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Stacey Barrington, left, Tim Cuzmar, Tim Weber and his wife, Tara-Lehua, with their daughter, Talia, walk down Amherst Street through Charleston's East Side neighborhood Monday August 19, 2019. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In the weeks after the shooting death of a downtown sous-chef, longtime black and white residents say tension lingers in their East Side neighborhood, one of the most rapidly changing places in a rapidly changing city. They hope for solutions, and fast.

Anger boiled over at a recent community meeting, as questions arose about the city's efforts — and local leaders' effectiveness — to address crime in the neighborhood.

Like some other downtown neighborhoods, many East Side homes have signs in their windows announcing that they're for rent or for sale. Old buildings bump up to new construction. Some streets have pocket parks, others are littered.

Most tree wells are filled with trees, even flowers. People walk their dogs in the early evenings. Others ride bikes. Some congregate outside corner stores and on porches. It's all part of what draws people new to the East Side: its diversity of residents.

But as the neighborhood continues to gentrify, there's a strain just under the surface. After the recent death of of 41-year-old Timothy Haman Jr., it broke through for many to see and raised questions about who can help the neighborhood move past it. 

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Eric A. Jackson stands outside his laundromat Tuesday August 20, 2019, in Charleston. Jackson offers resources and information for residents at the laundromat through his community outreach organization, R3 Inc. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Haves and have-nots

As parts of Charleston are renovated, rebuilt and made safer, that can lead to higher rents that often push out longstanding, less-wealthy residents, said B.D. Wortham-Galvin, director and associate professor of Clemson University's Master of Resilient Urban Design program.

"It means pushing out residents who have built social capital, local businesses and have a knowledge of a place in a really deep way," Wortham-Galvin said.

Wortham-Galvin said the East Side is about halfway gentrified, which isn't news for Reid Street laundromat owner Eric Jackson.

Jackson grew up in the neighborhood, attended Burke High School, joined the military and worked for a hospital for 21 years. Eighteen months ago, he opened up Laundry Matters, which includes a blessing box of donated canned goods, an information board and computers for use by kids and adults. He said the neighborhood is one of haves and have-nots. 

"On one block people are struggling to feed their family, on another they're having their groceries delivered," Jackson said. 

Wortham-Galvin said those in the East Side neighborhood — the longstanding, deep-rooted residents — are right to be suspicious of the "next great solution" proposals because they've been told before to trust that development will bring good things.

"There are tremendous leaders on the East Side, but part of it is finding ways to get relationships with them set up," Wortham-Galvin said.

She noted the East Side has its own community development corporation, "but they don't have as much presence. ... I don't think people are engaging them as much as they could."

'Being put upon'

Joseph Watson remembers stemming string beans and prepping vegetables in his mother's restaurant at America and Amherst streets in the late 1950s. 

The intersection had nine businesses at the time, including three grocery stores, two cleaners and a liquor store. He still runs the business, now a corner store called Mary's Sweet Shop.

"The neighborhood was wholesome," Watson said. "Everyone knew each other."

He said growing up, he wasn't just raised by his mother and father but also by the community that surrounded their home at 27½ Amherst St. "There was politeness, just conversation — you don't see that much now," he said. 

Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott said black residents feel like they’re “being put upon” because the newer residents have the resources to come in and improve their properties.

“And the attitude is, ‘What you guys need to do. What you people need to do,’” Scott said, describing what black residents are confronted with when it comes to quality-of-life issues, their properties, their economic status and feeling welcome in their own neighborhood.

Tim Cuzmar has lived on the East Side since 2009 moving from West Ashley to America Street. For most of the time, he said it's not been bad. He said he's seen less spray paint on homes, but drug dealers still linger near certain intersections and stores. 

Stacey Barrington said when she first moved to the neighborhood, the Ravenel Bridge hadn't been built and the neighborhood vibe was very much "I don't bother you, you don't bother me." The bridge brought more pedestrians and others into the East Side. Abandoned buildings were bought and fixed up.

Tim Weber has lived on South Street for 14 years and said he's witnessed a few shootings, including one night in 2014 when a bullet bore into his front door. The impression of it remains. He said it seemed there was a murder almost every month, gunshots were common, and pizza delivery didn't happen there.

"People seem to come into the neighborhood, sell their drugs and shoot up the place," Weber said. 

Chris DiMittia, a member of the Eastside Community Development Corporation's board and 15-year resident, said he feels the tension stems from the departure of an "incredible" police lieutenant who once ran the neighborhood's community action team. Now, police tell residents that loitering laws make it difficult to confront possible drug dealers.

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Earl Brown, right, plays a card game with friends as they hang out inside his club, The Parlor, Thursday August 15, 2019, in Charleston. Brown bought the building in 1981 and made it a place for people from the neighborhood to hang out. "This has been a focal point in the community for years," said Brown, who grew up in the neighborhood and worked at the club when it was a shoe-shine parlor. "It's a big family thing." Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

Another issue is people buying up property to "make a fast buck" and out-of-state, absentee landlords who let their properties fall into neglect, he said, while people on the higher end of the income bracket expect dramatic changes in the neighborhood.

"We can't get street sweeping or parking enforcement because City Council says we need petitions from 75 percent of residents," DiMittia said, "but renters and developers won't sign because they don't want to lose parking."

Additionally, few neighborhood businesses are actually owned by neighborhood residents.

"I think the white-black tension story line might make good press, but that's not the issue," DiMittia said. "I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but people in general are not as friendly."

'A cultural misunderstanding'

The shooting death of Haman caught on Weber's surveillance camera prompted a call for action. The Eastside Community Development Corp. met, and its president, Latonya Gamble, criticized the city's priorities on the East Side. Her words angered some.

Cuzmar spoke critically of the ECDC, after attending its meetings there for a few years. "I feel like if you're not African American they do not want to work with you," Cuzmar said. "The ECDC does not want to work with people who live in the neighborhood or people trying to work with them."

Barrington said she's tried to volunteer with the neighborhood association and her experience is that people who tried to join eventually got fed up and stopped attending.

Weber said Gamble seldom takes incoming calls or returns messages. Six years ago, he started getting involved with the ECDC, but the group seemed hostile. "Some of us wanted to know the bylaws and we were told they were private," he said.

"It's time to disband the ECDC and start fresh," Weber said. "The democratic process is not working. It has failed us."

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Charleston's East Side neighborhood demographics have changed as new residents continue to rent and buy property in the area. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Barrington said she feels the neighborhood and its leaders need an intervention and suggested the city's new leader of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance, Amber Johnson, lead such a discussion.

"You can't say stuff like 'The white people are having secret meetings,' I don't know what the hell that means," Barrington said. "Now a whole community is repeating a rumor. ... It's rhetoric, it's rumors, it makes it look like we're working against each other."

Laundromat owner Jackson said there's anger, frustration and blame on both sides, adding, "The community needs some empathy."

Part of the problem is while drug dealers often loiter outside and on corners, law-abiding residents also linger on porches, stoops and by corner stores. Newer East Side residents might not appreciate that.

"Your social area might be a golf club, but on the East Side it's the corner," Jackson said. "People need to understand social differences. ... Standing on the corner doesn't mean you're selling drugs."

"I think the neighborhood is suffering from a cultural misunderstanding," Jackson added. "Relationship-building isn't happening."

Jackson said residents can't blame Latonya Gamble for everything. The Post and Courier made multiple attempts to interview Gamble, who did not comment. 

Watson defended Gamble's dedication to the neighborhood but said he was saddened by the recent ECDC meeting because the focus shifted away from the recent crime. People "concentrated on everything other than what happened. I really wish everyone spoke differently in that meeting." 

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Joseph Watson sits behind the counter of his sweet shop Tuesday August 20, 2019, in Charleston. Watson's mother, Mary, opened the store as restaurant 61 years ago before turning it into a sweet shop. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

But one comment from last week's meeting last week did ring true: Most crime on the East Side isn't done by its residents but by others. Charleston Police Lt. Andre Jenkins, who leads the department’s efforts in the East Side area, confirmed that.

"One of the things the city is trying to do along with the folks in the community is we are trying to change the image of the neighborhood to where folks won't think of that place as one to commit crimes like they did in the past," Jenkins said. "We're trying to turn around the image."

Each week, the neighborhood has more than 10 officers patrolling either on foot, in marked cars or on bikes. Police are focused on stopping drug dealing and aggravated assaults.

"If you look at it statistically, crime is probably at one of the lowest points in the neighborhood but you can never judge based on just statistics," Jenkins said. "It's about the way folks feel and our thing is we want crime to be down statistically but we want them to feel crime is low."

'I've been there' 

Geona Shaw Johnson, the city's director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the city has worked to preserve existing East Side homes and build new affordable ones there.

Most recently, the city has started working with the Charleston Housing Authority to build 65 housing units — called Grace Homes — at Lee and Meeting streets. The city is eyeing another deal to build 57 more units of low-income housing in the area.

Meanwhile, the city has also worked with faith groups to convert their empty spaces into affordable rental housing. It also has worked to improve the neighborhood's parks and street trees. Next week, the city will break ground on a new center at America and Lee streets in partnership with South Carolina State University.

Mayor John Tecklenburg said he feels his and the city's role is to be a "bridge builder" for the community and making sure the city is properly serving it. "The sense of racial divide in the neighborhood, we must strive for some healing and reconciliation," he said.

Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he feels the East Side neighborhood could benefit from the city's Illumination Project's leadership program.

City Councilman Robert Mitchell said those living in the neighborhood need to learn to compromise and work together.

"I hope and pray things get better because I don't want racial things to happen," he said. "I've seen that. I've been there. That doesn't solve problems; it makes things worse."

Reporter Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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