Wiping the slate clean
On a cool spring morning, the sun shone vibrantly on one wall of a Harriett Street mini-mart overrun with tags from local gangs.
Black lettering on the right spelled Bottom Squad, replacing the letter “s” with a numeral five. Next to that, SUR was written and crossed out. Norte was tagged below it with the number 14.
The various insignia came from the Bottom Squad, the Surenos and the Nortenos — gangs in Henderson that mark their territories by scrawling symbols on anything that doesn’t move.
Yolanda Alston stood outside the convenience store with a handful of others preparing to put a fresh coat of paint over the ugly symbols that have become a fixture in the Flint Hill community.
Alston and the others were taking part in Project Clean Slate, an effort by the Vance County Sheriff’s Office to clean up some of the tags in Henderson.
In less than an hour, the gang graffiti was whitewashed with a couple cans of paint.
“There is nothing wrong with being in a gang as long as it’s the right type of gang,” Alston said. “A group of people getting together is a gang — a gang of church people, a gang of painters. But the gang has got to be doing something positive within the community.”
Most, if not all, of the participants admitted their lives have been touched by gangs — whether it was a daughter, brother, cousin or friend who got involved.
Alston moved back to Flint Hill after deciding to leave the area a few years ago.
At that time, her daughters attended Zeb Vance Elementary School.
The violence had escalated in Flint Hill to the point that she had trouble leaving her house.
“We couldn’t leave to pick up our kids from school because they were having a shoot-out on our front lawn,” she said.
She said she still hears gunshots, but not as many seem to result in the loss of life.
During May, there were at least six reports of shots being fired in the Flint Hill area — specifically Hillside Alley, Rockspring Street, Champion Street, Hilliard Street and Arch Street.
But for some longtime residents, like Kenneth Gooch, the neighborhood doesn’t need to change.
“I walk through this neighborhood every day, and I see the most beautiful community in Henderson right here," said 65-year-old Gooch. “This is the only community in Henderson where the streets are full of people all the time. Every other community, you see nice houses with nice manicured lawns, but you don’t ever see people out and socializing with each other. That is what makes this community different and special.”
Gooch knows the drug trade is rampant in Flint Hill. But he also knows that some dealers are supporting families by selling drugs on the street.
“Drugs are the basic economy here,” he said. “There are a lot of children fed because their daddies are slinging drugs. It’s unfortunate that there is so much violence connected with the drug trade, but I would attribute at least 90 percent of that coming from out-of-town gangs coming to sell their products.”
Mattie Owens, who grew up in Henderson, said the city has changed since when she was young.
“When we were growing up, it was more like a community,” she said. “Everybody is about themselves now. People don’t take care of others like they used to and that really makes a difference, especially with the younger kids.”
She said the project through the sheriff’s office to remove gang graffiti is a good start.
“But actually, it’s going to take more than a couple people,” she said. “The only way I see it changing is if everybody pulls together. If everybody pulls together, anything is possible.”
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