In spite of the Durham Housing Authority’s ambitious HOPE VI project, which is aimed at making the streets of North East Central Durham safer for residents and businesses, East Durham continues to struggle with drugs, gang violence and blight. The neighborhood has one of the highest crime rates in the city, along with the highest unemployment and illiteracy rates. Three years ago, residents got together and started A New East Durham, led by the Rev. Melvin Whitley, to draw political attention to their community.

Why was A New East Durham started?

It was started because the city was not responding to East Durham’s needs. What you hear a lot is the city talking about North East Central Durham, and the city has made a commitment to revitalize a 96-block area there in a project called HOPE VI. Unfortunately, the part of East Durham that is having the most trouble is not part of that 96 blocks. They’ve done good work in cleaning up that area, but they’ve also forced a lot of the people that were selling drugs and doing wrong in Few Gardens into other parts of East Durham. We felt that our neighborhoods were not getting enough attention from the city, and we thought that the best thing to do, politically, was to become a big, squeaking wheel.

And has the city responded?

Well, we met with Patrick Baker, the city manager, last week and we talked about changing the approach of the police department here. We found out recently that District 1 is short-staffed about eight police officers, so we made an agreement that it was OK to bring in the sheriff to provide better public safety until the city provides us with more officers. Right now, all they have is a set number of police cars patrolling the streets, and if they see a problem or get a 911 call, they address it. But that’s like putting a Band-Aid on a fracture.

So what do you suggest?

What I want is for the city to bring back Crime Abatement Teams, which are teams of extra officers who focus in on a specific crime area and target specific criminals. I asked the city manager for those extra officers, and he said he would do what he could to make sure that we get them.

Why do you think the city has neglected East Durham, in terms of funding, so far?

I think it’s just a lack of vision on the part of our elected officials. In all honesty, we should not be crying about public safety. That’s the responsibility of every elected official. We tend to throw money at other things, which might be important, but when communities are in trouble because of a lack of public safety, it points to a simple lack of vision. Criminals tend to locate in neighborhoods that they imagine the city doesn’t care about, so we want to elect officials who include East Durham in their plans for the city, officials who genuinely care about cleaning up this community. We are making sure that the issue of East Durham is at the forefront of every municipal election.

How is A New East Durham organizing for the upcoming city council election?

The politicians know they need to win East Durham to get elected. Before the election, we’re going to have the largest voter registration campaign the city has ever seen. Twenty-four churches and 32 local barber and beauty shops will be converted into places where people can register to vote. I think that will get their attention.

Correction (July 17, 2007): In the first paragraph, “The City of Durham” was changed to “the Durham Housing Authority.”