Originally created 07/06/06

Families in, dealers out; area gets safer



AIKEN - At one time Margaret Thompson, a 40-year resident of Toole Hill, did not feel safe in her own home.

Now, however, her biggest concerns are the motorists who run the stop signs at the intersection of Dillon Avenue and Toole Street and the stormwater in her front yard.

"I enjoy my neighborhood now," she said.

Dillon Avenue has become much safer now that there are "no drug people or nothing like that" conducting business down the street, Ms. Thompson said.

Toole Hill once was an area of high crime, vacant lots, neglected homes and drug activity. The neighborhood has taken on a decidedly new look, however, since it became the focal point of the city's 10-year, $60 million effort to revitalize its north side.

Most of the abandoned and neglected houses have been torn down since the project began in 2003. The drug dealers have gone to other parts of the city, Aiken Department of Public Safety Sgt. David Turno said.

The new construction and families with young children that have taken their places have made the neighborhood much safer. The proof is in the decreasing number of police visits to the neighborhood.

"You're not going to stop crime completely. The numbers are going down, so that can be a good thing. So can the numbers going up," Sgt. Turno said.

He said the number of service calls initially increased when Police and Community Together, or PACT, officers started bicycle patrols in the neighborhood. The officers' visibility and accessibility encourage people to report suspicious activities, he said.

Officer Rick Brown, who has worked as with PACT in Toole Hill for two years, said the neighborhood has improved since the new houses have gone up and the drug dealers have moved out.

"Any time you put interest and effort in the community, you're going to drive the bad element out of here," he said.

Tony Johnson moved to Toole Hill from Clearwater with his wife and two of his four children two years ago.

"I just wanted to live somewhere better. I was renting there. I'm buying here," he said.

He said his family feels safe in the neighborhood.

"You can walk the road now, do whatever you want to do," he said.

Sgt. Turno also said the city has added more street lights to make the neighborhood safer.

According to city budget documents, Aiken spent more than $11,000 for street lighting on the north side in 2005. This year, the city budgeted $15,000 for street lights.

Of course, a little divine intervention can enhance an area's safety, too.

The Rev. Larry Williams, the associate pastor at Montmorenci Missionary Baptist Church, said he is one of six ministers who live on Dillon Avenue. He and his wife moved into their home with their three daughters, ages 17, 14 and 7, six years ago.

"It's a pretty nice neighborhood. It used to be a real bad neighborhood. We got rid of a lot of the drug activity that was going on around here," the Rev. Williams said. "Since we got rid of the drugs, it's become a pretty good neighborhood. Real quiet."

Taking an extra precaution or two is never a bad idea, either.

"I don't feel safe enough to leave my door open, but I feel safe," the Rev. Williams said.

Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or betsy.gilliland@augustachronicle.com.

CRIME STATS


The Aiken Department of Public Safety has seen a decline in the number of calls for service, which range from animal complaints to vandalism to serious crimes, in Toole Hill. Figures for this year are through June 27.

TOTAL CALLS


2002...............390


2003...............295


2004...............262


2005...............264


2006...............194




BURGLARY


2002...............8


2003...............6


2004...............11


2005...............16


2006...............4




SIMPLE LARCENY


2002...............14


2003...............15


2004...............13


2005...............11


2006...............6




AUTO BREAKING AND ENTERING


2002...............2


2003...............2


2004...............1


2005...............7


2006...............3




DISCHARGE OF FIREARM


2002...............3


2003...............1


2004...............2


2005...............0


2006...............0

Source: Sgt. David Turno, Aiken Department of Public Safety