Asheville City Council

“I feel like singin’ and prayin’ … it’s so hot in here,” said Asheville Police Capt. Ted Lambert during City Council’s June 30 community meeting at the Burton Street Recreation Center.

That was one sentiment that all assembled could agree on, as many tried to keep cool by waving makeshift paper fans across their faces throughout the two-hour session. Close to 50 people — city staff, police officers, residents and five City Council members (Mayor Leni Sitnick, Barbara Field, O.T. Tomes, Earl Cobb and Tommy Sellers) — packed a small room at the Burton Center, while others remained standing in the hall outside.

“As you can see, it’s hot in here,” said neighborhood resident Gloria Johnson. She urged Council to renovate the facility, once a small neighborhood school. It needs tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs and improvements: foundation work, painting inside and out, new playground equipment, better parking and a new kitchen, Johnson said. And the neighborhood needs additional fire hydrants, as well as repairs for existing ones.

But before City Council starts sprucing up the facility, they’d better pay some attention to recurring drug-trafficking problems in the predominantly African-American neighborhood, one resident told Council members. “This is not a safe place for kids,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “Jesus H. Christ, there are drug dealers dealing down there on the basketball courts, playing with our kids!” she exclaimed, turning to her neighbors for confirmation. “You see this every day — am I right?”

“Yes!” came the reply from several people.

Another resident asked, “Why not put police down here at Burton?” She looked around at the scores of police officers who attended the meeting and continued, “I like you guys in uniform. I’d like to see you here.”

But the first woman interjected that she’d like to see them a little less, in one regard, charging that police harass “residents who aren’t doing anything but standing outside to be cool [and] drink beer with friends.” She argued that the folks complaining about drug problems are sitting inside, looking out, when they need to be more active in doing something about it.

As residents erupted in a rather warm discussion on these points, Mayor Sitnick — backed by an industrial-sized fan — called out, “Yoo-hoo! If we’re going to have dialogue, we’ve got to have some respect for each other.” She asked Capt. Lambert to address residents’ concerns.

“This is a community and a police problem,” he responded. A few years ago, residents worked with Asheville police to identify drug dealers and get them off the streets. Lambert said he’d like to see that cooperative effort re-energized.

Two dealers — who once canvassed the neighborhood — are now in jail, identified by residents and arrested by police, added Asheville Police Officer Mike Godwin. “Burton Street has gotten better,” he said.

“Amen!” a woman called out.

“But no, we haven’t got them all,” Godwin continued. “Arrest one, and another takes his place. The people selling drugs on the corner may be related to people in this room.”

“That’s right,” someone in the audience said.

Efforts to get the drug dealers out, he said, “have got to start here, at home.”

No one disagreed with the sentiment. But Burton Street resident Donnie Long complained that the city doesn’t have enough minority officers — particularly young black men — who could serve communities like Burton and other parts of west Asheville (which is also home to a growing number of Hispanic residents who speak little English).

“I don’t see one minority officer in this room — not black or Hispanic,” said Long, pleading passionately with Council to hire, retain and promote more minority officers. As for the woman who complained about being harassed, Long remarked, “People are drinking beverages [in open containers] on the street when they shouldn’t be. That’s a bad example for our kids.”

“Have you ever applied to the Police Department?” Sitnick asked.

“Yes, ma’am, I have,” Long replied. He passed the department’s battery of tests for officer candidates and completed law-enforcement training — but was not hired. Federal dollars are available for hiring police officers, minority or not, Long continued.

An elderly woman complained that the city needs to do something about speeding traffic. Many motorists use Burton and other streets in the neighborhood as a shortcut to Patton, she mentioned. “We need a stop sign [on Boyd Avenue], or me and the kids are going to get killed!”

Just when folks were getting warmed up about drugs and speeding motorists, a young white man — dressed in suit and tie — tossed a curve into the discussion: Legalize drugs, as Holland has done, and drug-related crimes and deaths might decrease, he suggested.

Then Council member Tomes offered his thoughts on “economic empowerment”: Unemployment in African-American communities is far higher than in others, he said, charging, “That’s a national disgrace!” Instead of spending so much money on incarcerating criminals, he argued, Americans should put more into education and job training.

Asheville business consultant Dee Williams echoed his concern, demanding that Council develop — and implement — a cohesive economic plan aimed at minorities in the city. When Sitnick told her that the city was on the verge of hiring a consultant for a comprehensive economic plan, Williams retorted, “Where will the consultant come from? Out of town?” She urged Council to keep the dollars in Asheville.

Getting back to the smaller scale, Council member Cobb suggested that volunteers and local business owners could offer their time to paint the rec center — once city crews complete plaster repairs and priming.

Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson noted that repairing Burton is a high priority for the city, which has budgeted $30,000 for the project this year.

Sitnick steered the discussion back to the insufficient fire hydrants, asking Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina about the time line for installing new ones in the area.

The Fire Department is in the process of identifying where new hydrants are most needed, he replied, adding, “But installation depends on the [Regional] Water Authority.”

New Water Resources Director Tom Frederick noted that most of the funding for new fire hydrants had been cut from the Authority’s budget– much to his disappointment. “The list of what we need is going to exceed our financial resources,” he warned.

Sitnick responded, “For years, we’ve had enough money for consultants [and] multimillion-dollar water-treatment centers — yet not for fire hydrants. That’s a now need.” Money for repairing existing hyrdrants and installing new ones, she argued, “should not be put off.” She told Frederick that, if he needed a “letter from the mayor” to persuade Authority board members to find the funds, she’d be glad to oblige.

Burton residents applauded.

On a roll, Sitnick moved on to the question of a stepped-up police presence. Federal programs, she noted, offer reduced-rate mortgages to police officers who buy homes in troubled neighborhoods like Burton. She suggested that Lambert look into that further, and asked him to meet with residents, other city staff and a few Council members to discuss such options as setting up a citizens patrol.

Police coverage increased after the last community meeting in the Burton area, then slacked off, Johnson pointed out. And the drug problem isn’t limited to her neighborhood: “It’s all [over] west Asheville,” she charged. Solving the problem, she continued, “takes all of us — the neighborhood and police — working together.”

Resident Pauline Young, whose husband pastors a neighborhood church, stressed that the problem crosses racial lines: “There are plenty of white dealers coming through here. And we’ve got all kind of nationalities [dealing drugs], and some of them are rougher than corn cobs!” Hispanics, whites and blacks alike are shooting each other over drugs, she went on, urging Council to come to the neighborhood’s aid. “We can’t sleep at night,” Young declared.

Waiting for the next speaker to get to the microphone, Sitnick waved a hand across her face, to stave off the heat. “Is anyone feeling faint?” Her answer was a resounding yes.

Back to the main topic of the evening, Shiloh resident Freida Nash suggested the city consider getting cameras for its cops.

And Burton resident Deborah Bryant said that jobs are at the heart of the drug problem: “Our kids need something to steer them away from dealing drugs. They need jobs.” One youth told her, “If I don’t deal drugs, I don’t get what I want,” Bryant relayed to Council. “They want sneakers, they want gold — but the job market is low for African-Americans,” she asserted. “If we don’t find something for the kids to do, they’re going to sell drugs. So quit whining about it, and do something!” Bryant concluded.

Her neighbors responded with applause.

Another resident asked the city to investigate a garage located at the end of her west-Asheville street: Its owner, she complained, routinely uses the street for storing cars.

Asheville resident Catherine Proctor asked for arrest statistics on the drug buyers who come into the Burton Street area.

Lambert got the point behind her question. Another resident had claimed that many drug buyers come from Haywood County. “True,” he said. “It’s predominantly white people coming into the neighborhood to buy drugs. [But] we don’t care if you’re white, green or black: If you’re selling or buying, you’re breaking the law.” Police do routinely run “reverse stings” — arresting buyers, as well as dealers — he pointed out.

As the discussion came to a close, Geraldine Page — who worked at the Rec Center before she retired — remarked, “After all the negative things that have been said tonight, I have to give credit to the police.” Describing herself as a night owl, Page reported that she often sees police confronting drug dealers in the wee hours of the morning. Then, with the merest hint at past strained relations between police and the African-American community, Page noted, “My mother always said, ‘Give the devil what’s due him.’ So give police some credit,” she urged her neighbors.

But Page also placed the burden of reducing Burton’s drug problems on parents: “They’ve got to do their jobs,” she said.

Pisgah View Apartments resident Minnie Jones provided the evening’s closure, commenting that many of Asheville’s young black men (and women) would make fine police officers. Jones — who has kept up with recent discussions over the city’s proposed Parks and Recreation Master Plan — also told Council members: “I don’t care how many greenways you sow. I want something done about Burton Street Recreation Center!”

She also stuck it to some Burton Street residents in her usual point-blank-honest style: Unlike Burton, she noted, Pisgah View has an on-site police substation — one they wouldn’t need “if all your Burton Street [drug dealers] would get out of there!”

And at that, Burton Street residents burst out laughing. “She’s got a point,” someone observed.

Moments later, Sitnick thanked the residents for attending and dismissed the meeting.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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