CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Ames Alexander and Gavin Off | The Charlotte Observer) - Some nights, Keith Bailey grabs his grandfather’s old shotgun, straps on a headlamp and patrols his yard. He calls it “pulling guard duty.”
At his single-story brick house about three miles north of uptown Charlotte, Bailey has run off drug dealers from his front yard and addicts who parked in his driveway. And too often, the sound of late-night gunfire has sent him and his longtime partner, Patsy Martin, from their bed to the floor.
“I’m frustrated,” Bailey said. “I want to live comfortably in this place, but I can’t live comfortably when I have to guard my own crib.”
Bailey lives around the corner from Catherine Simmons Avenue, which in 2019 had a dubious distinction: It was the most murderous stretch of road in Charlotte.
Three people were shot to death within a half-mile of each other in 2019; a fourth was killed just around the corner, on Beatties Ford Road.
They were among the 107 victims who were killed in Charlotte last year, when the city suffered its highest homicide toll since 1993.
On the afternoon of April 28, worshipers were leaving a service when they saw a teenager running through the church yard, shouting: “They shot my Dad! They shot my Dad!”
Soon, 40-year-old Daimeon Johnson was dead — the first of the people killed on Catherine Simmons last year.
A month later, Monica Smith was dead, too. The 26-year-old single mother from Concord was shot to death in the same apartment complex as Johnson.
And five months after that, on Oct. 25, Bailey was looking out his front window when he saw the flash of gunfire coming from an SUV.
The shots killed 25-year-old Tydarrian Ford, who left behind a 4-year-old daughter.
“There’s just too much killing,” Bailey said.
Much of Charlotte’s violence is concentrated in neighborhoods that make up just a fraction of the city’s population. Four so-called “hot spots” — including one that encompasses Catherine Simmons — comprise just two square miles but account for 8% of Charlotte’s violent crime, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
CMPD says it has increased its presence in the area, conducting more searches, doing more traffic stops and seizing more guns. Using overtime and grant money, the department says it is also sending its officers to patrol the area by foot, bike and car, trying to prevent crimes and build a rapport with residents.
But the story of Catherine Simmons Avenue — named for a hardworking businesswoman who once ran a beauty shop nearby — shows that it will require more than just police to make life safer on the city’s toughest streets.
Among other things, it will require landlords who are willing to evict drug dealers and other criminals, residents and police say. And it will require residents who have the courage to report crimes and cooperate with police, despite the risk of retaliation.
Linda Jones, who successfully petitioned to have the street renamed for her mother in 2004, said she hoped it would help inspire residents. But now, she says, it hurts each time she hears about another killing on Catherine Simmons.
“It’s like a knife sticking in my gut,” she said.
GUNSHOTS KILL, RATTLE RESIDENTS
In all, five people have been killed on Catherine Simmons Avenue since 2017. Police have made arrests in three of those cases.
Laymon Moore was shot to death on March 28, 2017. Police found the 29-year-old man lying near the street in front of a neighborhood park.
Less than a quarter-mile away, Jonathan Cauthen, 31, was shot and killed on Sept. 28, 2017. Police found him at the corner of Catherine Simmons and Custer Street — the same intersection Ford would die at two years later.
Police have responded to more gun crimes within a quarter mile of that intersection — 175 since 2015 — than nearly any other point in Charlotte, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis of CMPD data.
“You name it, I’ve probably seen it over here,” said CMPD officer B. Long, minutes after he and his partner chased away a group of people who’d been loitering outside the apartments at Catherine Simmons and Custer. “ … We’ve rolled up on people who were shot. We’ve rolled up on people who were stabbed.”
On Catherine Simmons alone, police have reported more than 60 gun crimes over the past five years. Those included 30 aggravated assaults and six armed robberies, in addition to the five murders. All of those crimes happened on a street less than a mile long.
Just a block away from Catherine Simmons sits the LaSalle at Lincoln Heights, a 60-unit apartment complex for older adults. With its manicured lawn and trimmed hedges, the complex is an oasis of sorts, said property manager Carol Creasy.
But the neighborhood’s crime has been encroaching on the property, Creasy said. Two years ago, a maintenance worker collected nearly 100 spent shell casings on the property. And last year, workers patched eight bullet holes in the building’s siding.
Mary Wilson lives nearby. But she doesn’t walk along Catherine Simmons – and she doesn’t allow her 14-year-old grandson to do so, either. She rarely leaves her home at night.
Wilson, 71, said she often hears gunshots. Recently, she said, a man with a bloody hand came to her door and asked her to call police. The man said that his girlfriend had cut him with a knife.
“The violence needs to stop,” Wilson said.
CRIME, POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT
Catherine Simmons Avenue sits in the heart of Lincoln Heights, a north Charlotte neighborhood where the violent crime rate rose more than 50 percent from 2013 to 2018, data show.
By 2018, the neighborhood’s violent crime rate was nearly seven times higher than that for the county as a whole.
Lincoln Heights suffers from many of the afflictions common to high-crime neighborhoods: relatively high rates of poverty and unemployment and relatively low rates of home ownership.
On a recent afternoon, a number of young people loitered on Catherine Simmons, a road bordered by small brick houses, apartments and a neighborhood park. An old mattress, discarded TVs and other trash lined the street. Battered cars sat in front yards.
Security bars shielded the windows of a small church. And at an aging apartment building nearby, boards covered door and windows.
The city’s code enforcement officers are well acquainted with Catherine Simmons. They’ve found more than 660 housing, zoning and nuisance violations on the street since the beginning of 2017. Among other violations, they’ve found junked cars, evidence of rodents, decayed ceilings and floors that weren’t structurally sound.
Many of the homes were built in the early 1960s, and real estate investment companies rent out most of them.
More than six of every 10 single-family houses in Lincoln Heights were rented in 2018 — a rate roughly three times higher than Mecklenburg County as a whole, according to data compiled by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
But not everyone who spends time on Catherine Simmons lives there. Some arrive there on the bus that runs along Beatties Ford Road — the second busiest bus line in Charlotte. Others get there by way of Interstate 77 and Interstate 85, both less than a half mile away.
Some of those outsiders, residents say, go there to buy and sell drugs.
SURROUNDED BY DRUG DEALERS
Bailey and Martin understand the neighborhood’s challenges all too well. Martin says she knows of several drug houses operating within a half block of the home she and Bailey share.
They call their front window their “big-screen TV.”
“Look out the window, ain’t no commercials,” Bailey says. “It’s unadulterated. Open up the windows, it’s surround sound.”
On a recent weekday, Martin looked out her living room window and saw four young men gather under a tree. A car pulled up. One of the young men walked up to the car and reached in through the open window. Then the car rolled on.
Soon afterward, a young woman hurried into a nearby house where Martin suspects drugs are sold. The woman left the house three minutes later.
“This goes on all day long,” Martin said. “...This drives me crazy.”
Martin said she’d like to move, but she and Bailey can’t afford to do so. The rent on their three-bedroom house is $700 — roughly half the average in a city that has a shortage of affordable housing.
Martin, 67, has endured Charlotte’s crime problems for decades. In the 1990s, she lived on what was then another of Charlotte’s most dangerous streets — Katonah Avenue, in the heart of the Seversville neighborhood. In 1994, the Observer wrote about Martin’s struggles to protect her two-year-old son, Ronald, from crime.
Eighteen years later, Ronald Martin was shot to death while sitting on the porch of his home in Charlotte’s Grier Heights neighborhood.
WHAT’S DRIVING THE VIOLENCE
Why has Catherine Simmons Avenue been such a magnet for violent crime?
Some of the neighborhood’s absentee landlords don’t evict — or screen for — troublemakers, police say.
With some out-of-town landlords, “you probably don’t get the proper background checks,” said Officer D.J. Hudson, who patrols the neighborhood. “You can call a local guy to the table to discuss things.”
Others question whether nearby stores that sell alcohol, rolling papers and bongs also contribute to the problems.
Store customers stand in the parking lots and on sidewalks as the occasional police car drives by.
Police have stepped up their activity on Catherine Simmons. Traffic stops, for instance, increased by 70% from 2018 to 2019, records show.
CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano called the street a “focus area” for police. Officers, he said, are asked to be visible, build trust among residents and prioritize gun and drug crimes.
Residents often see police cars cruising the street during the day. But at night, some say, the patrol cars come by far less often.
Criminals know CMPD’s schedule, Martin said.
“After 5 pm, all hell breaks loose here,” she said.
Officer Long said CMPD tends to have less time to conduct routine patrols at night because they must respond to more crimes then.
Tufano said the department staffs each shift with enough officers to ensure it can “safely and promptly respond to all calls for service.”
Even so, Wilson and other residents say that some who witness crime in the area are too scared to tell police.
“We just close our doors,” Wilson said.
In an investigation published last year, the Observer found that Mecklenburg County prosecutors dismiss nearly seven of every 10 weapons crimes — and that those whose charges are dismissed often go on to get arrested for worse weapons crimes.
From 2013 through 2017, more than two dozen armed robberies were reported in the Lincoln Heights area. Prosecutors dismissed about 92 percent of them — one of the highest dismissal rates in Mecklenburg, the Observer found.
Prosecutors say they often have to dismiss cases when witnesses can’t be found or refuse to cooperate.
But that makes life harder for residents.
Said Long: “If people are getting away with a lot of crime, they’re probably going to continue to commit crime.”
‘THE NEIGHBORHOOD WAS UTOPIA’
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lincoln Heights had a theater and an ice cream shop. It was home to doctors, lawyers, pastors and nurses.
“The neighborhood was utopia to us,” said Rev. Mildred McCullough, a long-time Lincoln Heights resident.
Gerald Little, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, recalls how residents would bring meals to families who had lost loved ones. She remembers a neighborhood garden club where residents would share cut flowers from their gardens.
Back then, Catherine Simmons Avenue was named Cummings Avenue. Lower-income people lived there in those years, too, but many who remember the old days don’t recall much trouble on the street.
“The people worked,” McCullough said. “The people were friendly. You didn’t have shootings. You didn’t hear it. It didn’t happen.”
For 50 years, businesswoman Catherine Simmons ran her hair salon and flower shop near Cummings Avenue.
Simmons saw the neighborhood at its peak, when black-owned businesses thrived in Lincoln Heights, according to her daughter, Linda Jones. And she saw it at its bottom.
In the 1980s, crack cocaine left its mark on Cummings Avenue.
Some of the street’s longtime residents put their houses on the market. Real estate companies bought them up. Crime and poverty increased.
It wasn’t the same neighborhood that Simmons was used to, Jones said.
“They seemed so hopeless and lost,” she said, “like there was no way out.”
In 2004, after her mother died, Jones had an idea. She’d ask the city to change the street’s name from Cummings Avenue to Catherine Simmons Avenue.
Jones hoped that a name change — in honor of her mother who worked until the day she died — would help change the neighborhood’s reputation.
But years after city officials approved the name change, the stigma that haunted Cummings Avenue remained. And the crime continued.
THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
City councilman Malcolm Graham said the woes of Catherine Simmons illustrate a more fundamental problem: “This city is fast becoming a city of haves and have nots.”
In years past, he said, city officials worked diligently to lure large corporations to Charlotte — but less so on solving the problems of lower-income communities. Inside the city’s core, neighborhoods like Lincoln Heights have remained essentially unchanged for decades, Graham said.
“We were so busy we left a whole population behind,” he said.
Graham and other city officials say they are looking to other cities for programs that can help high-crime neighborhoods, such as the area surrounding Catherine Simmons.
In interviews with the Observer, experts and community activists suggested several ways to help residents.
For one, CMPD simply needs more officers, says Robert Dawkins, political director of Action NC. The department has about 180 vacant officer positions, according to Tufano, the department’s spokesperson.
Dawkins said that police officers are so busy responding to calls for service that they have little time for true community policing — talking with law-abiding residents to find out what is driving crime in their neighborhoods and what could be done to prevent it.
Dawkins contends the city also needs to get tougher on problem landlords.
“There’s not a landlord around who doesn’t know which houses are used for drugs,” Dawkins said. “...If you have a landlord with a long track record of having properties that are bad ... they should have the book thrown at them.”
Police say it can sometimes be difficult to find absentee landlords. A 2013 Charlotte ordinance required landlords to register with CMPD, but state lawmakers later scrapped the ordinance after an industry group opposed it.
Nowadays, most landlords voluntarily work with the police department to eliminate problems on their properties, CMPD attorney Mark Newbold said.
When landlords refuse to cooperate, the police department has another option: It can take landlords to court under the state’s public nuisance law.
But it has been more than four years since CMPD has used the law to take a property owner to court.
The Rev. James Barnett, founder and chairman of the Charlotte anti-violence group Stop the Killing, said elected officials have not spent enough time on streets like Catherine Simmons. He says those officials need to talk with residents of those neighborhoods to identify problems and search for solutions.
“They’re just not reaching out,” he said.
Black leaders also need to speak more openly about the problem of black-on-black crime, Barnett said. In the five murders that happened on Catherine Simmons since 2017, all of the victims — and all of those arrested so far — were black.
Many who live on and around Catherine Simmons, meanwhile, cling to hope.