For reporter, North Columbia not just an assignment

itate@thestate.com July 3, 2008 

North Columbia, the community where I grew up, is both home and unfamiliar.

It’s where my mom and two of my sisters still live. It’s also recently seen more than its fair share of violence and has been labeled “in crisis” by city leaders.

I have to say, I don’t have bad memories of growing up in North Columbia. With the exception of two nice front porch rocking chairs that went missing 15 years ago (to this day my mom is convinced they were spirited away in the night by our former neighbors), no one has ever stolen anything from our house or menaced us on the street.

Growing up, my friends’ parents wanted the same things for their children as parents in Shandon and Spring Valley. We were expected to be respectful, hardworking and do well in school.

That colorful dress my mom is wearing? That’s what she wore one overcast August day in 1980 when she married my father in Earlewood Park.

We moved to our house on Gonzales Avenue when I was in fifth grade. The move was a bit of culture shock. I had attended a majority white elementary school in West Columbia. There were about four white kids at my new school, E.E. Taylor Elementary.

Beyond the demographics were other differences. The school had several combination classes, which consisted of two different grades in the same room. At Saluda River Elementary, I had envied my classmates’ split-level homes and backyard pools. At E.E. Taylor, I had classmates whose parents paid less than $50 for rent.

I was a latchkey kid while attending Gibbes Middle. I felt completely safe walking to and from school.

A GATHERING SPOT

With schools, the corner mart, food and the grocery store within walking distance, we knew everybody on the street. They were our classmates, or their siblings or cousins. You could find out everybody’s business if you talked to the right people.

In the summer, my front porch was a gathering spot for my friends. (Sorry, Mom. I know you didn’t know this until now.)

I went outside the neighborhood for high school. My mom, determined we get the best education possible, transferred me and my sisters into the Rosewood-Hand-Dreher cluster of schools the summer before I started high school. So every morning for four years, I bypassed several high schools to get to Dreher.

In college at Winthrop University, I took classes with Eau Claire’s 1999 valedictorian and salutatorian. They were hands-down two of the hardest working students I knew.

But it’s the perception of North Columbia, not the reality of Gonzales Avenue, that gives people pause.

An invitation extended to a college friend showed me the visceral reaction people have to my neighborhood. My suite-mate, Catherine, her boyfriend and my ex-boyfriend had made plans to hang out during the winter break of my junior year.

Immediately after relaying directions to Catherine and settling on a time, she called back and canceled. We got together the following night, and she admitted that her mother had forbidden her to come to Eau Claire, fearing someone would steal her car or worse.

My dad had joked that we lived in “the hood,” but that was the first time I had encountered that kind of reaction.

Don’t get me wrong. I know parts of North Columbia face some serious issues. Visiting family and friends, I travel neighborhoods I’ve canvassed looking for reaction after tragedies. I notice when there are too many kids walking the street when they should be in school.

UNPREPARED

When I joined The State as a police reporter, I expected to get worn down on occasion dealing with death and grief. It comes with the job. But I didn’t expect my job and private life to intersect so often.

I’ve seen many familiar names and faces come across my desk as suspects and victims. I’ve known the Midland’s Most Wanted, and I went to school with a guy who became a Gangsta Killa Blood.

Still, I was completely unprepared when my first cousin was seriously injured in a shooting at Gable Oaks in March. Minutes after I heard about a shooting over the police scanner perched on my desk, my cell phone rang. I could tell by my boyfriend’s strangely calm voice that something was wrong. He said Maurice had been shot.

My sister answered the phone on the second ring and said, “We’ve got a story you can write about.”

I filed a short brief and rushed to the hospital at the end of my shift.

Before I could even get an update on Maurice, three of my relatives wanted to know if I was there as a reporter or a cousin.

I knew my family bragged on me and was proud that I wrote for The State newspaper. But this time, my cousin was the victim, and my family was wondering about my loyalties. It hurt. A lot.

They listened as I explained that it would be unethical for me to write about a family member.

In the following days, stories about the shooting ran constantly in the newspaper and on television. I appreciated that none of my editors pressured me to ask my uncle and aunt for an interview. Instead, my co-workers who knew were kind and inquired about his progress.

It was hard to hear people making assumptions about Maurice and the circumstances surrounding the shooting. They assumed he was somehow responsible for what happened.

The experience was an eye-opener into how families of the suspects I write about each day must feel.

We were experiencing something on a personal level that’s akin to North Columbia’s problem as a whole — something bad happens, people assume the worst, everybody is painted with a broad brush.

CONFUSING SITUATION

North Columbia is so big and has so many different neighborhoods — by far the most in the city. And yes, some are dangerous. Some aren’t.

There are some places you don’t venture at night unless you know people or you live there. Some of these are the apartment complexes that have been the scene of recent and notorious high-profile shootings.

But the thing is, I’ve known people who lived in those places too. One of my grandmothers’ dear friends lived in Latimer Manor and raised her children there until she was able to buy a house.

It’s been hard to hear people speak so badly about a place that I love. And it’s been confusing.

I see the crime. I see the potholes and trash on the streets. I also see my mom picking up the potato chip bags and soda bottles that find their way into her yard. Unkempt isn’t the same as unsafe.

The property values on the three-bedroom home my mom bought in 1991 are steadily increasing, and she’s talking about renovating. In the past few years they’ve built houses in the neighborhood around Gibbes, and more are under construction just blocks from my mom’s home.

And a year ago, my good friend Suzy bought a house behind Eau Claire High.

It’s encouraging to know parts of North Columbia are gaining traction. The safety plans aimed at apartment complex trouble spots seem to be helping. Streetscaping and utility work meant to jump-start the area’s economic revival has begun on North Main.

I’ve been thinking about buying a house, and I keep coming back to my neighborhood. My money would certainly go further, and it’s looking more and more like a place I could see myself long term.

Home is becoming more familiar, more like home, all the time.

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