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A skyline that sprouts new buildings at a dizzying pace. Neighborhoods dotted with new breweries and renovated mills. Thousands of new apartments springing up beside light rail lines. The signs of Charlotte’s booming prosperity are everywhere. But that prosperity isn’t spread evenly. And from Charlotte’s “corridors of opportunity,” it can seem a long way off, more like a distant promise than the city’s reality.

Neighbors and violence interrupters aim to tackle crime in Charlotte's Corridors of Opportunity

Eddie Timmons scopes out criminal activity along Catherine Simmons Avenue. He has an idea to make his neighborhood safer and memorialize the victims of gun violence.
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE
Eddie Timmons scopes out criminal activity along Catherine Simmons Avenue. He has an idea to make his neighborhood safer and memorialize the victims of gun violence.

Eddie Timmons is the unofficial captain of his block in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, just off Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street. He makes sure everybody’s yards look good, even if that means mowing lawns himself.

“We take pride in having it look like something. That's kind of like where I come in,” Timmons said.

Tidy homes and yards line this block of Lincoln Heights.
Lisa Worf
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WFAE
Tidy homes and yards line this block of Lincoln Heights.

Timmons has an idea for making his neighborhood safer — and it’s not trying to hide crime, but rather confront it. A lot of residents in neighborhoods along Beatties Ford Road say they feel safe, but there are areas that are hot spots for crime. Timmons drives a few blocks away to another part of Lincoln Heights to point one out.

“This is Catherine Simmons (Avenue) right here where all the craziness goes. As you can see, everybody's out. But the later it gets the more activity there is here. All of this right here is criminal activity,” Timmons said.

By that, he means drug dealing. It’s early afternoon, and some men are out on a barricaded street that runs through Catherine Simmons Avenue, marked by an overturned street sign.

Like many long-neglected parts of Charlotte, the area around Timmons is changing fast. New development and infrastructure are flooding into Charlotte's six designated Corridors of Opportunity as neighborhood groups, investors and the city focus on revitalizing them. But many of these historically overlooked thoroughfares still have higher crime rates than Mecklenburg County as a whole. Now, the city is trying some new approaches to turn things around as neighborhood groups continue their efforts to create safe, inviting communities.

It’s been quieter recently, but between 2017 and 2020, there were five murders within a block of the half-mile stretch Timmons points out on Catherine Simmons Avenue. The mass shooting that killed four people at a Juneteenth celebration in 2020 happened nearby on Beatties Ford Road.

“More patrol would curtail some of it. It ain't going to stop it. But, see, they ain’t got enough bodies, though, at the CMPD. Rather than have them patrolling, (police) need to be on the murders down the street,” Timmons said.

He drives around the corner to a brick wall that separates the neighborhood from Interstate 77. He envisions a mural that would serve as a memorial to gun violence victims.

“If you could see the faces collaged all over here, all the way up in black and white or color,” Timmons said.

Trilby Meeks leads a recent board meeting of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association in her living room.
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE
Trilby Meeks leads a recent board meeting of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association in her living room.

Building gardens, infrastructure — and connections

His fellow neighborhood association members have other ideas to make the neighborhood safer and more inviting — they built a community garden at the park on Catherine Simmons Avenue.

At a recent meeting, the association’s leaders celebrated a stormwater upgrade they pushed for.

“Thank you, neighborhood, very much. ... See, things can happen,” Trilby Meeks, the association’s new president, said as people applauded.

They’re planning a gateway and welcome signs for the neighborhood, paid for with a city grant, and discussed a plan to go door-to-door.

“We have to go out there, show the people there is somebody out here in your neighborhood that cares about you — and we all want to be safe and live in a beautiful neighborhood. We want it, and we want the same for you,” Meeks said.

The plan is to work with other local groups like For the Struggle and Historic West End Partners.

For years, residents along this section of Beatties Ford Road watched wealthier, whiter areas boom nearby, like uptown. But their neighborhoods are still absorbing some of the city’s most challenging problems, such as addiction, mental health and poverty.

“When people don't get to benefit from the economy and the good things that are happening in the community, that's where crime comes in,” Meeks said.

Layna Hong
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WFAE

Different — and new — approaches to crime

Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunity are historically low-income areas where the city wants to focus more public and private investment. The violent crime rate throughout these corridors is higher than the county as a whole. Over the past five years, violent crime incidents along Beatties Ford Road have been steady, except for a spike in 2020.

North End, Central Avenue and Albemarle Road, Freedom Drive and Wilkinson Boulevard are down somewhat. But the West Boulevard and Sugar Creek corridors have seen increases.

“You'll never police and arrest your way out of anything. We've just known that for a very long time,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Deputy Police Chief Steven Brochu.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Deputy Police Chief Steven Brochu.
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Deputy Police Chief Steven Brochu meets regularly with leaders of city departments to collaborate on the strategy for Charlotte's Corridors of Opportunity.

Brochu said CMPD is working hard with its resources. He credits a rise in gun seizures with helping prevent crimes. But he says there’s only so much one agency can do to change the environments where crime thrives. That’s where he thinks the city’s collaborations around safety, economic development, transportation and infrastructure along the corridors will make a difference.

“This is a way that jobs can be created and come in behind what we do. We can make it safe, but we also need the support of a lot of other agencies to come in and solidify, essentially, what we're trying to do,” Brochu said.

The city is trying some new tactics to curb crime along the corridors. City Council voted last month to pay $4.2 million for a rundown hotel near Sugar Creek and Interstate 85 that was a hot spot for crime. The plan is to demolish it and redevelop the property with affordable housing. There’s also a team of trained community members called “violence interrupters.”

The Alternatives to Violence team, run by Youth Advocate Programs, focuses on an area around Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street. Durham, Greensboro, and several cities throughout the country use similar models. On a recent day, the team checked in with each other before going out to walk the community.

“Feeling good about what we got going on,” Larry Mims, an outreach worker, told the team. “Checked in with the corridor a couple days ago. Everything is moving smooth. No real pockets of trouble.”

Charlotte's Alternatives to Violence team checks in before canvassing neighborhoods. From left: Donnell Gardner, Dimitros Jordan, Larry Mims and Leondra Garrett.
Lisa Worf
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WFAE
Charlotte's Alternatives to Violence team checks in before canvassing neighborhoods. From left: Donnell Gardner, Dimitros Jordan, Larry Mims and Leondra Garrett.

The goal is to build connections, often helping with everyday needs, and ease tensions without involving the police.

“If something is brewing, they'll let us know. ‘Hey, such and such is beefing with such and such.’ Maybe I'll go over there and talk to them before it escalates to a violent situation. That's what's been happening. I think that's them trusting us and we trusting them.”

An evaluation of the program’s first year by UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute hasn’t been released yet, butits top-level findingswere presented to City Council in March with a caution that it’s still early to track its effectiveness. Researchers found the area around Beatties Ford Road had “a statistically significant lower rate of homicides committed with a firearm” compared to similar neighborhoods. But in a sign of the difficulties that come with confronting crime in one area, Federico Rios, who was with Charlotte's Housing and Neighborhood Services at the time, told city council new hot spots appeared in areas nearby that hadn’t previously seen much violence.

As the city prepares to expand the violence interrupters to two more areas including in the West Boulevard corridor, site supervisor Leondra Garrett says the team has made a difference.

“The hot spots that we know about are the hot spots that we targeted and so that's where the crime numbers are down,” Garrett said.

Johnny Haywood Parker and his family live a few streets over from the house where 8-year-old Olivia Velez was shot.
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE
Johnny Haywood Parker and his family live a few streets over from the house where 8-year-old Olivia Velez was shot.

Still, progress can be fragile. Bullets fired into a home near West Charlotte High School two weeks ago struck an 8-year-old girl in the head. It shook the community. Johnny Haywood Parker lives with his wife and 16-year-old daughter a few streets over.

“Even though a person tells you that it's nice, you still find stuff happening,” Haywood Parker said. “I think about that [shooting] every night that I go to sleep because it's just a wooden house. So anybody come down through there doing some shooting … I think about my daughter and my wife.”

Until residents like Haywood Parker no longer have to worry about shootings, advocates say they have more work to do.

Correction: The evaluation of the Alternatives to Violence team by UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute did not note violent crime appeared in new hot spots nearby the team's focus that hadn't previously seen much violence, as a previous version of this story stated. That was mentioned in a presentation to city council.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.