'Buy Crack Here' house

A house in Charleston's East Side neighborhood has "buy crack here" painted on its side.

"Buy Crack Here.”

Those three words, painted in brilliant red letters on the front of a vacant house over the July Fourth weekend, were shocking even for the neighbors used to watching drug deals go down all day, every day on the East Side’s infamous ‘Heroin Corner.’ Had the drug dealers gotten so brazen that they were putting up a billboard or was it a cry for help from the neighborhood?

Either way, the city dispatched a crew a few days later to Sheppard Street to paint over the uncomfortable truth. The words disappeared, not so the drug dealers.

In the rapidly changing East Side, the block just across from Knight’s, a shabby corner store on Hanover Street, has clung stubbornly to its past of poverty, crime and violence. Religious groups — yes, the churches — control most of the block, and it has become a blight on the entire neighborhood.

For years, religious organizations have sat on vacant houses and lots on this block, allowing them to deteriorate (think “demolition by neglect”) while the drug dealers and the homeless have filled the void. In May, a boarded-up house, one of the few not owned by a nonprofit, burned; the fire department blamed squatters.

The “Buy Crack Here” house at 14 Sheppard has been owned for 3 1/2 years by the Chabad of Charleston, a Jewish community center in Mount Pleasant. Rabbi Yossi Refson was unaware of the vandalism until I sent him the photo.

“It is terrible, not good at all,” he told me.

(And then it got worse, with a new message, this time with an obscenity painted in silver.)

Rabbi Refson said the house was donated to his group, but it has been unable to sell or make renovations because of a title issue. The group is trying to maintain the property until that is resolved — the rabbi has no idea when — but “the neighborhood and the neighbors are not cooperating,” he said.

Chabad of Charleston owns a single rotting house here; Mount Carmel United Methodist Church owns seven vacant houses and lots in addition to its brick church, which dominates the block. The church has owned some of these properties since the mid-1990s, county records show. It pays no taxes on most of them and has done nothing with any of them. The drug dealers and homeless, however, have found a home.

The Rev. Carlton J. McClam Sr. said the church originally acquired the properties for expansion, but he said he’s been trying to renovate or demolish the houses since he became pastor nine years ago. He said two of the badly dilapidated houses are on the market — at about three times what the church paid.

“This is a clear case of demolition by neglect,” Charleston planning director Jacob Lindsey said of the Mount Carmel houses, and the city has issued a summons against the church to protect the late 19th-century freedman’s cottages. “They have not been good stewards of the properties.”

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The Episcopal Diocese owns a small vacant parcel at Hanover and Cooper.

Count me among the many who are grateful for all the good churches and other nonprofits do. Where would we be without them?

But the churches have to do more than preach good works on Sunday — they have to live it every single day. By sitting on these properties, they are not helping their neighbors, they are hurting them. The East Side, where I live, is a place of many needs: affordable housing, getting the bad guys off the street and more. The status quo is good only for the drug dealers.

This is the Holy City and you have to wonder: Just how many properties are churches sitting on, and what are they doing with them anyway?

Neighborhood News: Joe Riley wants to clarify something: That $100 check he wrote for Mayor John Tecklenburg’s re-election campaign doesn’t mean he has a horse in the race. Riley told me he contributed early in the year as “a supportive gesture” before it was clear Tecklenburg would be opposed. “I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate,” said the former mayor, who also sat out the race four years ago.

Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.

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