Local News

Seeking Safety: Lessons in how to turn around a neighborhood

Posted March 30, 2014

Spruce and Wilmore streets in Charlotte, where homeowner Missy Eppes used to watch drug dealers at the corner from her front porch. Photo by Greg Barnes of The Fayetteville Observer.
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— The bungalow was a mess when Missy Eppes and her husband decided to buy it 11 years ago. So was the Wilmore neighborhood.

From her front porch, Eppes said, she used to watch drug dealers standing on the corner of Spruce Street and Wilmore Drive near downtown Charlotte.

Few people walked in the neighborhood, unless they were up to no good. Gunfire was routine.

But Eppes, a professor at UNC-Charlotte, couldn’t afford a similarly sized house in Charlotte’s safer neighborhoods.

When a bartender told her about Wilmore — and its cute little bungalows about a mile from downtown — Eppes decided to check it out. Almost before she knew it, Eppes had begun the process of buying a home.

Where others saw misery, Eppes and her husband saw promise and opportunity. In 2003, they became among the first in a long line of young professionals to refurbish an old house in Wilmore.

Wilmore was among the hard-scrabble neighborhoods that Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock used to patrol as a Charlotte police officer, beginning in the 1980s. He remembers helping Habitat for Humanity rehab houses in the neighborhood, all in a longstanding effort to try to gain residents’ trust and collaboration.

“When we were working there, there was a killing a week,” said police Lt. Tonya Arrington, who worked under Medlock at the time. “I mean, it was bad.”

Wilmore is still far from perfect. It continues to have problems with drugs and crime. But it has moved rapidly in a much safer direction. Medlock believes the transformation wouldn’t have been possible without the years of community policing that went into the neighborhood.

Charlotte police Capt. Allan Rutledge Jr., who also worked under Medlock, attributes Wilmore’s progression to many factors, including its close proximity to downtown, the potential for rehabilitating houses, the city’s army of young professionals and the speculation on rapidly increasing property values.

“I think it was inevitable,” Rutledge said, noting that the nearby Dilworth neighborhood had made a larger transition earlier. “It would have not happened if strong community leaders didn’t express interest in changing Wilmore and partnering with police and other agencies to make it happen.”

Today, Wilmore looks similar to Fayetteville’s Haymount neighborhood. It’s a diverse community where old, refurbished bungalows stand beside new homes that took the place of dilapidated properties that were torn down years ago.

Many elderly, low-income people continue to live in Wilmore, not wanting to move from the homes they grew up in, even though they are worth much more money now.

Eppes and Justin Lane, a bank finance manager and president of the Wilmore Neighborhood Association, say they like the diversity. It helps make Wilmore unique.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Lane, who bought a new bungalow about five years ago that fits well into the neighborhood. Lane owns a rental house across the street. He said he got 10 calls the first day he put it on the market.

Not everyone is thrilled about the changes in Wilmore. There are concerns over gentrification and rising property taxes that could force poorer people to move.

John Jacob Bailey, who grew up in a housing project, has lived in Wilmore for 20 years. He said the changes have him considering moving, but he acknowledges that the neighborhood is a lot safer now.

“When I first moved, you couldn’t stand out here like this without ducking a bullet,” he said.
 

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