Reclaiming the streets

Jesse Williams, president of the Dorchester Waylyn association, chats with Shironn Praleau as others run and play during a family field day on May 23 in the Dorchester Terrace neighborhood.

Running gunbattles, doorstep killings and illegal drugs are just some of the high-profile crimes reported in neighborhoods around the Greyhound bus station in North Charleston. But residents of at least one of those neighborhoods are working to change that.

Dorchester Waylyn is off Dorchester Road behind Burns Elementary School, a few blocks west of the Interstate 26 and the bus station. It’s where the shooting that cost a woman her life on Mother’s Day started. Police said several men in a dark-blue car were chasing a silver or gray Chrysler and fatally shot Dena Brown, a 36-year-old mother of three, because the shooter mistook her car for the one they were chasing. Two of the men who were arrested live in the Waylyn neighborhood.

It’s the same neighborhood where a young man knocked on a door and shot a mother to death on New Year’s Day last year after somebody knocked on his mother’s door and wounded her.

It sounds depressing, but police and residents say things are better than they used to be and continue to improve.

A new sign greets those driving into The Waylyn, as residents call the neighborhood.

It says “Welcome to Dorchester Waylyn, A Community That Cares.”

It went up about two months ago at Constitution Avenue and Ranger Drive, a couple of blocks from where the shootout that killed Brown started. It’s bright white with black letters, perched atop a brick flower bed filled with colorful plants.

Neighborhood Association President Jesse Williams pushed Councilwoman Dorothy Williams (no relation) to use some of her discretionary funds for it.

“It’s so that people can have pride in the community and the residents can see something positive can get done,” Jesse Williams said.

Not everyone is so optimistic. A middle-aged resident walked by while a photographer was taking a photo.

“You better snap a good one,” he said, “It will be gone by next week. They’ll tear down this one, too.”

A lot of improvements in the neighborhood in the past couple of years can be attributed to Jesse Williams, according to residents who cared to talk about it.

Williams, 34, whose family came from Hawaii, grew up off Dorchester Road but moved to Mount Pleasant, where he got involved with Seacoast Church. He started coming back into his old neighborhoods about eight years ago with a program called Take It To the Streets. He knocked on doors, started a food pantry, and organized field trips and cookouts for children.

About three years ago, he moved into a house on Constitution Avenue. The association was down to two members. He became president and now has 23 people involved.

“We’re not just looking at it from the crime problem, but holistically,” said Williams, who works as a tax preparer. “When you have poverty and lack of jobs, when you have nothing for the kids to do, it breeds that.”

Residents persuaded the city to turn a grassy field into a small park across Dorchester Road in the Dorchester Terrace neighborhood last year. Williams and some partners were out there on a recent Saturday afternoon cooking hot dogs for children and leading them in a Bible study. Parents sent out their children but didn’t attend.

He’s pushing for a bigger park and community center with some programs to give teens an alternative to drugs and guns.

William Williams is an example. He’s a black 28-year-old who happens to have the same last name and has been in the neighborhood since he was a teenager. He recalls struggling to find his way, dropping out of high school, seeing friends turn to drugs and guns to make some cash.

When he was about 20, he noticed Jesse Williams going door to door and talking to residents.

“A white guy going around knocking on doors, giving away food, and seriously not afraid of nothing that’s going on around here,” William Williams said. “I respected that.”

Jesse inspired William to get his GED and find a job. Now he works for a feed company on Daniel Island and lives across from his mother on Ranger Drive with his fiance, 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old boy.

“It’s been a transformation,” William said. “He helped me realize there were other ways. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s a reason I want to do something for the younger ones.”

There has been change in the neighborhood, but not enough to satisfy Jesse Williams. He’s pushing the city to install cameras and gunshot detectors to discourage shooting, and he also wants the ditches covered and more street lights added.

“I feel they are not doing enough,” he said. “There are not enough resources in certain neighborhoods.”

North Charleston Assistant Police Chief Reggie Burgess disagrees that not enough is being done in these neighborhoods,

He points out that officers organize basketball leagues to get kids from the neighborhoods playing each other.

“We have these kids playing in neighborhoods they would not even normally socialize in,” he said. “They start realizing the kids from other neighborhoods are not enemies. These neighborhoods have places where kids can play.”

Each neighborhood has at least one full-time resource officer on patrol, who gets to know residents and builds relationships.

The fact that three men were arrested so quickly after Dena Brown was shot is evidence that police are making progress, department spokesman Spencer Pryor said. The suspects were tracked down because citizens called in tips, he said.

Burgess also objects to calling Dorchester Waylyn a “troubled neighborhood.” He points out that the vast majority of residents are law-abiding citizens who care about their neighborhoods.

“It’s that 1 percent that is causing a whole lot of problems,” Burgess said. “We know it’s isolated situations.”

Last year, police reported one homicide in Dorchester Waylyn and six in Dorchester Terrace across the road. Police note that arrests were made in all but one of the killings. So far this year, nobody has been killed in either neighborhood. Brown was shot several miles away.

The Dorchester Waylyn homicide was the mother killed when somebody knocked on her door on Niagara Street.

The Dorchester Terrace homicides include a 16-year-old boy gunned down after he and his friends encountered another group on Sorentrue Avenue and a 43-year-old woman who was fatally shot as she backed out of a driveway on Suffolk Street.

While there have been no homicides in Dorchester Terrace so far this year, two houses were shot up on Suffolk Street three days after the gunbattle that killed Brown. Police have not said whether the incidents are connected.

City officials also point out improvements in the Accabee community, which is east of Dorchester Terrace near Cosgrove and Azalea avenues. Within the last couple years, the city put in new sidewalks and a community center with baseball field and basketball court.

The mayor’s office also pointed out renovations at Murray Hill Park, which is just west of Dorchester Terrace, including a new press box, restrooms, scoreboard, park benches and playground equipment.

Andrew Knapp and Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.