New guide tells University of Pittsburgh students how to be good neighbors

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When University of Pittsburgh student David Lear moved into off-campus housing, the neighbor on one side of his apartment greeted him warmly.

The neighbor on the other side, the 21-year-old said, gave him a stern warning not to be noisy.

The two encounters illustrate the love-hate relationship between Pitt students and longtime Oakland residents.

It is a relationship that often places Pitt in the crossfire.

But the university has started to take steps to ease this town-gown tension.

With students arriving in a couple of weeks for fall term, Pitt has begun distributing a 16-page guide to student life that contains information on the history of Oakland, tips on how to be a good neighbor and throw responsible parties, and advice on how to interact with landlords. The booklet is being distributed to freshmen at Pitt orientation programs this summer, and officials with Oakland Planning and Development Corp. are handing them out to transfer students and those who live off campus.

Data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey collected between 2007 and 2011 show that about 65 percent of Oakland's residents, or roughly 13,000 people, were enrolled in college or graduate school, according to Robert Gradeck, a research specialist at Pitt's Center for Social and Urban Research.

The goal is to educate students, said John Wilds, Pitt's assistant vice chancellor for community relations. This is critical, he said, because Oakland residents see a new batch of students every year. The university consulted community groups such as Oakland Planning and Development Corp. and Pitt's student government for input on what to include in the booklet. Both groups are pleased with the content and hope it will help bridge the gap between residents and students.

"We can really show students that, hey, this isn't just a college town, it's a really dynamic, diverse community in which a lot of people are co-existing," Rebekkah Ranallo, communications manager for the Oakland planning group, said of the booklet.

Although the booklet may help, student-related problems in Oakland are still a sore spot for many permanent residents.

Geof Becker, co-chairman of Oakwatch, said that at night, students are "fighting and yelling and screaming, knocking stuff off your porch, peeing on your bushes.

"That just completely undermines any sense of home. You just feel like you're under attack in your own house."

Oakwatch is an arm of the Oakland planning group that works to address negligent property owners, housing violations, parking violations, disruptive behavior, excessive noise and underage drinking.

Students also contribute to traffic congestion and trash problems, said David Brewton, who has lived in West Oakland for 30 years.

Mr. Brewton said overall he was not upset with students. "My personal experience has been that most of the students are polite and respectful," he said.

Both men agreed that problems vary depending on students' behavior.

"Some years you get students who are brought up well by their parents, who want to be good neighbors and are just a delight," Mr. Becker said. "Other years you get students where the movie 'Animal House' is a bible of daily living."

Mr. Brewton said he observed such extremes when he tried to give students information about Oakland at the beginning of a recent school year. He, along with other Oakland residents, walked to students' houses and gave them coupons and sometimes cookies and also reminded them about trash day and to be good neighbors. Most interactions were pleasant, Mr. Brewton said, but in some cases, students were hostile.

"One [student] engaged my wife in some debate about how dare we suggest to him that there are rules in life," he said.

Others who live in the community did not appear to be bothered by students.

Occasionally, residents complain about student squalor but no major problems exist, said Tom Drischler, who has worked for almost 25 years at the Community Human Services Corp. on Lawn Street, which he said is surrounded by student housing. He added that some Pitt students, such as those studying nursing, volunteer at the community center.

Oakland resident Sean Bligen agreed.

"As far as a problem, they're no problem at all," he said of students, adding that they "are actually quite cool."

For many students in off-campus housing, their primary contact with the community is their landlord, and some of those relationships are strained because housing is in disrepair.

Emily Galfond, a Pitt student, is frustrated because the elevator at her complex has been broken for weeks, she said, forcing her to walk up five floors every day.

When police came to investigate a break-in at Drew Batoha's house, they found that the lock on the door was loose enough to be kicked in, he said.

Mr. Lear, a biology major, had a disagreement with his landlord over the condition in which he left his apartment when he moved out: He claimed he left the apartment clean but said he almost lost his deposit because the landlord claimed the apartment was too messy.

These students said that having information about renters' rights and other issues would have been helpful.

The new booklet includes that information and lists resources as well as a checklist that students can complete before signing a lease.

The guide also includes information about the Pitt Promise, which is taken from the university's student code of conduct and reminds students that they are expected to be in control of their behavior while off campus.

New students this summer who attended the university's Pitt Start Orientation Program were receptive to the idea of the booklet.

"I'm going to live here, so I guess I should [read the booklet]," said Marissa Tartaglia of suburban Philadelphia.

Though tensions persist, Mr. Becker and others believe students and Oakland residents are beginning to co-exist more peacefully.

"This is a valuable booklet," he said. "On first glance, I would say I think they've covered a lot of the essentials."

Ms. Ranallo of the Oakland planning group agreed. "I would say it's one positive result of a very large process, one step in the right direction of a much larger, bigger picture."

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