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Blogging neighbor and partying Georgetown students clash

By Jenna Johnson
Saturday, May 1, 2010; C01

Stephen R. Brown wanted to curb the loud, drunken parties that Georgetown University students throw in his historic Burleith neighborhood. So Brown, 62, snapped photos of the ruckus on his block -- students hanging out on a roof, a backyard gathering lit by holiday lights -- and posted the images on a new Web site: DrunkenGeorgetownStudents.com.

But it didn't go quite according to plan: The operator of the server hosting the site received more than 20 complaints and warned Brown that he was violating the terms of service, he said. Some neighbors complained that the site strayed from their usual strategies in trying to get college students to quiet down, mow their lawns and pick up trash. And Brown, a professional photographer, realized that posting photos of identifiable people, along with their addresses, could land him in court.

"I don't have time for a First Amendment suit," said Brown, a resident of the neighborhood for 19 years.

When he was forced to shut down the Web site Wednesday afternoon, the Georgetown Voice, a student magazine, celebrated with a tweet: "students 1, stephen brown 0."

And so ended Round 1.

Round 2 began later that day.

Brown moved his content to a blog. He blurred the photos so that no faces or license plates could be identified. He edited out exact addresses. And he typed up a post aimed at those who had complained about the original Web site.

"We're here in the soup, live on the web and photographing away," Brown wrote. "Welcome to 'Drunken Georgetown Students'!"

When an apparent reply arrived -- a car full of people drove past his home early Thursday and yelled his name -- Brown wrote another post: "I hope the police pick you up tonight and that you have a terrible hangover in the morning."

This escalation of the ancient town-gown battle along the fringes of Georgetown University has not produced a decisive victor, but it has yielded increasingly raw feelings on both sides.

A Georgetown student created a spoof Web site, CreepyBurleithGuy.com, which chronicles the actions of the "The Man . . . The Myth . . . The Creepy Old Guy who stalks drunk college kids and takes their pictures in the dark of night."

Other students organized an honorary Drunken Georgetown Students BBQ for Saturday afternoon. Yet another group joked about buying the domain name UpTightGeorgetownResident.com.

"I think most people just think it's a joke: 'Let's make fun of him. Let's try to get on the Web site,' " said Michael Nicholas, 19, a sophomore political economics major. "It just has no purpose. It's not going to do anything."

Burleith Citizens Association President Lenore Rubino said Brown's tactics have started an important conversation about how Georgetown is "using the communities as their housing." As the university's undergraduate population has increased over the past several years, the number of rental houses in nearby neighborhoods has increased, she said. And having more student neighbors often means more noise, parties, trash, unkempt yards and extra parked cars.

Burleith comprises about 540 houses -- mostly Dutch colonials and Tudor, Victorian and Federal rowhouses -- constructed in the 1920s and '30s. The neighborhood, which lacks the name recognition of Georgetown and Glover Park, is sometimes called North Georgetown. And although some houses are priced near seven figures, they are typically more affordable than those in Georgetown. Many of the rowhouses back up to large alleys that neighbors say easily carry the sound of parties.

"We're all doing our best [to control the problems], but it's a huge burden," said Rubino, a real estate agent. "The university is very powerful, and we are being taken over by them, in a way."

Still, Citizens Association of Georgetown President Jennifer Altemus said Brown's Web site is "just a little bit too dramatic."

"I know it can be frustrating to not be able to sleep in your own house," she said, but the neighborhood association "would certainly like to operate through traditional channels of communication."

Traditional channels is how the university is used to hearing from frustrated neighbors, said Jeanne Lord, Georgetown's associate vice president of student affairs. "I don't recall having seen something like this," she said of Brown's blog.

The easiest and most direct way for students and neighbors to resolve issues? Talk to one another, Lord said.

The university has been communicating with neighbors more than usual lately, as it prepares to present its 10-year growth plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission.

Since the last once-a-decade ritual, the university has added more on-campus housing and started several programs to ease tension with neighbors: a 24-hour hotline so neighbors can phone in complaints; a crew of security guards who are dispatched to break up parties; stricter penalties for students who disrupt neighbors; and a shuttle bus to take students home from the bars so fewer of them will walk loudly through the neighborhood.

And yet residents of Burleith are still sometimes kept awake by laughing, partying, yelling college students. This weekend is the first since Brown's site went viral -- and Friday just happened to be the university's annual spring festival, Georgetown Day, which usually kicks off a weekend of unofficial student festivities.

"I imagine it will be a hell of a weekend," he said.

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