Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jun 2004
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2004 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Joe Johnson


Plagued By Crime And Poverty, Athens Neighborhood Draws The Attention Of 
Police And Other Local Agencies

A mere stone's throw from the state's premier ivory tower of higher 
education sits a pocket of extreme poverty in which the rocks of preference 
too often are hunks of crack cocaine. At any given time of day or night, 
the drug can readily be bought on street corners several blocks west of the 
University of Georgia campus in downtown Athens, in a neighborhood known as 
Henderson Extension.

"It's like the Varsity" fast-food restaurant, said a woman who lives off 
Rocksprings Street and asked to be identified only by her first name, 
Maggie. "It's like pulling up to the drive-through and having some kid ask, 
'What'll you have?'f"

Henderson Extension is a several square-block area roughly bounded by West 
Broad Street to the north, South Rocksprings Street to the east, Baxter 
Street on the south and Magnolia Street on the west. To many of its 
residents, the neighborhood is known simply as "Rocksprings," but to avoid 
confusion with the Athens Housing Authority-owned public housing complex of 
Rocksprings Homes, the area of concern by police is called Henderson 
Extension because at the epicenter of street-level crack sales is the 
heavily trafficked corner of Henderson Avenue Extension and Paris Street.

Besides drugs, the residential area is pocked with vacant lots and 
abandoned homes, some of which are used for prostitution and as crack 
houses, said Lt. Mike Hunsinger, supervisor of the Athens-Clarke County 
Police Department's Drug and Vice Unit.

"We target the area constantly, taking countless enforcement actions, but 
once these guys we arrest make bond, they're back out there," Hunsinger said.

While drawing extra attention from police, the neighborhood is 
simultaneously coming under the microscope of other county and non-profit 
agencies in a coordinated revitalization effort to rid it of crime, provide 
better housing and build hope for a brighter future.

"We're not talking about poor here, were talking dirt poor," said Doug 
Bachtel, professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of 
Georgia who conducted a study of poverty in Athens-Clarke County based on 
2002 U.S. Census statistics.

"If you had an opportunity to make all that big money selling drugs, you 
just have to do it a couple of times and you're not ever going to do a 
minimum-wage job," Bachtel said. "The glamour of it all is really 
intoxicating, especially for young people. And after that first sale, your 
headed down that trajectory."

Mary Redman, who runs The Light, a St. James United Methodist Church 
ministry on Henderson Avenue Extension said, "I see a lot of hopelessness 
and a lot of despair" in the neighborhood.

"It's a community with a lot of hard-working people with careers and so 
forth, but I so see those elements there," Redman said. "A lot of people 
are unemployed and without skills, and these are the people who turn to 
other things - quick fixes, like dealing drugs."

It's an area where the poverty keeps getting higher because it has become 
"inter-generational," and from which "there is no hope at escaping," said 
Bachtel, explaining that in the mostly African-American neighborhoods of 
Henderson Extension nearly three-fourths of all children are born to unwed 
mothers who come from a public school system where 43 percent of children 
fail to complete their education.

"In your own mind and in your neighborhood, you're a fool if you are 
working for minimum wage, earning 40 bucks for standing on your feet all 
day when you can make that much in a single (drug) transaction," Bachtel said.

Not Just Drugs

Police say that besides drug trafficking, they constantly deal with 
additional problems in the Henderson Extension area - prostitution, theft 
and violent crime among them. Since the beginning of this year alone, 
police drug units have made several sweeps, picking up street-level dealers 
and conducting search and seizures at neighborhood houses.

Athens-Clarke police say they were unable to respond to a request for 
recent crime statistics specifically for the Henderson Extension area 
because they lack the personnel and equipment to generate such a report.

Police Chief Jack Lumpkin said problems in the area will continue to be a 
focus of the police department, however, even though he maintains the crime 
rate there has declined over the past six years.

An immediate impact is expected with the opening next year of a police 
substation, a building where officers assigned to the area will change 
shifts, planned for the corner of Baxter Street and Collins Avenue on the 
south side of the Henderson Extension area.

Lumpkin was scheduled to talk to Henderson Extension-area residents about 
the substation and other policing efforts Saturday at Rocksprings Community 
Park, off South Rocksprings Street between Baxter Street and Henderson 
Avenue Extension.

"The gist of what I will say is that I personally and professionally 
support their community and have publicly stated since 1997 that we should 
have a police substation," Lumpkin said last week. "Also, I will say that 
the Athens-Clarke County Police Department supports their community and 
devotes considerable resources to eradicating the drug-sales issues 
associated with the Henderson Extension area."

According to Hunsinger, the sale and use of crack cocaine continues to be 
the biggest problem in the area, as does to a lesser extent marijuana and 
alcohol abuse.

Cleanup Effort Planned

Hunsinger said the county is hoping to achieve a successful cleanup similar 
to that accomplished in East Athens neighborhoods surrounding the Triangle 
Plaza at the convergence of Nellie B Avenue and Vine and Gressom streets, 
using a combination of aggressive law enforcement and community cooperation.

"There are a lot of dilapidated properties in an eight-or nine-block area, 
which is all lower-income owned or rented," Hunsinger said of Henderson 
Extension. "There are a lot of good people in that community, and by no 
means is it forsaken, but there are some issues that need to be dealt with 
that the community needs to recognize and then get behind a coordinated 

Triangle Plaza across town - once a virtual open-air drug market, with such 
attendant crimes as shootings, robberies and assaults - had become known as 
the "Iron Triangle" because of its roughness. Officials and residents say 
Triangle Plaza is now a much safer area in which to live, work and visit 
due to a multi-pronged revitalization effort by police and other local 

In addition to installing a police substation in the area, Athens-Clarke 
police implemented community-oriented policing (COP), in which officers 
make efforts to become personally acquainted with residents and seek their 
assistance in preventing and solving crimes. Police also have used federal 
"Weed and Seed" funding to pay overtime salaries for additional police 
patrols and to train citizens in employment skills.

Complementing the law enforcement component of Triangle Plaza 
revitalization has been the efforts of such agencies as the East Athens 
Development Corp., the Athens Housing Authority and others to develop 
affordable housing, with the end result being residents and business owners 
noticing a dramatic decrease in the area's crime rate.

Revitalization Starts

Several dilapidated Henderson Extension homes have already been renovated 
and sold as affordable housing by the Athens Housing Authority, with some 
help from the Hancock Community Development Corp., a non-profit 
organization founded in 2000 with the mission of helping to revitalize the 
Hancock Corridor - the larger area of which Henderson Extension is a part, 
encompassing parts of West Broad, Baxter, Rocksprings, Pulaski and Old West 
Broad streets, as well as Hawthorne and Prince avenues.

Alvin Sheats, executive director of the Hancock Community Development 
Corp., said HCDC will take a more prominent role on the affordable housing 
front as it matures.

"There is an ongoing need for housing rehabilitation over here, which is 
something we at HCDC will be focusing on as soon as we get funding," Sheats 
said. "It's close to the downtown area and the university, but it has been 
so plagued by derelict housing and crime that the many historic homes there 
have not been attracting investors."

Interviews with Henderson Extension residents may provide a glimpse into 
reasons why investors in the neighborhood's housing stock have been few and 
far between.

"The hell-raising is all on that corner," Rocksprings Homes resident Mabel 
Porter said, pointing to Henderson Avenue Extension and Paris Street, which 
is directly across from the public housing complex that the 76-year-old 
housekeeper has called home the past 40 years.

Porter said she confines her activities to the fenced-in Rocksprings Homes 
complex, where Athens Housing Authority and police personnel regularly 
patrol the grounds.

"Right in here it's fine, but it's the other places outside where they 
can't seem to do anything about it," Porter said. "I try to avoid Paris and 
Henderson because there are fights there now and again and a lot of drugs 
being sold."

Porter said she looked forward to the opening of the police substation 
because she would welcome the increased presence of officers it will bring.

"They need to get that rough crowd out of there and stop all that drug 
dealing that's been going on," she said. "You see the cars stopping on the 
corner and they have those little bags in their hands. If you get rid of 
that, then things might get better."

Police and housing authority officials are quick to point out those 
responsible for drug dealing in Henderson Extension do not live in the 
county-owned Rocksprings Homes apartments. Rick Parker, executive director 
of the Athens Housing Authority, said his agency maintains a zero-tolerance 
policy when it comes to drugs, with leases allowing it to evict an entire 
family if even just one member gets arrested on a drug charge.

According to some Henderson Extension residents, the primary reason drug 
dealers gather on street corners near Rocksprings Homes is because that is 
where their customers go, assuming that illegal drugs can always be bought 
near public housing.

The sale and use of drugs are not the only problems in Henderson Extension.

Sonya Fears of Rocksprings Homes said, "I heard about a shooting close to 
the time I moved here in November, but it's not too bad here. I see the 
police go through here every hour."

Fears, a 27-year-old mother of three who works as a UGA secretary, said 
upon moving to the apartment complex from the Triangle Plaza area in East 
Athens, her new neighbors told her "it's good I got an apartment on the 
front part" of the complex, away from Paris Street and Henderson Avenue 

As her children - ranging in age from 6 months to 3 years - grow older, 
Fears said she will warn them of the dangers lurking outside the security 
of their home.

"I will talk to them and tell them of the experiences I know of what goes 
on out there, because a lot of those guys are going to die from life or 
they'll live and go to jail," she said.

Once known for its pecan orchards, the Rocksprings area had been the type 
of place where you could go to sleep without having to worry about locking 
your doors, according to longtime West Hancock Avenue resident Lillien 
Hill, who grew up in that part of town.

"The neighbors were real good, everybody was always looking out for 
everybody," the 80-year-old woman said. "Now you can't walk a lot of the 
streets because too many people could knock you out for money and for 
rapes. There's too much bad stuff now."
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