In the line of fire: College, community groups answer gun violence by cleaning up, praying

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2014

SALISBURY — Trimming trees, collecting trash and spreading mulch at vacant homes in the West End may seem like a futile endeavor in a neighborhood where recent gun violence has left two dead, four injured and countless others living in fear.
But community advocates and Livingstone College employees, who worked together Saturday to clean up eight vacant homes and Duncan School, say the effort signals a profound change in the crime-ridden West End.
“I’m so happy, I don’t know what to do,” said Joyce Smyre, a member of West End Pride. “This is what we’ve been praying and wishing for. Now we will get to some deeper issues.”
After prodding from residents who made public pleas at City Council meetings, Livingstone officials recently met with community leaders. College President Dr. Jimmy Jenkins has pledged to meet monthly with concerned citizens to work together to improve the quality of life in the West End and deter crime. Ideas so far include developing programs for youth, seniors and beautification.
Saturday’s clean-up day brought together more than 100 volunteers including college athletes, coaches and employees, as well as members of West End Pride, West End Community Organization and Eloganze Social Club.
Livingstone women’s tennis coach Gwen Jackson, who grew in up in the West End, spent the morning raking an overgrown yard and said she’s happy about the partnership forming between concerned residents and Livingstone and believes the relationship can have a real impact.
“These bonding efforts are crucial,” Jackson said. “Anytime an example is set of people joining together to improve the community visually, it can help deter crime.”
Just a day after the clean-up event, another West End resident awoke to the sound of gunfire and shattering glass and discovered that stray bullets had hit her house (see related article).
Jenkins spent Saturday greeting volunteers and praising their effort. He said he has been in the community in the wake of the gun violence outbreak, visiting landmarks like McLaughlin’s Grocery.
“I’m trying to make sure they understand that we are not insensitive to what’s happening here,” Jenkins said. “We have a vested interest in making this thing work.”
Crime ranks high on his list of concerns for Livingstone, said Jenkins, who has served as president for nine years and said he has watched criminal activity increase in the West End. The campus is contained in the neighborhood, which measures slightly larger than one-half square mile and includes about 2,150 residents.
While many students told the Post they feel safe on campus, Jenkins said he is concerned about their welfare when they leave. Students have been robbed at gunpoint, gang activity has increased and events sometimes turn into altercations, he said.
“When we bring parents and others to the campus, we want them to know they will be coming to a safe environment and their children will be safe,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins praised the city’s new law enforcement strategies, including a community relations police officer, three times as many patrol officers and an additional street crimes unit that initially will focus on the West End.
Saturday’s clean-up day, which was organized by Dr. Herman Felton, vice president of institutional advancement, included several architectural gems that at one time made Monroe Street one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in Salisbury, residents said.
“We aspire for this neighborhood to look as good as any neighborhood in Salisbury,” said Ann Pryor, pausing on the steps of a two-story Victorian home with intricate details hidden under years of neglect.
Felton said the Jenkins administration inherited the boarded up houses once used by faculty. During the past five years, the college has renovated six homes now used by senior staff, including Felton and his family.
The remaining houses are so deteriorated, the college has not determined yet what to do with them, he said.
Jenkins has been debating what to do with the properties. Renovating all of the homes would cost more than $1 million, he said.
The college is working with Salisbury Community Development Corporation to explore funding sources to help pay for renovation or maintenance, Jenkins said. He acknowledged the college has not done much with the houses and said he hopes to solicit ideas from the new partnership.
“There is sentiment in this community for historical reasons to keep the houses or at least some of them,” he said.
Another group has taken a special interest in the West End in light of the gun violence.
A unique organization called Nightcrawlers spends most Friday nights walking in different areas of Rowan County where members feel drawn to bring prayer and comfort. The group has been meeting for three years, and while members have focused on the West End before, they are redoubling their efforts now, founder Rev. Timothy Bates said.
“We want to have a presence in the neighborhood and let them know that somebody loves you,” said Bates, who lives in Salisbury and pastors two churches in Statesville. He also serves as the assistant boys basketball coach for North Rowan High School.
He and his family started Nightcrawlers. Bates scans the newspaper to find places in need of prayer. Lately, they’ve been walking through the West End.
They start walking at 10 p.m. Sometimes only five people show up. After the shooting death of 19-year-old Abraham Jenkins last year, about 80 people turned out for the crawl, Bates said.
Last week, Nightcrawlers walked on Grim Street, where four people have been shot and injured this month. If members encounter other people during their walk, Nightcrawlers ask if they may pray for the pedestrians. Usually, Bates said, they say yes and sometimes join the circle themselves.
“We are looking to let folks know that we love you and have concern for you,” he said.
Bates said he expects his group to be walking in the West End for several weeks to come. Unlike a community watch program, Nightcrawlers is not looking for criminal activity, but Bates said he feels the group deters crime just the same.
Jenkins echoes that sentiment when talking about Livingstone’s clean-up collaboration with neighbors.
“This is just one day. This is not going to fix the problems,” Jenkins said. “But this is a kickoff for a new day of cooperation and collaboration between Livingstone College and the community to help improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.