Some Cherry Tree Crossing residents ready to leave

Sounds of gunfire are an automatic signal to get on the ground for Debbie Davis and her five grandchildren. For that reason, Davis is ready to move on from her home in Cherry Tree Crossing, a public housing project scheduled for demolition.

“It’s a good place, but it’s scary, too, because boys be shooting and stuff,” Davis said.

She and other residents opened their mailboxes Friday to find a letter inviting them to a meeting about relocating nearly 400 Cherry Tree families.

“I’m not mad about it,” Davis said. “It should be done.”

On Tuesday, the Augusta Housing Authority will begin meeting with families about plans to move them starting in June. The barracks-style complex off 15th Street will be replaced with a modern apartment complex for mixed incomes, pending formal approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Residents will be able to move to other public housing projects, senior housing or take Section 8 vouchers that can be applied at privately owned places whose owners accept them.

Demolishing Cherry Tree Crossing is part of a nationwide trend of replacing traditional public housing projects – criticized for becoming isolated pockets of poverty – with mixed-income developments. The new complex to be built on the site of Cherry Tree will be the second mixed-income complex in Augusta.

Alante Ruffin, 25, wants a voucher so she can get out of public housing and into a safer environment for her son and daughter. A new home will be a fresh start when she can find employment and give a better life to her family.

“I love these bricks, but they need to tear it down,” said Ruffin, who has lived in Cherry Tree all her life.

Playgrounds at the complex were removed several years ago, so her kids stay inside, she said. If she uses a voucher to rent a house or apartment, Ruffin’s children could run around and play again.

Leaving Cherry Tree behind would not be so easy for 24-year-old Pierre Lowe, also a lifelong resident of the housing project. His mother, grandmother, siblings, nieces and nephews all live in Cherry Tree, where he has childhood memories and friends.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Lowe said. “If they tear it down and there aren’t bricks left out here, I’m still standing on it.”

A concentration of crime and violent activity isn’t a good reason to demolish the housing project, Lowe said. He thinks the violence will be spread more widely across the city.

According to data from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, five homicides have occurred at Cherry Tree since 2002. The most recent was on Nov. 2, 2010, when Norma Jean Mobley, a 52-year-old mother of four and grandmother of seven, was stabbed in her apartment.

Also in the past 10 years, 435 drug-related offenses, 89 aggravated assaults, 236 burglaries and 34 robberies were cited in Cherry Tree.

Capt. Scott Peebles said a lot of crime in the project is caused by people who aren’t residents. It’s a densely populated complex, so the police call volume is high, he said.

“It’s no secret we respond to crime there, but there’s also a lot of good people that live there,” Peebles said.

Terry Mcrae, 53, doesn’t mind saying goodbye to Cherry Tree if he can move to another public housing development. Mcrae lived in Cherry Tree, then called Sunset Homes, until he was about 8. He moved back in 2000 after staying at Underwood Homes, a housing project in east Augusta that was demolished in 2010 and replaced by the mixed-income Walton Oaks complex.

Mcrae says his childhood neighborhood has changed.

“The difference between now and then, people watched out for one another. Now, I don’t know,” he said. “Now, children are running the joint. It’s a nice place, but it’s too much stuff going on for no apparent reason.”

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ABOUT CHERRY TREE

Cherry Tree Crossing, originally called Sunset Homes, was built in 1939 as one of the nation’s first government housing projects under the Housing Act of 1937, according to The Augusta Chronicle archives. Sunset Homes was for black residents, and Olmstead Homes, near Julian Smith Casino, was for whites. Both were funded by the Works Progress Administration, an agency of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.

After a $12 million renovation, the 393-unit Sunset Homes was renamed Cherry Tree Crossing in 1993 in an effort to improve the complex’s tarnished image, the archives say.

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