RED RIBBON WEEK: Once known for drugs and violence, Ninth and Benner revives

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 23, 2009 

Jodie Arrington has seen his neighborhood go straight to hell, and come back again.

Arrington lives on Ninth Street, near its intersection with Benner Avenue. In the 1980s, Ninth and Benner was notorious for drug trafficking, and for the violence that came with it.

Twenty years ago, Arrington was sitting in his living room when gunshots erupted right outside.

He looked out the window and saw a man with a gun walking back to a Cadillac parked at his driveway.

Arrington still remembers the gun’s barrel: too long for a pistol, too short for a rifle or shotgun. He wasn’t sure what it was.

The gun had just been used to shoot a man in the legs, the victim left bleeding in the street.

Arrington overheard what the gunman said as he climbed into the Cadillac: “He threw the gun on the seat and told the driver, ‘I could have killed him, but I wanted him to suffer.’”

To hell and back

Arrington is 88 now. An Army veteran of World War II, he moved to Columbus from West Point, Ga., in 1947, first living in East Highland.

He bought his home on Ninth Street in 1978.

He describes how the area slid into decline:

“Prior to that it had been a quiet neighborhood. … At the time before the drugs got so prevalent, you could be sitting on your porch and a person walking by would say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good evening’ or ‘How are you doing?’ Then it changed so some of them were talking to themselves … expressing their thoughts or attitudes toward somebody else. If they looked up on the porch and saw you, they’d act like they didn’t see you.”

Then violence became increasingly common.

“It just got outrageous. One year a young man got killed here on the corner of Ninth Street and Benner Avenue. Another got his legs shot out from under him.”

The latter was the day Arrington looked out his window and saw the man with the gun getting into the Cadillac. He thinks it was 1989.

Fighting back

It seemed the residents had to recapture their neighborhood or be overrun.

“We started off with a neighborhood watch in 1990,” Arrington said. Each block had a block captain charged with making contact with all his neighbors and making sure their property was being watched when they weren’t home.

“Then we were able to get a man in here from Philadelphia by the name of Herman Wrice,” Arrington said. “He came in and organized us into a drug-fighting group called CHAD, Carver Heights Against Drugs.”

Wrice, who died in 2000, was the father of an initiative training residents to take direct action to fight crime in their communities. He started it in West Philadelphia, in 1988 forming a group called “Mantua Against Drugs.” It would stake out street corners where drug deals were going down and chant through bullhorns at the dealers. It worked partly because even if the dealers didn’t mind, their customers did. Crack addicts tend to be paranoid.

In 1992, Wrice came to Columbus, where he trained David Lockett and other neighborhood drug fighters. Lockett became the leader of Carver Heights Against Drugs, the city’s first grassroots group fighting street pushers, while Arrington became the leader of an offshoot called Drug Fighters of Columbus.

Originally from Atlanta, Lockett moved to Columbus in 1968, buying a house on Schaul Street where he still lives today. He is a veteran of Vietnam, a Ranger who did two tours of combat duty. He was prepared to fight to save his neighborhood.

Like Arrington, he still remembers how bad things had become.

“It was a heck-hole before,” he said of Ninth and Benner. “There was a cutting or a shooting on Benner Avenue about every other week.”

CHAD went on the offensive, following Herman Wrice’s strategy.

“We had 75 or 80 people marching the neighborhood,” Arrington said. But not everyone was supportive. Some were too scared.

Said Arrington: “A lot of them were afraid the drug dealers were going to act against them, and set the house on fire … but we didn’t have any reaction like that.”

Official reinforcements

The police had their backs.

“You can’t do anything without law enforcement,” said Lockett, recalling how police, sheriff’s deputies and deputy marshals would back CHAD by setting up roadblocks to question drivers coming through the neighborhood. Officers would check driver’s licenses, car insurance and registration. They’d catch motorists with guns and open containers of alcohol, and find some for whom arrest warrants had been issued.

The city deployed other forces as well, and developed a template for cleaning up drug-infested areas.

“We called them our Neighborhood Improvement Programs,” said Carmen Cavezza, a former city manager. “Every time we started one, we wanted to start off with something special, like the first one we started with a picnic. The second one we started with a drug bust.”

That was in East Highland, where an undercover operation was followed by a wave of arrests. “We moved in with our cleanup program right after it,” Cavezza said. “What it does is, it gets people out — they’re not afraid to come out, and get on the streets and talk to you and work with you.”

What city officials learned to do first was recruit neighbors for a leadership program — inviting them to a dinner where they got training — then start the cleanup.

Code enforcement and building inspections went in. “The basic premise was clean up what needed to be cleaned up, to use code enforcement but not citations, to help them resolve it,” Cavezza said. In other words, don’t alienate the residents you need on your side: “We’re in there to make friends.”

To help residents feel safe on the streets at night, city crews would trim trees that blocked street lights, and replace any lights that were damaged. Firefighters offered to install free smoke detectors, porch lights and house numbers.

Protecting, assisting and reassuring homeowners invested in the neighborhood was the primary goal. “We heard some really rewarding things, like a lady said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to get out at night, and go for a walk in my neighborhood, in years,” Cavezza said.

The primary obstacle to such improvements was the absentee landlord who didn’t care to spend money maintaining cheap rental property.

Said Lockett: “A dollar’s a dollar to him. He doesn’t care where it comes from.”

Said Cavezza: “Therein was the problem, and we would put whatever pressure we could put on them.”

That remains the challenge today, he said: “Until we get after those absentee landlords, it’s going to be a very difficult challenge to get these areas cleaned up.”

New neighbors

In some areas, buildings had been allowed to deteriorate to the point that inspectors could condemn them as unsafe, and have them demolished. The city’s Community Reinvestment office then could come in, acquire property and clear lots, which the city then would sell to the nonprofit housing initiatives NeighborWorks Columbus or Habitat for Humanity. Those organizations would build new houses and recruit new homeowners.

Homeowners are crucial in stabilizing a neighborhood. Those who own the houses in which they live will fight to protect their property and ensure the safety of their families. If crime threatens their area, then like David Lockett and Jodie Arrington, they will fight to defend their homes.

The city has applied this redevelopment initiative in East Wynnton, East Highland and Beallwood.

“In our redevelopment areas, we’ve kind of got three different examples of where we’re at,” said Joe Riddle, head of the Community Reinvestment office. “That area over there in East Wynnton is an example of how a revitalization effort can look in the end, in that we purchased slum and blighted properties, cleared it all up, reassembled those properties, and sold it to folks to come back in and revitalize the area.”

Beallwood, the area north of Manchester Expressway and west of Veterans Parkway, is in more of an intermediate stage. “We sold all our property we had up there to NeighborWorks,” which is now building new homes, Riddle said.

“In the East Highland area over there — 16th, 15th and 14th — that’s an area we haven’t been able to get into yet,” Riddle said of the avenues south of Talbotton Road. “That’s kind of an example of where we start from. You start seeing those vacant, boarded-up houses, and you get in there and start buying those up.”

Unlike a drug march or a police raid, redevelopment doesn’t happen in a day. It takes years, even decades. East Wynnton is not done yet. But Ninth and Benner is nothing like it used to be.

Redemption

Police Sgt. Rick Stinson, special agent in charge of the regional Metro Narcotics Task Force, drove up to Ninth Street on Benner Avenue recently and looked around at the new homes and cleared lots.

“This was a hellhole,” he said, recalling the infamous intersection’s 1980s reputation. Carver Heights Against Drugs redeemed it, he said: “That group did more to clean this up than all the policing in the world.”

Police admit they can have only a limited effect on street-corner drug dealing because street dealers seem to be in inexhaustible supply.

“It’s like a set of shark’s teeth,” said Stinson’s Metro colleague, Sheriff’s Sgt. Jonnie Ellerbee: Take out the front layer and another replaces it. “You’ve always got somebody else.”

That’s why the city needs residents to police their own neighborhoods: They see what’s going on night and day, so they can be much more effective in fighting crime than the law enforcement officers who come and go.

“The drug dealer can be standing on the street, looking as innocent as can be, and still have drugs somewhere on the ground in his vicinity where he can watch it, pick it up and make a sale,” said Arrington. “I had a man living across the street from me on apartments that used to be here on Ninth Street and Benner Avenue, who was hiding drugs in the corner of my front yard.”

Arrington threatened to come after the man if he did that again. “He looked at me and laughed, and asked me would I really do that, and I told him I would. That let him know that I knew what he was doing, and was man enough to stand in his face and tell him what I thought about him.”

Today Habitat and NeighborWorks houses line the streets around East Wynnton, the former distinguished from the latter by flower boxes on the front windows.

Cathy Williams of NeighborWorks said homeowners like the planters. They also prefer another architectural feature: “They said they wanted their houses to have front porches,” Williams said.

That kind of redevelopment changes the atmosphere of a neighborhood, making it a place where people feel safe walking the streets and sitting on front porches.

“There’s a direct correlation between that kind of change and reducing crime,” Williams said.

But the work never ends.

“Right now we have a lot of vacant houses throughout this neighborhood,” Arrington said. “Some of them are boarded up; some of them are not, and drug dealers and homeless people are in those houses also. … We’re having problems with neighbors over on King Street.”

Does he think they’re dealing drugs?

“Yes, they are,” he said. “But we’re on their back.”

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