Downtown boom skips South Park

Drugs and crime plague a neighborhood blocks away from some of the city's crown jewels

Staff WriterNovember 12, 2006 

The intersection of Bragg and South East streets lies in the shadow of an increasingly prosperous downtown Raleigh, less than a mile from the Progress Energy Performing Arts Center, the newly reopened Fayetteville Street and a $215 million convention center that will begin drawing visitors in 2008.

But at Bragg and South East, residents watch despairingly as drug sales flourish, alcohol is openly consumed on the street and prostitutes ply their trade morning, noon and night. Two young men were killed here two weeks ago in what police describe as a "gang-involved" shooting.

Two days later, Bessie Watson sat on her front porch and quietly gestured toward a woman standing at the corner of South East and Bragg.

"She's been out here for two weeks straight," said Watson, who moved to Bragg Street with her late husband in 1947. "She won't change clothes; and she won't go home. She got children." Watson sadly shook her head. "Chasing them drugs."

This corner and the surrounding South Park neighborhood remain untouched by the new restaurants, condos and hotels that are planned or are being built a few blocks to the north. City and community leaders are pleased with the progress downtown but say the contrast in South Park reflects poorly on Raleigh as a whole.

"It is the best of times for some and the worst of times for others," said Raleigh city Councilmember and mayor pro tem James West, whose district includes South Park. "But the high tide is supposed to raise all ships. We have to focus on these communities in the same way we focus on others if the city is going to achieve its objectives."

It's not for lack of trying by police and community groups that the neighborhood remains beset by drugs and crime. In 2004, South Park was one of 300 communities across the country designated as a "Weed and Seed" site by the U.S. Department of Justice. The initiative aims to prevent and reduce violent crime and drug abuse by helping police weed out criminal activity and human services agencies seed neighborhood revitalization.

And early next year, Raleigh police will begin a new approach to take drug dealers out of neighborhoods such as South Park, by offering street-level dealers who quit selling drugs assistance in finding housing, jobs and life's necessities. Those who continue will be arrested and vigorously prosecuted.

Police will say only that some part of Southeast Raleigh will be one of the areas targeted for the new effort. "The program will be replicated in other neighborhoods if it is successful," spokesman Jim Sughrue said.

Baboucarr Njie, 34, knows the consequences of trying to stand up to the drug dealers in South Park.

On Aug. 14, someone robbed him and cracked the top of his head open with an iron pipe while he was working at AJ's Grill & Groceries on Bragg Street. Njie, a native of Gambia, is convinced it occurred because he calls the police whenever drug dealers gather outside the store.

"They see me as the enemy because I keep on calling 911," Njie said.

The South Park neighborhood is a blue-collar assortment of apartments and modest bungalows bounded by Martin Luther King Blvd. to the north and a rundown industrial area off Garner Road to the south.

Watson, 87, says she remembers when the neighborhood was a beautiful place. "Everybody treated everybody like people," she said. "Everybody was working. Look at all these big healthy men and women flopping out here all day long."

South Park is plagued by poverty and is home to mostly transitory residents without a long-term investment in the community. Though the majority of residents are law-abiding, the neighborhood is a magnet for crime.

According to Demographics-Now.com, the median annual household income in the neighborhood is $15,218, one-third the Raleigh median. Just 13 percent of residents own their homes.

A deadly shooting

Police say that Jeremiah Stirrup, 23, and Lashawn Emmett Kishamo Perez, 21, were visiting the neighborhood when they were shot and killed Oct. 29. Police have charged Jamieson Jamal Tuck, 17, and James Edward Whitaker, 21, both of Raleigh, with murder.

The shootings upset many of the community's older residents.

"When I was coming up we settled things with our hands; then we would be back friends the next day," said Clyde DuBose, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran who witnessed the Oct. 29 shootings while returning home from AJ's. "I have a son that's 21. That could have been him out there."

Pushing for change

Jeanne Tedrow works at the Raleigh Community & Safety Club on Branch Street, around the corner from where the shootings occurred. She's at the forefront of a chorus of voices who say it's time for a neighborhood change.

"We have to develop some practices, some basic standards and take back the neighborhood," said Tedrow, executive director of Passage Home, a nonprofit community development corporation that owns the building that houses the safety club. Since reopening its doors in April, the club has partnered with law enforcement, Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Weed and Seed initiative to provide after-school programs, a library, a business skills program for teens and a computer center.

Tedrow said she thinks the neighborhood receives a bad rap and pointed to the many young people who participate and volunteer with the safety club.

"Young people yearn for a safe place and positive role models," Tedrow said. "Young people need positive places to go. It's not rocket science."

The Raleigh Community & Safety Club will host a "community healing" on Saturday, described as an open forum to help people overcome the trauma of the Oct. 29 shootings.

"We don't want to become desensitized to violence in our neighborhoods. We want everyone to heal from it," said Cathey Ector, an outreach coordinator with North Carolinians Against Gun Violence Educational Fund, which is sponsoring the event.

One person at a time

Outside resources are essential, but people familiar with the neighborhood's underbelly say the change begins with each person caught up in the grip of drugs and crime.

Jackie Wiggins, a former Bragg Street resident who often visits the area, knows what it is like to be on the street looking for drugs. Wiggins, 37, said she was hooked on crack cocaine for five years.

"If walls could talk," she said while nodding toward her old home. "I would pass out from smoking and still grab the [crack pipe]. My momma would be crying and begging me and I would still do it."

A group of men huddled on the street near AJ's Grill & Grocery this week. It was about 2 p.m. and Njie was busy selling beer, wine, cigarettes and rolling papers.

"Drugs are the number one problem," he said. "The solution has to come from within [themselves] because anyone who comes to help them, they see them as the enemy."

(News researcher Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Thomasi McDonald can be reached at 829-4533 or tmcdonal@newsobserver.com.

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