By Dave Cooper
While the success of the University of Kentucky men's basketball program has brought much positive attention to Lexington, the negative front-page images of hooliganism, rioting and arson on State Street over the past two weekends have degraded our city's image as a beautiful place where decent, well-educated people live.
These students apparently fail to realize that their wild celebrations are damaging the value of the diplomas they are working so hard to achieve. Everyone viewing the riots now has a lower opinion of UK's academic reputation — including the corporate heads that might one day hire UK grads.
This mess on State Street did not happen overnight. As the former president of the Elizabeth Street Neighborhood Association, I can well remember the desperate pleas of longtime residents on University Avenue to then-councilman Dick DeCamp during the mid-1990s as they were starting to be pushed out by the absentee landlords and noisy students.
I think DeCamp did all that he could do, but his efforts were negated by the actions of former UK President Charles Wethington and the UK Board of Trustees. From my viewpoint, President Lee T. Todd Jr. was even worse.
The death knell came in 1998 when UK declared their campus dry, pushing all of the fraternity partying into surrounding neighborhoods. This policy change was followed by the deaths of two UK students in alcohol-related off-campus tragedies.
The neighborhoods did all they could, actively participating in town-gown meetings and attempting to limit the construction of big vinyl-box additions onto the backsides of small homes, but these hideous additions were still allowed under R-2 zoning.
The struggle to save this neighborhood is now over; people who care have all moved away and the State Street problem lies now squarely in the laps of UK administration and city officials.
The situation is inarguably out of control: Partying after a big UK victory is understandable, but the arson and hooliganism exhibited following Monday night's loss to the University of Conneticut is the last straw.
Former UK presidents Todd and Wethington should take full responsibility for the mess on State Street and publicly apologize to the Elizabeth Street neighborhood. What was once a great asset for UK — a peaceful, safe and quiet family neighborhood on UK's boundary — is now a liability and a national media embarrassment.
UK area landlords also must be held accountable. Their greed knows no bounds. There currently seems to be some kind of contest among property owners on State Street as to who can build the ugliest, cheapest-looking buildings on planet Earth.
I haven't lived in this neighborhood for over 10 years, but I still care deeply and I want to offer these solutions:
■ Elizabeth Street needs to be permanently closed between Waller and Conn Terrace and converted into a tree-lined pedestrian and bike path with community gardens. State and University avenues would become much quieter and safer cul-de-sacs.
■ Landlords in this area should be assessed a special fee to cover all additional city and police manpower, street-sweeping etc. required following UK home football games and big basketball games.
■ UK should launch a neighborhood beautification project. Would students have behaved so badly if there were flowering trees in every yard and community gardens on the street corners? When people see that someone truly cares about a place, they behave much better.
■ UK and the city should begin acquiring or condemning nuisance properties in this area, removing the vinyl box additions and converting them back to single-family owner-occupied dwellings, preferably occupied by UK faculty and staff.
UK's reputation as a respected institution of higher learning is being dragged through the mud following every near-riot on State Street.
This neighborhood revitalization project is far more important to UK's continued academic progress than building a new football practice facility or adding luxury boxes to Commonwealth Stadium — and it will also be much cheaper.
Wethington could raise funds for this revitalization project, and Todd could implement it. Both men are surely regretting the damage they have done to these neighborhoods — and to UK's reputation.