Originally created 09/24/98

Families reclaim streets



Runetta Rigdon bent to pick up the stray blades of grass she raked up off the edge of the concrete apron in front of her Harrisburg home and then sat wearily on her front steps, as sweaty and flushed as the glass of pink lemonade next to her.

As a younger woman, she remembers coming to this house and sitting with its elderly owner, Miss Lil, for a chat on the porch. A year ago, after 13 years away in Columbia County, she and her husband, Jimmy, moved back to the area, joining a growing stream of families hoping to reclaim their former neighborhood.

"This feels like home," she said, the way no place in Columbia County could.

Still, that neighborly feeling is threatened by unkempt rental properties and the drugs and crime they bring with them, neighborhood leaders said. But now the area is ready to fight back, beginning with a town hall meeting at 7:30 p.m. today at Bible Deliverance Temple, 1857 Fenwick St.

Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers and a representative from the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, as well as other city departments, will be on hand to answer questions, said the Rev. Kelly McKnight, president of the Harrisburg Neighborhood Association and associate pastor at Bible Deliverance. His father, Bible Deliverance pastor H.K. McKnight, sounds as if he is speaking from the pulpit when he talks about neighborhood improvement.

"We're going to take our neighborhood back," he thundered. "If we have to walk the streets, we will."

Deputies are already trying to take back the Harrisburg streets through concentrated patrols in the neighborhood, but it is difficult to eradicate the drug element there, said Chief Deputy Ronald Strength. Neighbors complain of crack houses raided eight or nine times that go right back into business after the arrests.

That "is probably true," Chief Deputy Strength said. "But we can't help 'em getting out on bond and going back and doing the same thing. Law enforcement can't make people move and relocate."

But maybe neighbors can, said Harrisburg resident Melvin Parkman, who has lived all 55 of his years in the area and serves as treasurer of the neighborhood association. One of the bigger problems homeowners face is a wide range of rental property whose owners live elsewhere and don't police their tenants. The neighborhood association plans to get a complete list of the owners and call them, no matter what time of day or night, when the residents run amok, Mr. Parkman said.

"If I can't sleep, why should he?" Mr. Parkman said.

That plan could go a long way toward improving a neighborhood that runs from neat orderly homes on one block to peeling, dilapidated weed-strewn houses on the next, the elder Rev. McKnight said.

"The pressure is going to go on the person who owns the property," the Rev. McKnight said. "We're going to have decent people living in our community."

And part of that solution is coming in people homesick for the old neighborhood who are moving back and restoring the homes -- some built for the millworkers in the 1880s, some built in the housing boom around World War II. Though they had a much larger and finer house in Country Club Hills, it wasn't four years before Ray and Betty Phillips moved back to Harrisburg.

"She wanted to move back before we got settled in there," Mr. Phillips joked. "She stayed down here more than she stayed up there."

"We like the Harrisburg people," Mrs. Phillips said. The kind of people who cook for a grieving family and watch after their neighbors, she said.

"That's our type of people," Mr. Phillips said.

The couple has completely renovated the house on Fenwick Street, built in 1941, but aren't looking at it as a monetary investment. When they are gone, it will go to a daughter, Mrs. Phillips said.

"We'll never get out of it what we put into it, but we love it here," Mrs. Phillips said. "That's the main thing."

And sometimes those kind of improvements rub off on the neighbors, Mrs. Rigdon said, as she contemplated the rake in front of her.

"You go out and start cleaning and -- next thing you know -- a couple of houses down they're out working," Mrs. Rigdon said.

That kind of spirit is what the neighborhood association is hoping to capture, the younger Rev. McKnight said. With 30 churches in the area, each with a core group of people still living in the neighborhood, there is a ready pool of community-conscious people who could join the association's efforts, he said. Bible Deliverance is already working to build an activity center for after-school programs and family film nights, the elder Rev. McKnight said.

Those churches represent another force he'd like to see brought to bear on Harrisburg.

"The answer to all of this is to have an old-time revival here; get everyone saved and get them in church," the Rev. McKnight said.

Revival being the key word in Harrisburg.The Harrisburg Neighborhood Association will host a town hall meeting for Harrisburg residents at 7:30 p.m. today at Bible Deliverance Temple, 1857 Fenwick St. Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers, a representative of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, and other city departments will be on hand to answer questions. The public is invited.

said Chief Deputy Ronald Strength. Neighbors complain of crack houses raided eight or nine times that go right back into business after the arrests.

But maybe neighbors can, said Harrisburg resident Melvin Parkman, who has lived all 55 of his years in the area and serves as treasurer of the neighborhood association. One of the bigger problems homeowners face is a wide range of rental property whose owners live elsewhere and don't police their tenants. The neighborhood association plans to get a complete list of the owners and call them, no matter what time of day or night, when the residents run amok, Mr. Parkman said.

"If I can't sleep, why should he?" Mr. Parkman asked.

That plan could go a long way toward improving a neighborhood that runs from neat, orderly homes on one block to peeling, dilapidated, weed-strewn houses on the next, the elder Rev. McKnight said.