Pitt students encouraged to become good neighbors

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Tens of thousands of students come to Pittsburgh for an education each year, and many live in Oakland. But ask them about their neighbors and you might get a blank look.

One lesson that's been missing in students' education is that they live among people who, like most of their parents, have invested in their homes, have jobs and need sleep.

The perennial problem of town-and-gown tension was a high priority for those who created the Oakland 2025 plan, a comprehensive vision that was unveiled at a public reception on Thursday. One initiative is "Be a Good Neighbor," a program organized by the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with the Oakland Planning & Development Corp.

John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for community relations, said the university has recognized and tried to remedy the problem over many years, but "Be a Good Neighbor" has gotten students to help push the message.

After luncheons in the spring and fall for vested residents and student leaders, Pitt planned three block parties in targeted areas. Bryant Andrews-Nino, a junior pre-law student from the Philadelphia area, attended the luncheons as president of the Resident-Student Association, a liaison for students in residence halls.

"I had never, ever known long-term residents lived in Oakland," he said. "Hearing that, I thought, 'Wow, I want to be part of this change.'

"I had been part of the problem, not out of disrespect but from a lack of knowledge. OPDC has broadened my horizons, to get to know the lay of the land in Oakland and to explore" beyond the college experience.

The neighborhood group hired him to lead its outreach. He gathered students to distribute packets to colleagues. In each was a refrigerator magnet explaining garbage collection, landlord responsibilities and volunteer opportunities.

The magnets read, in part: "Congrats on moving off campus! Now you are living next door to families who have invested their lives into the neighborhood. Be a good neighbor by keeping your property clean ... and partying indoors."

Besides being unaware their neighbors aren't all students, many students don't know about garbage day, he said. "Maybe their landlord didn't tell them. Some students said, 'Wow, I didn't know we recycled.' "

Lindsay Marshall, a graduate student in social work, said she used to think of Pitt and Oakland as "one and the same. In my junior year, I moved into the first floor of a house on Atwood Street. We saw a great big garden in the back yard next door, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' We had no idea. It made me more cognizant that we had to turn the volume down."

More than 2,500 packets were delivered to off-campus students, mainly in areas identified as hot spots for neighbor complaints.

The block parties were held on Parkview and Lawn streets in South Oakland and on Dithridge Street in North Oakland, where Kathy Gallagher, whose family has lived on the street for 100 years, agreed to open her front yard.

"I must admit, I was skeptical after many years of living on 'the party street,' " she said about the effort. "I meet each year with John Wilds, police officials and our neighborhood association to address concerns about student behavior.

"There were about 80-90 people in attendance, both residents and students. It was a very pleasant experience and we met many great students. One young man came over to introduce himself the next day. He offered to assist me in any way he could -- snow shoveling, leaves, etc.

"He said the young men from his house would check my yard after weekend parties and make sure there were no beer cans or bottles there. I haven't seen any since."

Another student gave her his phone number in case she ever needed help.

The parties continue and the police are sometimes called, she said, "but I feel that the Good Neighbor initiative was a positive step. I certainly appreciate the university's efforts."

"We're trying not to get too over-the-top excited about it, but it has been a positive experience," said Kannu Sahni, Pitt's director of community relations.

He said 97 percent of freshmen live on campus at the university's encouragement. Roughly half of all undergraduates live off campus, he said.

"There are a lot of false stereotypes people have in regard to students" and vice versa, Mr. Andrews-Nino said. "Now students have been given tools to work on those relationships."

And it cuts both ways, he said. "There is one person who brings cookies to students" who move in near her, he said. "You're less likely to trash the property of someone who gave you cookies." Not that people have to bake cookies. "Just reaching out is important."

education - neigh_city

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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