Nassau St. area struggles to escape its past

Brad Nettles/staff William Trask, who lives on Nassau Street, said he heard a gunshot early Saturday but didn’t see anything.

William Trask moved to Nassau Street in August, lured by the prospect of cheap rent. The recent law school graduate found life in his new neighborhood to be quieter, cleaner and friendlier than his previous home in Elliotborough.

But Trask learned early Saturday that life on the East Side can also carry an element of danger.

When gunfire crackled shortly after 4 a.m., Trask ran out to his porch and looked around. Nothing. He returned to bed but woke a few hours later to find the street lined with Charleston police cars.

Police received a call about 6 a.m. alerting them to a body of a man found near Line and Nassau streets, just yards from Trask’s home. Albert Louis Brown, a 37-year-old ex-convict, had been shot to death, authorities said.

His untimely passing marked the latest flare-up of violence at an intersection that has seen numerous killings, gunshot wounds and drug-fueled showdowns over the years. In one six-month span in 2004, gunmen killed three people and wounded a fourth in a series of shootings on this street corner.

Trask and other residents said Saturday’s shooting seems to be more of an aberration for the area these days.

“I feel safe here,” said Trask, 26. “This block here is mostly families. People are friendly. No one’s bothered us.”

The area, like much of the East Side, has undergone a transformation in recent years as college students and urban homesteaders have moved in search of affordable properties on the peninsula. The neighborhood remains predominantly black, but there are now many whites, some Hispanics and others as well.

Young men still prowl the streets, casting hard stares at strangers who pass. But there are also students and young professionals hustling to class and work, families lounging on their front stoops, workmen fixing up homes. It looks more like a neighborhood than the open-air drug market it used to be, where hard cases lingered on the corner slinging crack and heroin.

Charleston police have made an intensive effort in the area in recent years, stationing a dedicated team of officers in the neighborhood and making frequent patrols. In one 45-minute period Monday, cruisers passed by Line and Nassau at least five times.

Police have also worked closely with city code enforcement officers and livability officials to address blighted properties and crack down on problem tenants, said police Lt. Charles Hawkins, the team commander who oversees the area.

In 2010, police were called to Line and Nassau 71 times for a variety of problems, Hawkins said. That figure dropped to 60 calls in 2011. So far this year, officers have been summoned to the corner 37 times, he said.

In one major area of concern, complaints about drug activity on the corner fell from 23 in 2010 to eight so far this year, Hawkins said.

But Hawkins and residents acknowledge it’s a fragile progress. In March, a man was shot in the leg while walking home through the intersection. And in April, two men reportedly stomped and beat another man on the corner, leaving him with severe head injuries.

“That area still takes some massaging,” Hawkins said.

He likened the process to washing dishes: you have to keep at it to make sure they stay clean.

To that end, police hit the area hard after Brown’s shooting and interviewed numerous witnesses. They learned that Brown had gone out that night in search of crack cocaine and that he had been seen arguing with two men in the area shortly before gunshots sounded, according to police reports.

Officers found him lying on the sidewalk atop his bicycle in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the head, police said.

Witnesses implicated Darren Nathaniel Simmons, 23, of Hampden Court in the killing, and investigators charged him on Monday with murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, police said.

Simmons, who is on probation for a burglary charge, is being held in the Cannon Detention Center, police spokesman Charles Francis said. Simmons also has past convictions for possession of a stolen vehicle, failure to stop for blue lights and marijuana possession, according to State Law Enforcement Division records.

Brown, the victim, was a father who worked as a laborer, according to his obituary. He also had a lengthy rap sheet, with convictions for crack cocaine possession and distribution, trespassing, assault and battery, forgery, shoplifting, carrying a concealed weapon and giving false information to police, according to SLED records.

Grant Davis, who has lived on Nassau Street for seven years, said this weekend’s violence shows the area is still struggling to overcome its past. He vividly recalls two people shot across the street from his home a few years ago, and he still keeps boards over his windows to keep prying eyes from looking in.

Davis said he is pleased that progress is being made in curbing crime, and he likes to see people fixing up homes again.

But he worries that some of this transformation will displace longtime residents as rents go up and that some of the problem people will just end up elsewhere with the same “moral decadence” they had here.

“Pushing people out is not the answer,” he said. “That just makes some other neighborhood worse. It doesn’t make the problems go away.”

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