As a boy growing up in Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, Lindsay Williams took off on his bicycle early in the morning and often didn’t return until sundown.
His parents never worried.
“The residents who lived here were always quiet, peaceful and hard-working people,” said Williams, 38, a former Army major with two combat deployments in Iraq and now a regional spokesman for U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in the Atlanta area.
Yet after he’d moved away and joined the Army in 1994, he began to hear stories from his parents about neighbors getting shot by drive-by gunmen, graffiti on houses and prostitutes and gang members ruling the once-quiet streets of the mostly African-American community. It’s long been a symbol of urban crime.
Saturday, Williams was among the 250 neighbors, politicians, police and federal officials who gathered in those streets, only this time to celebrate life in Hidden Valley without gang members. The celebration started with a parade Saturday morning and continued with a festival that stretched into the afternoon.
“They’re celebrating the ability to have a good time and not worrying about something happening,” Williams said. “They’re celebrating their ability to have peace.”
Many political candidates – including the four Democratic mayoral candidates in Tuesday’s primary – were there seeking votes.
The event didn’t dwell on how bad things were, but “we’re celebrating where we are now and where we are looking to go,” said Williams’ mother, Ella Williams, president of the community association.
The transformation is the result of a partnership between residents, the neighborhood association and police to drive gangs from the community, residents say.
On Aug. 26, 2013, a judge signed a year-long injunction that banned the notorious Hidden Valley Kings gang from gathering in the neighborhood in just about every conceivable way – from “driving, standing, sitting, walking or appearing together in public view” to possessing firearms or drugs, or being in the presence of anyone who does.
That injunction expired in August 2014, but neighbors say they’ve seen little signs of gang activity return. Police reported last year that Hidden Valley’s violent crime had fallen by 21 percent during the injunction.
Lindsay Williams’ parents still live in the house where he grew up – at one time against his objections when they began to tell him about what was happening to the neighborhood.
“I was in the Army then, but I’d say, ‘hey, you guys don’t have to do this. You could move,’” he said. “But they chose to stay and work to change the neighborhood, instead of their address.”
On visits home from the Army, he’d witness the evidence of gang activity. Now, he says, those signs are gone.
“I’m cautious to say it’s completely gone,” Williams said. “But you don’t see gang colors, or groups of young people hanging out anymore. I’m sure someone may have an allegiance to gangs, but it’s not overt.”