Tuscany-Canterbury homeowners have had it with stray beer cans, music blasting at midnight, public urination and the boozy delinquency they say pervades the neighborhood because of the fraternity house in their midst. They have vowed to see it gone.
But the young men of Phi Kappa Psi, who relish being among the last of the Johns Hopkins University's Greeks with a true fraternity house, aren't leaving without a fight.
Though the neighbors think they can oust the fraternity on a zoning technicality because the brothers moved off site for more than a year, the Phi Psis have hired an attorney and enlisted the help of prominent alumni - including New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
The parties will face off April 17 before Baltimore's zoning board.
The fraternity's attorney, Herbert Burgunder III, says Tuscany-Canterbury residents won't rest until they've zoned fun right out of the residential district.
"Kids will be kids, and if they're breaking the law, you should call the police," Burgunder says. "The zoning board was not created to punish kids for bad behavior."
But Carl Hyman, the president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association, says the area, with its soaring property values, is no longer a frat house kind of place - if it ever was. In the past decade, he says with pride, the community has diligently wiped most traces of Greek life from the otherwise grown-up streets. "This," Hyman says of Phi Psi, "will be the last of them."
"The boys who run this place, some of them are very nice, respectable, considerate and highly productive people," Hyman adds. "But there's no place on Earth where 30 18- to 20-year-old boys can go unsupervised and not get into trouble."
The Phi Psis have owned 3906 Canterbury Road for about 30 years. The nearly 7,000-square-foot, three-story home, built in 1920 as a boarding house, typically sleeps about 25 brothers. It is assessed at more than $1 million.
At some point in 2005 - the neighborhood and the fraternity dispute exactly when - the brothers moved out to fix a laundry list of code violations: everything from drywall holes to empty fire extinguishers.
As long as they were doing the repairs, they decided to consider a complete overhaul of the well-worn house. But while they made plans, raised money and started some work, a year passed - the point at which, according to city law, they lost the right to use the house as a fraternity.
Rules dictating what's allowed in the neighborhood had changed since the fraternity was established. Though they had been grandfathered in, the Phi Psis now need the zoning board's permission to move back.
Neighbors happily began imaging the property as fancy condos or something equally sedate.
"It was kind of like the undergrads played right into the neighborhood's hands," says Michael Gabriel, an engineer and Phi Psi alumnus who's helping the fraternity. "They got screwed."
The neighborhood sees it quite differently. And City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Tuscany-Canterbury resident herself, forcefully backs the community.
"You'll notice that the building is falling apart," Hyman says, frowning recently at the stucco mansion with its outdated color scheme, broken windows and disheveled yard. "It doesn't promote the health, well-being or welfare of anything here."
When it's suggested that the house doesn't look so terrible - certainly not blight by the standards of other Baltimore neighborhoods - Hyman replies, "They're not Tuscany-Canterbury."
Ralph Kurtz, an architect who lives across the street from the frat, says sitting empty as it does now, the house seems "pretty benign." The boys apparently bring the metastasis.
Hyman and Kurtz spout grievances the way the devout tick off the Old Testament's storied plagues: Rats. Noise. Drunkenness. Disrepair. Urine.
They walk the home's perimeter, increasingly disgusted to spot rat-friendly ivy, boarded-up windows and a parked car that strikes them as mighty suspicious. As they go on, complaints get lost in the shrieks and giggles of Calvert School kids enjoying recess next door. That noise, however, isn't a bother. "They're not peeing on the sidewalks," Hyman explains. "It's different."
Hopkins officials steer clear of this town/gown tension, dismissing it as a "property dispute."
Salem Reiner, the university's director of community affairs, does say the brothers have tried to appease the community - rolling up their sleeves for neighborhood cleanups and snow-shoveling.
Kurtz, a witness to those efforts, is less than impressed. He says he's seen brothers toting shovels once and can recall leaf-raking "that took them about five minutes."
Rob Turning, Hopkins' Greek life coordinator, objects to the community's portrayal of Phi Psi. The brothers, he says, are not only "heavily involved" in water polo, but they're known on campus for environmental activism and for helping local kids prepare for the SATs.
"They're hardly the monsters people make them out to be," he says. "They're just like your sons or your neighbor's kids."
Matthew A. Crenson, a well-known Hopkins political science professor, advises the fraternity, which he pledged in his college days. If they weren't good kids, he says, he wouldn't waste his time.
And although the Phi Psis are coy about Bloomberg, they make it known that a $100,000 donation for house repairs came from the mayor, who went Greek during his time at Hopkins in the 1960s.
Phi Psi chapter President J.R. Yarbrough, a history and political science major from Sacramento, Calif., says older folks give fraternities a bad rap - thinking less about the realities of today's litigious times and more about the bacchanalia portrayed in Animal House.
He says pledges sign contracts promising to respect the community. And the fraternity religiously pays its neighborhood association dues.
"There's no naked people, there's no debauchery," he says, explaining that they've even retired the term "party" in favor of the G-rated "social event."
Even so, the Tuscany-Canterbury association reports persistent nightmares about Phi Psi's annual beach party - or beach social event - when the fraternity hauls in trucks of sand to spread before a live band and under hundreds of dancing feet.
Only three Hopkins fraternities have their own houses. Members of the others are split up in dorms and off-campus apartments.
If they lose theirs, Phi Psi will be not only give up bragging rights, but, Yarbrough thinks, an essential part of the college experience.
Fraternity living comes with invaluable lessons, Crenson agrees - and with the neighborhood standoff, Phi Psi's politics and law majors are certainly learning a few now.
"There's far too little of that at Hopkins," Crenson says. "Students hardly ever get off campus except to go to Fells Point. Although this is abrasive, it does represent a kind of engagement students should be getting."