Community in Crisis: Can Wedgewood Village rebound from a violent 2017?

Andy Downing
Wedgewood Village resident Samira Mohamud

On a Saturday afternoon in late March, neighborhood residents packed into Wedgewood Middle School on the West Side for the inaugural Multicultural Family Day, a celebration that lived up to its billing, drawing a diverse mix of races, ages and cultures. At one point, a hijab-clad child and a teenager in a mesh hat emblazoned with a hunting logo sat side by side, listening intently to an African percussion performance staged at the front of the school cafeteria.

Down the hall, various trade and apprenticeship organizations provided opportunities for youths to build sheet metal and wooden tool boxes to take home. City Council member Michael Stinziano was also on hand, as were representatives from a smattering of charitable organizations and nonprofits, including music mentoring program the Dick & Jane Project, which debuted “High Road,” a song written by Wedgewood students and centered on a theme of “embracing who you are.”

The event was the brainchild of second-year Wedgewood Middle School principal Diane Campbell, who, as part of her mission, has increasingly opened up the school to a community that recently endured a violent year, with seven murders taking place between January and August of 2017 at the adjacent low-income housing complex, Wedgewood Village Apartments.

“I truly believe we're not just a school that exists in the neighborhood. We belong to the neighborhood, and we should be outreach for the neighborhood,” Campbell said in an interview at her office in the weeks leading up to the festival. “[People] only know what they read. … Our families are doing great things. Our families are raising amazing children.”

In early February, just three blocks away, seated in a sparsely appointed, two-bedroom unit in Wedgewood Village, which is separated from the middle school by a waist-high, chain-link fence, single mother of four Tiffany Brinkley painted a troubling picture of life within the complex. Brinkley described gunfire as a near-daily occurrence, apartments infested with mice and roaches, and the threat of violence as a constant presence that makes her question whether keeping a roof over her family's head is even worth the stress.

“Someone could have a mental breakdown living out here. It's an overload on your heart, on your mind,” said Brinkley, 34, who moved into Wedgewood with her children 18 months ago while completing work on a degree in criminal justice (she expects to graduate in December). “A lot of people become immune to it and learn to live with the circumstances they're in, and some people are comfortable with that. Then some people aren't, like me. … There's no comfort here. You get to a point where you're like, ‘I'm going to move. I'm going to be homeless.' That's where I'm at with it. I'd rather move out and be homeless with my kids than to have to live out here.”

The sprawling Wedgewood Village complex, which includes 684 units spread through 59 unadorned, flat-roofed, red-brick buildings, has become a flashpoint in both the Hilltop neighborhood and the city at large, owing in large part to the seven headline-generating killings, which have drawn the attention of politicians, police and humanitarian groups engaged in finding solutions to the violence, as well as some who would like to see the complex shuttered, terming it a nuisance. As of press time, a petition asking city officials to close Wedgewood Village has generated 2,525 online signatures, including Tabitha Nichols, a lifelong Hilltop resident whose son, Cody, was shot and killed on Aug. 4, 2017, in the hallway of the Wedgewood apartment building off Eakin Road in which he lived. The crime remains unsolved.

“I'll sign a million times over,” said Nichols, whose Hague Avenue home has become a memorial to her late son. One wall of the cluttered dining room is decorated with more than a dozen framed photographs of the 22-year-old, and various tributes are written in paint pen on the street-facing windows: “Justice for Cody”; “RIP, son 8-4-17”; “Love you RIP.” Outside, a string of Christmas lights stapled to the house's siding reads, “Long live Cody.”

“Wedgewood is a unique challenge that a lot of parties, from the [Greater Hilltop] Area Commission to the [nonprofit organization] Friends of the Hilltop, are continuing to collaborate on to find ways we can improve the quality of life for these residents,” said Stinziano, noting difficulties ranging from its isolated location, which places residents at a remove from community resources, to the high concentration of youths living at the property (estimates put this number somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 children). “I think the headlines make people start asking, ‘What's going on [at Wedgewood]? Why are these challenges happening in such a concentrated area? And what could solutions look like?'”

“Walking on eggshells”

Back inside Wedgewood Village, Brinkley described living at the apartments as akin to “walking on eggshells.” “You can barely say anything without feeling in danger,” she said. “I had a gun put to my face because I told someone to [stop making noise and] get out of the hallway.”

She also said complaints to management often fall on deaf ears, and it could take months to get something as simple as working smoke detectors installed, or to fix faulty wiring, describing one light switch that required her to pound the wall with her fist to engage the circuit.

A January inspection report conducted at Wedgewood Village by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) obtained byAlive, in which 32 buildings and 26 units were inspected, includes details of damaged doors, walls and windows, missing or defective appliances and signs of insect infestation. Inspectors scored the complex a 68 out of a possible 100 (60 and above is considered a passing score), down from a score of 88 in the previous inspection, conducted in September 2015. The report noted, “If all buildings and units were inspected, it is projected that a total of 626 health and safety deficiencies would apply to the property.”

Property manager Jim Fogler of Independent Management Services (IMS) said part of the drop can be attributed to a change in HUD inspection protocol, which docked the property for external brickwork done as part of an insulation installation 25 years prior. He also said the management's commitment to improving conditions at the property can be seen in the overall trend of HUD report scores. In 2008, two years before IMS took over the property, a HUD inspection report scored Wedgewood Village a 22.

Columbus Division of Police commander Scott Hyland, who started as a patrol officer on the Hilltop in 1988 and has been in a commanding role overseeing the district since 2014, said conditions on the city's West Side have deteriorated in the years that have passed since he first patrolled the streets — a role he served for nearly 10 years — owing in part to the ongoing heroin epidemic, which has ravaged the area.

“They were always higher crime neighborhoods … [but] back when I left the streets, Sullivant Avenue and the West Broad Street corridors, if you saw half a dozen street walkers out, that was a busy evening," said Hyland, who held an administrative position prior to being appointed to a commanding role. “When I hit the street again back in 2014, it would be nothing to see 20 to 25 women working the street. It was a real ‘wow' moment.”

According to Hyland, Wedgewood Village, in particular, has always struggled with issues that tend to more greatly affect lower-income areas, including drug trafficking and gang activity, and he attributed the 2017 rise in violence in part to these factors. “Without question, the feedback we got from officers was that there was a definite spike in identified gang activity, as well as a noticeable uptick in drugs, so the violence probably came hand in hand with those,” he said.

There's also a cultural element at play that can impede progress within the complex. Wedgewood is home to a large Somali immigrant population, many of whom are from the persecuted Bantu tribe.

“When we had a public meeting a month and a half ago, the men all sat on one side and the women and children were on the other,” Stinziano said. “And it's not that that's what's creating the challenges in Wedgewood, but it can be harder to collaborate on solutions when we're still tackling that cultural component.”

For building management's part, Fogler said that the increased violence at the complex reflected a greater, city-wide trend (with 143 murders, 2017 was the deadliest year in Columbus' history). He also said that a majority of the killings attributed to the apartments took place on the streets that bisect the property — Briggs Road, Wedgewood Avenue and Eakin Road all run through Wedgewood Village — and involved non-tenants.

“What you hear a lot of is, ‘Well, it must have been your tenants,'” Fogler said. “The reality of it is, with one shooting, it was gangs out of New York and Florida, and they shot a non-resident over a drug deal that went bad. It didn't involve any of our residents, but because it happened on a public street in front of one of our buildings, it was attached like it was a Wedgewood deal.”

But the murder of Cody Nichols, which Fogler described as “one of the worst” of the 2017 killings associated with the property, did take place in the hallway of one of the complex's buildings in the early morning hours of Aug. 4.

“[My daughter] called me sometime after 4 [a.m.], and the only thing I remember is her saying, ‘I think Cody's dead,'” said Tabitha Nichols, whose son moved into Wedgewood after he turned 17. “I started screaming. … I go to Wedgewood. I see cops and lights everywhere. I pull my car to the middle of the street, slam it in park and jump out. The cop grabs me and says he'll get the detective on the case. … I'm begging him to let me go. Let me go see if it's my son. They wouldn't. When the detective came to me he asked if Cody had any enemies. Was there anybody who wanted to kill Cody? Did he sell drugs? I told them no. … I'm begging and pleading to see Cody, and the detective said, ‘You don't want to see your son because his brains are splattered all over the wall.' That killed me more than anything. It killed me.”

Trying to turn the tide

To combat the violence, Fogler said building management started employing additional security in 2017. Additionally, Hyland said CPD increased uniformed patrols in the area and stepped up enforcement among other police units, though he wouldn't discuss details, preferring to keep tactics in-house. While Hyland credits a range of factors, the bottom line is that there hasn't been a murder at Wedgewood since Nichols' body was discovered in August.

“We recognize law enforcement alone is not going to be successful in changing the tide on a lot of the problems,” Hyland said. “So we've also started to reach out to non-law-enforcement partners, whether it's within city government or quasi-judicial groups like the [Greater] Hilltop Area Commission, or nonprofits such as Friends of the Hilltop and My Project USA. … I'm most impressed with Zerqa [Abid of My Project USA] and some of the youth leaders who live in Wedgewood. Zerqa has really managed to rally people.”

Abid, seated in the West Side office of My Deah's thrift shop on Sullivant Avenue, which also serves as My Project USA's headquarters, possesses a warm smile and a soft-spoken manner that mask a bulldog tenacity. (Hyland said Abid “might have rubbed some people the wrong way with her persistence” in pushing Wedgewood-related issues in political circles, though he admires this quality, believing the neighborhood needs strong, dedicated advocates.)

Wedgewood Village first entered onto Abid's radar in the summer of 2015 when My Project USA, a nonprofit charitable organization launched in March of that year, passed out free meals for families living at low-income Hilltop residences River Pointe Apartments and Wedgewood Village.

“The poverty level I saw [at Wedgewood], I never thought there would be so many people without shoes and without shirts,” said Abid, who sat and cried in the parking lot of her mosque the first time she left the property. “One time, there was a mom who had a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and she was trying to put a lady's jacket on him. I said, ‘This is for the sisters. I will find you something for the boy and bring it for you.' But she wouldn't let it go: ‘No. He doesn't have anything for winter. He will wear it.'”

In the years since, Abid has dedicated her time and resources to the community, often arriving at the management offices direct from work and remaining until 9 p.m. In collaboration with Wedgewood Middle School, the Boy Scouts of America and Eakin Elementary, among other organizations, My Project USA helps run summer and after-school programs that serve upward of 120 kids a week. (The charity is sharing a $25,000 Columbus city grant with the Girl and Boy Scouts to fund youth activities at the complex, including starting troops.)

My Project USA also runs a food pantry out of My Deah's, which distributes groceries to more than 100 families a week, 65 to 70 percent of whom live in Wedgewood Village, Abid estimated. The nonprofit also sponsors a youth soccer team that plays at Easton Soccer Fields, which it hopes to expand to three teams this season, pending financing.

In addition, Abid has coordinated public spruce-up days at the complex, during which volunteers, including off-duty CPD officers, joined with residents and went building by building to clean up the property, hoping to bolster community pride.

“On our side, we are trying to build a culture. We have building leaders who are committing that they will keep their buildings not only clean, but also drug-free, and there are children and moms who are fearlessly joining in,” Abid said. “We understand there are challenges. Let's not talk about challenges. Let's talk about what you can do while you are living here.”

Residents torn about Wedgewood's future

Few understand this concept as well as 18-year-old Samira Mohamud, who has lived at Wedgewood Village for seven years, sharing a three-bedroom, single-bathroom apartment with nine family members.

“A lot of [fellow residents] say, ‘We're in Wedgewood, we're not meant to go anywhere else,'” Mohamud said. “It's sad that they think like that. The rest of us who think there's a bigger world out there, it's up to us to uplift our community.”

Beginning in 2016, Mohamud, a senior at Briggs High School with plans to attend Columbus State Community College next year, launched the Reading Warriors program within Wedgewood Village, providing quiet after-school reading space for around 50 youths every week.

According to Mohamud, life within the complex is not as bad as has been depicted. She recalled nights when residents played soccer on fields hastily constructed in the open space between buildings, with games lasting until nearly midnight. At the same time, she said there is an awareness that the potential for violence is always present.

“On a normal day, I feel safe enough to walk to my friend's house. Then there are days like today, where I came from school with my book bag, and as I walk into the building I see grown men smoking weed, and I can't say nothing because I'm afraid,” she said. “It depends on the weather, too. If it's hot, the gang members stay outside, because the buildings get hot. But if it's cold, they'll be in the buildings, smoking inside, leaving their beer bottles [in the halls]. They'll pee on the ground, pee on the rug, and a lot worse things. Then it's up to us to clean it up.”

Tiffany Brinkley echoed these complaints, but not the optimism for the property, believing everyone might be better off if the city shuttered the complex.

“They need to tear this place down, throw a bulldozer through all these apartments and start over,” she said. “The foundation it's built on is negativity. It's built on a gravesite, that's how I feel. This place is built on a grave.”

But even Nichols, who signed the petition demanding the property be closed, admitted it was an emotional decision tied to her son's death, and she's uncertain if demolishing the buildings would solve a problem or merely “spread it out and make things worse.”

“We've heard so much pride from the members of the school and the young people that they have a real sense of community here, but they have the health and safety concerns that no neighborhood, particularly young people, should want,” Stinziano said. “Even when I talk to the young people, I say that is one option, that it's such a nuisance that it's best we [close the complex] and move on. But I don't think that's the direction we're heading.”

Rather, Stinziano and others of his ilk, such as Democratic state representative Adam Miller, whose district includes the Hilltop, would like to see more civic and political investment in the area.

“Wedgewood matters to Columbus for the same reason Linden matters, and Clintonville matters, because we are looking to create the type of city where people can relocate anywhere and have opportunity,” said Miller, who would like to see the Greater Hilltop Area Commission expand to take on representatives who live in Wedgewood (Greater Hilltop chairman Jay McCallister declined to be interviewed). Miller said he would also like to see increased law-enforcement attention on drug trafficking in the area, with efforts synchronized between local police, the National Guard Counterdrug Program, and the U.S. Department of Justice Organized Crime and Gang Section.

“It's not lost on me that people [in Wedgewood] are having a much different Columbus experience than people who live even just a mile away,” Stinziano said. “I've always struggled, because even at the Statehouse you can go 10 minutes to different points [of the city] and just the disparity, it's alarming.”

While politicians hold meetings, form committees and launch task forces — a predictably deliberate bureaucratic process that has, at times, irked the likes of Abid (“Seven homicides later they are still thinking about … how they should write the proposal, and I think that's a really big shame,” she said) — a deeper reality has settled in that for a turnaround to truly take root, it's going to require the full efforts of those who live within Wedgewood Village.

“That has to be the underlying theme here,” Hyland said. “Everyone I've been in a meeting with has said, ultimately, for things to change for the better, it's going to take real, grassroots movement from the people who live there.”

Plus, Abid added, a genuine sense of urgency.

“Come join us,” she said, “and don't waste time.”