Weinland Park Rebuilds After Decades of Gang Violence
When she was a little girl, every school day Joyce Hughes would walk four blocks west from her childhood home, through a nearby playground and across North Fourth Street to Weinland Park Elementary School, where she was a member of its first graduating class. Like much of the rest of country in the 1950s, Columbus was segregated, and North Fourth Street was the informal divide that split the Near North Side neighborhood-white people on the west side, black people on the east. When the 3 o'clock bell rang, you walked back the direction from which you came. That's just the way it was back then, she says. Despite these unwritten rules, it was still a nice place to grow up-a quiet neighborhood that was virtually free of crime and drugs.
Hughes still lives in the house her parents bought in 1947, when she was just 6 months old. Though its siding is painted pale yellow now rather than forest green, and some of the original plaster walls were replaced with drywall after a devastating fire several years ago, the 3-bedroom house built in 1900 holds decades of memories for Hughes; she has moved around some in her 68 years but never really left Weinland Park, a neighborhood of about 4,400 people just east of Ohio State's campus and one mile north of Downtown.
Sitting at her dining table, she shifts her gaze to the modest living room, pointing out the place where she, her younger sister and two younger brothers used to spend summer nights as children and teenagers. They didn't have air conditioning, and even fans were a luxury, so they'd sprawl out on mattresses on the first floor, front door thrown wide open, sleeping where they might at least catch a cool breeze. Annual block parties would shut down their street, North Sixth Avenue, as well as most others in the roughly 30-block neighborhood, while adults congregated and children roamed rambunctiously, enjoying the company of family, friends and neighbors. Everybody knew everybody, Hughes says. If a boy got into trouble down the street, his parents knew the story before he even got home, where they'd be waiting on the front porch. If a family went on vacation, their neighbors would voluntarily watch the house. It was second nature.
"That don't happen now," Hughes says, shaking her head. When did things change? She sips sweetened coffee from a porcelain cup resting on a matching saucer before she answers.
"That changed when the people who owned all those houses up there," she says, pointing north up her street toward the heart of Weinland Park, "got better jobs in the factories. And when they got better jobs, they got to move to the suburban areas."
Homeowners sold their houses in the 1960s and 1970s to people who would become absentee landlords, renting properties in desperate disrepair to anyone who would pay first month's rent. These, as well as blocks of brick rowhouses-privately managed low-income rentals that were for years woefully neglected-were ideal locations to use and deal the game changer that hit the city in the 1980s: cocaine.
"And there began the plummeting of the neighborhood," Hughes says matter-of-factly.
The emergence of the highly addictive drug and its more common and cheaper form, crack, sparked a profitable illegal drug trade in Weinland Park. To protect their territory from rival drug dealers, two childhood friends formed a gang that would eventually become the largest and most violent Columbus has ever seen. They called it the Short North Posse.
For 25 years, the Short North Posse has been a cancer in Weinland Park, terrorizing the neighborhood, further destroying an already deteriorating housing stock, corrupting children with drugs and violence and menacing police. Despite sporadic takedowns over the years that temporarily silenced the gang-including a major federal sweep of 46 members in the mid-'90s that seemed to be the gang's fatal blow-the Short North Posse has yet to be entirely expelled. Two recent busts following a yearlong investigation by the Columbus Division of Police and federal agencies could change that, putting dozens of members in jail and possibly leading some to Death Row.
While police attempt to eradicate the gang for good, residents and local organizations are working to repair the damage that's been done to the community and its reputation. Although gang members reside and do business all over Columbus, the legacy of the Short North Posse is deeply rooted in Weinland Park, stamping on the neighborhood an unshakable stigma. An influx of public and private investment in development has visibly improved the neighborhood, crime rates are decreasing and residents are becoming engaged. But if the gang never fully disappears, can the community ever truly move on?
Derrick Russell is neatly dressed in a short-sleeved burgundy shirt and pressed khakis. Though he's not a tall man, he has a commanding presence-muscular shoulders and arms, shaved head, baritone voice. But his wide, bright smile and deep laugh soften him. He's instantly likable, and it's not surprising to learn he is a motivational speaker. His thick forefinger calls up a link on the Amazon smartphone app, where his book, "Listen Good Youth," is available for sale. Russell, 45, wrote it while he was locked up in federal prison on a drug-trafficking conviction. Before he became a federal fugitive in 1995 and was captured in Kentucky in 1996, Russell was the leader of the Short North Posse.
Russell was just 15 when he first joined a gang. Born and raised in Columbus, he lived in Windsor Terrace, a former public housing complex east of Weinland Park. He was a standout football player at Whetstone High School, but he had a learning disability, and his grades were poor. It was 1984, and crack cocaine was making its way into Columbus, sparking a drug trade that earned its salesmen far more than minimum wage. He was young, struggling in school and one of six kids in a broken home. Falling into it was easy.
"When you're growing up with a bunch of neighborhood kids that you're already sticking together with, you fall into that lifestyle," Russell says. "Then when you're seeing people counting thousands of dollars, driving new cars … it was fascinating."
With a few friends, he formed the Windsor Terrace Posse, which would become another one of the city's violent gangs, and began selling crack. Then they began recruiting members. Violence was inevitable.
"Whenever you have illegal drugs, of course you're going to have violence," says Russell, who was 18 the first time he was shot. He's been shot five times since then and can still feel one bullet lodged near his spine.
A drug charge put him in prison for a year and when he was released, in 1990, he didn't move back to Windsor Terrace. He wanted out. Instead, he moved to Weinland Park-considered part of the Short North by most people at the time-and into his own place on East Sixth Avenue. He needed money and before long was back in the game. Soon, he was leading the Short North Posse.
"When I moved out there, the [gang] name was there, but they didn't have no structure, no guidance, nothing like that," Russell says. "I ain't trying to boast or brag, but I started the process of shaping and molding it. I started initiating members."
As the drug trade grew, so did the gang. It served as protection-both from outside dealers and from thieves.
"There was a lot of money being made," he says. During a court hearing in 1997, Russell testified he was at one point profiting more than $1 million a year in drug sales.
In 1995, a sweeping federal investigation resulted in more than 200 charges, including drug dealing, weapons violations and money laundering, on 46 gang members, resulting in maximum prison sentences for some. Russell eluded police for 14 months before being captured and was eventually sentenced to 27 years in prison.
While he and 43 other members were locked up, the next generation of Posse members took over the ranks. Among them were Russell's nephews, twins Kenneth and Kevin, who started selling drugs when they were just 13. In 2000, Kevin was shot and killed at the age of 18. Two years later, Kenneth was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The kids-sons and daughters, nieces and nephews of gang members-are watching, learning and waiting to fill the shoes of their predecessors when the time comes.
"It starts with what they see, what they hear," Russell says. "I was in the gang before I knew I was in the gang. Because I saw what I did at a young age-cut-throating, robbing, stealing, back-biting, slandering, violent crimes-I'm thinking this is normal. There ain't nothing to it. Because I saw it growing up, and it becomes a part of our lifestyle."
Graffiti is a sign that a gang is resurfacing. When it starts popping up on abandoned houses and the sides of buildings, that's an indication gang activity is increasing or its dynamic is changing, says one undercover detective in the criminal intelligence unit in the Columbus Division of Police.
"Around the late '90s, we started seeing the gang graffiti popping back up," says the detective, who requested anonymity. "This time, it said New Short North Posse. Then we started seeing the younger guys fill in those roles."
In 2006, more than a decade after the original gang was dismantled, 10 members of the resurgent gang were charged with crimes including conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine and gun offenses. In 2010, an 18-month investigation led to the arrest of 19 Short North Posse members and associates.
Though these investigations were successful in pulling gang members off the street, they did little to unhinge the operation.
But a recent investigation has dealt the Short North Posse its hardest blow since 1995. In December 2013, Columbus police announced the first round of indictments following a yearlong investigation of the Short North Posse. A federal grand jury charged 21 gang members with crimes including conspiracy to distribute drugs, illegal weapon possession, money laundering and racketeering. As of September, more than a dozen of the accused had been tried and sentenced. This summer, police exposed a murder ring that operated under the name Homicide Squad. Once known as the Cut Throat Committee, this was a group of Short North Posse members who specialized in murdering witnesses and intimidating informants. In July, 17 Homicide Squad members were charged on 25 counts, including 11 murder charges. Some could face the death penalty.
"The more gang members you can get picked up at one time on more serious charges, the bigger impact it's going to have on the gang," the Columbus detective says. Still, there's no guarantee this purge will squelch the gang for good.
"I don't know if in 1995 they thought that was it for the Short North Posse," the detective continues. "There's always those guys who are ready to step in. With this [recent bust] it's pretty big and it's pretty sweeping, but the difference comes in seeing the neighborhood change."
During the recent string of investigations, the detective asked one particular gang member why. Why this lifestyle? He answered: "What do you expect me to do?"
The gang is his family. He was born into this situation. He's constantly exposed to it.
"He wasn't a particularly violent person or even a core gang member but just somebody we constantly run into with the gang," the detective says. "You ask him, and he's like, 'This is my life.'"
Lying in his prison cell one night four years into his sentence, Russell says he had a vision from God.
"He said, 'When you come home, one of three things is going to happen to you. You're either going to die quick, you're going to come back and do the rest of your life in prison or you're going to be successful.'"
He chose success and spent the remainder of his time in prison learning to read and write, developing communication skills and building his character. ("I had a high school diploma, but there was no education attached to it," he says.) He focused on finding a way to reach out to kids at risk of being swept up in gangs and to prevent them from making the same mistakes he did.
"I made a pledge with God and vowed to do all that I can do to help others go a different route [than the one I chose]," he says. It might have been too late to save his nephews, but there was still hope for other children.
After he was released in 2007, having served nearly 12 years of his sentence, he founded Listen Good Youth, a nonprofit mentoring program aimed at gang and drug awareness. He organizes youth football programs in impoverished neighborhoods and delivers speeches at schools. He also mentors kids-some through the Ohio Department of Youth Services, some in juvenile detention centers and even some who are on the streets involved in gang activity.
Though Russell never used drugs, he was an alcoholic. He's been sober for 17 years. "When you're coming from this lifestyle, you've got to be consistent," he says. "You have to walk the talk.
"If we aren't being taught social skills, proper manners, how to act in society," he continues, "and if we're in a lifestyle where we just listen to gangster rap, get hooked up on what we see on TV, and if we see drugs, if we see guns, then this is what we are teaching our children."
Weinland Park is home to one of the city's oldest social services organizations, the Godman Guild, which is dedicated to promoting strong communities and families and is especially focused on steering children in the right direction. The Godman Guild was founded as a settlement house in 1898 and is still the largest among the six that have been founded in Columbus since. The organization serves 4,000 to 5,000 families a year, with services including adult education, career exploration, after-school and summer programs and babysitting services.
"It only takes this much time for them to move from being a little kid to being in a gang," says president and CEO Ellen Moss Williams, snapping her finger. "So when we have activities here they can come to, participate in, feel included in-something which is really important to them-that helps to either delay or stop them from getting involved in activities that aren't healthy for them or the community."
Williams remembers the reaction of some friends and family members when she accepted a job at the Godman Guild in 1994. The organization is housed in a former school building just blocks away from North Fourth Street and East Eight Avenue, the home base of the Short North Posse and, at one point, the most dangerous street corner in Columbus.
"There were folks who were concerned about my safety coming into work in this neighborhood," she says. "The Short North Posse was really very active then. It was one of the most dangerous places to live back in the '90s."
But the Guild was a neighborhood organization, and many of the people who came for its services were family members of those involved with the Short North Posse. It was a safety zone-the building was never robbed and the staff was never bothered. They never felt the violence at their core until tragedy struck one of their own. A young woman who was taking GED classes at the Godman Guild was on her porch in Weinland Park one evening, holding her 6-month-old child. There was a drive-by shooting, and her baby was shot and killed in her arms.
"That just brought things home for everybody everywhere, but especially here at the Guild because we knew her very closely," Williams says.
That happened right before the introduction of Weed & Seed, a federal anti-gang program developed by the Department of Justice. In 1996, Attorney General Janet Reno spoke at Weinland Park Elementary School, promoting the program and announcing its kickoff in Weinland Park. The theory was to weed out the gangs and use federal grants to seed the community with youth and family services and programs promoting drug and violence awareness. A year prior, Columbus had done the weeding with the federal indictment of nearly 50 gang members. Now it was time for the seeding.
"They weren't as successful in the seeding," Williams says. In fact, the program went defunct in 1998. "We weren't organized enough at the time as a community to really take advantage of that then. Seeding is doing all the things that we're doing right now."
She's referring to the Weinland Park Collaborative, a partnership of residents and nearly 30 organizations-including the city, The Columbus Foundation, JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Habitat for Humanity of Central Ohio and Ohio State University-founded in 2010 with a mission of engaging the community and raising money for development and neighborhood improvement in Weinland Park. As of last year, more than $50 million, a mix of private and public money, had been invested in Weinland Park thanks to the collaborative.
On the corner of North Fourth Street and East 11th Avenue, there's an empty brick building with boards instead of windows and doors sitting in a weed-ridden parking lot. It's caged by a metal construction fence, keeping pedestrians at bay. Until it was closed two months ago, Kelly's Carry-Out was the unofficial headquarters of the Short North Posse and had been since the 1990s, according to court testimony. Another gang hotspot was nearby D&J Carryout at the corner of North Fourth Street and East Eighth Avenue, now also abandoned. At all hours of the day, these two convenience stores would be overrun with loiterers, gang members doing business or simply idling. They were the sites of countless drug transactions, robberies and even murders.
Campus Partners, Ohio State's urban development agency, bought the two blighted properties in June and immediately shuttered them. They were intended as corner stores for local residents, convenient places to pick up groceries or other items, but that's not what they had become.
"I can tell you for a fact that apples and oranges and bananas were not being sold at the corner of Fourth and Eighth," says Hughes, who recently concluded a 6-year term as president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association. "I can tell you they were selling single cigarettes. I can tell you they were selling drug paraphernalia."
Campus Partners has not yet announced what will be done with the former Kelly's Carry-Out site, but they've already sold the plot at North Fourth Street and East Eighth Avenue to Community Properties of Ohio (CPO), an affordable-housing property management company.
"We're going to host a couple of meetings to get feedback from the community about what they'd like to see there," says CPO president Isabel Toth.
CPO has had a strong presence in the neighborhood since 2004, when they acquired 462 rental units from Broad Street Management, which had neglected its properties and tenants for years.
"They were rat-infested, roach-infested," Toth says. "They had become the housing of last resort." Some were beyond repair and demolished, like one 16-unit building at the corner of Hamlet Street and East Eighth Avenue. For years, this was a known hangout of the Short North Posse. Urban legend says gunmen guarded the entrance and exit. "That building had more police runs than anywhere else in the city," Toth says. "The first thing we did was have the mayor come out and tear that building down with a wrecking ball."
On the remaining units, CPO invested $30 million in renovations and began enforcing their rules for tenants-rent must be paid on time, illegal activity is forbidden and residents are responsible for their guests. Those with a felony conviction don't qualify for government-subsidized housing, so the people listed on most of the leases when CPO took over were single women.
"The knuckleheads (Toth's term for gang members) would prey on our women," she says. "They'd force their way in and set up shop in these units because the previous management company wasn't [enforcing the rules]."
On the first day they took over, CPO sent eviction notices to more than half their tenants for breaking lease terms.
"It's not about making anybody homeless. It's about making people accountable," Toth says. "So the women started telling the knuckleheads, 'You can't do that here in my unit, or I'm going to lose my house.'"
CPO also runs a crime-prevention program, Eliminate the Elements, on its properties. The program employs off-duty but uniformed Columbus city police officers who can monitor crime and make arrests. Officers also work closely with residents and use an anonymous tip line so residents can report problems without fear of retribution.
"There's been a dramatic increase in residents' level of comfort to report criminal activity," says Chad Ketler, CPO's chief operating officer. "In the beginning, residents were fearful. You couldn't get a neighbor to say 'There's a drug dealer on the corner,' or 'I think there's prostitution going on.' Today that's not the case. The majority of residents have no problem telling us what's going on."
In 2005, the program's inaugural year, CPO officers made 241 arrests; last year, they made 12.
"Eliminate the Elements has really been a force multiplier," says Sgt. Smith Weir, Eliminate the Elements' lead officer. "It allows us (the division of police) to concentrate on an area that we'd love to concentrate on more." Weinland Park shares a police precinct with the rest of the University District, an area of town that keeps officers very busy. "It's tough for officers assigned to that precinct to just focus on Weinland Park," he says. "The CPO program allows them to do that."
Weir says he's seen a shift in the nature of crime in Weinland Park. While property crime is still high and more cyclical-spiking at various times during the school year-violent crime is down.
Rory Krupp's street is certainly quieter now than it was when he bought a fixer-upper on Hamlet Street seven years ago. During the six months he spent renovating the property, he became keenly aware that his neighbor directly across the street was a big-time drug dealer.
"It was a thriving business," Krupp says. "He would just throw [drugs] out the window."
His street was so populated with potential buyers that he and a friend invented a drinking game to play while sitting on his front porch. They'd see someone walking down the street toward his neighbor's house, and they'd take turns guessing, "buy" or "no buy." Guess wrong, and you take a sip of your drink.
It was a silly game at first. But one day Krupp heard what sounded like two boards clapping together. He looked outside and saw his neighbor, the dealer, had been shot point-blank in the back of the head.
"We'd always read about it in the paper," he says. "But if you're not in the drug trade, you're not really involved in that. It's really two different neighborhoods in one. So you're not really involved in it, but at the same time, you have a front row seat to it." Things like that don't happen as much now, he says.
Krupp shared this story for the "Weinland Park Story Book," a compilation of hand-drawn illustrations depicting real-life stories as told by neighborhood residents. Jean Pitman, youth programs educator for the Wexner Center for the Arts, and a group of teens interviewed residents to gather stories, which were then drawn in graphic-novel style for the book. Some stories were drawn by students; others were illustrated by professional artists.
"We really wanted to celebrate the neighborhood voice and view and all the good things that are going on in Weinland Park," says Shelly Casto, education coordinator for the Wexner Center. "Some of the stories do reference more negative aspects of the neighborhood, but there's a lot of positives in there." Stories range from family history and tales of neighbors helping neighbors to how drugs changed the neighborhood.
Though most members of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association participated, Hughes didn't write a story. (She says the book was meant for her neighbors, not for her.) Still, the collection represents Hughes' favorite quality about her neighborhood: pride. Pride is something Weinland Park has lacked for a long time, she says, but it has been steadily growing.
"The properties now, you don't see as much garbage everywhere because my neighbors are picking up their stuff," she says. "They take it upon themselves to do things because, 'This is mine. This is where I am.'"
The Short North Posse has its fair share of references in the story book. The gang is a stigma Hughes acknowledges will be tough for Weinland Park to shake.
"The Short North Posse will always be associated with Weinland Park, even though the bulk of that activity is no longer here," she says. "All that we can do is continue to push to bring more positive things here, to put out information about what is truly going on in Weinland Park. We can't say, 'We're not that.' We have to show what we are."