Life in Columbia’s most dangerous neighborhood
Shortly after midnight, a group of teenagers in North Pointe Estates rushed into an apartment in Building 27 and demanded money from a man inside.
They threw him to the floor, kicked him in the face and snatched cash out of his back pocket, according to the police report from January 2015. The teens also grabbed a bucket filled with $30 in coins off the TV stand on their way out.
Four days later, a man from Building 14 walked into the emergency room at Palmetto Health Richland with a gunshot wound. The next day, three men armed with pistols ordered another man to empty his pockets near Building 17.
This is a typical week in Columbia’s most dangerous spot: the 100 block of Ripplemeyer Avenue in north Columbia, according to an analysis of city crime data by The State newspaper.
“You’re walking into the lion’s den,” a man known as Dreads recently told a reporter conducting interviews on the block. “Motherf------ get robbed out here. Motherf------ get killed out here.”
Ripplemeyer Avenue is home to North Pointe Estates, a 188-unit, low-income apartment complex — formerly known as Bethel Bishop Chappelle apartments. It posted more violent crimes than any other block in the city, according to a Columbia Police Department statistical analysis of all violent crimes from 2014 to 2016, the most recent data of its kind available to the public.
Robbery, shootings, beatings and stabbings account for much of the violence, police records show. But that’s just what gets reported, residents say.
Just south of the James Clyburn Pedestrian Bridge on S.C. 277, thousands of commuters drive by the crime-ridden complex to and from Columbia each workday.
Many know it by reputation. The neighborhood has a long history of violence, including the 1999 death of a mother struck by a stray bullet while she was in bed and a 2000 parking lot shootout that left two teens dead. City leaders have worked to reduce crime, including a 2006 nighttime curfew and an unsuccessful 2008 proposal to require high-crime apartments to pay for security plans.
But few know what it’s like to live there — where the sound of gunshots and sirens are as common as cicadas on a summer evening, where some sleep on the floor to avoid the bullets, where pizza shops refuse to deliver after dark and where distrust in law enforcement runs deep.
The real problem, residents and police say, comes from the outside. About 90 percent of people who lease in North Pointe Estates are women and single mothers, according to the complex’s management company, Community Housing Partners. Most of the violence is initiated by visitors — boyfriends, fathers and friends.
Members of a gang known as The Folks run the neighborhood, but instead of territory and drugs, they mostly fight over personal insults and feelings of disrespect these days, according to residents and police.
“A year or two ago, y’all wouldn’t be able to walk around out here,” said a North Pointe resident who goes by the nickname of Neighborhood Max.
The Midlands Gang Task Force, comprised of six local law enforcement agencies, has cleaned up Ripplemeyer Avenue, residents say, and the city of Columbia is moving forward with a $454,000 investment to rejuvenate a forgotten baseball field and build a new playground.
Most residents want the same things as everyone else — a safe, clean and healthy community — and forces are at work to make it better. A pair of brothers, for instance, organize youth sports teams, and a group of men routinely put together community events, where kids get free haircuts and food.
Even so, more than a dozen residents cautioned reporters from The State about walking around the neighborhood or approaching the wrong crowd. One elderly man refused to talk to a reporter, saying he was afraid it would look like he was giving information to the police and that he could be killed.
“Stay around here and you’ll wind up in a box,” he warned a reporter.
Welcome to ‘The Bedroc’
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and people line front porches in North Pointe Estates, drinking cold beers or cocktails of cheap liquor and fruit juice. The pungent smell of weed wafts from a group of men standing on the corner.
“We’re out here doing hood s---,” said a young man who goes by Hyree.
He’s on the clock now, he explains, keeping a lookout for the police. If he sees a patrol car pull up along the backside of the neighborhood, on the other side of the canal, he makes a phone call. If he sees one on the north side, where he is standing, he’ll shout.
It’s a guttural tone that his boys will recognize, he said, softly letting one rip to show what it sounds like, careful not to raise a false alarm.
North Pointe Estates is a place where the few who have legitimate jobs feel targeted as a source of income, several residents said. Three out of four people in this area are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The rest get creative to put food on the table. It’s called hustling — the pursuit of making money out of nothing — and North Pointe Estates is filled with entrepreneurs.
Women braid hair and paint nails at an affordable price. The stylist may be unlicensed, but it’s professional quality.
Young men string together verses over a beat to chronicle their lives. The rapper may not have a record label, but it keeps the neighborhood entertained.
And the street pharmacists can get a customer any kind of fix for the right price. It may be illegal, but at least it takes the edge off.
The few people who have a college degree, such as the man who calls himself Dreads, haven’t found an opportunity to put it to use. And it’s that lack of opportunity that leaves many feeling hopeless.
“We’re gangsters out here just trying to survive,” Dreads said. “Give me a chance to do something else, and I’ll do something else.”
Gang life runs deep here and is hard to stomp out.
In the North Main area, one in three young men and women are affiliated with a gang, estimates one local coalition. And gunshots are so common kids can identify the type of weapon, and whether it’s being tested or used in a shootout, said a young man who goes by Lucky.
Many of those same children have never been the 13 miles up I-26 to Columbiana Centre on Harbison Boulevard, said Keito Jordon, outreach coordinator for the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition.
There’s a difference between living and surviving. Every day is about survival in this neighborhood, Lucky said.
North Pointe Estates has multiple identities. To most residents, it will always be Bethel Bishop Chappell (or just The Bishop), named after its three original owners: Bethel AME, Bishop Memorial AME and Chappell Memorial AME.
But it’s also known as The Bedroc — where you live when you’ve fallen on hard times, and there’s no place to go but up.
Gainful employment is something many strive for, but few have the opportunity to attain, Lucky said. “So people just get tired. They’ll start selling drugs, start robbing people, kicking doors in. That’s surviving. You can’t (let yourself) starve.”
But some residents are focused solely on their escape.
‘I feel like it’s rock bottom.’
On the other side of the complex, a woman who goes by Tootie is playing with her 7-month-old son on the floor of her living room — empty except for a couch made of imitation leather and two end tables.
She has avoided buying furniture for the place she has lived for more than a year. It’s a mind game she plays to keep herself focused.
“I am not trying to make myself comfortable here,” she said, promising to give herself no more than two years before she and her infant move to a better place.
“This is not a neighborhood to raise kids,” she said. “I want to get (my son) out of here before he can realize where he is staying. Before he’s old enough to ask to go outside and play.”
By day, she attends Remington College on Bush River Road in pursuit of a medical assisting degree, counting down the 11 months until graduation. By night, she holes up inside her small apartment, avoiding the gunfire and minding her own business.
“Once you’re in this neighborhood, it’s like you’re trapped,” she said. “I feel like it’s rock bottom.”
This is Tootie’s first apartment — the first place that became available for her limited income.
Tootie knew about the neighborhood’s reputation prior to moving in — her aunt has lived in a nearby apartment for the past 14 years. That’s why she went to Family Dollar and spent $12 on a new keyed entry doorknob. It’s an extra layer of protection that goes beyond the standard deadbolt.
But she knows it may never make a real difference.
Several months ago, she was sitting on her balcony when a gunfight broke out. Two stray bullets flew past her apartment and hit a tree less than 10 feet away from her.
“I got up and took my pregnant a--in the house,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s one thing about this neighborhood. Nobody snitches.”
If the wrong people found out she, or anyone else, were talking to police, they could end up dead, she said.
“There are people who don’t even like to come out here to visit their family,” she said. “This neighborhood isn’t as bad as it was, but it can get crazy.”
‘Either we fight or I’m going to bust you.’
Each night, Brooklyn’s bedtime ritual is the same.
Using both hands and her right shin, the 46-year-old woman shoves her brown polyester couch across the carpet and in front of her apartment door, barricading herself in for the night.
The 3 feet she pushes her couch could mean the difference between making it through the night unscathed or becoming another victim in The Bedroc, the place she’s reluctantly called home since 1992.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff happen,” Brooklyn said, pointing to a shrine on her wall, where about a dozen funeral programs are taped. Each program displays a young smiling face pictured between angel wings.
“I want to remember them and keep them close to my heart,” she said.
One of those smiling faces is 23-year-old Migeal Ravennell, who was shot in the head in the breezeway of Building 30 in September 2014.
A witness, who was not identified in the report, told police he was inside when he heard gunshots. He came out and found Ravennell sitting in his wheelchair near a pool of blood and brain matter. He died from his injuries.
Rolland Donall Graves Jr. and Kumasi Shamir Lewis were charged with his murder. Graves pleaded to a lesser offense and got off with probation, while the charge against Lewis was dropped, court records show.
Ravennell was well-known throughout the neighborhood, and everyone came together to mourn his loss, Brooklyn said.
While the violence has slowed, it’s still happening. Just last month, she saw a man get stabbed outside her apartment, she said.
The trouble started, according to Neighborhood Max, when he broke up with his girlfriend. Before he knew it, a group of about five or six guys showed up looking for a fight, he said.
One guy pulled out a pistol, pointed it at him and shouted, “Either we fight or I’m going to bust you,” Neighborhood Max recalled.
He ran to the other end of the neighborhood, where he was cornered by another man. The two squared off in the grass and started exchanging blows to the head and body. Then, two other men jumped into the brawl.
Neighborhood Max didn’t know he had been stabbed until he felt the blood running down his chest. With cuts on the right side of his neck and arm, he was curled up on the ground taking hits when someone ran up to stop the fight.
Standing shirtless on the corner one recent evening, with scabs covering his wounds, Neighborhood Max smiled and said, “They didn’t even break my glasses.”
Brooklyn said she’d like to see management place security on both sides of the neighborhood, keeping troublemakers out and preventing these type of scenarios from happening again.
‘Circle of communication’
David Rodgers, an investigator with the Columbia Police Department, throws on a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt before heading to work on Ripplemeyer Avenue.
His police uniform would do more harm than good in The Bedroc.
For the past three years, Rodgers has worked on the Midlands Gang Task Force, credited with reducing the crime on Columbia’s most violent block. Task force members have found a way to get residents to identify the problems. Officers pass out phone numbers to residents and encourage them to call if they need anything.
It’s simple, but it seems to be working.
“They filter information to us about the problems there, and we’re able to communicate with the property managers,” Rodgers said. “It’s a good little circle of communication, even though people don’t know others are talking to us. But we’re able to address the problem.”
One of the group’s most publicized successes came in December 2015. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department announced a task force operation that seized 34 grams of crack, 355 grams of marijuana and a pistol and led to 10 arrests. It started with complaints of gang and illegal drug activity in the neighborhood.
“It’s not illegal to be a gang member. The actions they are typically involved in is illegal,” Rodgers said. “The biggest thing you want to avoid is (gang members) establishing a territory and setting up shop, because they become more organized that way.”
He said the quickest way to solve a gang problem is to keep them from becoming organized, keep them on their toes and address the crime they’re involved in.
“I truly believe that has helped prevent them from being more organized in the Midlands,” he said. .
Columbia Police Deputy Chief Melron Kelly, who grew up in the North Main area, acknowledged the need to build relationships in a community that shows animus toward those in uniform. He expects officers to introduce themselves, get to know the residents and interact with the kids.
But residents say that’s not happening.
“We can always do a better job. And that constructive criticism helps me as a policymaker in the police department in making adjustments as we move forward,” Kelly said. “Because I don’t want officers just there when they receive a call. It’s already too late.”
‘This van has been good to this neighborhood.’
Life in The Bedroc isn’t all fear.
On a recent steamy summer morning, a couple of kids grabbed handfuls of corn from large sacks. They giggled as a group of goats formed a semicircle around them and dined from their tiny palms.
Their snickers were punctuated by the cluck, cluck, cluck of wandering hens and a turkey that has to weigh at least 30 pounds.
Two brothers, Grey Eyes and Uncle James, have owned the plot of land down the street from The Bedroc since before S.C. 277 was constructed in 1975, they said. The brothers’ real names are Anthony Sanders (known as Grey Eyes, thanks to his piercing green eyes that almost look gray from a distance) and James Sanders (known as Uncle because generations of kids have looked up to him).
Out back, the brothers keep six fruit trees, bearing heaps of plums, peaches and apples. When the season is right, families come with grocery bags to pick the trees clean.
For decades, Grey Eyes, 56, and Uncle James, 61, have worked to keep neighborhood kids active and out of trouble, including driving them around in their 2000 Ford Club Wagon.
“This van has been good to this neighborhood,” Uncle James recently said, giving the side of the wagon an affectionate slap.
The old van has taken dozens of kids to baseball, basketball and football games all over the Southeast, including Charlotte, Florida and Tennessee. There are 10 teams with kids ages 6 to 12, said Markus Guinyard, one of a handful of coaches who donate their time. Guinyard first moved to The Bedroc in 1977 and has lived there off and on for about 15 years, he said.
In April 2016, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department cut a check for about $1,100 to buy the baseball team new uniforms, baseballs and catching equipment, Sheriff Leon Lott said.
Getting kids outside the neighborhood, and allowing them to see how others behave, is crucial to breaking the cycle of violence, Grey Eyes said. He bought the van for $3,800 eight years ago, specifically to haul the kids around.
But it hasn’t moved in months. The engine gave out, and unless Grey Eyes or Uncle James can figure out a way to get it fixed, the football and basketball teams are going to have problems getting to practices and games this fall.
Guinyard said he and others are prepared to take multiple trips to get these kids where they need to be, if that’s what it takes.
‘I don’t want a child going through the same thing’
Marcus Bess is also working to improve the neighborhood — one haircut at a time.
With a rough childhood himself, Bess said he can relate with most of these kids. He grew up in a home where domestic violence was common.
One night, his battered mother couldn’t take the abuse any longer, Bess said. She grabbed the closest thing to her — an empty, thick-glass liquor bottle — and hit her boyfriend over the head, killing him instantly and landing her in prison.
Bess entered the foster system when he was 7. He moved through multiple group homes and changed foster families several times over. It wasn’t easy coping, he said.
“It messed with me. It messed with me in school, everything. But once I picked up those clippers and found something I liked to do, it was over,” he said with a smile. “It helped the time fly by.”
Now he uses that talent to benefit people in the neighborhood.
“The kids growing up now are part of the new generation,” he said. “You have to mold them and guide them now because I don’t want a child going through the same thing I went through.”
He and several others organized a neighborhood event for Father’s Day with bounce houses, food and haircuts — all for free. Members of the Columbia Police Department showed up with its ice-cream truck and passed treats out to the neighborhood kids. It was one of the few situations where people had positive interactions with police in The Bedroc, residents said. Most recently, Bess and his team helped with a back-to-school giveaway on Parklane Road.
Even outside of the organized events, Bess picks up his black and white clippers with his right hand and a brush with his left to give a kid a fresh fade.
“We have single mothers out here who can’t pay for their own hair to get done, but they’re making sure the lights are on, food is on the table and their kids are going to school every day. By me doing this, I feel like I’m helping her out. At least her baby looks good,” Bess said. “Because when you’re stressed, you look bad. You look bad, you feel bad. But if you look good, you feel good.”
A new baseball field for The Bedroc
The city of Columbia has a plan for the 16 wooded acres that run from the northeast end of the complex to West Beltline Boulevard. Phase one, which has been approved and funded, includes improvements to the baseball field on the northeast side, as well as a new playground and a road to connect Lester Drive with West Beltline Boulevard. That portion of the project will cost $454,113, with most coming from a state grant. Work already has begun — crews put in new dugouts and removed trees to extend the field. The scheduled completion date is May 2019. Phase two will include an urban farm and a farmer’s market co-op.
How we did this analysis
The State requested a statistical analysis of all Part 1 crimes and the location they were committed in Columbia from 2014 to 2016, the most recent data of its kind available to the public. Part 1 crimes include a wide range of offenses, from shoplifting to murder. The data was then narrowed to just violent crimes as defined by the FBI — murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Two locations tied for the most reported incidents of violent crime: North Pointe Estates and Gonzalez Gardens, a subsidized housing community on the 1500 block of Garden Plaza, which was torn down last year. The violent crime data was paired with calls for service to both neighborhoods, revealing the three years were not an anomaly and that the violence in North Pointe Estates continues.