Carolyn Hutchinson has lived at Gonzales Gardens for more than two decades. She’s 54, and lives in a unit in H building with her sister and adult son. With plans underway to tear the apartment complex down, she’s ready to get out.
“The atmosphere with the young people out here is getting ridiculous with the violence and stuff,” Hutchinson said. “I have my grandson, who is 8 – he comes and visits, and I don’t like taking him outside and never knowing when something is going to happen.”
Officials at the Columbia Housing Authority recently received permission from the federal government to tear down the longstanding public housing complex across from Providence Hospital. Hutchinson said this is the latest of a series of attempts to tear the complex down, and that if it does come to pass this time, she hopes residents are given sufficient time to find new places to live.
“They kept saying they were going to tear them down, then they’d postpone,” she said. “Then they’d (make plans again to) tear them down, and postpone. This time, it’s supposed to really be happening.”
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Angeletta Lawson, 45, also says she’s ready to move. Though she counts herself lucky to live in H building, where she says residents look out for each other, she wants a safer life for her 5-year-old son, who turns 6 this month.
“Because I was blessed to be able to be in a front building, we didn’t have much (dangerous activity) going on in the front area,” she said. “But it’s been several times to where we couldn’t let the children out.”
Though Lawson said money on police patrols has not been wasted, she added that troublemakers can avoid law enforcement because the community knows police routines. It’s often outsiders who come in and cause trouble, but they come in sometimes at the invitation of residents, she said.
Violent crime at the complex in 2015 was the highest it has been in five years, according to numbers from the Columbia Police Department. There were 19 such crimes reported that year, compared with 15 in 2014, seven in 2013, 11 in 2012 and eight in 2011. Property crimes, meanwhile, are at a five-year low, according to the police department. Crimes designated as “other,” including drug and weapons violations, have continued to fluctuate.
John Sloan, 48, was assigned to Gonzales Gardens from 1991-96. He retired from the police department in 2012. During the time he was assigned to the complex, he said it was common to see children as young as 10 years old being used to deliver drugs. Sloan got involved as a volunteer in the community, coaching football teams and cheerleading squads.
“It was my way of trying to interact with the youth and keep them busy, so the drug dealers couldn’t get to them,” he said.
But police are hesitant to single the complex out as a problem area, saying that labeling places can scare away development and encourage criminal activities. Lt. Vandell McCary, 49, grew up in the area and says he continues to keep in touch with the community.
“It’s home,” he said. “Home’s always going to be home. I still have family living there.”
Every summer, McCary and other ex-residents organize a get-together for folks living in the complex. He said it’s an effort to give young folks a sense of pride in the neighborhood and help them forge connections within the community.
McCary compared Gonzales Gardens to the Celia Saxon community, formerly known as Saxon Homes. That complex, on Harden street near the city’s Drew Wellness Center, was torn down in 2000, and residents started moving back in 2004. Officials have a design plan for a $60 million complex to replace Gonzales Gardens, but do not have funds to begin construction.
But just putting up something new might not be enough to clean up the area. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said he’d like to see a mixed-use facility erected, with some rental units and some houses, to get residents to stick around and invest in the community long term. “(If there were) houses where people actually own that and had skin in the game, they might be able to provide more stability to the neighborhood,” Nettles said.
Vickie Brown, 49, has lived at Gonzales Gardens for 3 1 / 2 years. She said that she’s glad the complex is being torn down, because the infrastructure needs to be redone, but that she likes the area and wants to move back if a new complex gets put up in the same place. “They’re saying they’re going to make the apartments real nice – up to standards,” she said.
New Columbia City Councilman Ed McDowell lives near Gonzales Gardens, and currently is president of the Historic Waverly Neighborhood Association – a position he intends to vacate in February. He said that he hopes to see a decrease in crime in the area after the complex is torn down but that it’s important to understand Gonzales Gardens is not a one-of-a-kind case.
“There are pockets everywhere in Columbia where that kind of thing is happening,” he said. “It just seems to be more concentrated right now in that particular area.”
Violent crime up
Property crimes at Gonzales Gardens are at a five-year low, according to the police department. Crimes designated as “other,” including drug and weapons violations, have continued to fluctuate.
But violent crime at the complex in 2015 was the highest it has been in five years, according to numbers from the Columbia Police Department.
There were 19 such crimes reported that year, compared with 15 in 2014, seven in 2013, 11 in 2012 and eight in 2011.