When members of the Durham County Board of Commissioners last week approved the purchase of the old John Avery Boys and Girls Club to house a newly created department to address gun violence, some county officials applauded the decision, saying that the new initiative needs room to grow.
But the county’s elected leaders also acknowledged they want to grab two birds with one hand by approving the purchase of the entire 13,592-square-foot building that housed the Boys and Girls Club and the ballfield next to it that together comprise two parcels of land at 2.61 acres. The purchase is part of an ongoing effort to halt Durham’s gun violence crisis, but buying the building is also an effort to preserve the character and legacy of the community.
County commissioner Nimasheena Burns noted during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting that the blue-and-white brick structure—decorated with a mural of youthful brown hands on its front exterior and the faces of Black and brown children on the rear—offered an equally compelling reason for the county to purchase the still-handsome building that sit in the southern shadow of downtown in Hayti.
“It’s smack-dab in the center of Hayti,” Burns said. “Hayti has been purchased by folks who are not from this community or from this state.”
The INDY reported in late June that Sterling Bay, a Chicago-based development firm with deep pockets, announced a joint venture with another Chicago firm and a New York developer to purchase the Heritage Square shopping center, a declining commercial space that sits between the 600 block of Fayetteville Street and the 400 block of East Lakewood Avenue.
Sterling Bay’s $62 million purchase of the nine-acre Heritage Square is just the latest development that has some longtime Hayti residents contemplating a not-so-distant future in which they will have little if any say, no place to live, and no business to own in the Bull City’s most celebrated Black community, whose name was inspired by the Haitian Revolution.
Even before the threat of gentrification, the neighborhood has struggled following the broken promise of urban renewal, an ill-named federal effort a little over a half century ago that was supposed to improve blighted homes and businesses in the neighborhood but instead destroyed and demolished 4,000 homes and 500 businesses.
Today, about 100 Black-owned businesses line the Hayti District’s Fayetteville Street corridor that stretches from NC 147 to Cornwallis Road.
There’s considerable bad feeling in the community about the failure of urban renewal and the threat of displacement as a consequence of gentrification.
“So we can sit and talk about all the programs we want to put there,” Burns said during the commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting on August 8. “But I can speak for myself and for some of my fellow board members if they’re brave enough. We did it [the land and building purchase] so that people could not continue to tear up Hayti. When I brought up this issue, no one on the board disagreed with that fact.”
The grass has grown high around the building, and the ball field is in need of renovations and equipment repairs, but it will one day serve as the home of the county’s new Community Intervention Services Department. The place will house three initiatives that aim to improve outcomes for young people who live in communities where there has been a dearth of investment and resources.
Project BUILD, a youth gang intervention program, started in 2009. The acronym stands for Building, Uplifting, Impacting Lives Daily, and the program will operate out of the building.
So will My Brother’s Keeper, a nationwide nonprofit launched by former president Barack Obama in 2014 that aims to reduce barriers and create more opportunities for boys and young men of color.
Then there’s Bull City United (BCU), arguably Community Intervention Services’ flagship initiative, which relies on reformed gang members who each day go into the Bull City’s most gun-violence-prone neighborhoods with the aim of stopping gunfire before it occurs.
The trained county-funded team of “violence interrupters’’ and outreach workers started in the gun- and gang-plagued Southside neighborhoods on South and Fargo Streets and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex in 2016 with the goal of approaching violence as a public health issue not unlike cholera or influenza outbreaks.
Last year, the city’s and county’s elected leaders reached an interlocal agreement that expanded BCU to four more gunfire-prone neighborhoods: a public housing complex along Cornwallis Road; Old Oxford Highway; the Fayetteville Street corridor between NC Central University and Phoenix Square; and East Durham’s Holloway, Liberty, and East Main Streets. The local initiative is modeled after CeaseFire, an anti-violence program that was originally developed in 2000 and implemented in Chicago neighborhoods where there were high incidents of shootings and gun murders.
Two years ago, BCU reported that between March 1 and September 12, 2020, there were 556 shootings throughout the city. Only 63 occurred in BCU’s target areas: McDougald Terrace, which in 2015 was deemed the most violent neighborhood in the city, and Southside, the city’s second-most-violent neighborhood.
“Give me a hundred people, and I can change the violence trends in Durham,” David Johnson, who supervises BCU, told the city council during a 2020 work session.
In early 2021, Durham City Council members didn’t give Johnson 100 folks. But they reviewed the overall decline in gun violence in McDougald Terrace and Southside and opted to give the county up to $935,488 to hire 18 more people and expand the Cure Violence model to four other areas in the city that are also perennially bedeviled by gunplay. The new target areas of treatment are Cornwallis Road, a section of Southside that was not formerly part of BCU’s target area, Oxford Manor, and Liberty and Elm Streets.
Johnson is making good on his promise.
According to data provided to BCU by the Durham Police Department, there have been 140 people shot in the city so far this year and 24 homicides.
Those numbers stand in marked contrast to those in the historically violence-prone areas targeted by BCU’s violence interrupters and outreach workers.
Between July of last year and June of this year, BCU workers who were formerly part of the city’s gun violence dilemma participated in nearly 900 mediations to resolve conflicts in their communities before they could escalate to deadly gunplay.
The end result: only eight homicides were reported between July of last year and June of this year in areas where BCU violence interrupters are working.
Moreover, during that same time period, 61 people were shot in the communities where the violence interrupters are trying to intervene. Of that number, 25 were shot in McDougald Terrace and 14 in the East Durham target area. One person was killed in Southside, three in McDougald Terrace, three more in East Durham, and one along the Fayetteville Street corridor.
“I’m not saying that’s not a lot of people,” Johnson told the INDY this week. “But it’s nothing like when we first went to work in McDougald Terrace. It’s always been like that. Those spots have been historically like that. It’s not just a yearly battle. You have historic violence in those communities.”
Earlier this year, Maria Jocys, a retired FBI agent who spent the last five years of her career working with the federal agency’s Safe Streets Task Force, which focuses on criminal street gangs in Durham, said she wants to address gun violence in some of BCU’s operational areas, such as Bragtown.
“There’s a gang feud that started in 2017 between the 8 Trey Gangsta Crips in Bragtown and the nontraditional O Block 8 AM gang,” Jocys told the INDY this spring. “We’re seeing shootings involving these two entities that started with the shooting death of Kyle Fisher, whose alias is the letter O.”
But so far this year, no one has died from gun violence in Bragtown, and only two people have been shot.
“The two shootings just happened in June,” Johnson told the INDY. “Before June there was none for the entire year.”
Similarly, there have been no homicides reported at the Cornwallis public housing complex this year.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Johnson says. “It’s working out way beyond our expectations.”
Joanne Pierce, who works as general manager of the county’s community intervention services, agrees with Johnson.
“The data will show that this program is doing what it’s supposed to do,” she says.
But Pierce also struck a cautionary note last week while speaking with the INDY. One program, she says—even one that has had the success demonstrated this year by BCU—will not solve the systemic issues that have bedeviled those communities for decades.
“Programs are useful for what they do,” Pierce says. “But it does not address the systemic structural issues. Durham is a foodie town. But we have food deserts, where people can’t access food in these same places, educational deserts, and economic mobility deserts, health deserts in communities that have been geographically segregated from resources …. Rarely does the response to systemic issues address the magnitude of the issue.”
Pierce rightly insists that what’s happening in the Bull City is happening nationwide. It’s generational, stretching back centuries, and is the inevitable outcome of a society structured on race. She says the real conversation should be centered around race-based inequities. “That conversation,” she adds, “needs to be “reframed.”
The onus, Pierce says, is not on Black and brown children who gun one another down in the streets but on the greater society and the powers that be.
“What do we need to do for these communities to be better?” she asks. “We need to turn the mirror inward at these systems and ask, ‘How have we contributed to the inequities? How do we do better?’
“If you have a polluted lake, you don’t fix the fish.”
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