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Revival of America Street

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Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Stacey’s Kitchen, at America and Reid streets, is the neighborhood hangout to swap news and stories, and Albert Nelson (clockwise, from lower left), James Middleton, Paul Brown, Michael Marion and Jay Bennett are doing just that. The store, owned by Marion, is a neighborhood institution selling everything from toilet paper to barbecued pigs’ feet.

A wobbly drunk muttered under his breath as he rummaged in a darkened doorway. A crack addict stumbled toward him, her body spent from too many nights on the pipe. An acquaintance cursed her as he sprawled on a nearby sidewalk, his voice slurred from a healthy dose of "fightin' liquor."

Just a few hours earlier, this street buzzed with life -- old men chatted in lawn chairs, shade-tree mechanics tinkered with cars, parents strolled with giggling kids.

But like the changing of tides, a seedier element swept in as darkness fell on this urban artery of poverty and promise.

Welcome to a street named America, founded in the hopes of a newborn nation and saddled with some of the country's deepest ills, from unemployment and homelessness to drugs and violence.

Over the years, the street transformed from an immigrant melting pot into a struggling, but proud, black enclave that bristled at the corridor's reputation as Charleston's most dangerous address.

Now it is changing again as a new breed of urban homesteaders stake out claims in a neighborhood that many locals still go to great lengths to avoid.

New houses are going up; old ones are being renovated. A community garden is in bloom, and the streets teem with people from a broader racial and ethnic palette.

But America Street still fights to shed the demons of its past. The street takes on an edge after midnight as hard characters slip from the shadows and prowl its corners and crannies -- at times with deadly results.

An accountant was shot dead here in July, his bleeding body left slumped over the wheel of his car. The killing occurred close to where a minister's son was gunned down in November, and just blocks from a shooting that left three men wounded this month.

Despite these flashes of violence, Charleston police say overall crime is down along this historic street that for years served as an open-air drug market.

Police data show that the area still has a greater concentration of violent crime than other peninsular neighborhoods. But the amount of violent crimes -- assaults, robberies, rapes and murders -- last year was almost half of what it was in 2006, down from 79 to 44, police records show.

Residents applaud the change. They credit an intense effort by police and greater involvement from the residents themselves.

"It used to be like a circus show out there. I called it the drive-through window. That's how rampant and plentiful the drugs were," said Donald Heyward, a former iron worker who lives just off America Street. "It's gotten much better these days."

But most agree it's a fragile success.

Sgt. John Lites, who leads a team of seven police officers stationed in the neighborhood, is proud of the progress the community has made. But he has no doubt more criminals would creep back in if police and residents ease up the pressure, even a bit.

"It's a real success story from where we were, and there are a lot of really good people living here," he said. "But we still have a long way to go. I'm not blind to that. But I am hopeful."

A rich history

Book-ended by housing projects and lined with wood-frame, Victorian-era homes in various states of repair, America Street runs for about a mile and serves as a main artery through Charleston's East Side.

Henry Laurens, one of the nation's founding fathers, gave the street its patriotic monicker more than 200 years ago. Back then it was part of Hampstead, a graceful new village created from Laurens' extensive land holdings.

In the 19th century, European immigrants and former slaves flocked here to raise families, run businesses and stake their claim to the American Dream. They made the street a thriving commercial corridor and a rich melting pot of Greek, German, Irish, Italian and black families.

But as in other inner-city neighborhoods around the country, whites left the East Side after World War II, drawn by the advent of the modern suburb with sprawling ranch houses, spacious lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs.

Many in the black middle class would later move as well, leaving behind a neighborhood caught in a grinding cycle of poverty.

By 1990, median household income in the area had fallen to less than $10,000 a year. Three-quarters of kids under age 5 lived in poverty. Less than half of the adults over 25 held high school diplomas.

The heroin and crack cocaine trades drove a black-market economy that kept some afloat and lured a host of sketchy outsiders to the area. Young men lined street corners along America, brazenly hawking drugs to college kids, suburbanites and anyone else desperate enough to risk their safety for a fix.

Turf battles erupted, gunfire crackled and blood spilled. Police raids swept the corners clean from time to time, but new peddlers emerged to replace the ones who landed in jail.

Old hands, fresh faces

Despite this backdrop, many longtime residents held their ground; good, hard-working folks unwilling to leave the street that had been home to their families for generations.

People like Alice Flowers, who was born on the second floor of 85 America St. 68 years ago. Her father died young, leaving her mother -- a maid who earned $20 a week -- to raise Flowers and her five siblings.

Flowers went on to college, then returned home to America Street, teaching in Charleston schools for 29 years.

Now retired, she volunteers at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School and tends to the blooming flower beds -- "My namesakes," she chuckles -- outside the tidy, mustard- colored home she was born in.

To her, America Street is a place of roots, family and community. She's never been afraid to walk its length. "I've heard about the problems, but it's never spilled over to me."

The neighborhood around her, though, is much different than the one she grew up in. College students and young professionals occupy several homes, lured there by the some of the lowest housing costs on the pricey peninsula. The change is as noticeable as the rattle of skateboards on the sun-baked pavement.

Over the past decade, the number of whites in the neighborhood nearly tripled. Black residents still dominate, but their numbers dropped by nearly a third since 2000, according to census figures. Asians, Mexicans and Egyptians also are part of the mix.

Shirley Litowitz is among the new arrivals. She moved across the peninsula from Ashley Avenue to occupy a rambling, 19th-century home with her grown daughter and son-in-law. The Bronx native was well aware of the America Street's bad reputation, but she's had no problems. "And I have twice the house I had on Ashley," she said.

Bobby Smyer's hunt for cheap rent landed him just down the street, where he scored a four-bedroom home for $1,000 a month across from Trident Technical College, where he attends classes.

The shaggy haired 24-year-old doesn't feel unsafe here, despite knowing two people who were mugged. "Just don't drink and walk around alone by yourself at night and you'll be all right."

Embracing change

Some old-timers grumble about gentrification and the loss of the neighborhood's character. Others embrace the change.

Kenneth Marion owns Stacey's Kitchen, a no-frills shop at America and Reid streets where customers can buy everything from toilet paper to pickled sausage and barbecued pigs' feet.

It's a place where locals gather to swap small talk and memories over a frosty can of suds or a steaming plate of rice and beans. Ancient ceiling fans creak overhead, and the weathered wood door slams with a loud bang to announce comings and goings.

Marion, 67, was born in the Wraggborough Homes housing project just down the street, but moved away in the 1960s because there were few opportunities at the time for young black men in Charleston.

After a career designing long-haul trucks in Indiana, Marion returned in 2001 and started Stacey's, named after his cook. He relishes his return to Charleston and appreciates the newfound diversity that is bringing the neighborhood back to life.

"When I came up, this neighborhood was mostly all white, but it changed over. Now it's changing back the other way," he said. "I think it's returning more to the way it should be."

It's become the type of place where you are as likely to see Spandex-clad bicyclists as you are the old "crab man" selling crustaceans from the bed of his pickup truck.

Marvetta Daniels, a nurse who serves as president of the neighborhood association, doesn't want longtime residents to get pushed out by the incoming tide. But she's also encouraged by the community's acceptance of change and the willingness of new arrivals to chip in to make things better.

"The mind-set is, let's live together and work together," she said. "We want to pull one another up and advance one another."

An addict's epiphany

But with nightfall, such optimism gives way to the realities of the street.

When the sun sinks, the old men chatting on the sidewalk slowly slip from their battered lawn chairs and head inside. The mechanics pack up their tools. The laughter of children fades as doors close and lights wink on. The street clears out for all but those with nowhere better to go.

People such as the middle-aged woman in the too-tight jeans shuffling along under the hazy glow of street lights on a recent night. It was around 12:45 a.m., and she was on the ragged downslope of a crack binge.

Several hours earlier, she pranced through the neighborhood, bellowed at people she saw, her dilated eyes skittering this way and that. Now, her head hung low, her eyelids drooped and her raspy voice hovered just above a whisper.

Police Sgt. Chris Adams spotted her and asked if she was heading home. She nodded wearily. Like most cops in the area, Adams is on a first-name basis with her. Her struggles with crack and heroin are legendary.

"I'm so tired," she said. "So tired."

Adams encouraged her to get off the street, kick the drugs once and for all. She nodded again, saying she planned to go to Atlanta to get help with her drug problems. "I'm an addict," she said. "I can't get clean around here. I can't."

"Do it," Adams said.

"I will," she replied, shuffling toward a friend's home. "I will this time."

The next morning, she was back on the streets, eyes afire and wearing a chemical grin.

Fighting back

The woman is among a cast of characters whose fortunes are as tied to America Street as they are wed to the pipe, needle or bottle. Their hunger is primal and supports the revolving cast of young men who lay claim to the corners and offer stone-cold stares to the police officers who drive by.

It's a volatile stew laced with desperation and danger. Over time, the casualties mount.

Last September, the community mourned the shooting death of a popular Vietnam veteran who had struggled with a cocaine habit. Even the police chief called it heartbreaking. Then, a volley of bullets claimed the life of a pastor's son, whose life ebbed away on the pavement of America Street in November.

Most recently, in late July, a 33-year-old accountant from North Charleston was found shot to death in his car after it crashed into another vehicle on America Street. His killing, blamed on a 21-year-old from North Charleston, reportedly occurred after they discussed a drug deal.

Residents point out that the case, like many others, involved outsiders who didn't live in the neighborhood.

Charleston police have focused hard on the area for more than a year, shoveling manpower at the problem to defuse tensions and build relationships. They walk the streets, chat with residents, and drive off the dealers.

They are out in force in the evenings and at night, doing what they can to spot potential problems and head off trouble.

"It's made a big difference, and it's gotten better," said Nassau Street resident Arnold Mack. "I wish we could keep all of the officers out here 24 hours a day."

Few residents would have voiced such sentiments in the late 1990s, when fear of retaliation kept many silent, frustrating police and further emboldening the drug dealers.

The house of two new arrivals to America Street was firebombed in 1999 after they confronted some dealers outside their home. Shots were fired into the bedroom of another arrival. But those days seem over, replaced by a growing spirit of cooperation.

Lites, an East Side police supervisor, has become a familiar and a trusted figure. A wiry guy with a shaved head and an easy-going manner, he rubs shoulders with everyone from civic leaders to ex-cons. He seems to know everybody's name, their back-story, what they're up to. Folks feed him tips; arrests follow.

"You feel strange walking around with that gun all day?" a 12-year-old girl asked him one evening as he strolled along America Street.

Lites smiled and replied: "Well, it does get kind of heavy."

"Is that a bullet proof vest you have on?" the girl continued.

"No," Lites joked as he patted the vest beneath his shirt. "I've been working out. These are my rock-hard abs."

The girl and her friends erupted in laughter.

Lites left a detective's slot to take this job, and his passion for the work is evident. But he knows he and his troops can't turn the tide on their own. "We can't be here all the time. So what it takes is having the people living here be willing to help you. And we're seeing that more and more."

Helping hands

In many respects, the problems here are ingrained and generational, requiring time, education and involvement to shift the axis of expectations. Folks are working on that end as well.

Just stop in some afternoon at Neighborhood House, an America Street soup kitchen run by Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach Services. More than 150 needy people show up there weekdays to get a hot meal at lunchtime.

The organization tries to combine aid with education, offering GED classes, computer training, knitting lessons and more to give people skills to help themselves. So if you are seeking help with utilities, for instance, you have to sign up for a household budgeting class as well.

"We're here to assist," Director Nikki Grimball said. "But we don't want them to become dependent on us."

Grimball recently started a lending library as well on the neighboring front porch, offering free books and a rocking chair to read them in. A sign out front says, "Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life."

"Everything is about education," Grimball said. "If you don't learn, you will be left out."

Lites and others are promoting a similar message during Saturday youth groups run by police and volunteers from Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant. They want kids to think big, dream, realize their futures are bigger than the neighborhood around them, bigger than America Street.

Police Capt. Kevin Boyd recalled meeting one teen who had never crossed the nearby Cooper River bridge into Mount Pleasant. "How could you be 14 years old and not have gone over that bridge?" he said. "I was just amazed by that.

"Kids have to be exposed to things so they know there is more to life than hanging out on a corner just because your brother did it or your father did it."

A life in the balance

Sgt. Adams spotted something up ahead as he turned off America onto a side street. As he drew closer, he saw it was a young man in the middle of the road, slouched over the front handlebars of a bicycle.

"Are you OK?" Adams asked as he rolled up in his cruiser.

The skinny teen barely glanced up, shrugged and returned to fiddling with his iPod. "How old are you?" Adams asked.

"Thirteen," came the reply.

"Thirteen?" Adams said. "It's one in the morning on a school night. What are you doing out here?"

The teen explained that he didn't have school in the morning because he had been suspended -- on this, the second day of classes.

Adams followed the boy to his home up the street and banged on the door. Lights came on. The boy's mother appeared, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She was surprised to find her son with the police.

She told Adams that she had recently lost another son -- the boy's older brother -- in a shooting. It was tearing them all up. The boy sat on a step and hung his head as she talked.

"You just lost your brother to the street," she yelled at him, her voice shaking. "You've got to straighten out. Get off the street. There is nothing out there for you. Nothing."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.

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