Thousands of University of Texas students, myself among them, live in the crowded West Campus neighborhood adjacent to the university. The insatiable demand for housing close to campus has spurred a construction spree of high-rise apartment buildings catered to affluent student residents. Tiny apartments fit two, three, four, or even five students, usually randomly matched by management. To cut costs, many split bedrooms, doubling the number of roommates. The newer student apartments have an expensive look to them, with large, gleaming windows and picturesque balconies. Luxury amenities such as pools, patios, and multi-story garage parking come standard.
Make no mistake; despite its increasingly upscale appearance, West Campus contains not young professionals and urban gentrifiers but rowdy college students. Explore the neighborhood on a given weeknight and you’ll find roving gangs of them looking to have a good time. The streets are filled with noise from loud conversations, party music, and the shouts of drunken students, emanating from the rooftops and balconies of apartments that collect multiple thousands of dollars of rent. Trash, in the form of beer bottles, plastic drinking cups, and even condoms, is everywhere. Austin police officers shuttle between frat houses and cooperative student living homes – the hardest partiers, and hence the biggest offenders – responding to noise complaints and stopping the most outrageous gatherings.
“It looks like the cops shut down this one. Maybe we shouldn’t go,” I overheard two young women say on a recent walk, as if it was the most routine thing in the world to party so hard that the police intervene. They presumably found somewhere else to have fun on social media, the next rave just a swipe and a tap away.
Every night, the faux urban environment carefully architected by developers and urban planners is swamped by the chaos of an unending student orgy. In West Campus, one sees the New Urbanism ideal gone horribly wrong. The crowded, towering student living centers are not so much safe, studious homes-away-from-home as they are a new generation of segregated housing, dystopias packed with masses of nameless students in which any sense of community is impossible. It’s the mold of Pruitt-Igloe all over again, with binge drinking and sexual assaults standing in for break-ins and murders, and deterioration of the physical environment coming not from neglected maintenance but from the repeated abuses of entire hordes of party guests.
I can afford an apartment to myself thanks to scholarships and subsidized rent. But as I sit at my bedroom window and listen to the rambunctious activity outside, I quip that the term “Section 8’er,” an offensive slur referring to a subsidized resident who has a lower standard of living and neglects his home, applies not to me but my neighbors who broadcast club music and toss cigarette butts off their balconies at two in the morning.
I once met a student who offered an insight into the West Campus culture. “As UT students, I feel like we don’t have enough time between studying to do Austin things,” she said. “That’s why we abuse Adderall to get our work done. And I don’t know if it’s just the people I hang out with, but all we do is go to apartment parties.”
And so the parties of the West Campus ghetto blast on; perhaps not a concrete jungle of concentrated poverty, but a drug infested fantasy land of concentrated obscenities. Its residents, who have no time for “Austin things,” are concerned not with place but with living in the moment; both oblivious to and physically isolated from the larger community that surrounds them.