Grassroots effort tackles drink houses, violence head on

Estella Brown chairs the Reynoldstown Neighborhood Association in Winston-Salem. (photo by Jordan Green)

A neighborhood leader is working with the police and the Nation of Islam to rid her block of drugs and violence, while calling on a city council member to take responsibility for criminal behavior at one of her properties.

Well-tended lawns slope down to the street in front of craftsman bungalows and modest dormers, with aluminum awnings, topiary and flowerboxes as a testimonial to the residents’ pride and limited resources on the block of Cameron Avenue where Estella Brown lives.

The street runs through the heart of the neighborhood built by tobacco baron RJ Reynolds for managers and supervisors — and so named Reynoldstown — who were later supplanted by doctors, teachers and other members of Winston-Salem’s black professional class.

Cameron Avenue ascends a marked incline over four blocks as it runs northward from New Walkertown Road, before leveling out at 12th Street and continuing past the magisterial Atkins High School, now shuttered but once the crown jewel of the community.

The presence of drink and drug houses is a near constant source of aggravation for Brown, who chairs the Reynoldstown Neighborhood Association. She estimates that there are five such establishments on her block alone, and double that throughout the neighborhood.

“It’s all times of night car doors slamming, car horns going on, people throwing trash in the street, folks talking loud, total disrespect,” she said.

She works a job in the medical field until 1 p.m., and on a recent Thursday she took a few minutes to pick up trash in the street before heading to work.

“It was drugs; they sold liquor; they played cards,” Brown said of the kind of establishments she’s trying to get the police to shut down. “It would be after-hours places for people after the clubs closed down who wanted a place to go. Nobody’s paying taxes. That draws in the criminal element. You get people in your house you don’t even know who they are.”

Two men have been killed in the neighborhood in the past five months, with the most recent homicide taking place at dusk on Sept. 16 just two blocks from Brown’s house. Police reported that officers located the victim, 25-year-old Karodd Revon Nash, in the driver’s seat of a vehicle that had come to a stop at the intersection of East 9th Street and North Graham Avenue, and that he had suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Detectives with the criminal investigations division could not be reached for comment about possible motives for the shooting.

In late April, police were dispatched to 848 N. Cameron Ave., a house owned by Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke that is on Brown’s block, in response to a reported shooting. The body of the victim, 27-year-old Joshua Bernard Brown (no relation), was found about 10 blocks away on East Fifth Street. Estella Brown said she believes the body was moved to reduce the chances that the police would discover illegal activity at the house.

In Brown’s view, Burke and other landlords need to be held accountable for the criminal activity that occurs on their properties.

“The landlords ought to be made to come here and clean up,” Brown said. “Come out of your cushion zone. Help your folk get it back to normalcy. If you don’t clean up, it’s going to fester.

“Take that mess to Cumberland,” she added, referencing Cumberland Road, the street where Burke lives in the more upscale Monticello Park neighborhood.

Burke could not be reached for this story.

Capt. Michael Weaver, who leads the patrol division responsible for the area, said Brown brought the problem of drink and drug houses in Reynoldstown to his attention about two weeks ago.

“We’re still actively gathering data so we can assess the proper course of action,” he said. “We are in the infancy stages of the entire effort.”

Brown said overall her experience with the police is positive.

“Most of the time whenever they are out, if it’s not a busy night and they’re not stretched thin, they respond in a timely and professional manner,” she said.

Command-level officers and members of city council are well aware of the linkage between drink houses and violence.

In January 2014, Chief Barry Rountree provided a report on homicides that occurred the previous year to members of the public safety committee. In one case, a dispute took place at a drink house, and the suspect left and then came back and shot the victim. In another case, a man was shot while walking to a house where a card game was taking place.

“When you have these drink houses and things like that happen, do you let them continue to be drink houses?” Burke asked.

Rountree responded that the police work with the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency to shut them down.

“Are you really successful in bringing them to a close, or do they move to another place?” Burke asked.

Rountree acknowledged that “sometimes they will relocate to a different location and they’ll start back up again — some of the same owners, time and time again.

“A lot of times they’re pretty much underground until something happens, and then we learn later that it’s actually a functioning drink house,” the chief added.

While actively engaging the police and city administration, Estella Brown has also turned to Effrainguan Muhammad, whom she met at a community meeting hosted by US Rep. Alma Adams, for help.

Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, has led two peace walks through the neighborhood at Brown’s instigation. The purpose of the peace walks is to both encourage residents who are fighting to maintain public safety and to let people who are involved in criminal activity know that they’re being monitored. The volunteers also hand out a flier with a phone number for a “Stop the Beef” hotline where people can receive confidential mediation to prevent violence.

“Our initiative, in terms of the peace walk came from a directive from Minister Farrakhan on the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March,” Muhammad said. “He called for 10,000 fearless men to go back into the community and stand between the guns and the violence. Some of the work we do we have to shed fear to go out in a hostile environment. We’re not going in a spirit of vigilantism; we’re going there in a spirit of love to share with the young men that there is hope and alternatives to criminal lifestyles. We want to encourage them to become a part of making the community a safe and decent place. Sometimes it’s a case that they don’t know. No one has come to tell them that there’s another way.”

Photo courtesy of Effrainguan Muhammad

A photo from one of the peace walks shows Muhammad and two other volunteers walking up to an apartment building and speaking with three young men in white T-shirts who appear to be drug spotters.

“We shared with the individuals: ‘Here’s the service we’re offering’ — the mediation service,” Muhammad recounted. “They seemed pretty receptive.”

Before she met Muhammad, Brown felt like she was fighting on her own to save her neighborhood. She said many of her neighbors are good, decent people, but they’re afraid to call the police to report problems.

“I say, ‘I’m strong,’” Brown said. “I pray the Lord’ll take care of me. It is what it is. Right in this here block they’re friends to the people who are the lawbreakers, and they have some kind of code of silence. I say, ‘I don’t owe ’em s***.’ Regardless of how I feel — how my hip might feel or my throat might feel — I get up in the morning and go to work to pay these bills. I just pray and move forward.”