Town/Gown: Student renters, older residents feel divide in Wales Garden

By Isabelle Khurshudyan
Brantley Fortenberry
July 22, 2013

Wales Garden Neighborhood Association President Andrew Marion doesn’t mind the USC students who have moved into his cozy Columbia community until the late-night parties when he’s charged with damage control. Then the difficulties that can come from living close to the urban campus of a large state university become real.

“Sometimes this job can be more than I bargained for,” Marion said. “Sometimes I’ll spend an hour or two just sorting through the emails full of complaints or question.”

Wales Garden apartment buildings are now home to many USC students in Wales Garden.
Wales Garden apartment buildings originally aimed at working-class families are now home to many USC students.

Though Marion and fellow neighborhood association members have largely coexisted peacefully with the growing student population in Wales Garden, he said they need to interact more.

Marion said he hopes to unite with student renters to help preserve Wales Garden’s value. But some of the students say the neighborhood feels divided.

“I don’t really tend to talk to the older residents,” said Susanne Muecke, a student who rents in Wales Garden. “It’s nothing against them personally. I just don’t really have anything in common with them.”

Others say the older residents haven’t tried to listen to their perspective.

Some of the answers might be found in rural Murray, Ky., where Murray State University has a partnership with the community called Town and Gown. Most university communities have similar conflicts that are best resolved through communication, said Mark Welch, Town and Gown’s head of community relations.

“The perspective of older residents and university students may be completely different in that the students have little inclination to blend in and invest in the neighborhood,” Welch said. “To them their housing is transitional – certainly short term and selected for price or proximity to campus and other students.

“Older residents may feel betrayed by the university for allowing this encroachment in their neighborhood and angry at the student residents for directly affecting their lifestyles.”

Turning onto Saluda Avenue off Blossom Street, Wales Garden begins with residential homes on either side of a tree-lined median. The neighborhood adjacent Five Points is walking distance to the entertainment district popular with college students. The top of Capstone, one of the tallest buildings on campus, can be seen just above the trees.

Some students rent in brick, apartment-style homes while others band together to rent multi-bedroom houses.  The small apartment buildings were originally built for young or working-class families, said John Wrisley, 84, who said he’s lived in Wales Garden longer than anyone else.

To address the often-differentiating viewpoints between student renters and permanent residents, Marion started monthly meetings with USC’s off-campus housing coordinator, a local police representative and disgruntled residents. Marion said the meetings had helped him gain perspective on how to handle conflicts with students, though he said he didn’t know how to best reach out to them.

Jami Campbell, USC’s coordinator of off-campus housing, said her office encourages neighborhood leaders to contact the police for issues that violate the law or local ordinances because the university doesn’t have jurisdiction off campus. She meets with Marion and Wales Garden leaders once a month.

She said that, like Welch, she encourages communication to alleviate problems. Older residents should introduce themselves to student renters and tell them there are expectations of living in a residential neighborhood, she said.

“Students need to understand they may have families living next door to them that do not appreciate loud noise at 2 a.m. on a Thursday night,” Campbell said.

But Muecke said that if someone approached her like that, she would feel uncomfortable.

Katie Detar, a recent USC graduate who rents a three-bedroom Wales Garden home with two friends, said she had tried to be considerate, for instance making sure people weren’t outside or on the porch to keep the noise down when she’s thrown a party. But someone called police to end one of her parties without any warning, she said. Other students said it had happened to them too, and they wish a neighbor had knocked on the door to complain first.

“I just thought it really wasn’t fair,” Detar said. “I just wish that the other people in the community made more of an effort to reach out to us and got to know us first.”

The parties and noise aren’t the only concerns. Marion said residents frequently call or email him to point out trash left behind from a party the night before. Residents worry the mess makes the area look less desirable, potentially driving down property values, he said.

“Why is it that young men who live together can’t keep trash off their lawn?” asked Wrisley, who lives on Myrtle Court. “I just don’t understand how they can be so carefree.”

Welch reminds older residents to remember their behavior shortly after they left home for early adulthood. He suggests engaging students by remembering names or inviting them to dinner so they have a greater sense of belonging in the community, a possible incentive to take more care of their property.

Marion said he’s considered having a neighborhood party where student renters and permanent residents can interact in a casual and friendly setting. But, he said, what’s good in theory might not be practical: “I’m not sure how much anyone would want to participate.”

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