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Tensions rise between homeowners and Pitt students on North Dithridge

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One day last May, Kathy Gallagher looked across from her house on North Dithridge Street and spotted her porch furniture.

It was on a roof.

Last month, a readers' poll in the Pitt News named North Dithridge the best street on which to party in Oakland. Residents are concerned about increases in noise, trash and vandalism. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

A policeman accompanied her up the street and went into the rooming house. He came back out and told her, "You don't want to go in there." Two young men inside offered to carry the furniture back for Gallagher but insisted they didn't know how it got onto the roof.

Gallagher's family has lived in the same house on the 200 block for 90 years. An easy walk from the University of Pittsburgh campus, it has always been a nice slice of town and gown. But the dynamic has shifted in recent years. Now, it is more like town and toga.

"I have always loved living in a university neighborhood," says Gallagher, an elementary school teacher. "But it has never been worse than it is this year." One recent weekend, she said, "I was watching them urinating on the church."

In the Nov. 12 edition of the Pitt News, a readers' poll named Dithridge the best street on which to party. It beat last year's winner, Atwood, a street right in the middle of campus. Dithridge's new distinction dismays fewer people than it would have maybe five, surely 10, years ago, when the block had more residents who had to get up early for work. But as the University of Pittsburgh's off-campus shoreline has rippled outward, the balance has tipped against owner-occupiers on the block.

 
 
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It is still a stately block with big front porches. The east side is dominated by a condominium complex, a large apartment building and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the west side, most of the larger houses have three, six or more mailboxes. Beer cans and bottles often lie strewn in yards, in hedges and along the sidewalk. Some garbage is put out without regard to when pick-up day is. Beaten-down couches the color of mud sit out in the elements for days. Collections of beer kegs are stashed in the back and sometimes on porches.

Longtime Dithridge activist Helen Corcoran Schlenke said the noise was just as bad in the early '70s, when she was new to the street, and she remembers vandalism then, too. The difference today is that a diminishing number of homeowners face what they feel is more deplorable behavior by renters, a rising tide of jetsam and even reasons to be afraid.

Residents claim their properties have been littered and vandalized, their windows broken and egged. One neighbor said one night that when she called 911, students appeared at her bedroom window shouting profanities.

A neighbor on North Bellefield Avenue -- the next street over -- said he has watched young men throwing bottles from the back of their house into the garden of the early childhood center of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. School director Janet Simon said someone also breached the 6-foot wall to steal a bronze turtle from the fountain.

"We have increased our security with light and sound sensors at incredible expense," she said. "It's such a shame, because we have a number of fraternity students who volunteer with our kids. There are a lot of great college kids out there. But obviously, we have some who are being bad neighbors."

This block is fighting an advanced condition of being trashed. Atwood went through the throes of that more than a decade ago and is now highly commercialized, mainly with restaurants. In north Squirrel Hill, Beeler Street may be next. It is still predominantly a community of homeowners, but the permanent residents see the tide coming in and they've started sandbagging.

Pitt student Marcus Bruner takes the trash to the back of the house he shares with nine others on Dithridge. "I get mad living here sometimes," he says. "Some of the people [in his house] don't clean up their areas." (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Chas and Elissa Hirsh started the Beeler Street Neighborhood Association five years ago when several houses had gone from owner-occupied to rentals. Since then, on a street that begins literally at the mouth of a Carnegie-Mellon University parking garage on Forbes Avenue and ends 0.4 mile later at Wilkins Avenue -- with a spur in the middle called Beelermont -- 37 percent of the homes are owned by landlords.

District 8 Councilman Bill Peduto, a fixture at neighborhood meetings, says the start of the school year "brings calls to my office like the swallows to Capistrano."

The decibel level on both sides has finally forged a unity of university, city and state law enforcement, said University of Pittsburgh police Chief Tim Delaney. "It is a situation that everyone has started to focus on as a quality-of-life issue."

On Dithridge, the city's zone 4 officers have stepped up patrols. State liquor control authorities have monitored parties. The Fire Bureau has inspected houses for code violations, and city building inspectors have cited for garbage.

Council President Gene Ricciardi recently proposed a Property Owner Responsibility Act to "target nuisance properties with an extra level of punitive damages," he said. Under the act, if police respond to more than three nuisance calls at a rental property in a month, stiff fines would be laid on the landlord. Unpaid fines would become tax liens. Ricciardi said the fines, still undetermined, would be upwards of $500.

"The city's resources are thin, and when we have to use them for nuisances, we aren't using them for" more deserving things, he said. "These people are draining our resources. Let them pay."

Jonathan Robison, a resident of the block since 1970, is vice president of the Bellefield Area Citizens Association. A lawyer, he rents part of his house to students and has had good relationships with them. It helps that noise and litter "don't bother me as much as they probably should."

But he supports his neighbors and intends to put his own "troublemaking" to work for enforcement of city code limits. "No more than three unrelated people can live in one legal unit," he said. "Many of these houses obviously exceed that limit, and some apartments have four different last names on the mailbox."

Peduto and zone 4 city police officer Ashley Thompson walked Dith-ridge last month, stopping at numerous houses whose interiors he described as "in horrible shape," with debris inside as well as out, some of it blocking stairwells. "It is an education process," he said. "When a councilman and a police officer show up at your house to talk, that goes a long way in the process."

One student told him, " 'You can't tell me what I can't do,'" he said. "Not belligerent. But there was a disconnect," no sensibility that when you live in a neighborhood you must be a neighbor. "I told the guy the city could cite him for code violations. As we were leaving, he was the one who was cleaning the front yard."

Several neighbors say they aren't merely antagonized. They worry that girls risk rape at parties, that drunken students will fall from fire escapes and roofs. One student did fall last year and is paralyzed. They worry that someone will drink himself to death, as a student did several years ago in a hazing ritual.

Delta Sigma Phi lost its 87-year-old charter this September because of a nonfatal drinking-hazing incident last spring. Delta Sigma Phi was the only university-recognized fraternity house when the school year started.

The other homes neighbors refer to as frat houses are all "just large group houses" in Pitt's eyes, said Paul Supowitz, an associate vice chancellor. "There are fewer off-campus fraternities than there used to be," he said. "The university has moved a lot of fraternities onto campus," in part because of assertive neighborhood groups. "We are committed to working with them. But there isn't a lot the university can do" to affect the behavior of adult students who live independently off campus.

And so, longtime residents reconcile their unease.

Gallagher, who like other neighbors chains her gas grill, said she has seen the futility in replacing her Guardian home-security signs every time they disappear. With a glance out her window, she laughs in spite of herself and waves to indicate the row of student-occupied homes, all quiet in the late afternoon. "They, of course, all have Guardian protection."


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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