It was 1971 and the sun was rising over Tigerland. Large apartment complexes springing up offered LSU students what newspaper ads described as a "private paradise" close to campus.

Amenities included swimming pools, television antennas and an ideal location in what was then called the Tigerland Acres subdivision, an upscale residential community with streets named after such LSU sports legends as Alvin Dark, Y.A. Tittle and Bob Pettit. Developers soon recognized an untapped market for drinking establishments there and laid the foundation for LSU's storied bar district. 

Now almost five decades later, concerns about crime and safety have LSU's student newspaper calling for Tigerland to be razed to the ground.

What's changed over the decades is that the apartment complexes — some now aging and rundown — are no longer filled almost exclusively with LSU students. They have instead embraced newer housing developments outside Tigerland. And adults and families not affiliated with the university have taken their place, introducing in some cases what police describe as a "criminal element."

But while fewer students live in Tigerland now, they continue to flock to the cluster of popular bars off Nicholson Drive that developed in the shadows of the dozens of nearby apartment buildings.

The result is a concentration of intoxicated college students stumbling around in what some say has become an increasingly dangerous environment.

Several instances of violent crime in Tigerland, including three people shot to death in recent weeks, have raised alarm within the LSU community, strengthening calls from some students and alumni who believe the university should purchase the land and "bulldoze" everything.

Others are committed to preserving the Tigerland experience for future generations, saying all stakeholders need to come together and figure out how best to keep students safe and clean up the area.

'Trashy and dangerous'

Even back in the 1970s, problems were starting to surface.

A 1972 lawsuit blamed the Tiger Plaza apartment complex for causing overcrowding in the surrounding subdivision since the new units were being rented to "unrestrained or uncontrolled and unmarried college students." The complaint also noted that a bar was being operated out of the complex, which created "a generally rowdy atmosphere" — an early sign of things to come.

The atmosphere has only gotten rowdier over time, and students have long expressed concern about the area.

A 2018 editorial in LSU's student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, described Tigerland as "a cesspool for violence, crime, binge-drinking and other deplorable activities, making it a trashy and dangerous place for students and other visitors."

The newspaper published additional coverage of the issue earlier this month — under the headline "Crime city or party central" — following the recent high-profile incidents in Tigerland.

Tigerland residents said they're tired of the violence but believe only a few bad actors are responsible for most of the crime. They said they'd welcome more police patrols in the area.

Two people were shot to death Oct. 16 during an alleged drug deal in a Tigerland Avenue apartment. Police have arrested three suspects accused of being involved in the drug deal and shooting. A third victim was shot and killed in a nearby apartment complex just a few weeks later and that case remains unsolved.

Also that same week, deputies with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office traced a stolen car to Tigerland apartments, and two men were later arrested as suspects in the fatal shooting of the car's owner in Metairie. The men are accused of arranging to purchase the car, then killing its owner during a test drive and driving back to Baton Rouge.

"I think we've been pretty fortunate to not have any students involved in any of those really serious violent crimes in Tigerland," LSU Student Body President William Jewell said in a recent interview. "If we continue on the same trajectory, I think it's only a matter of time before it is one of our students."

Baton Rouge police sought to reassure those concerned about the recent displays of violence, saying detectives believe each was an isolated incident and not part of a larger trend.

Capt. Jay Lapeyrouse, who oversees the police district that includes Tigerland, said the most common crimes reported there are car burglaries and armed robberies. He said that hasn't changed much over the past several years. 

So far in 2019, 463 instances of theft were reported, along with 125 instances of criminal damage. Crime data show there has been little fluctuation within the last five years.

Homicides are in the low single digits — rarely exceeding three per year. Other crimes of violence, such as assault and battery, are significantly higher. Crime data shows a combined total of 163 assaults and batteries reported so far in 2019.

There have been far more vehicle burglaries  — 254 incidents reported.

Lapeyrouse also said the department routinely boosts manpower in Tigerland whenever throngs of students are expected to be milling around: on weekend evenings, especially during college football season, and whenever the bars are hosting special events. He added that the crowds have been especially large in recent weeks since the LSU Tigers have been on a winning streak. 

Officers often find themselves helping students who have had too many drinks, calling for medical assistance when needed. Police also pointed to a new brand of crime occurring in recent years — fake rideshare drivers preying on students in the area.

"We're always taking steps to prevent students from being victimized," Lapeyrouse said. "Unfortunately crimes of opportunity do happen there, but we do everything possible to prevent that."

Housing changes

LSU has done little to address students' concerns about Tigerland, focusing their attention instead instead on the massive new Nicholson Gateway development completed in fall 2018.

Ernie Ballard, LSU's director of media relations, initially declined comment when asked about problems in Tigerland that have raised concerns among students. He noted that the apartments and bars there are located off campus and LSU police do not patrol the area. 

He later provided a prepared statement on behalf of LSU's administration addressing student safety.

"While Tigerland is not part of LSU's campus, we do recognize that many of our students visit the area," Ballard said. "The safety of our students is always a priority, and we remind them to use caution and always be aware of their surroundings when they are anywhere late at night."

Jewell, the LSU student body president, concedes that the cluster of bars in Tigerland are likely to remain a popular draw for students even though far fewer of them are living in the hundreds of apartment units nearby. 

"Our main focus is making sure that the students that do live there, it is a safe area for them to be able to get to class," he said. "Just being able to live without worrying about hearing gunshots every night."

There has been a major boom in student housing construction both on and off campus in recent years — with almost 9,000 more student beds now than there were in 2010. That increase occurred even after LSU demolished more than 1,110 married student housing beds to build the Nicholson Gateway development and shut down the Kirby Smith dorm, which housed 557 people. But LSU's enrollment growth has lagged behind the pace of apartment construction.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out off campus housing has had some issues," said Craig Davenport, an appraiser with Cook, Moore, Davenport & Associates who tracks the Baton Rouge apartment market.

Most of the new apartment construction has been upscale units with amenities such fitness centers, luxurious common rooms and study areas that resemble a coffee shop — features largely not found in the aging Tigerland properties.

Some believe the current glut in the housing market around LSU has left Tigerland landlords desperate to fill their apartment buildings, making them much less selective about choosing tenants.

"They're renting to anybody these days," said Kevin LeBlanc, a longtime Tigerland resident who used to live in the unit where the most recent homicide occurred. He said he moved to another street because he was tired of hearing gunshots.

"If you show up with a fistfull of bills, you can move in whenever you want," LeBlanc said of the attitude landlords seem to be taking toward renters.

Others said the area is providing much needed affordable housing in a relatively safe environment that's more walkable and convenient than other parts of Baton Rouge.

Looking for solutions

Marc Fraioli, owner of Fred's Bar and Grill, has witnessed firsthand the demographic shift in Tigerland over the last 30 years, transforming from a predominantly student-populated area to one that contains a more diverse makeup of residents.

"You hate to blanket everybody back there as a criminal, and it's definitely not that way," Fraioli said. "There are plenty of nice families that live back there, but there's definitely an element that we would love to see get chased out."

Fred's is a Tigerland staple, known for its free drinks night and midget wrestling competitions — a bizarre form of entertainment that has long been a draw for students.

The bars loosely congregated along Bob Pettit Boulevard are infamous in the collective LSU imagination as sites of good-natured debauchery. Almost all of the establishments have generic male names; in addition to Fred's, there are Mike's, Reggie's, JL's Place and The House.

Though not nearly as populated on a weekday, the Tigerland bar community still welcomes the "Thirsty Thursday" crowd with open arms, offering drink deals and low or free cover charge to a swarm of students eager to kick off their weekend early.

Around 9:15 p.m. this past Thursday, packs of students could be seen stumbling over the railroad tracks that parallel Nicholson Drive, en route to the bars. Some walked boldly into the near constant traffic on Bob Pettit Boulevard to reach their destinations, shouting admonitions at the inevitable honking that followed.

Interspersed among the gaggles of students sporting cowboy hats and togas, the occasional lone figure would appear, dodging undergraduates and clutching a backpack or plastic grocery bag on their way home to the nearby apartments. One presumed resident wearing a Walmart employee vest barely looked up as he and his companion sidestepped a group of raucous students.

Fraioli loves the Fred's atmosphere he has created, which he believes has defined many students' college experiences over the decades. He has spent years investing in the bar and plans a multi-million dollar renovation in the coming months. For him, Tigerland's reputation is both a personal and professional concern.

"When you hear 'Tigerland,' you get a negative connotation," Fraioli said. "There's been a lot of times where I've wanted to just be able to pick Fred's up and move it to a different location because of that."

Fraioli is one of several bar owners in the area who have banded together to protect their patrons after a perceived crime increase over the last few years. From installing better lighting to designing a crosswalk that illuminates when in use, the owners hope to improve the area without sacrificing the party atmosphere that students love.

"Everybody collectively has skin in the game and wants to make it safer," Fraioli said.

But getting other stakeholders on board has been difficult. Fraioli said ownership of the surrounding apartments is fragmented and lacks cohesion, making it difficult for all of the businesses in the area to unite behind a common goal. 

He also noted that several incidents in the past couple of months have left people wondering if "everything is spiraling down" again and likened the situation to someone "personally bottoming out before they change their lifestyle." 

Residents have called for more police presence, while students want LSU to step in and clean up the area. Fraioli acknowledged that Tigerland is off campus and, in that sense, isn't LSU's responsibility. But he also suggested administrators could do more to make things better.

"You know, they swing a big stick in Baton Rouge," Fraioli said of LSU's leadership. "And if they wanted to get something done, I'm sure that they would certainly be able to help with that."

Advocate staff writer Timothy Boone contributed to this article.

Editor's note: This article was changed on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019, to note that many of the streets in Tigerland were named after such LSU sports legends as Alvin Dark, Y.A. Tittle and Bob Pettit.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com and Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com