Residents of Chester’s Eureka Mill area seek police help

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comOctober 19, 2013 

— When Bertha Odum first moved to Chester’s Eureka Mill in 1981, she and her son knew and trusted their neighbors.

Over time, her neighborhood has changed. Her home has been broken into three times within the last 10 years and recently her pistol and jewelry were stolen while she was outside cutting the grass.

The neighborhood just outside the city limits has blighted houses.

Drug dealers sell in the middle of the day and neighbors are afraid to sit on their porches.

“It’s almost unlivable over there,” said the 72-year-old Odum.

Request for help

Deputies have received more than 800 calls from the Eureka Mill community between January 2009 and Oct. 11 of this year, with the most calls coming from 2nd, 3rd and 4th streets, according to statistics from the Chester County Sheriff’s Office. Incidents have ranged from assaults, trespassing, larcenies, drug violations, vandalism and burglary.

After Sheriff Alex Underwood took office , deputies were swamped with complaints from Eureka residents who wanted police to combat surging gang and drug activity, fights, vandalism and break-ins, said Chester County Sheriff’s Capt. DuJuan Council.

Last month deputies announced “Operation Take Back,” an effort to get residents to take pride in their neighborhood again while also putting pressure on criminals.

The police are going after those who loiter for drugs and cause daily trouble. There are more deputies in cars patrolling the area while plain-clothes officers walk the streets, Sheriff Underwood said.

“All situations are not what they look like,” Council said. Several people huddled together on a sidewalk “might be a family gathering…it doesn’t mean they’re selling drugs. But, those who are selling drugs… they will face the consequences.”

“We’re getting into that community-style policing, where you get to know your people and the people get to know you,” he said. “We want (residents) to feel safe in their homes. Right now, they don’t feel too safe. We know times have changed but values and morals shouldn’t.”

‘An interesting life’

As a little girl, Dot Duncan woke up each morning knowing she would end her day in the Eureka Mill village.

Buttressed by a cemetery and sitting at the base of a hill, the village, she said, was vibrant and “active” with children playing in the streets.

. Cotton mill workers – called “lint heads” because their hair was filled with lint after a long day’s work – walked to their low-lying homes where they took pride in their well-kept houses.

Duncan walked into neighbors’ houses unafraid and “rode the wheels off my bicycle” to and from the village. Her father owned Duncan’s Café, a gutted streetcar converted into a restaurant on Apartment Street, now 1st Street.

At night bootleggers sold liquor they imported from Columbia, Duncan said.

“It was an interesting life,” she said. “I knew everybody who lived on every street. I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else.”

The Catawba Manufacturing Co. opened the Eureka plant in 1892. After several mergers and buyouts, Springs Industries, the textile conglomerate that owned several mills across Chester, Lancaster and York counties, acquired the plant in 1913. In 2001, Springs announced its plans to cease Eureka’s operations. The last employees left the plant in 2002.

In 2006, Springs Industries moved its operations overseas. More than 700 people were laid off in Chester County that year alone. Between 2006 and 2009, more than 3,000 jobs were lost. Before that, two other mills closed in the county, resulting in more than 250 layoffs.

For workers whose lives depended on manufacturing jobs that paid high wages, life changed a lot.

“All of a sudden, they have to learn what they can do without,” said Karlissa Parker, Chester County’s director of economic development. “Not only have they lost their jobs...they’re losing their second car, their plans, their dreams, and maybe even lose their home they’ve been in for 20 years.”

New jobs were hard to come by. The skills mill workers learned “are not what was being sought by other manufacturers,” she said.

Without mill jobs, many people left the village, Duncan said. Many of the people who stayed have since died. Landlords bought the vacant homes and rented them to people looking for a cheap place to live.

Those homes attracted people involved in drugs and other crimes, Sheriff Underwood said.

Landlords “don’t live there,” he said. “They just want that check at the first of the month.”

Data from a U.S. Census Bureau community survey shows that 97 of the area’s 676 housing units were vacant. Average rental costs range from $200 to $400 per month.

About 1,400 people live in Eureka Mill, according to U.S. Census data. Of the 905 residents in the labor force, about 88 were unemployed. More than 26 percent of the area’s families live below the poverty level, above the state’s 17 percent average.

“If you’re isolated and all you see is poor people and all you see is struggling and the only people who are successful are breaking the law...what do you perceive as reality?” said Brad Tripp, a sociology professor and criminal behavioral expert at Winthrop University. “Most poor people aren’t criminals, but most criminals are poor.”

‘Police state’

Odom is anxious to see if more police will change her neighborhood. She has been trying for 10 years to get “somebody to do something.” Whatever the outcome, she has no plans to leave Eureka Mill.

Underwood said he doesn’t know why neighbors’ demands went unaddressed for so long. He said he will “not stand” for residents living in fear.

“They should be able to sit on their porches and relax,” he said. “They should not have to live like this.”

The pressure is on for lawbreakers, but some experts say more aggressive patrols and stops can have drawbacks if they are not tempered with community policing.

“You can do more intensive patrolling, where there are more officers in the field. They do more stop-and-frisk,” said Tripp of Winthrop. But “a community may perceive that as being biased; may see it as classist and racist,” Tripp said.

Aggressive policing, he said, can result in more complaints against officers, and more taxpayer money spent fighting lawsuits.

“Will it probably reduce crime if more police are out there and they’re being aggressive? Yes,” Tripp said. “But, what does that mean for long-term residents’ perception of police. You’re not going to sustain long-term benefit unless there’s a good relationship with the community,” Tripp said.

“It’s tough for residents and it’s tough for law enforcement,” said Dr. Adolphus Belk, a Winthrop University political science professor.

Residents want security and peace of mind so they can go outside and enjoy their communities.

Still, they “don’t want to live in a police state and they certainly don’t want to be subject to profiling,” Belk said. “The best thing that can happen is when the law enforcement officers have a relationship with the residents where the residents feel comfortable talking to people.”

Deputies agree.

“You’ve got to be able to trust the guy with the badge and gun because you depend on him to save your life, protect your life, protect your property,” Council said. “It saddens me to know that people fear law enforcement. Those crooks…those criminals should fear law enforcement.”

Chalmers Gaston, 49, who has lived in Eureka Mill all his life, said he hopes more deputies near his home means less thefts and drugs.

Odom wants her neighborhood clean again.

“It’s not going to be that way,” she said. “I appreciate what they (deputies) are doing, but no matter how hard it works, if people don’t cooperate with them, it’s not going to get like that.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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