On the Record: Jennifer Altemus, president emerita of unhappy neighbors
Vox sat down with Georgetown alumna Jennifer Altemus (COL ’88) on Tuesday to talk about the University’s relationship with our neighbors.
After graduating 25 years ago, Altemus stayed around to eventually become the president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. Allied with neighbors struggling with existential crises who tell us to “STFU“, who believe that dorms can be built above Epicurean, who live in houses made virtually of cardboard, and who genuinely believe their historic houses are about to undergo the Final Judgement, she eloquently expressed her despair, disappointment, vexation, and exasperation in letter after letter after letter after letter at how students like to vomit on gardens and to tip over trash cans, and how the University violates one zoning law after the other. During her four-year reign of the Citizen’s Association, Vox readers even agreed that giving her a Georgetown degree was the University’s biggest mistake.
But times have changed. From May this year, she’s no longer in charge. The dust has settled, and the queen has gracefully abdicated her throne.
Vox: How long have you lived in Georgetown, and what has been your involvement in the community?
Jennifer Altemus: I moved here in 1984 to go to school and I never left. Most recently, I was involved with the Citizens Association of Georgetown. I started with them 11 years ago. I was president for four years and now I’m president emerita.
Vox: When you were a student at Georgetown, what were your views of the residents and students who lived in the neighborhood?
JA: I had no idea that what we were doing could possibly have an effect on anyone living around us. We would have a party every once in a while but it wasn’t like we were a party house. We took pretty good care of our property, but not great. It wasn’t because we didn’t care, we were just really clueless.
Vox: Do you think most of the students are just ignorant of what they’re doing?
JA: I don’t know. I would imagine some of them are. Living on your own for the first time, you don’t realize the sense of responsibility that it entails. I think that sometimes people just don’t care. They’re think there’re for just a short time. They’re paying their share and feel like they should be able to do whatever they want to do.
Vox: If the university renovates the old Jesuit residences and builds the Northeast Triangle dorm, it’s still ten beds short of the 385 bed goal. One of the options Georgetown has been looking at is extending 2015 deadline to allow for more to discuss and build. Is the neighborhood amenable to this?
JA: I can’t say. We would need to know why they couldn’t get the extra ten beds. We need to know what the timeline was to get them on. I know it sounds like a little thing, but it’s the first step. If they’re behind now, where does that leave us in the future?
Vox: What if the university doesn’t make the deadline?
JA: That’s up to the zoning commission, and [Georgetown] would be in default of the agreement, and I don’t know what that means.
Vox: By spending a lot of money on housing, the University is diverting resources from other needs. Do you think budgetary constraints are a concern for the university?
JA: A lot of the research that we did showed that dorms are a break-even proposition in most cases. There are lots of private companies who will come on campus right now without the university giving a penny and build a dorm and rent it out to students in a public-private ownership. It doesn’t cost the university anything, except for the land. I think there’s a possibility to build dorms without it being a huge economic impact. When we had to move off-campus, it was scary. The house that we got wasn’t very nice and we paid so much money for it. If we could live in Nevils for all three years, we would have been in heaven.
Vox: The amount of land Georgetown owns itself is limited. Isn’t it running out of land to build new dorms?
JA: They’re looking for another hundred acres. They could move the medical school, the hospital…
Vox: Do you think these are practical options?
JA: I do. I don’t know about the hospital. A lot of the graduate programs could go. The other hundred acres wouldn’t be for undergraduates. But it could be sports fields for undergraduates. You are going all over Creation to play sports.
Vox: Last month, university administrators were revealed to be considering satellite dormitory options. Students created a ‘One Georgetown, One Campus’ campaign to voice their concerns. What’s your opinion on their opposition?
JA: A luxury high-rise walking distance from campus. If I were in that situation, I might consider living in a really nice apartment with a pool, and a fitness center, and a shuttle back and forth to campus instead of the hovel I lived in on 33rd Street. I would have voted [yes to the GUSA referendum]…I don’t see what would be wrong with a luxury apartment in Rosslyn, but maybe students don’t.
Vox: In an interview Vox Populi conducted with you four years ago, you said, “I think 80 percent of Georgetown students are wonderful neighbors, and we love having them in the community.” Yet you advocated having 100 percent of students living on campus. Why do you think the 80 percent have to be punished for the 20 percent?
JA: I don’t see living on campus as punishment at all.
Vox: Shouldn’t students have the right to choose where they want to live?
Vox: Do you feel a conflict between your identities as an alumna as a member of the neighborhood?
JA: Not at all. I think what I want for both the university and for Georgetown is sort of what the university wants. We’re going to make the university a stronger place and the neighborhood a cleaner place…I definitely don’t feel I have a firm grasp of [student life]. I don’t have kids even. I don’t have kids in college…I don’t know what they’re looking for.
Vox: When you got the ANC 2E commendation, The Hoya ran an editorial and it labeled you as a ‘GU antagonist’. What do you think of that portrayal?
JA: I don’t think I am. I think I have worked really hard to work with the university to try and improve the situation for everyone. And I’ve done nothing to intentionally…an antagonist, I figure, is somebody poking you, poking you, poking you, to try and just anger you, and that’s just not at all what I’ve been doing.
Vox: Do you think students misperceive you in any way?
JA: I don’t know how students would even know of me, much less have a perception of me. I was the face of CAG at the zoning commission hearings, and that was a huge committee of people and I sort of sat there and read what we put together. But that was years ago. So I don’t know why a student now would know I was. But if they have a perception of me one way or another, I don’t know what it is. Why, do you all hate me?
Photo: Georgetown Voice/Gavin Myers