A few weeks ago, Aasim Inshirah gave the INDY a tour of his Durham neighborhood.
Inshirah lives on Dunstan Avenue, a few blocks north of N.C. Central University, where he works as a public affairs producer and an announcer for WNCU, the school's jazz station. He's been in the neighborhood for about twelve years, having previously lived on Price Avenue, which runs east-west two blocks north of NCCU. Walking the streets, Inshirah pointed out overgrown, weedy lots, houses with broken windows, abandoned homes, and porches with trash spilling onto the lawn—all within a block or two of the historically black university. While not on the NCCU campus, these blighted properties—and, in some cases, public rights of way—are located on streets where two-hour parking zones are enforced, an acknowledgment by the city that NCCU students and visitors park there.
The intersection of Fayetteville and Dupree introduces southbound motorists and pedestrians to the NCCU campus. That corner is also where Inshirah works, in the Farrison-Newton Communications Building. On his walk to work in the past year, Inshirah says, he's spotted several hypodermic needles on the street: one on the 1500 block of Fayetteville and two at the corner of Fayetteville and Dupree, near a school bus stop. If you head north from the NCCU sign on the lawn of Farrison-Newton, down Fayetteville, three of the first five residences—all within about fifty yards of the school—are boarded up. One has a collapsing awning. Several have cracked windows.
A block east, beneath a sloped white wall built into a hill at Merrick and Dunbar, a dusting of assorted litter, including condoms and condom wrappers, mixes in with weeds sprouting out of the sidewalk.
"Prostitutes take their johns there at night," Inshirah says. "You can't walk on the sidewalk. And this is where people park for school!"
Paul Hamerka, a contractor who has rehabbed and rented out homes on Price Avenue and Dupree Street, tells the INDY he endured four break-ins at one of his houses while remodeling it. "People stole copper and tools," Hamerka says. "There was a prostitute using our back steps as her work office at night. I'd find condoms back there regularly."
The problems tapered off once Hamerka got renters in, but he says he's likely to sell the homes soon due to the crime and blight in the neighborhood.
The crime in this campus-adjacent area is not limited to prostitution, break-ins, and drug use. This past Saturday, a man was found dead of a gunshot wound on a lawn on the 600 block of Dunbar. A rape was reported on the 600 block of Price two days before. Eight aggravated assaults have occurred in the four square blocks north of campus—Fayetteville to Lincoln, Dupree to Price—in the past year. The university itself has sent out at least two alerts to students in 2016 regarding gunshots on the 600 block of Dupree, a stretch between a university-owned parking deck and Farrison-Newton.
"It's broken windows theory, is what I'm saying," Inshirah says. "If the city would enforce codes over here, you'd see less crime."
Constance Stancil, director of the city of Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services, says her department is doing all it can. "Every quarter, we go out of our way to do a major cleanup down Fayetteville and Alston, prior to things like the first day of classes in August, homecoming, graduation," Stancil says. "We do proactive ride-throughs to identify high grass and junky lots, and take care of them at the city's expense."
Stancil also notes that $2,500 neighborhood matching grants are available. "We work with neighborhoods all the time on all kinds of projects," she says. "If a neighborhood calls NIS and asks for assistance on a cleanup job, we will send community engagement coordinators out to pick up the junk and debris from these properties. But we want buy-in from the community; otherwise, there's no incentive to keep things clean after we leave."
Absentee landlords are also an obstacle to cleaning up the area around NCCU. Versailles Realty Partners owns seven houses within a block of Farrison-Newton. A man named William Graham owned this company until his death in 2013. As the INDY reported last year, it's unclear who is currently running Versailles Realty Partners, due to a dispute over Graham's estate. His son David Graham, who lives in Maryland, is listed as the company administrator. His other son, Lynn, serves as the property manager, according to the company's tenants in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, several of whom have lodged complaints about bedbugs, roaches, exposed wires, and other unresolved housing-code violations.
Neither Graham returned calls from the INDY for this story. According to NIS, though, six of Versailles Realty Partners' NCCU-adjacent properties are considered open cases.
"You've got a lot of property owners over there who have no real desire or incentive to improve their property," says city council member Eddie Davis. "Some of them, based on conversations I've had, assume the university will eventually want to expand and buy their property, at which point they'll be able to sell it at a higher value than it's worth. I don't know that that will ever happen, but I think that is a factor here as well."
The Durham City Council recently approved an ordinance change aimed at expediting the city's response time for housing-code violations. Stancil says it effectively allows code-enforcement teams to clean up problem properties in as little as two weeks, as opposed to the onerous four-month slog of legal notices and advertisements that were previously required.
NCCU owns three vacant lots on the troubled 600 block of Dupree, according to county records. Ayana D. Hernandez, NCCU's associate vice chancellor for university relations, says the school has "no specific plans" for those properties. She says NCCU is interested in purchasing a particularly blighted property next door to one of the university's lots, at 618 Dupree. The owner there faces charges from Durham's Community Life Court, which handles code enforcement cases, according to NIS records. "The North Carolina Office of State Property is pursuing such a transaction on behalf of the university," Hernandez writes in an email.
But NCCU doesn't appear to have sufficient funding to clean up the area surrounding its campus.
"While there are no funds specifically allocated to beautifying the area outside the university," Hernandez writes, "NCCU is an active community partner with the City of Durham, and the university maintains and beautifies its property within the campus boundaries." Hernandez also notes that NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White has attended city council meetings to advocate on behalf of developments along the Fayetteville Street corridor.
Davis says that now, with an academic year soon to begin, it's time for a serious community conversation about cleaning up the area.
"It should start with the university, but include community groups, neighborhood groups, the PAC over there," Davis says. "It's a problem that has gone on too long. It needs to be reckoned with."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Trashed"