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The Neighborhood Strikes Back

Charley Tarr and Karyn Brady are standing up for their neighborhood. (photos by Jill Greenberg)

Complaints about off-campus rowdiness near Buffalo State College draws federal attention.

Take a walk around the Elmwood Village, and you’ll go past a lot of nice houses filled with homeowners and renters that represent a mix of incomes and age groups. It’s the sort of demographic that can make urban living exciting and fun.

On the other hand, if you head west on Bird Avenue—where the landmark WE NEVER CLOSE convenience store is located—and keep going four blocks, you might meet some folks who haven’t been finding it so much fun.

Meet Charley Tarr and Karyn Brady. They’re two of a large group of homeowners who have been getting together to talk about what they can do to change their quality of life for the better. What could be wrong with living four blocks away from Elmwood Village?

Well, sleep would be nice. Not feeling terrorized in your own home—that too, would be a plus.

I first got wind of the problems these people were experiencing in the spring of last year, through a series of phone calls and emails from Tarr. As his hairstyle would suggest, he is a forceful personality. He started telling me about the wild college kids and the late-night partying. Well, so what? I thought. I went to college. I’ve got a bunch of college kids on my street. But the anecdotes he was sharing went beyond the occasional blowout. This was more like Animal House on steroids. Gunshots. Videos posted on the Web of burning furniture and kids breathing fire.

One of the biggest irritants on the block was the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, or ZBT. As we go to press, they still maintain a Facebook page that explains: “This group is to keep in contact with all brothers from buffalo state if everyone can messege [sic] me or put your phone number on here so we can keep in touch and have everyone’s numbers together it would be great.”

Then there’s the collegial doggerel on the Facebook page: “We’re Zeta Beta Tau, the wolfpack of the night, we’re dirty sons of bitches and we’re down to fight right! We’re giving you some whiskey and some vodka too. We’re Zeta Beta Tau bitches!! So Fuck You!!”

Brady explains that the landlord eventually got rid of them and pulled the big Greek letters off the house. But by this time, the neighbors were getting pretty frustrated. They’d been doing all the obvious things. They’d call the police. The police would come, and the party would cool down. The police would leave, and some of the partiers would do things like shout up at Brady’s house, threatening to rape her. Someone carved the “c” word into her garage.

ZBT eventually managed to get itself banned from Buffalo State College, but for the neighborhood, other problems persisted.

The more I heard from the neighbors, the more I sympathized with them. They’d been reaching out to the college, the police, landlords, elected officials, judges, anybody they could think of. And still the parties would go on—often on weeknights, when a decent night’s sleep shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Still, how could I help? You read stories all the time about mayhem taking place in the University Heights neighborhood near UB’s Main Street campus with troubling regularity. Nothing seems to change. I knew they were reaching out to me in the hope I’d write a story and the ensuing public outcry would precipitate a correction to the way things are, but I was learning that the problems were so entrenched that fleeting public outrage would be a tiny blip in the grand scheme of things. Sometime last fall, the neighbors gave a copy of a video they’d shot to Channel 4 News, showing a rowdy party that had spilled into the street. The video generated a considerable number of comments on their Web site. Nothing much changed.

I also knew that a new president was coming to Buff State, and maybe they could get more attention and help than they’d had from the previous administration of Muriel Howard—and more specifically from Hal Payne, vice president for student affairs, whom the neighbors say has been especially unhelpful. After all, peace and quiet is what everyone wants here, right? Public safety would be good, too.

I arranged for an interview with Dr. Aaron Podolefsky, the incoming president, and met him in his office on the first day of the fall semester.

Meeting the new guy

The interview was conducted in his office at Buffalo State, and Podolefsky struck me as a really down-to-earth guy for a college president. Especially when you consider that I wasn’t there to gather quotes for a little fluff piece for a back-to-school issue. I brought up all these concerns I’d been hearing for months, and rather than skim over it all with pat excuses, he said he’d very much like to hear the neighbors’ concerns.

He told a funny anecdote about his tenure at a college in the Midwest, where a hardworking farmer asked him what all went on there at the university. Podolefsky countered by explaining that every day he’d drive past miles and miles of farmland, and he’d never see anybody out there working: “What all goes on out there at your farm?”

“When you’re dealing with off-campus issues,” he explained, “there are a lot of things you need to consider that you wouldn’t think of until you’re someone in my shoes.”

Among those things is the fact that college students are adults in the eyes of the law. If the off campus police aren’t making arrests, for example, how is a college to discipline them based on allegations?

Podolefsky was generous with his time with me, and he was equally generous with his time when a big group of the neighbors showed up at his door one day. He talked with them, in his bathrobe. One of the things they brought up with him was the model for town-an-gown relations developed and used by SUNY Albany.

Tom Gebhardt, the architect of the “Albany Model” was brought in to give a lecture attended by neighbors and the upper administration of Buffalo State. Some of the Albany Model features include a hotline and Website where residents can lodge complaints of unruly off-campus student behavior. The key to the model’s success seems to be in the active engagement between college representatives and the neighbors. Following a complaint, a face-to-face visit seems to go a long way there, both in terms of keeping neighbors happy and straightening out a young adult about what’s expected of him or her by the society they live in.

Here come the feds

In the meantime, while the outrageous stories continued to be swapped, other, and, if you can believe, more serious accusations came to light. These center on allegations of rape and sexual assault that involved Buffalo State students in the past.

Through the spring and summer of 2009, as the neighborhood grew more and more frustrated by the lack of any meaningful change, Tarr shared some of these stories with officials at the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The allegations that Tarr sent OCR describe the sort of nightmare that is being discovered across the country today on college campuses. The Department of Justice has issued a report saying that one in five women will become the victim of a rape or attempted sexual assault before she graduates college.

A letter from the OCR to Tarr, dated December 28, 2010, reads, in part: “OCR will consider this allegation as part of a comprehensive compliance review of the State University of New York System…The compliance review will entail an examination of the College’s handling of complaints of sexual violence and sexual harassment under its various procedures to determine if the College has responded immediately and appropriately, with particular emphasis on complaints of sexual assault. This will include examination of the College’s relationships with local police and rape crisis centers. The compliance review will focus on several campuses including the State University of New York—Buffalo State College.”

The letter continues: “It is unlawful to harass or intimidate an individual who has filed a complaint or participated in actions to secure protected rights. If such harassment or intimidation should occur, you may file a separate complaint with OCR alleging these acts.”

I contacted Dr. Podolefsky on Monday, to ask him if he’d seen the letter. He was out of town, but sent me an email reply: “I don’t have anything specific. I do not believe it is specific only to us. We work hard to be in compliance, and periodic review is not necessarily a bad thing. Beyond that we shall see how we do.”

Jim Bradshaw, a US Department of Education spokesman, explained that although the review encompasses the entire SUNY system, the OCR is focusing on SUNY at Albany, SUNY Morrisville State College, SUNY at New Paltz, and SUNY Buffalo State College.

“Opening a case for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the issues. Rather, the office is merely a neutral fact-finder. It will collect and analyze all relevant evidence from the parties involved to develop its findings,” Bradshaw said.

Regardless of the OCR’s findings, there’s probably a lesson in all this somewhere. Maybe it’s that a group of neighbors banding together to improve their quality of life doesn’t have to be a battle fought in vain. Or maybe it’s that you can get some attention drawn to a serious problem as long as you’re willing to make a federal case out of it. And maybe, in the end, the result can be a safer neighborhood, and a safer, more meaningful college experience for young people out on their own for the first time in the real world.

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