Philanthropic and fiery mob-fueled events juxtapose on a wild weekend
By CG Editor-in-Chief Austen Verrilli
This weekend was one of juxtaposition. Within 48 hours, student-led events incited both disdain and praise from local officials, university administrators and Athens residents as the typically sensational Palmer Fest coincidentally preceded student-run Athens Beautification Day, the largest annual volunteer initiative in the city of Athens.
Palmer Fest’s already infamous house fire has been blown up in local and state publications. It started as a surprisingly relaxed party. Attendees were in good spirits and beer was flowing easily.
As usual, trash covered the street and yards and fest goers churned up a muddy, horse dung- and urine-infused muck as they crossed yards in search of friends and parties.
I was there and, frankly, I enjoyed the festivities during most of the day. Then, as I stood on the lawn of 7 Palmer St., smoke started to pour from the vents and chimney of the house next door. One way or another, 11 ½ Palmer, a rental property owned by a local woman, was set on fire. Police immediately started clearing the area with little crowd opposition or use of force. It seemed students backed up to watch the main event of the night.
Athens’ Mayor Paul Wiehl walked away from police guarding the burning house with a tired look of disappointment on his face. Wiehl stood at the intersection of Mill and Palmer in plain blue and brown clothing, watching students pass him by and police attempt to keep them under control.
The fire trucks pulled in to address the fire that was burning starting from the rear right corner of 11 ½ Palmer. A few attendees of the festival lobbed bottles and cans at working firefighters, initiating cheers from the crowd. Police quickly cleared the street when attendees started getting riled up.
After that, I was resigned to my backyard which, coincidentally, gave a perfect view of the fire. It rose through all three levels of the right corner of the house. Flames that caused the top window to glow red were charged by firefighters, who quickly doused the fire. It seems that the authorities think it was arson because a sign is now taped on the door offering a reward for information leading to an arrest.
While inspecting the house, I spoke with a person surveying the home for insurance reasons. He said that the damage is limited to the right rear corner and is mostly caused by smoke.
Just 16 hours later, over 800 students reclined on the grassy slopes of Scripps Amphitheater waiting for Athens Beautification Day to commence and discussing the events of Palmer Fest the night before.
Both Wiehl and Ohio University President Roderick McDavis spoke to attendees as they waited to start beautifying. Wiehl spoke first. He was appreciative of student help. Still, he mentioned the friction between short- and long-term residents of this Appalachian city. “Fearing mortality, I guess we’re all short-term residents,” he morbidly mentioned mid-speech.
McDavis was up next with a pep rally-esque proclamation that students were making a difference. During his speech, he mentioned that while he is often critical of student behavior, Athens Beautification Day was not a day he would be critical of students. That was work for the week ahead.
Following the speeches, we all commenced to do our best to beautify Athens, and it felt good. College Green had a small contingent of editorial staff there (look out for coverage of our work in this week’s Photo Friday), and passing Athens locals thanked our group for cleaning, mulching and planting around Athens Middle School..
Once finished, free food was supplied and everyone at the event was in good spirits. Still, black eyes don’t heal in a day. The bruise Palmer Fest attendees left on the city certainly didn’t disappear after one day of cleaning and mulching.
It seems there is a common thread between Palmer Fest’s fires and Athens Beautification Day: mob mentality. It is hard for one person to start a fire alone, but surrounded by a few thousand hyped up and possibly intoxicated students, it happens. In the same way, it’s difficult for one person to start picking up other people’s trash on the street; but with 800 other happy people beautifying as well, it happens.
The only correct and applicable solution, then, for Student Senate and OU’s administration is to keep using our notorious mob mentality for good. I urge Student Senate to organize more events that can engage large populations of OU students in collaborative projects. I also urge local businesses to follow the lead of Kiser’s BBQ Shack and help us help you by providing incentives or project materials.
To the city, this may sound dumb (especially after we lit a house on fire), but give students a chance to get to know Athens more and they will respect it more.