Rocky road: Good neighbors try to remove blight from old Anniston street
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Sep 23, 2012 | 6122 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Residents of one of Anniston's more distinguished old neighborhood seek better days ahead by driving out the riff-raff. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Residents of one of Anniston's more distinguished old neighborhood seek better days ahead by driving out the riff-raff. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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Carol Malet noticed the block parties first. The all-night hangouts at some of the houses and apartment complex down the street from her Rocky Hollow home, the cars idling in the road, parked in the grass. Then, the gunfire. The sound of it on Friday and Saturday evenings — scaring her grandchildren, frustrating her. That was four years ago.

Now, her grandkids are too afraid to visit her the widowed retiree in her home in the Rocky Hollow neighborhood she and many of her neighbors call dangerous. Rife with petty drug deals and other crime, it’s riddled with abandoned houses and trashy lots.

“The guns. The shootings,” Malet said. “But enough is enough is enough.”

Malet is not the only one who is fed up about crime and safety issues along Rocky Hollow Road, a street east of Quintard Avenue where many of the houses date back to the 1930s. Other residents also have concerns — and as a group voiced them to city leaders and police officers for the first time last month. Now, residents, officials and police hope a unified approach to clean up Rocky Hollow will help turn the neighborhood around in the way singular, past efforts have not.

If the new initiative works, officials think it could be used to turn around Anniston’s other older neighborhoods, sections that have lost residents as retail business has moved away.

“If we can get things going and get the residents involved, then I see this happening all throughout the city,” property code inspector Tana Bryant said.

Historic area, old problems

Rocky Hollow is central to one of Anniston’s oldest neighborhoods — one that’s visited every summer by thousands of runners in the well-known Woodstock 5K. But over the past decade or so, vacancies and crime have transformed the once-family-oriented neighborhood.

Worries about what once was “a lovely, wonderful place to live” — as longtime occupant Pat Bennett put it — comprise the usual small-city blights: Drug activity, speeding cars, shootings, theft, loud parties and unsightly properties are all issues raised by area residents.

Rocky Hollow’s rocky status is not especially new. Police say they’ve been fighting the area’s drug problem — and the other crimes that go along with it — for years. Likewise, the city’s property code inspector has spent her fair share of time over the years addressing trash and property issues, handing out nuisance violations when she can.

“They all know me,” Bryant said. “They know I’ll stand there until they pick things up.”

New purpose and progress

So, what is new?

For the first time since the historic area’s decline, some of its residents have joined forces to help turn it around and take their neighborhood back. Under the leadership of Ward 1 Councilman Jay Jenkins, these residents in August held their first community meeting to address concerns with police and city leaders.

About 50 residents showed up at the Anniston City Meeting Center to get the dialogue started.

The meeting lasted about two hours and could’ve ended — the way officials said so many neighborhood gatherings like this one do — there.

Instead, residents and officials alike said, there has been progress: Officers have stepped up their presence in the neighborhood. Jenkins is working to organize a community cleanup day sometime soon. And residents who never knew each other before are taking walks in their community, introducing themselves to each other, picking up trash at vacant lots and along the street.

“After the community meeting we had, the next afternoon I pulled up to my apartments and the gentleman next door was cleaning up the property,” said Brandon Freeman, the man who owns the apartment building at 1925 Rocky Hollow Road. “Until the meeting, I felt like I was battling everything on my own.”

From beautiful to bad

Bennett remembers when Rocky Hollow was different, had that community feeling the residents now are trying to get back. She first moved to Woodland Avenue, just above where it connects to Rocky Hollow Road, in 1938. She was six years old, and she spent her childhood playing along the streets, eating picnics in the woods near her home. She remembers lunches of lemonade, crackers and peanut butter, the way all the neighbors knew her name.

She loved the neighborhood and she stayed there. Now 80, Bennett and her husband live in the same house where her parents raised her.

“I’ve always lived here,” she said, and she watched firsthand as the area began to change.

Kids grew up, moved away. The parents got older, passed away, or found themselves alone in their homes. Houses were boarded up or rented out. People stopped knowing each other, Bennett said, and properties got trashy.

“It kept getting worse,” she said.

Rising crime

As the original Rocky Hollow families died or left, crime rose, Anniston police Chief Layton McGrady said.

Now, the neighborhood is a mixture of people who live alone, the elderly and small-time drug dealers who, in turn, attract other troublemakers, police Capt. Shane Denham said.

Like Malet, Bennett watched the rundown apartments and houses in the 1900 block of Rocky Hollow — where the road meets up with Woodland and Davis avenues — become a source of noisy traffic, suspected drug deals and gunshots.

Over three months this past summer, officers responded to Rocky Hollow Road 110 times on calls about burglary, theft, loitering, vandalism, drug activity and 14 shots fired. That’s more calls than police have had on streets of comparable size in other areas of town in a four-year period. For example, between 2008 and 2012, police responded to 112 total calls for service on Conger Road in Golden Springs, 179 total on Crawford Avenue in West Anniston, 80 on Buckner Circle at McClellan and 291 on east Anniston’s Glenwood Terrace.

“It slowly deteriorated … it just crept up,” Bennett said. “We hear the gunshots all the time, and I always call the police.”

‘Active’ locations

Rocky Hollow Road is a problem now, McGrady said, “because of the one or two locations that are real active.”

Those active locations include a couple of houses in that intersection Bennett referred to, as well as Freeman’s nearby apartments. That block has been the go-to spot for loitering, vandalism and drug activity, according to residents and police, and it has been so for a while.

“It’s the same thing now, but there are different players,” Denham said.

Bennett and Malet are some of the few neighborhood residents unafraid to have their names published in this article. Others were too scared to provide their identities, worried about retaliation. One 86-year-old woman who lives alone said she had been afraid for years. She never leaves her house on Rocky Hollow except to go to church on Sundays.

“It’s terrible down there,” she said.

Another Rocky Hollow man spoke at length about how he wasn’t afraid to take walks around the neighborhood, how nobody had ever bothered him. But several of his neighbors who live by themselves convinced him not to give his name for this story, he said, because they were afraid his comments would put them at risk.

A couple of residents said they hadn’t experienced any problems during their long tenure on Rocky Hollow Road.

“We have been very happy here — we don’t really know any of them on the upper end,” 80-year-old Lorene Braxton said, referring to the problematic 1900 block of Rocky Hollow. Braxton and her husband have lived at the other end of the street for 35 years.

Even Malet, when she first moved to the neighborhood seven years ago, noticed that particular part of the street stuck out like a sore thumb because of the worn-down buildings and yards, as well as the number of people who hung around them.

“I knew the apartment house was there, and I thought, ‘Oh heck, they’re going to have to clean that up,’” Malet said.

Complex cleanup

But it’s not as simple as just “cleaning it up,” city officials said. Police can’t arrest people or search private property without a warrant or probable cause. And “ugly is not a code violation,” Bryant said. These city leaders say they do what they can. At the beginning of September, police posted up outside of a party around Rocky Hollow’s 1900 block, arresting five people on various drug and weapons charges, as well as a few outstanding warrants, as those people tried to drive away from the area.

Arresting people on possession charges doesn’t keep them in jail long — and the large groups often disperse before the police show up, returning as soon as officers leave the scene.

For his part, Freeman, the apartment block owner, said it’s hard for him to change the situation. Many of the people who loiter around his building don’t actually live there, and kicking them off the property or having them arrested is only a temporary solution. When Freeman is successful in getting the loiterers arrested, he said, they end up right back on the street and often vandalize his building by breaking windows or trashing the vacant apartments.

“They tear down the signs I put up; rocks, bricks, beer bottles get thrown through the windows,” he said.

In June, a Detroit man suspected of a shooting spree in another part of the city broke into one of the vacant apartments, hiding there until police eventually found him.

Until the area as a whole improves, Freeman said, it is a waste of his time to try to improve the property or seek out families to rent his apartments.

“If I pull up and I see them, I call the police — they’re gone before the police get there,” Freeman said. “So I’ll do like I did on Friday night: Call the police at the station, ride up there with them and charge people.

“But then they’re right back out there.”

Rocky Hollow hope

Still, in the wake of the Aug. 17 community meeting, Freeman, residents like Bennett and Malet, and officials have hope for Rocky Hollow for the first time in years. Partly because that forum got the dialogue going — but mostly because after that forum, people started taking action.

At the meeting, Malet learned the boarded-up house on the overgrown lot at 1931 Rocky Hollow Road is owned by the Center of Hope, a local faith-based nonprofit. Since then, Malet has secured approval from the Center of Hope to clean up the lot and paint the house. The city agreed to cut the grass on the property. And Jenkins, taking Malet’s lead, made plans for a community cleanup day with a broader scope.

In the meantime, Denham said, officers have ramped up patrols through the neighborhood. There were the five arrests at the beginning of this month, and at the end of August police raided a nearby house where a man was cited for illegally selling alcohol.

Bryant, too, has kept up her presence in Rocky Hollow, asking people to pick up their trash and look out for their neighbors. She, too, is encouraged by the unified attempt to turn the area around. She thinks Rocky Hollow can be a success story, one that spreads to other parts of the city.

“We want people to say, ‘Hey, I can do this in my neighborhood,’” Bryant said.

‘We can do this’

Perhaps that seems too naïve or optimistic, but not only is it possible, it’s happened before. The Timberland Creek neighborhood in Overland Park, Kan., is proof. The Kansas neighborhood — roughly the size of Anniston — for years battled crime: drugs, juvenile gangs, and theft, according to Overland Park Councilwoman Tammy Happer Scheier. Children weren’t allowed to play outside, the councilwoman said, and people weren’t taking care of their places.

“We started to see high crime, just plain losers in there,” Happer Scheier said. “We were like, ‘No. No, this isn’t happening.’”

One Timberland Creek resident stepped up to the plate. She got involved with Happer Scheier, other city officials, and the Overland Park police. As residents put together community watch groups, officials drafted and passed new rental inspection laws. Police increased patrols and required officers to get know neighborhood homeowners, Happer Scheier said. They worked together as residents and leaders. Now, a year later, families have moved back to the neighborhood. Children play on the local playground.

Overland Park officers report a decrease in crime but don’t have exact statistics yet.

“Can we have police come to 15 neighborhoods every different night?” Happer Scheier said. “No, we can’t. But we can show as a community, we won’t tolerate this.

“We’ve got other neighborhoods that have the potential to go into decline, too, and we want to show them we can do this.”

‘An opportunity to fix things’

Back in Anniston, Jenkins, like Bryant, believes that residents and officials can change the course for Rocky Hollow. He said he’s excited and appreciative of the support he’s received from other outside groups — like the Anniston Runners Club and the younger We All Run division — for the community cleanup initiative.

“There’s an opportunity here to fix things,” Jenkins said. “While we may not live in that neighborhood, we all have a stake in its well-being.

“It doesn’t take too long to reach out and figure out how that affects us across town.”

For Malet, one effect has been immediate.

“The whole thing has completely changed: They are listening to us,” she said.

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star. Editor's note: This story has been modified from its original version to adjust the description of a Rocky Hollow resident.
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