The kids call it the strip. The police call it a zoo. Merchants call it a goldmine or a headache, depending on their frame of mind.
It is a two-block strip of Rte. 1 in College Part containing four bars. Adjacent to the strip sits the University of Maryland campus with over 30,000 students during the school year.
On most nights when the students come out to play they are joined by the under-18 crowd that wants to hang out with an older crowd, and the over-21 crowd trying to bring back the good old days.
The mixture can be, and often is, explosive.
"Some nights you can't even walk down the street it's so bad," said Sgt. Ralph Ross of the Prince George's County police. "The place is a zoo, an absolute zoo. Bottles and cans all over, people getting sick or urinating in the street. Fights all the time. It never ends. Never."
To deal with the problems, if not end them, county police began a crackdown in the neighborhood on May 24. The previous Friday, seven arrests were made in three hours. Police say there could have been more.
Since that date seven police officers have been assigned to the strip between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. Laws routinely ignored in the past, like drinking in public, distributing the peace and disorderly conduct, now are being enforced - at least to the point where police are stopping people and warning them.
In a sense, the area is under martial law. Yell out your car window, walk down the street with an open beer, take a turn a little too fast. At the very least you will be told to leave.
The crackdown comes after a series of complaints from townspeople. "They got tired of staying up half the night with the noise and wading through beer bottles in the morning," Ross said.
But youths mean revenue. The merchants need their business.
"My boss wouldn't ever say this in public," said one bartender, "but he really don't care what goes on outside of here. He needs the business the kids bring in. Sometimes there's trouble. But it goes with the territory. You accept the good with the bad."
Most of the kids in the bars are looking to socialize, to meet people, dance and talk with friends. They have no desire to confront the police or to get into trouble with them.
"When I'm out, sure maybe I like to get high, why out?" said Maryland junior. "I like to get a little wild, but not so wild it's going to mean trouble. I know when to cut it off. Personally I think most of my friends are the same way. Who needs it?"
For the most part, the police agree with her assessment that the college students are not looking for trouble. They say it is the groups that come to mingle with the students who give them the most trouble.
Sgt. Ross, who headed the team of police assigned to the area last week, says that "The Rendezvous," - the no. 1 college hangout - is rarely a trouble spot.
"The Voo (as it is called) doesn't give us problems too often," he said "You take any college town and you're going to figure the college kids are going to be a problem.
"But you go into any place where you just have college kids and it isn't really bad.The places you get trouble are the ones where you have the college kids, the teen-agers who are still in high school and the older ones. By me, that combination spells trouble."
Four bars line the strip. The Italian "Gardens is the largest and most elegant of the four, with a posh discotheque upstairs. The dressed-up crowd can be found here. Singles, dressed to kill, abound.
At The Varsity Grill and The Backroom (which is in the back of the Varsity Grill), the atmosphere is different. More blue jeans. More youngsters who look as if their bedtime should be 10 p.m. There is live music here, too, but drinking is the main item on the agenda, not dancing.
At The Voo no hard liquor is served, only beer, and it is downed in large quantities. Here the crowd consists almost exclusively of the college kids. If those at Italian Gardens play "Can You Top This" with their flashy clothes, the college group seems to compete to see who is the sloppiest.
The four bars have one thing in common: No one, NO ONE, gets in without ID. You have to be 18 and prove it even if you look like your son might be 18. "It's the ones who look 25 who always turn out to be 15," one bouncer said, not cracking a smile.
Problems inside the bars are rare, and the bouncers are usually larger than the participants and able to handle things.
"It's when they hit the street that your problems start." said police Maj. Rice Turner, commander of patrol operations for the county police. "That's what we watch."
"There are some people you just want to get out of the area," Ross explained. "They come over to College Park to be with the college kids but they also come looking for trouble. You can recognize them a mile away. But unless they really get bad, we don't arrest them. Too much paperwork."
Ross is 40, an 18-year veteran of the police force, but he looks 30. His blond hair and quick smile are an asset in dealing with the young crowd. Many come over to talk to him when he walks into a bar. The outsiders are different.
For example. On the second night of the police crackdown Ross and two of his men were relaxing across the street from The Backroom. It was close to midnight. There had been few problems.
A car roared down Rte. 1 and turned up Knox Road where the police were sitting. Outside The Backroom a group of people were sitting and talking.
As the car went by someone yelled out the window, "Hey you (obscenity), get bad, get bad." That was the first mistake. The second mistake came when the driver elected to make a left turn into the shopping center across from "the Backroom" and park.
By the time five men emerged from the car, there were five policemen waiting for them. ID's were produced and at least six open beers were poured out.
The men offered no resistance. They were offered a simple choice: leave the area at once or go to jail on charges of disorderly conduct and drinking in public. They were gone.
The police were not always go successful. Later, as the bars were beginning to empty, two young men wandered down the street toward The Italian Gardens. All they were wearing were two large smiles.
The police spotted them and gave chase, but the pair made it to their car, hopped in and took off, nearly knocking down one of the policemen as they roared by. No one got the right license plate number.
No one was terribly upset, either. "I'm just sorry I missed it," said Ross who had been inside at the time. I haven't seen a streaker in years."
Not everything runs smoothly.Some people seem to feel that the extra police are a form of harassment. Others demand badge numbers.
Major flare-ups seem to be a thing of the past, at least for the moment. The police say they plan to keep the seven-man unit in the area for at least three or four weeks before deciding whether to keep it there.
Since the crackdown, police have made two or three arrests a night, generally for disorderly conduct, and they also have detained several juveniles a night until their parents picked them up. In Prince George's County no one under 18 is allowed on the street after 10 p.m. without a specific destination.
To most on the strip the crackdown is not a problem. The music continues to throb, the youths keep drinking and the under-18s hang around in dark corners, hoping they will not be seen. Some say they will have to find a new hangout.
"I told you there were police here." one youngster, who said he was 16, said to another after they'd been stopped. "I ain't coming back here."
That is what the police want. A strip in College Park habited mainly by collegians would please them no end. But if that happens, it probably will only be temporary.
"Crime doesn't stop, problems don't go away," said Ross. "They just move somewhere else for a while."
By last Thursday the streets were almost devoid of broken bottles. Word had gotten out.
"As long as you stay here, the bad guys'll stay away," Cathy Rossman, a recent Maryland graduate said to a group of police. "But once you're gone, they'll be back. Just watch."
There is one major difference on the strip when the police are around according to Mike DeLuca, a veteran of The Voo.
"Without the police there are as many people partying outside as inside," DeLuca said. "Now everyone's partying inside."
Which is fine with the police, fine with the merchants, and apparently fine with most of the kids. Life on the strip goes on.