With its dogwoods blooming and four young guys hooping it up on the basketball court, Roberts Park looks like an oasis in the East Martin Street area of Southeast Raleigh. But when two dozen residents got to talking inside the community center Monday night at the monthly meeting of the South Central Citizens Advisory Council (CAC), the topics were crime, drugs and the fight that afternoon in which one basketballer was hit in the face with a skateboard and his assailant subsequently attacked with a steel rod.
Raleigh Police officer Jesus Ortiz, the department's community liaison for Southeast Raleigh, knew every problem spot the residents brought up: the unit in the apartment building at Montague and Davie streets where the prostitutes are in and out all day; Lenoir and Haywood streets, where the drug dealers "hang out like termites on wood," as one woman said; the 700 block of East Martin Street, where the red bandanas signal a gang's presence. The police are working aggressively, Ortiz promised, within constitutional limits. And the Wake County District Attorney's office is backing them up in court. "There's been a lot of arrests lately, and a lot of guys that's been getting a lot of hard time," he said.
But the problems in Southeast Raleigh are getting worse, not better, in the down economy, and last week some 200 residents attended the City Council's afternoon session to issue what amounted to a cry for help. Their spokesman, former Councilor Brad Thompson, said the combination of rising unemployment, school dropout rates, crime and drug addiction is "intolerable" and "is wrecking our community."
"We are seeing a downward slide," he told the council, "in which those who are the poorest get hit the hardest—and that means us, in many circumstances."
The unemployment rate in Southeast Raleigh is 15 percent overall, and higher in some neighborhoods, Thompson said. Many more people are underemployed or poorly paid. On every meaningful measure, from household income to housing foreclosures to high school graduation rates, he went on, Southeast Raleigh trails the rest of the city. In 2008, its rate of serious crimes was 70 percent higher than Raleigh's overall average; its murder rate was four times the city's rate (see box below).
With a population of about 80,000, Southeast Raleigh is equivalent in size to cities like Asheville and Wilmington, Thompson said. But its needs can get lost in Raleigh's overall measures of growth and prosperity, which are generally good.
"If Asheville had numbers like we do in Southeast Raleigh, they'd be talking about a crisis," he told the Indy. "We need to get on top of this before we're overcome by it."
Loose-leaf notebooks Thompson gave each council member included proposals in five areas—jobs, public safety, youth, neighborhoods and federal stimulus funds—and represented, he said, the work of 50 community leaders brought together by Councilor James West.
It's a new effort at community mobilization in Southeast Raleigh, a district led by an aging group of political leaders, but also where fully one-third of the residents are under 21, according to Thompson. Local leaders need help from the city, Wake County and the Wake Board of Education to bring older residents and youth together to work on revitalization. Its leadership will meet them "more than halfway," he pledged. "We're going to do our part if you do yours."
The centerpiece of the plan is the creation of a job training and placement center in the South Park neighborhood with the goal, Thompson said, that it would eventually become a "near-downtown" Wake Technical Community College campus. The idea's been discussed with state lawmakers and county officials, he said, as Wake Commissioners Chairman Harold Webb, a longtime district leader, nodded.
District leaders are also intent on seeing federal stimulus funds spent in Southeast Raleigh in ways that strengthen community organizations and small businesses. So far, Thompson said, they can't tell whether any money is coming in. If it is, he added, "it's not transparent. We can't see it."
City Manager Russell Allen said some $1.6 million in stimulus funds are forthcoming in the form of community development and homelessness prevention aid. Another $1 million, and perhaps as much as $8 million, is expected for community policing programs. Raleigh is also hoping to qualify for $11.5 million in federal funds for a new CAT bus operations center on Poole Road in Southeast Raleigh, for which a 23-acre site has already been acquired. The total price tag for that project is $22.5 million, Allen said.
West and Mayor Charles Meeker called on Allen to respond with recommendations and a timeline for action before the Council begins its 2009-10 budget deliberations in April.
Councilor Thomas Crowder, whose Southwest Raleigh district includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, said he's anxious to work with West to create a job training center that serves all of South Raleigh, along with after-school mentoring programs for children. At-large Councilor Russ Stephenson also promised "to take these serious problems seriously" and predicted a majority of the council would, too.
At Roberts Park, South Central CAC Chair Dan Coleman said the fight on the basketball court was apparently between two groups of Hispanic youth, but there are ongoing problems between Hispanic and African-American youths as well. Typically, he said, the outdoor basketball court is segregated, with the two groups at opposite ends.
"It's really discouraging," Coleman said, especially when fights break out in the late afternoon hours when young kids are present at the community center. "I would hope that, at least for a few hours after school, this could be a haven for them from that sort of thing."
Coleman, who also heads Southeast Raleigh's political action committee, said he wonders if Southeast's plight is really understood by city leaders, even after Thompson's presentation, or if they're going after federal funds for Southeast aggressively enough.
"I think Raleigh might be a little indifferent to the problems that people in the community are having," he said, sighing. The mainstream media, he added, gave the Southeast plan virtually no coverage. Monthly marches in the Tarboro Road area, where a recent gang killing occurred, are drawing less and less attention—and attendance. Another is scheduled for Saturday, April 4, at noon.
For now, Coleman said, he plans to push city parks and community services officials to reach out to leaders in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods for talks and eventually some common programs. Otherwise, he warned, "Summer's coming, and we could have a mess."