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Blackmon Road: A Place For Hope?

Hope Whitlock's home with well and portable toilet outside.

Blackmon Road is an African American community just two miles south of downtown Rock Hill next to the old city dump. If you grew up there, chances are you've been called "trash pile kid" and you know what it's like to live without running water. Much to the chagrin of residents there, Blackmon Road has served as an example of third world poverty in this country. WFAE's Lisa Miller has more on a community trying to get the basics, but contending with a lot of obstacles including themselves. To understand Blackmon Road you need to meet ninety year-old Hope Whitlock. Half a century ago she and her late husband gave up the back-breaking work of picking cotton and moved to a simple home her brother-in-law built on this rocky patch of earth. "I come out of the cotton field and moved in here and I've been here ever since, right here," says Whitlock. She raised her seventeen kids in this home and she's still helping to raise her great grandchildren. Whitlock reaches down, wobbling a bit, and scoops up the toddler. A dozen of Whitlock's descendents live in this 1000 square foot home. You can see the wear and tear. The ceiling slants. The furniture sags and fifty years after it was built there's still no running water. Whitlock and her family use a port-a-john out front donated by a local church and haul water from a small well beside it to do their washing. Nearly all of the sixty residents on Blackmon Road live without running water or sewer systems. Karen McKernan would like to change that. "People are very resourceful and some have jimmied pipes under where a bathroom is and that pipe goes straight out to the woods," explains McKernan. A lot of do-gooders have made their way to Blackmon Road, mostly to help with immediate needs like food. McKernan runs a non-profit called A Place for Hope, which focuses primarily on the long-term. Her group set up a community center named after Hope Whitlock, which offers financial education for adults and mentoring for kids. A wash house is the most recent addition. But McKernan runs into some resistance and not everyone trusts her or reporters who descend to scope out poverty. "This is our neighborhood," says Patty Roseboro. "I ain't telling these people to come down here and take pictures and disgrace us like that. Cause we got rights here. I'm pissed off." Roseboro's home is a trailer perched on cinder blocks. She gets her electricity from a drop-cord connected to another trailer. Her pride demands privacy or at least an air of self-sufficiency, but she wants help too. "We can do for ourselves if we get the right help," says Roseboro. "We need help with" She trails off and then begins again. "That center up there is ours, the neighborhood's. We don't get no respect from them. They know we need water, need better roads. But they want to take the money for themselves." McKernan stands there and says nothing. As Roseboro moves on, she shakes her head. "It crushes you. I hear it a lot," says McKernan, who has worked here for three years. "It's not a long time, but it's felt like a long time. There's a lot of community drama that goes on and crises and we're trying to help the community past that." Water and sewer is a major part of that effort. McKernan was hired to bring that to these homes. But one obstacle is it would cost $3 million. The other, to hook up the homes must be up to code and most of the houses here are beyond repair. So the plan now is to build Katrina-style cottages with their own water and sewer near the community center and rent them out on the cheap. But many residents like Hope Whitlock don't want to move, even if it's just down the road. "It's the only home I ever owned, right here, and I want to stay here too," says Whitlock emphatically. Blackmon Road is a safety net. Hope's daughter Esther Whitlock says it provides comfort. "It's a place where you can come and be yourself. It's a place where no one puts you down," says Whitlock. It's a cheap place to live too. There are a lot of squatters essentially living here for free. But it can hold you tight, too tight. Whitlock wants something better for her two year- old grandson, but she's satisfied working part-time in the cafeteria at Winthrop University and keeping an eye on her mother the rest of the time. "I don't want to be content, now I really don't. But instead I feel like I'm content," says Esther Whitlock. "But I don't want to stay in that set place. I just have to make that effort just to get up and go." Whitlock says she hasn't really made that effort. Reverend James Hill says contentment can be a survival strategy here. He's seen a lot of that over the thirty-three years he's operated his ministry on Blackmon Road. "A lot of people they've dealt with a lot of pain and they have this fear of hurting," says James. "As long as they're comfortable and it's working for them, they'll live that way the rest of their lives." The drug dealers and prostitutes of a decade ago have cleared out at least from plain view. But a lot hasn't changed. "It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but then there are the kids," says James. "If we can put the mentality within them and educate them and put the desire within them to do better and to be different and to be more than what there parents are, then there's hope. But the bad part is many of the parents are making the kids a replica of themselves." A Place for Hope does run an afterschool program that tutors kids and the group says most of the younger ones have made the honor roll. Tim Roseboro didn't have that support growing up. But at twenty-five he's trying to break the mold. "Before I was kind of okay. I was doing okay foodwise," says Roseboro. "But lately it's been tougher as far as using the restroom. I can't really do all that. As far as wash-ups and stuff like that, getting my clothes clean, all that's becoming a hassle." Roseboro's shirt is wrinkled and a bit soiled. He stands by the gravel road running through the community, waiting for a friend to pick him up and take him the four miles to the movie theater where he works. It's a good day. Usually he leaves one hour and twenty minutes early to walk there. Roseboro is dreaming of a place of his own, closer to work. But he knows it won't come easily. Nothing really does when you live on Blackmon Road.