"Tell me your gut feeling," Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick asked Hillcrest resident Lynnette Maybin on May 5.
The mayor wanted to know whether the Hillcrest pedestrian bridge over Interstate-240 should be reopened or left closed. In February, late one evening, a young man was killed trying to cross the interstate. But four years ago, Hillcrest residents urged the city to close that bridge, to stem the tide of drug dealing in their community.
Maybin paused a moment. Nearby, traffic on I-240 roared by. Two children played by the gated walkway, one idly jumping rope, as they watched the crowd of Asheville City Council members, city staff, police and media who had come to Hillcrest that day.
Maybin, president of the residents' group at Hillcrest, remembers how things were before the bridge was closed: Drug dealers and gamblers gathered near the walkway and in nearby vacant apartments at night; children found discarded syringes and condoms littering the area during the day; residents discovered apartments vandalized, with feces smeared on the walls; drug dealers paid little kids a couple bucks to carry drugs up the hill to waiting cars.
"You could reassure people here all you want to about reopening this bridge," Maybin said. "But when people are afraid, they're afraid."
She told Sitnick that a recent residents' survey about the bridge was pretty inconclusive: 100 voted to open it, 79 voted to keep the steel bars sealed across the entrance.
That disagreement was apparent in the comments Council members heard from the residents and others who had attended a community meeting at Hillcrest a few minutes later.
"My son would like to use that bridge," said Hillcrest resident Jesse Robles. She suggested a test opening, say for six months, and she asked Council to consider monitoring the results.
The Rev. Charles Pickens, another resident, also asked that it be reopened. "That bridge was put there for safety. ... It needs to be open." He argued that many Hillcrest residents don't have cars and need a safe way across I-240 to get to downtown.
A former resident and security guard suggested building a guard house at the walkway, so it could be monitored 24 hours a day.
"The whole story's not being told," Maybin countered. Before the bridge was closed, residents already chose to dash across I-240, she pointed out. Keeping it closed might be inconvenient for adults, "but who's going to protect the children?" she asked.
"You tell 'em," said Johnnie Hayes, director of the Hillcrest Enrichment Program, which offers educational opportunities, after-school programs and other activities for children in the community. Hayes fidgeted in his seat as people got up to offer their comments, but he kept telling Council member Tommy Sellers, who sat beside him, that he wasn't going to speak.
Maybin continued, arguing that reopening the bridge could bring back the drug-trafficking and gambling problems that Hillcrest had before. She suggested that children could contract hepatitis or HIV from discarded drug paraphernalia. The rather secluded walkway would not be safe for children or women to cross alone, she said.
Maybin suggested fixing the torn fences that allow pedestrians access to I-240, installing surveillance cameras, and continuing efforts to improve Hillcrest.
"We can handle all that," she insisted. "But I don't want to handle a lot of drugs back in our neighborhood. ...We want our children to be proud of their community."
Resident Cornelia Battle agreed. She noted the two unsupervised children who had been hanging around the walkway earlier that day. If the bridge were reopened, she argued, "little children [like them] could cross [the bridge] and be gone." She pleaded with Council to keep the gate closed, and she urged parents to watch over their kids.
So did former Hillcrest resident Althea Goode, who also wanted the gate to stay closed. "Adults have to take responsibility for themselves," she argued. She suggested that opening the bridge wouldn't stop people from short-cutting across I-240. Besides, she said, "We've got social problems [here] that opening the bridge won't solve."
But Joe Tarrent, who said he has relatives living in Hillcrest, urged Council to reopen the walkway. "Why do we have to go out of our way when [it's] closed?" He argued that Hillcrest residents have places to go -- the grocery store, downtown festivals like Goombay, the hairdresser. He suggested erecting fences and walls to prevent pedestrians from running across I-240.
"What's the bridge got to do with it?" asked Hillcrest resident Juralenette Blair. People still climb over the fences to take the shortcut -- just like they did before the walkway was sealed shut, she pointed out. "It's better over here [now], since the drugs aren't in here like they used to be."
Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino agreed, saying that residents and police have been able to cut down on drug-trafficking and other illegal activities with only one entrance into Hillcrest open. However, he noted that "opening or closing the bridge is not going to solve the drug problem, one way or the other."
Annarino pledged the Police Department's support of the residents' wishes, whatever they decide. If the bridge is reopened, he said, "We'll roll up our sleeves and come up with other ways to deal [with] the drugs."
AIDS activist Kevin Nuttall remarked, "Anything that increases the risk of HIV or hepatitis infection bears study." He sympathized with residents' fears that reopening the bridge would bring back the needles, syringes and other trash that could transmit infections.
Council member Earl Cobb interjected that he thought residents were having to choose between "two evils." He expressed a wish for a closer study of the ramifications of opening the bridge.
"I don't think there's one answer to this," Sitnick said. She mentioned that coming street changes -- the widening of I-240, the opening of I-26 north of Asheville, and the construction of a connector between the two -- would also affect Hillcrest. Sitnick suggested that the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining the walkway, be an integral part of any decision.
Hayes and Edgerton speak up
After keeping quiet for most of the meeting, the fidgeting Hayes couldn't hold back any longer. He stood, a tall and colorful figure decked in bright yellow African attire. "I was going to keep my big mouth closed," he began, warming up like a preacher on Sunday. He told Council members and residents that he's been at Hillcrest -- either as a resident or as a program leader -- for more than 20 years. He has disagreed with residents before, and they have disagreed with him. "But we always agreed," he said, that "the children are our future."
Hayes recalled the days when "everybody hung out where the money was" -- gamblers shaking the dice over here, drug dealers paying kids to deliver over there, and prostitutes strutting through the streets of Hillcrest. "Our children don't need to be exposed to [all that]!" he insisted. "Children will emulate adults.
"We oughta be real honest. A lot of us were not doing what we ought to do then," Hayes said. He admitted that, when the bridge was open, he was one of the people who still chose to save on cab or bus fares by dashing across I-240 to get into town. Meanwhile, he said, drug dealers took the seldom-used walkway as an escape route from police.
Hayes argued that reopening the walkway could bring all the bad things back to Hillcrest. He insisted that residents would have to volunteer to patrol the bridge and keep it clean -- that, otherwise, their children could end up copying the gamblers, drug dealers and prostitutes.
"Are you willing to make that sacrifice?" Hayes demanded of the crowd. He asked for a show of hands -- how many people could take the time to monitor the walkway, he demanded, because the police can't do it 24 hours a day.
A few raised their hands, hesitantly.
"This is a new day," Hayes announced. "If we're going to open that walkway, you've got to take some responsibility -- you, the people of Hillcrest, not the Housing Authority or DOT or City Council."
People applauded as he finished with a plea to consider the children.
When Hayes sat back down, Sellers leaned toward him and teased, "And I thought you weren't going to say anything."
Hayes' call to arms got H.K. Edgerton fired up as well. The president of the NAACP's local chapter got right to his point: "I abhor every Housing Authority [facility] in this city. ... They're prison camps for the people."
Edgerton said he deplores Hillcrest's one-way-in, one-way-out set-up and its isolation from the rest of the city. He trounced the Housing Authority's descriptions of Hillcrest as a fine place to live, saying, "I have a word for that: a plantation."
He told Council members that the bridge is really a social issue: Residents of Hillcrest need economic opportunities and chances for real "upward mobility. ... Mayor Sitnick, we should bulldoze this place. ... I know that sounds radical, [but] if this is truly an All American City ... it's time to quit putting band-aids on a jugular [wound]."
"I couldn't agree more," Sitnick responded.
Edgerton departed for another meeting, so he didn't hear the response to his firebrand speech.
"We don't need to tear [Hillcrest] down," Maybin retorted. She turned to her neighbors, saying, "All of you can afford to buy a house? No? I can't, either. [So] we need to work together to make [Hillcrest] better. ... We need to be responsible."
All residents need to help care for the children, as well as the elderly living in Hillcrest, Maybin went on. "Think about what we need to do to make Hillcrest safe for [them]. Open the gate, or close it -- how many of you have time to watch it? You have got to make it safe."
"I don't think we're economically deprived or anything," Battle said. "There are all kind of opportunities out there in the wide world. You have to get up and do it yourself to get out [of here]."
Shortly after that, the meeting wound to a close. Council members took no formal action, asking only that staff compile a list of options, such as keeping the walkway open during daylight hours only.
Council member Barbara Field strolled outside, where one resident's flowers were blooming. Children rode their bicycles. A few idle adult men eyed the departing crowd.
"I'm undecided," Field told reporters. She remarked that making up her mind might require the wisdom of Solomon, and that she hoped residents could come up with their own solution. "I don't want to split the baby in half," she said.