Mean streets?

A couple of decades ago, before Asheville’s downtown renaissance kicked in, the city core could be a desolate place where crime, vice and menace of various sorts were not uncommon. Lexington Avenue was one of a number of areas where inner-city rot had planted deep roots.

But while residents now brag about the city’s distinctive downtown and visitors flock to it en masse, some fear that a bit of that ragtag past has resurfaced. Whether it’s an anomaly or simply a side effect of downtown’s complex sociology, some residents and merchants feel there’s been an uptick in crime in the city center.

Since the beginning of this year, Lexington Avenue has had at least 16 break-ins and numerous instances of vandalism, with 14 of the break-ins coming in a one-block area between Walnut and Hiawassee streets, says Rebecca Hecht, the owner of Adorn Salon and Boutique at 82 N. Lexington. And recently, says an employee at Broadway’s bar who identified himself as J.P., a late-night melee a block north of Adorn resulted in injuries to a group of revelers, with one victim suffering a broken leg. Witnesses say the incident was sparked when the victims’ car dinged another vehicle.

Such incidents have dwindled since the end of the summer, “but that seems really out of control to us,” says Hecht, who is president of the Lexington Area Merchants Association. Merchants and residents there and elsewhere in the city say they’ve taken their concerns to the Asheville Police Department but have gotten little satisfaction.

For her part, Hecht says it’s been frustrating. “They’ve responded that they don’t have the manpower or the money to increase patrols down here. We’ve also spoken with people from City Council, and the city manager is aware of the problem, and we just haven’t gotten any response. We’re really disappointed. Because we don’t feel that something like this, if it was on Wall Street, would be allowed to go on like this.”

At press time, phone calls seeking comment from the city had not been returned. However, since January, the city’s Citizen-Police Advisory committee has been holding community meetings with residents and police to discuss such issues. City Council was scheduled to hear a report on those meetings and discuss the issues at its Nov. 21 work session.

Hecht says her shop was hit in June. The door was busted and robbers rummaged through the establishment, stealing cash and Hecht’s checkbook.

“It’s kind of discouraging, because we’ve created this merchants’ association and we’re working really hard to improve the face of Lexington Avenue,” she notes. Police have suggested that the merchants start an after-hours neighborhood watch, but Hecht maintains that this isn’t feasible and is also unfair to merchants who pay building owners’ property taxes on top of their rents and have a right to better protection.

“We don’t feel like we should have to organize and work 24 hours a day to make Lexington what it is,” she says. And while Hecht wants the merchants’ concerns to be aired, she’s also fearful of resurrecting old stereotypes.

“We’re already fighting a certain image on Lexington Avenue — an outdated image from 10 years ago, when this was a deserted, forgotten part of town … a place with crackheads, prostitutes and junkies,” says Hecht.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann West of Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors says police have confirmed many of the rumors about downtown crime to her group. West also owns commercial property downtown.

No mean city

Despite the ugly talk on the street, however, Civilian APD spokesman John Dankel said he isn’t aware of any dramatic surge, cautioning, “that’s only an impression.” APD crime analyst Ed Eads says he’s not aware of any notable surge either. Capt. Tim Splain of the did not return phone calls from Xpress.

Meanwhile, city crime statistics present a somewhat murky picture. Detailed stats for the central business district are not available, though Eads said he’s in the midst of preparing them now and expects to have them finished after Thanksgiving. But year-to-date crime stats for the city as a whole show a decrease in property crimes, including the major categories of burglary, robbery and larceny.

Violent crimes, on the other hand, are up citywide, according to the APD stats, though such figures tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year. Through October, 46 rapes have been reported in Asheville — more than double the 21 recorded last year. Accurate rape counts are difficult, however, because many victims decline to report them. Asheville had also racked up five murders through October of this year, compared to three for all of 2005. Aggravated assaults are also on a pace to exceed last year’s total. As of the end of October, 202 assaults had been reported, versus 203 for 2005 as a whole.

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