. “I was fingered!” says another of the girls, seemingly astonished by the recollection. “Yeah, I wasn’t happy about it,” she adds.

There was a faggot sighting just the night before. Shortly after the bars’ closing time, a student was walking along nearby Princeton Avenue when a car drove by. According to Prince George’s County police, the driver called the student a faggot. The student kicked the car. The driver stopped the car, grabbed a crowbar, and attacked the student. They both ended up at the hospital. The faggot apparently put up a good fight.

Tonight, also around closing time, a fight breaks out inside the Cornerstone. Bouncers quickly muscle the combatants out, but they carry on fighting outside. One guy gets his face beat in near the curb. Two others are grappling on the median of Route 1. Within minutes, two quick bursts of gunfire punctuate the proceedings. A bouncer later tells the police that a man fired several shots in the air and then fled.

The officers briefly wave their flashlights on the pavement, trying to find any of the spent shell casings among the students milling around. J., a Cornerstone bouncer sporting a Jägermeister lanyard, finds one. It is small and gold-colored and resting in a sidewalk crack at the corner.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

“That’s a .22!” J. exclaims to his bouncer buddies who’ve congregated around his discovery. “What kind of bullshit is that?”

“That’s a 9 mm,” counters another bouncer.

“I’m in the military,” argues a Cornerstone patron. “That’s too small to be a 9 mm.”

A bouncer from another bar ends the debate: “Let’s put money on it,” he says. J. puts a pint glass next to the casing as a makeshift evidence marker.

A Cornerstone bouncer sees a kid lingering in the street and orders him away. “Faggot!” the kid replies.

“Faggot” bookends Saturday. It is the opening salvo and the closing remark of another bungled attempt at the collegiate experience. Downtown College Park, or what counts for downtown, becomes at night a vile broth of popped-collar thugs and P.G. violence, a street play of lowest common denominators. Oh, you can grab a smoothie, too. Those with a taste for brain food or quirkier fare ought to look elsewhere. College Park is just not that kind of town.

University of Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr., in his recent State of the Campus address, touted the school’s solidifying status as a top 20 public university, a huge leap from its reputation a generation ago as a meathead party school. These days at the state’s flagship campus, the average GPA for incoming freshmen is a 3.9. Most cracked 1200 on the SAT. Yet those figures, while impressive, aren’t good enough. A 20-year project is underway to propel Maryland into the small circle of elite public schools that includes Michigan, Cal, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Maryland, said Mote, is about halfway there.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

But whatever the president’s success might be on the academic front, Maryland will never rank among the heavyweights. Stocking the student body with mathletes has done little to address College Park’s greatest shortcoming: It has the locational charm of a highway rest stop. The campus itself possesses lovely qualities, such as tasteful neo-Georgian architecture and the wide grassy expanse of McKeldin Mall. The town has neighborhoods that are as green and chock-full of pre-war cottages as Takoma Park. But it doesn’t suffice. Instead of an Ann Arbor, a Berkeley, a Madison, or a Charlottesville—perennial chart-toppers on lists of America’s most livable cities—you somehow get, in College Park, an ugly shopping strip, a scarcity of choice, an air of lurking danger, and the promise of thoughtless mayhem. According to FBI figures reported in the Diamondback, the principal college newspaper, Maryland has the highest rate of violent crime among universities of comparable size.

Perhaps nothing in recent memory puts the gap between better grades and better living in starker relief than the recent student tradition of rioting. The first major occurrence was in 2001, when the Duke basketball team ousted Maryland at the Final Four. Fans took over downtown, broke through glass storefronts, ripped up the adjacent residential neighborhood, and hauled out furniture and fence posts to feed the flames. The final damage toll was more than $500,000. Similar violence followed Maryland’s national basketball championship in 2002. Three state troopers were reportedly injured, and an off-duty Metrobus driver, in uniform, lost vision in one eye. The rioting, says Maj. Cathy Atwell, spokesperson for the university’s Department of Public Safety, follows major matchups, win or lose, basketball or football, and certainly whenever Duke is involved. In April, when the Maryland women’s basketball team beat Duke for the national title, hundreds of sudden fans took to the streets again and tried to tip over a shuttle bus. Amid the chaos, a sophomore had her legs crushed on Route 1 by an oncoming car.

So now, after big games, university police come out with pepper spray, riot helmets, and “turtle suit” armor, often assisted by county, state, and park police. Violence like this hasn’t cropped up on campus or near it since the antiwar demonstrations of the ’70s. Now it happens because Duke sucks. Or maybe because otherwise the campus will lack distinction.

The phenomenon puzzles residents and officials, and the fact that it also occurs elsewhere offers little solace. “I’ve read books on it; I’ve talked to psychologists,” says Maj. Atwell. “I don’t know why they do it.” Atwell was shocked when she heard undergraduates saying it was the riots that inspired them to come to Maryland. An alum herself and a 28-year veteran of the university’s force, the major now sometimes roots for Maryland teams to lose.

Without a single solution to the spurts of mindless violence, Atwell hopes the rioting will pass from fashion—already the unruliness has faded significantly in intensity. The president has made ending the embarrassing riot culture one of his highest priorities. If things get out of hand, and you’re caught in the crowd by one of the campus security cameras, you can be expelled.

A more complete strategy would complement the threat of punishment with positive incentives. Students are obviously bored. Try this: Make College Park worth not destroying.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

For about a quarter century, Jim Dodson has survived on paper-thin margins. Since 1983, he has sold comics in the main commercial district along Route 1, near the corner with Knox Road. Before then, as a graduate student in entomology, he would rent space once a week at the student union. With every comic order, he assumes significant risk. Clogging the shelves right now are more than 25 issues of perhaps his worst recent investment, Supergirl, Lost Daughter of Krypton No. 9. The title’s popularity has fallen off “precipitously” from the months before, says Dodson, shaking his head.

Dodson often lets personal fancy trump business acumen. For the past seven years, he has dedicated a whole floor-to-ceiling shelving unit and about $1,500 to books espousing the libertarian philosophy he shares. In 2004, he changed the name of the store from the Closet of Comics to Liberty Books & Comics, creating confusion among passers-by who think used books are the more important component of the store. Sales of the political volumes are rare. “It’s my heart saying, ‘I support this publisher!’ ” he says. “But you don’t sell one damn one of them.” He bought 100 copies of a 19th-century political tract he likes to just give away, and when I decline an offered copy, his shoulders slump in disappointment.

Liberty Books represents exactly the kind of profit-ambivalent operation that College Park desperately needs more of. By appealing to obscure tastes, by taking risks with your stock, you help build an interesting downtown. If only there was more room. The buildings aren’t very big, there’s not much retail space, and what space becomes available commands sky-high rent. For the most part, only national chains can buy in.

So in recent years, downtown College Park has lost a card-and-gift store, the Planet X coffeehouse, a yarn store, and Terrapin Taco House, which had been in business for 34 years. The Maryland Book Exchange was once the finest bookstore in the Washington area; according to Kyle McAbee, 53, a former employee of a long-gone rival store, the Exchange “attempted to get every book in print.” Now half of the store’s floor space is dedicated to Terps gear. Independently owned Vertigo Books, which moved from Dupont Circle, partially makes up for the losses, but the shopping area has also gained Starbucks, Smoothie King, Potbelly, Noodles & Company, Cold Stone Creamery, and about a dozen other generic, market-tested sure things—almost all of it food. Ask an undergraduate what he values most about College Park, and as likely as not he will say Chipotle, and he will boast the true fact that the local franchise has rung up some of the company’s highest sales. “It has the best meat,” says Evan Doyle, a 21-year-old senior. “It’s spicy—but not so spicy that people who don’t like spicy won’t like it.”

The place with the most traffic, though, has to be Wawa, although its customers show it little outward affection. On weekend nights after the bars close, students stream in, crowding the store with their bursting nihilism, and attack the shelves. Nick, a 19-year-old sophomore, says that his friends play a game based on who can pop the most bags of chips. “Fourteen is the record,” he says; the champion got caught on No. 15.

That’s not college. That’s College Park.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

On a recent Monday evening, the motor of an air conditioning unit overheats on the fifth floor of an off-campus student high-rise. Local firefighters respond with overwhelming force. A fleet of four firetrucks and four or five SUVs flying the colors of various local fire companies tears down Route 1 and climbs Knox Road into the apartment tower’s parking lot. Soon after, the men are peeling off their gear and uncoupling a hose from the hydrant. Another night, another siren serenade. “We call it the sound of home,” says Christine Dollymore, 47, a longtime College Park resident. “If we don’t hear the fire engines, something’s wrong.”

Fire resonates with particularly tragic memories in College Park. Earlier this year, 22-year-old senior David Ellis died in a fire at one of the notorious “Knox Box” apartments, clusters of cheap rental blocks abutting the south end of campus. In May, 20-year-old junior Daniel Murray was charged with setting the fire at a rental home on Princeton Avenue last year that killed 22-year-old senior Michael Scrocca. Murray was allegedly drunk and angry at being taunted by people at a party hosted at the house, so he returned early that morning while everyone in the house was asleep and threw a lit broom on the porch couch. In 1912, a catastrophic fire burned nearly the whole campus to the ground.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

College Park isn’t actually always aflame. The main reason for the constant racket is because Route 1 is the central conduit of area traffic to and from the Beltway at the northern border of town. Several local fire companies use it to reach highway car wrecks. That is but one of the many ways the state road channels bad vibes through town.

The road, four lanes parted by a suicide turning lane, is the spine of the city—and also its angry heart. Formerly a stagecoach trail between Baltimore and D.C., it would later define what College Park was to become: divided. The campus grew longitudinally, stretching south to north along the west side of the road. Most of the city developed longitudinally along the east side. There would be no center where the two would meet, not unless you count the wide road itself.

That the university would be located here at all, near the eventual confluence of I-95 and the Beltway, and within 20 miles or so of Maryland’s population centers, ensured that the College Park campus would have a heavy commuter contingent. More students have been living on or near campus in recent years, but about 10,000 undergrad and graduate students purchase parking permits, and many of them live outside College Park. Route 1 is their driveway. At rush hours it is a parking lot. Returning home, traveling the two-and-a-half miles from the main gate to the Beltway can take, in some extreme circumstances, an hour and a half.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

You know you’ve had a deprived college experience when half of it takes place in a car. For those who drive, heading to campus is the equivalent of going to work. Home—where you buy groceries, eat, and sleep; where you raise a family, vote, and host neighborhood barbecues; where you watch fireworks, bowl, and pay taxes—is elsewhere.

It was the university’s bad luck to be founded, exactly 150 years ago, about 10 miles from downtown Washington. At the time, 10 miles was a long way, and the capital was too small to matter. But a century later, the college town found itself a commuter suburb. Area amenities concentrated elsewhere, and communities like Takoma Park, with its small-scale charms unbothered by a major thoroughfare, became more desirable places to live.

Eric Olson, a 36-year-old member of College Park’s city council, recently gave me an evening tour of the town. We drive in Olson’s green Chevy pickup through his beautiful neighborhood of old cottages at the south end of town, and very quickly we’re out onto Route 1 and into the downtown district. Olson, who handles smart growth and transportation issues at the Sierra Club, says the city is finally redeveloping the area to make it more townlike. Within a few years, the anonymous City Hall building behind the shopping strip will be demolished and replaced with a mixed-use development—condos on top, retail at the ground floor. There will also be a new parking garage, something desperately demanded by store owners who cater to a commuter-heavy campus. As it is now, “we get all the negatives of the traffic and none of the benefits,” Olson says.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

We drive farther north up Route 1, which is called Baltimore Avenue on the signs, past the university’s main entrance and the horseshoe of Fraternity Row, and now it’s standard exurban no man’s land. Empty lots, Jiffy Lube, Taco Bell, boarded-up restaurants, chain motels. There are several gems out here, too, such as the College Perk coffeehouse and Alario’s Italian Pizzeria and Restaurant. Atomic Music moved to Beltsville a few weeks ago.

We pull off the main artery onto what is by comparison a small capillary road, into another charming neighborhood like Olson’s, all residential but for a sprinkle of interesting stores such as the Smile Herb Shop and a vegetarian cafe. Farther on, nearly at the Beltway, we reach a shopping plaza with a My Organic Market and an REI. These are all types of stores you’d expect to see in a college town’s downtown. But we are now three miles away.

Back onto Route 1, we pass what Olson calls “sort of the middle” of College Park, but in a city with no town square, that doesn’t mean much. Nearby is the city’s veterans memorial. It shares the corner with a U-Haul franchise. The great hope for Route 1 is that it will one day become a boulevard, with a grassy median and trees and graded turning slots and bike lanes and more sidewalks. Olson very consciously wants College Park to be more like a classic college town, and he believes that a made-over Route 1 is the answer. Such a plan has been approved by state officials, but it has yet to receive funding. The town has a lot of the other requisite qualities: ethnic and income diversity, Metro access along its eastern boundary, a paved bike path through some charming, historic neighborhoods. “We’ve also worked to sell the city,” he says. “But you know, the challenge is Route 1.”

Getting from enclave to enclave, to College Perk or to the supermarket, from south to north and from east to west, requires driving on or across it, and you might even have to make a left turn. One day it might be possible to fix up Route 1. But you will never be able to escape it.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

Over the years, alcohol has become a scarce commodity on campus. Kegs are banned on university property. Parties in dorms are strictly controlled, low-key affairs. Frat houses host only a few parties a year, and when they do, they must register each one and supply a bouncer to check IDs at the door. University police patrol the football tailgates, where if they catch you playing beer pong, you might lose both the beer and the balls. The 2002 death by excessive intoxication of a fraternity pledge amped up the vigilance.

An unintended result is that the drinking has moved farther afield, into College Park neighborhoods. The frats, for instance, operate satellite houses. Some parties migrate outside the jurisdiction of the university police, requiring walks down darker side streets beyond the reach of the campus shuttle-bus system, into territory where drunk students make for mugger prey.

The campus police acknowledge that the restrictive beverage policies often just shift the drinking to more perilous spots. “I would argue that it does cut down on some [underage drinking], because you have people unwilling to take the risk,” says Maj. Atwell.

But sticking close to campus doesn’t necessarily help. In 2002, a 20-year-old student was fatally stabbed by a nonstudent outside a party a few blocks from university police headquarters.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

Every college town suffers town–gown friction. In College Park, gown fears town, and the fear is well-justified. According to FBI stats, incidents of the worst violent crimes—rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults—increased some 50 percent in 2005 from the year before, to 38. The number of robberies, 18, was the most in at least a decade.

According to Maj. Atwell, part of the problem is that area criminals have easy access to campus from University Boulevard and Route 1. In 2000, after University Courtyard, an off-campus student-housing complex, opened at the extreme western edge of town, it instantly became a vulnerable target. “It was clear people were coming off University Boulevard, victimizing someone, and pulling out quickly,” she says. The ready escape routes also facilitated car thefts. When the GTA wave hit P.G. County several years ago, the problem spiked in College Park. In 2001, there were 115 cars stolen from students, quadruple the figure from the year before. The average annual toll has been about 70 since then.

University police distribute mass e-mails to students as serious criminal incidents happen. To students, these dispatches of robberies and assaults read as a drumbeat of increasing danger. “Seems like last semester it was one every other day,” says Alex Cameron, a 19-year-old sophomore. Crime alerts actually hit in-boxes on average once per week, but the violence struck Cameron close to home. Two of his fraternity brothers were mugged independently of each other last semester; in one of the incidents, the victim was also beaten, right in the middle of Fraternity Row. “It’s pretty pathetic that guys have to worry about pairing up and walking home,” says another brother, Jeff Wimbish, a 22-year-old senior.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

A month into the new semester, there is little sign of a letup. At 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 22, five days after shots are fired outside the Cornerstone, a man threatens a student with a replica semi-automatic pistol outside the Wawa. About 24 hours later, early on Saturday morning, shots are fired into South Street Steaks across the street. (Three suspects, all nonstudents, are quickly arrested.) On Sunday night, two men hold up a student at gunpoint just outside Cameron and Wimbish’s fraternity house. On Tuesday afternoon, an armed man robs a downtown bank.

Like any college, the University of Maryland yearns to shut itself off from the outside world—to fend off clashes with thugs as with other undesirables. The city doesn’t show up on tourist itineraries, and people in the area who didn’t attend the school tend to not even know what College Park looks like. But the city figures prominently on the maps of perverts, so much so that the Cornerstone has an anti-creep strategy: On a sign by the door, it says that if you don’t have a college or military ID, you pay a $50 cover.

“There’s so many fucking bars in Baltimore, and you want to pick up drunk college girls?” says Cara Thompson, a 22-year-old junior, outside the Cornerstone following the initial gunfire incident. “People come here just to pick on our people, and that sucks.”

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

Earlier that same night, a middle-aged man in a tie and thick glasses who called himself Don strode into Bentley’s. Bald but for wings of mussed hair leaping from his temples, and with his shirttail sprouting from his open fly, he looked as if he might have already weathered a big night instead of having just begun one. But the frumpy professor act worked. Without hardly trying, by just keeping a grin locked in place, maintaining a look of wide-eyed surprise, and bouncing from foot to foot, he got some of what he was looking for from the ladies. During “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” he achieved a girl sandwich on the dance floor. There was, however, no touching.

He then pulled a disposable camera from his shirt pocket and snapped pictures of his dance partners. They took pictures with their own camera with him, and then he went downstairs. Don enjoyed similar success down there, with raised glasses in his honor and more photos. A long-haired guy in a lumberjack flannel leaned into Don’s ear and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m Don!” he replied.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

The longer he stayed in one place, the more strongly his aura of creepiness radiated, and the more space women would give him. He went back upstairs to a crowded corner where the Don effect would still be fresh. When that scene tired after 10 minutes, he left.

“The girls were kind of wild,” said Don in a thick Southern accent when he walked out. “They’re all over you.” Don wasn’t a professor. It’s unclear what he was. “I was just on the interstate, thought I’d have a beer,” he said. He was heading for Richmond that night, having started from somewhere in Pennsylvania. He visibly saddened at the thought that he was now being followed, ended the conversation with an “OK,” and then crossed Route 1.

(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)

Don entered Santa Fe Café, circled around for a few minutes, saw there was no dancing, and walked out again. I asked about the pictures he was taking. “I had some shots left,” he replied. “Thought I’d use them up.” There was a pause, then, “I think it’s time to go,” and he disappeared into the parking lot of the shopping plaza. Just passing through, like everybody else. CP

Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis

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