By Jeff Keeling
When I learned shots had been fired outside the Sigma Chi fraternity at the end of my block Sept. 18, I made an internal prediction: the organization purporting to represent me as a Tree Streets resident would seize the moment and press its case against the frats’ continued residence in our just-off-campus neighborhood.
East Tennessee State University’s homecoming weekend arrived just a week later, and I made another prediction: the two frats in my Maple Street block would generate some nighttime noise and leave their own sign behind – frat scat, you could say – in the form of beer cans and a plastic cup or two.
Each dutifully fulfilled my prediction. The Tuesday following the Friday shooting, the South Side Neighborhood Organization (SNO) released a terse statement regarding its “position on ETSU Fraternities.” And on Saturday morning, I walked our block trash bag in hand, just for fun, and collected a couple dozen bottles and cans, testament to the revelry of the preceding hours.
SNO’s statement references a “documented 20-year history of failed problem-solving around these ongoing and escalating concerns.” It urges ETSU to create a policy that recognizes fraternities only if they reside on campus, and that it execute the policy by next fall. And it states that SNO, “supports the neighbors in the Tree Streets who are actively pursuing litigation action” toward those “organizations and institutions” supporting the fraternities located in the Tree Streets.
ETSU, which swiftly suspended Sigma Chi while it investigates, has acknowledged it’s discussing the prospect of moving the fraternities onto campus. With such a feat much easier said than done, university officials acknowledge such a change would have to be feasible for the fraternities.
While the frats have been an occasional irritant to us, I’ve not seen their presence as enough of a problem to warrant antagonistic rhetoric or threats of lawsuits. But to become more fully informed, this weekend I polled a couple of neighbors who live even closer to the homes than I do. One has young children, the other is a generation older.
Both essentially echoed my thoughts. Neither believes SNO’s tack is the most constructive approach to dealing with the frats.
The parent, who lives very close to a frat house, spoke of their family ethos, which calls for treating neighbors with respect and even love, and said a neighborly respect for the boys and open communication have produced generally positive results. The family has a frat officer’s cell number, and that of an adult liaison, and calls or texts when issues arise go to the frat brother, then the liaison, and only to the police if no resolution comes from those first efforts. Neighbor number two said a carrot and stick approach seems to work well enough, and the students can learn (or not) that their actions have consequences.
I have never been a fraternity type. I don’t condone the frats’ frequent overindulgence and resultant mischief or careless littering. They are, as the parent said in a not unkindly way, idiots – but they’re idiots in much the same way that most 18- to 23-year-olds are.
They are also people, like the polite young Sigma Phi Epsilon brother the lovely and talented Angela and I met at Tip Top on Buffalo Mountain last week. He’s from rural Anderson County, finishing his criminal justice degree, and made it sound as though his graduating from college was quite an achievement in his family. That’s a contrast with one common characterization of frat boys as well-heeled wastrels.
The fraternities also are the line of well-dressed young men, “brothers” of my Pi Kappa Alpha nephews, who filed en masse through the receiving line at the visitation for my dear mother-in-law after her death in 2012, paying their respects.
I don’t wish to minimize the fraternities’ penchant for bad behavior. Their misdeeds nationwide have been particularly well-documented in the media over the past several years, and the Tree Streets certainly haven’t been immune.
I see at least two reasons, though, for a different approach than that SNO is currently pursuing related to the challenge of living in a neighborhood that includes off-campus fraternities. First, the owners of these houses are affiliated with the fraternities, and will be under no obligation to sell even if the chapters move onto campus. The devil we know could be less of a problem than what could result after the fraternities officially vacated the houses.
More important, though, is the spirit in which this challenge to the fabric of our neighborhood is being played out. Sadly, it echoes on a hyperlocal scale the enmity characterizing our national conversations over political, societal and cultural issues. The SNO’s approach is, in my view, likely only to ratchet up the tension in our neighborhood – tension I sense is felt by fewer Tree Street residents than SNO might have one believe.
I hope the conversation surrounding the Tree Street fraternities can change course and become more peaceable. A no-nonsense, yet neighborly approach to the fraternities works for me and for the Tree Streeters with whom I spoke. I see no reason why it can’t work for SNO. Perhaps then, if the day comes that the boys move to the other side of University Parkway, the parting can be amicable.