By Barney Blakeney
I recently ran into an old friend, a white guy, who just moved to Charleston’s Eastside. I’ve known the guy for years. We share a lot in common, but grew up in different environments, different parts of the country, different socio-economic backgrounds and different cultures. And now he lives in my old neighborhood – which is a new neighborhood.
I played street ball in front of the house where he now lives. I fought Big Boy during a football game one time on that street. It wasn’t a ‘real’ fight. Big Boy was pushing and shoving me around on the line – he outweighed me by more than 100 pounds! The pushing and shoving grew into a tussle. I ended up flat on my back in the street before Big Boy knee-dropped on top of me. He didn’t come down with all his weight. Had he done that he really could have hurt me – Big Boy was a really big guy! But it wasn’t about hurting each other. It was about kids, frustration and football. We finished the game. I don’t remember who won. Big Boy and I always have been close friends.
My new friend is frustrated. He’s all but unnerved by the violence he’s witnessed in the neighborhood the few years he’s lived there. I’ve lived on the Eastside a long time – a few years at a time. Meeting Street Manor public housing complex was my first home back in the 1950s. My family moved to Drake Street during the 1960s. As an adult during the early 2000s I spent a few months each on Cooper, Line and Hanover streets. I’ve watched the neighborhood change.
I guess there’s always been violence on the Eastside. I didn’t know about it as a kid on the projects. Then my idea of a violent encounter was scraping my knee on the sidewalk after being pushed. As a teenager there were fights, sometimes between guys from different neighborhoods. But as an adult in the early 2000s things had changed. I called my Line and Nassau streets corner ‘murder central’. I had become a cop reporter by then and counted some five homicides over several years within a three-block radius.
I sometimes struggle with how people often can become desensitized to adverse situations. Between my stints of Eastside residency I lived in various other communities where crime and violence were prevalent. The crime and violence I watched change the Eastside also had changed other communities – North Charleston’s Union Heights, Accabee, the Waylyn and Liberty Hill to name a few. I’ve watched ‘em all change over the years. Eastside crime is not unique. You might say it’s part of a cultural change.
But my friend isn’t a part of that culture. The other day after a kid was shot near the Eastside’s Church’s Chicken on Meeting Street my friend lamented, “Two shootings in seven days in that neighborhood. This has to stop…” The previous shooting had occurred New Year’s Day just blocks away on Hanover Street. I wasn’t even tuned in. I know I got the police report – I usually do. I guess I trashed the email alert and forgot about it. I still can’t find the old email.
That opened a conversation. “I have heard this line – ‘it happens in every community.’ That is total baloney and exactly the problem,” my friend argued. “Longtime residents of Eastside really believe that — or say they do anyway. Please tell me a neighborhood around here that had four murders in four months like the Eastside did in 2019? Please tell me another neighborhood that just had more than 40 shots fired as happened Saturday morning (January 11) near Philip Simmons Park? This is not normal, but people pretend it is. This isn’t opinion, but fact. Check the data.”
I checked. According to Charleston police from July 1, 2019 to January 12, 2020 there were three homicides; six shooting victims; five shooting incidents; and 11 aggravated assaults with firearms. All that occurred between the boundaries of Huger and Mary streets to the north and south respectively and Meeting and East Bay streets to the west and east respectively. That’s a lot of violence!
But it ain’t just the Eastside. I’ve got another friend who lives in the Dorchester Waylyn community. She often complains her community unfairly is targeted for its crime and violence. Almost two-thirds of the county’s 57 homicides in 2016 occurred in North Charleston. The Waylyn community has been the city’s deadliest over several years. My Dorchester Waylyn friend says most of the community’s crime is committed by those who don’t live there.
My Eastside friend has a response to that as well. “I have been thinking about this issue that the violence is coming from ‘outsiders’ not Eastsiders. What difference does it make if you are shot by some guy from North Charleston or a guy from Hanover Street? These are Black men being shot in the vast majority of these incidents, not white people. Shouldn’t Black people be pissed off over this?”
I couldn’t answer his question. I think a lot of Black people are pissed off about the crime and violence. But the fixes require a lot more than getting pissed off. I think good schools and good jobs might help. When you know better, you do better. That’s where good schools come in. Less discrimination in employment is where good jobs come in.
My Eastside friend is part of a growing horde of new residents. Change will come to the Eastside. I also believe displacement will come along with that change. My fear is that those displaced won’t change. They’ll carry their culture with them wherever they land perpetuating the new normal in Black communities.