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Leaders aim to improve Grier Heights

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Two weeks before he plans to move in, Levon Edwards told a crowd of people he was at first wary of the Grier Heights neighborhood he’ll start calling home.

The 30-year-old Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee had learned about deals on houses in Grier Heights from an email at work. The location and the $135,000 price were perfect, he said, but he also knew the reputation of the neighborhood, which has been rocked by violent crime for the past two decades.

“My first impressions were, ‘This is Grier Heights, and I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Grier Heights,’ ” Edwards told the Observer at a formal ribbon-cutting event. “But this community has a lot of potential, and I know things are going to go nowhere but up.”

The community of 3,000, located 3 miles southeast of uptown Charlotte, has a violent crime rate pegged at five times the city average, according to an analysis of the 2010 census.

Neighborhood leaders and a church-based nonprofit are trying to improve the neighborhood. Getting people to buy into their vision – and buy houses – is pivotal for the community as it tries to remake itself after a decades-long battle with drugs and crime.

Three people have purchased recently built homes, and three others are seriously looking. But Crossroads Community Development Corp. and neighborhood leaders want to sell all eight of the new homes before expanding their efforts. In all, they plan to build 35 homes.

The families that come, they hope, will bring more positive change to the community.

“Hopefully people are going to see that we are trying to change our image,” said Barbara Simpson, the president of the neighborhood’s community improvement organization. “I’m hopeful that the people that move into the neighborhood are going to have some fresh ideas.”

Improving Grier Heights

Five years ago, Myers Park Presbyterian used part of its $30 million capital campaign to form Crossroads. The goal was simple: work with community members to help improve Grier Heights.

The relationship between neighborhood and church was touchy at first. Others had tried and failed to revitalize Grier Heights. And longtime residents were wary of overtures by developers seeking a foothold in a plum location close to uptown. Community leaders worried that building efforts would outprice people who’d lived in Grier Heights for decades and gentrify one of Charlotte’s oldest black communities.

There were other challenges: the violent crime rate, a dropout rate twice as high as the city’s, and three of every four families relying on food stamps.

The problems of the community spilled into the public eye last spring, when three people were shot in Grier Heights in a two-week period – two fatally.

Just last month, police installed a gunshot detection system to help them better respond to shootings in the neighborhood.

Crossroads’ efforts initially were focused on improving the lives of the more than 1,000 children who live in Grier Heights. But over time, leaders realized the community’s problems were linked to a high rental rate – just 12 percent of people own the homes they live in, compared with 55 percent citywide, according to a census analysis. That gives people little stake in the neighborhood they live in, community leaders say, and makes fixing problems difficult.

The dilapidated, mostly empty duplexes on Heflin Street embodied the problems of Grier Heights and were a hub for drug dealing and prostitution. Two blocks away, on Zircon Street, Jacob Massachi was gunned down in 2008 as he tried to collect back rent.

So Crossroads and other organizations bought the property and razed the empty houses.

“They were all run-down, mostly boarded up,” said Don Gately, president and executive director of Crossroads. “That’s where all the crime on this side of town happened. So we immediately took away the epicenter of the crime and the epicenter of the blight. But at the time, we couldn’t figure out if we could make the numbers work (to build houses).”

A new vision

The group envisioned a street full of affordable homes, sold to people of all income levels, but a spiraling economy made it harder to find financing and buyers.

But construction crews broke ground on Edwards’ home on Heflin Street last fall, and he plans to move in before the end of this month. The home is decked out with hardwood floors and granite countertops. It’s valued at $185,000, but through a series of grants, Edwards is paying about $135,000.

His mother and aunt are coming up from Georgia to help him decorate his new place. He’s considering a rocking chair for the wrap-around front porch and maybe a table.

“I’d like to sit outside, maybe with a glass of juice or some water,” he said. “I just want to enjoy the weather and be neighborly.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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