Student ghetto: West Virginia’s contender for #1 party school delivers a triumphantly trashy microcosm.

As garbage-strewn as my last article was, it was a pristine Eden compared to the content in this one.  And though the example I’m about to feature is the worst I’ve seen, I have a feeling it wouldn’t be that hard to spot similar settings that out-trash the photos here.  Just go to the closet major university (could be a big city or a college town), and look for the student ghetto.  Or the fraternity row.  Or, best of all, find a place that combines both.

Morgantown, West Virginia (pop. 30,000) is a city I’ve explored on more than one occasion, though usually only to scrutinize something particular, like a peculiar architectural feature or the fact that it remains the only city in the world to operate a system known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), whose rail network is quickly approaching its fiftieth anniversary.  The city the home to West Virginia University (WVU), the flagship school of the Mountaineer State, one of the few carved out of another state not based on inchoate territories.  As almost every American who is semi-literate in 19th century history knows (so maybe about one-third of the population), West Virginia only exists due to an entrenched dispute regarding slavery during the Civil War, where the rugged, owner-occupied farms in the counties of Appalachian Virginia felt no loyalty to the Confederate cause the claimed the tobacco-rich eastern lands closer to the coast.  So the state initiated a series of votes in 1861, increasingly favoring dissolution.  The legislature approved it in 1862, and President Lincoln admitted West Virginia to the union on June 20, 1863.  As a newly sovereign state, West Virginia understandably neither funded the University of Virginia system nor could confer in-state enrollment to its constituents; the state needed a public university system of its own. (Incidentally, the state’s second largest public university, Marshall University, predates WVU by thirty years, having been the westernmost major school in what was Virginia at that time.  Marshall also collapsed during the Civil War, leaving the state without a clear public school.)  Using the provisions of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, the newly christened West Virginia Legislature founded an agriculture college in Morgantown in 1867; within a year it became WVU, and has long asserted itself as the state’s flagship public university. 

Most of the Morgantown landscape offers what one would expect from a college town in West Virginia: a largely walkable setting that accommodates the disproportionate student population, a healthy and active downtown, and an urbanized area splayed across rugged hills and valleys.  And, as the first of my photos indicated, Morgantown offers exactly what one might expect for a place that routinely rates at or near the top among the country’s biggest party schools: a small district near campus with a mix of fraternity houses and privately owned apartments that fosters a devil-may-care attitude toward what passes as code violations, misdemeanors, or other lesser offenses.  In other words, the archetypal student ghetto.

West Virginia University’s student ghetto isn’t hard to spot at all.  The unattuned can still generally figure it out.  The oldest part of the campus sits immediately adjacent to downtown Morgantown, along a vaguely triangular shaped parcel sandwiched between High Street (also a primary commercial strip downtown) and the Monongahela River.

High Street forms the eastern boundary as it ventures both northward and climbs a steep slope.  Both it and the parallel Spruce Street (one block to the east) offer exactly what one expects, given their fortuitous location near WVU’s main campus.

And here one encounters a student ghetto archetype.  It’s an older home converted into multi-family housing, either split into several units or a rental house catering to unrelated individuals: namely, students who don’t want to live in dorms or frats.  But if a student picks a home along North High Street, chances are he or she likes to keep a finger on the pulse of the frat party scene.  Like the sturdy brick home from the early 20th century in the photo below, featuring a large red object on the porch, which is either an old-school trash receptacle or a keg. Doesn’t really matter which.

The front porch grill is another stereotype—indicators that the tenants at this house probably are a bit more fond of a raging party than your average scholar.  This is entirely their right, but the prevalence of these student-friendly rental units creates its own niche culture: a neighborhood dominated by people between 17 and 25 years old.

North High Street offers plenty more student ghetto indicators as one ventures up that mean hill.

As a testament to the change in grade, the sidewalk at times must morph into a flight of stairs, as is barely visible on the righthand margin of the photo above.  Then, to the left, perched on the power lines above the sidewalk, is what might from a distance look like a murder of crows.  Nope.  

Shoe-tossing, shoe trees, or shoefiti has so many speculative origins that it would require an entirely separate article to explore even a few of them.  All it takes is a pair of shoes with the laces tied together, thrown strategically so they drape and balance on the line.  The most common assumptions for this practice boil down to either gangs marking territory or young people engaged in some other rite of passage.  In Morgantown, the second of these two options is a safer bet.  It’s also an appearance that middle-class neighborhoods don’t tolerate.

The house in front, with the hot pink spindles on the front porch, is a subtler indicator…at least at first.  Aside from the distinctive color combo being an unlikely choice for an owner-occupied residence, a closer view reveals the obvious denizens.

Every horizontal wood plank is saturated with names and signatures and who knows what else.  The façade of this house receives the same aesthetic treatment as a public restroom stall.  Not exactly the sign of an owner/landlord who cares that much what the tenants do to the property.  Something tells me the interior to this house doesn’t feature granite countertops or a dual-flush toilet.

Venture a bit further on North High Street and another house offers more or less the same evidence of youthful abandon.

All things considered, the rattan furniture on the porch is in good shape.  It’s surprising to see something as delicate as wicker in the first place; far more common would be cheap plastic lawn chairs or a beat-up old moldy couch.  Could this be a home in the student ghetto with a bit more taste?  Nah.  The graffiti is just a little less conspicuous.  But there it is, all over the walls of the porch, or painted and chalked into the brick.  A normal landlord would fine or eventually seek to evict its tenants for treating the property that way.  But landlords in student ghettos aren’t normal.  They’re either socioeconomically adjacent to slumlords, or they do in fact charge the student-tenants at the end of the lease, and the students (or their parents) have the money to incur the fines.  Regardless of who claims responsibility for the damage, it’s an environment that is not usually desirable for people who care about their home’s equity; the trashy, party-hearty ambience degrades values throughout the area.  And hence a student ghetto emerges.

The fraternity houses that dominate the higher elevations of High Street at least ensure that our frat brothers get a fair amount of exercise as they walk home after a ten-hour day with their noses buried deep into those organic chemistry textbooks.  And, judging from the exterior condition of many of the fraternity houses at WVU, they recover all those calories burned through cheap beer from Solo cups.  I’ll ofter a caveat at this point that I did not take these photos on a Sunday morning.  It was the first Monday after the New Year (January 3, 2022), and the campus was deserted.  Classes were not yet back in session from the winter break.  Despite a relatively low-key time in the academic calendar, at least a few fraternity houses looked like they’d thrown quite the bender the night before, or else the post-party appearance is permanent.

Lambda Chi Alpha (ΛΧΑ) probably generally respects its property, but that doesn’t mean the brothers are going to be cleaning up the detritus from the previous night right away.  Here it is at 11:30am on that Monday: Solo cups, Gatorade coolers, trash on the stairwells.  I’ll cross my fingers and assume this is a deviation, given the effort to decorate the metal railings with Christmas garland and the tidy condition of the landscaping out front.  The home next door, Phi Sigma Kappa (ΦΣΚ), looks at least from the exterior to be a pretty respectable place.

The same can’t be said for many of the other fraternity row properties that nourish the student ghetto of Morgantown.

North High Street terminates and turns exclusively into a stairwell; it is simply too steep to support a street for cars.

The left side of that lengthy staircase protects against a steeply sloped area of brambles that offers a dumping ground for beer cans from the previous night’s party.  And the night before that.  And the weekend before that.  I’m not sure if it’s comforting or depressing that the trash is probably cumulative; at least it means it didn’t just come from one night, but at the same time, it also indicates that nobody ever bothers to pick it up.  It’s pretty bad.

The top of that stairwell—probably the equivalent of four stories—reveals the highest point of the student ghetto, and the scene is a mixed bag.

Alpha Gamma Rho (ΑΓΡ) looks reasonably well maintained, perhaps because I caught it on a good day.  (After all, class isn’t in session; New Year’s Eve was three days prior.)  Or perhaps the parties are concentrated in the apartment buildings across the street.

Plenty of trash at the entrance; neon sign “DRIVE THRU OPEN” hanging in a window.  And even if the trash is just a rare aftermath from a wild night, the shoefiti on the power lines is a lot more permanent.  This six-unit apartment building is probably not the domicile of an elderly cat lady.

In many respects, it’s a shame that the student ghetto is perched on a bit of land that offers tremendous views of the Monongahela Valley and downtown Morgantown.  This formidable staircase could be dangerous if it the partiers ever cluttered it with trash.

Much like I reflected in my previous article on guerrilla gardening, it takes little to apply the fundamentals of the Broken Windows Theory in less stereotypical places.  An exit ramp in Washington DC isn’t a ghetto, especially when it leads to a wealthy neighborhood like Capitol Hill.  Meanwhile, Morgantown isn’t a place of entrenched poverty; the incomes might be low due to the high presence of low-earning students, but college towns are always a little fuzzy in how they capture their student population, since they are often still dependents whose permanent address is back with Mom and Dad.  Morgan doesn’t have a stereotypical inner city.  It has this.

Regardless of the demographic make-up, the North High Street district in Morgantown offers every stereotype of a student ghetto and plenty others of ghettos at large.  Downgraded housing, a low respect for the upkeep of private property, dumping, code violations, constant misdemeanor offenses in public intoxication or indecency.  The side of this hill has it all.  It probably receives an above average number of police calls and citations…but not an outlandish number.  One could speculate that the reason student ghettos have a lower profile than true low-income or ethnic ghettos (and thus less of a stigma) is social class or race.  If these weren’t the children of generally middle-class families, they might face greater repercussions for leaving a small sector of Morgantown looking like an open sewer.  But there’s more to it than that.  Low grade property crime is rampant; but violent crime is less so, and police calls for a few punches thrown in a frat house are far less likely to alarm the community than a spray of bullets from a drive-by.  The latter event is rare, if not entirely unheard of in a student ghetto.

Still, I think the forces tolerating student ghettos are more entrenched, less conscious, and less attributable to chauvinism or bias than sociologists might speculate.  Student ghettos may continue to exist as long as the nearby university remains operative, but the students themselves come and go.  The districts aren’t epicenters of generational poverty.  The denizens of a student ghetto are transient, and within a few years they’ll leave their dumpy apartments and frat houses and enter the work force.  Thus, they get a fair pass.

Simply put, the American public tolerates the student ghetto because it’s less of a signifier of a greater social or economic malaise.  From National Lampoon’s Animal House to Van Wilder, the milieu in a fraternity row or student ghetto has been the pop-culture subject of farcical gross-out mockery in a manner that, if applied to low-income neighborhoods, would far more likely take on the tenor of “punching down” and trigger offense.

But it doesn’t.  The student ghetto is a phase in life.  Young people, even if they don’t get pass-out drunk eight days a week, usually aren’t that particular about the quality of their housing, and over time they’ll have money to leave the student ghetto.  Usually by about age 25 or sooner, they’ll want out; they’ll feel old. After all, most of the student ghetto’s denizens are young adults not encumbered by a wide array of stereotypically adult responsibilities.  They simply don’t care what they’re doing to the property, nor do the people around them.  Thus, whether WVU or elsewhere, the general population tolerates and even smirks at the telltale indicators of the student ghetto five blocks from the edge of campus: the overturned kegs, the Natty Light cans, the broken couches.  And, judging from that final photo, even the bra-fiti.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

6 thoughts on “Student ghetto: West Virginia’s contender for #1 party school delivers a triumphantly trashy microcosm.

  1. Chris B

    I had to smile at this one. I visited and walked around the downtown campus of WVU several years ago with my wife, a graduate who had lived in that “student ghetto” while an undergrad.

    Also, note the resemblance between Woodburn Hall (third photo) and most every other “old main” college hall…including College Hall. Collegiate Gothic. (I have to say I like the Morgantown version better than the West Philly one.)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I like Morgantown. It’s similar in scale and topography to Ithaca NY but without the smugness. (And since the dumpy student ghetto area in Ithaca seems considerably larger, I’m not sure the home of Cornell has much reason to be smug.) I hate to devote an entire blog article to litter and bras on power lines, which is why I hesitated so long to write this. I probably wouldn’t have written at all, if it weren’t for the fact that I had featured the city favorably in previous articles.

      Woodburn may be less than original architecturally, but I bet you WVU is one of the few campuses to have a Woman’s Hall. Not Women’s Hall. Woman’s. I guess this presumes the first woman at WVU was all on her own and that she got an entire academic building to herself?

      Can your wife vouch that the student ghetto largely looks the same from when she was there? These things don’t usually change that much…at least since the 1960s, when most schools went fully co-ed and began tolerating widespread intermingling of the sexes. (Let the parties begin…for all the men and woman.)

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I recall her saying that it hadn’t changed much, though some of the off-campus businesses were different. (Back in our day, there were often check-cashing places at the edge of campus…). I don’t recall an overwhelming sense of trashiness, but I may have applied an Appalachian discount if I did notice at the time. 🙂

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I took these photos in Morgantown a little over a year ago, and back then it seemed pretty gross. But I certainly wouldn’t ascribe it to the region; a student ghetto in Cambridge MA would just as easily yield this result, given the right fusion of student apartments and “wet” fraternity houses. And besides, as my guerrilla gardening article recently evidence, things have gotten just as trashy in a high-end neighborhood in our nation’s capital. Broken Windows Theory inverted?

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.