Neighbors Mark Whitcomb and Rodney Johnson were rousted from their Tyler Street homes Sunday by the sound of raucous University at Buffalo students in the street.
It wasn’t a loud house party, though. It was a mini-parade through University Heights of UB’s marching band, the “Thunder of the East,” and football players handing out T-shirts that culminated in a block party on the South Campus lawn where neighborhood residents and student renters were welcome.
“UB has been very responsible in the last three, four years in controlling the students,” said Whitcomb, a Tyler Street resident of 30 years. “Ninety-eight percent of the students are good neighbors.”
“The kids are great,” added Johnson, a renter for three years. “They’re trying to persevere, to be better persons. They’re pretty cool. They carry a lot of respect with them.”
It wasn’t always that way. Whitcomb remembers when a fraternity house directly behind his on Merrimac Street was “a great source of trouble.”
Now, his biggest concern is litter. Remnants of a large weekend party– red plastic Solo cups – were seen Sunday discarded along Winspear Avenue near Main Street.
But UB officials and residents agreed that relations with the more than 2,000 UB students who live in University Heights have improved dramatically in recent years.
Dan Ryan, UB’s director of off-campus student services, attributed that success to an “evolutionary process” that begins with the new school year and encourages students to engage with their neighbors by joining block clubs and taking part in other community projects.
“Every September we’ve got a whole bunch of new people who have never lived alone before and who sometimes act that way,” he said as students and homeowners enjoyed lunch and live music on the Hayes Hall lawn. “A big part of this event is to build community, get them to know their neighbors.”
UB students have also taken an active role in projects such as the Heights’ garden walk, its community garden on Tyler Street and its tool rental library, said Mickey Vertino, president of the University Heights Collaborative.
“I’ve seen a very positive change in the last year or so,” he said. “I’ve been seeing a serious reduction in crime in this area. We have a very positive relationship with the community relations people.”
There are some challenges. Vertino said he has noticed an uptick in recent weeks in large parties brought on by the closure of two bars popular with the underage crowd.
“Now where are they going to hang out?” he asked. “And how are we going to approach this in a way that says, ‘Have a good time but be respectful’? ”
Ryan pointed to a new party registration program that allows students to notify their neighbors in advance of a gathering.
“That step alone has cut down the number of police calls for those kind of events dramatically,” Ryan said.
One of the major issues affecting the area is rental housing that has serious code violations. UB, neighborhood activists and city inspectors have teamed up to crack down on landlords with problem properties.
Vertino was introducing himself Sunday to Tony Rozario, a representative of a student-owned nonprofit called Off Campus Housing, which lists those available rentals that have received a clean certificate of occupancy within the last 36 months.
Establishing those types of connections was one of the main goals of Sunday’s event.
“There’s a lot of stigma about the area,” Rozario said.
“It’s not completely true. Especially after talking right now to Mickey, I even learned a few things.”