Harrisburg resident fights crime in area

Michael Holahan/Staff
Roger and Lori Davis cemented their decision to stay in their Harrisburg home by installing a pool and plants in their yard.

She's emerged as another outspoken leader in the fight to end crime and decay in Harrisburg, spearheading such tactics as a Fourth of July protest march and a plan to picket outside a landlord's Columbia County residence.

But three years ago, Lori Davis came close to abandoning the neighborhood. She got sick of the loitering, the vagrancy, the panhandling and the constant gunshots, and she'd seen one too many drunk men urinating behind the nearby Shell station. Someone broke into her house and stole some antique guns. Her ex-husband begged her to leave for her own safety.

In 2006, she put her historic Crawford Avenue home -- a relocated piece of the old Fifth Ward Grammar School built in the 1880s -- up for sale.

"It just seemed like, overnight, this neighborhood became where nobody cared what they were doing or if they were seen," Mrs. Davis said.

Then some things happened that changed her outlook.

Her divorce was finalized, and in the settlement she took ownership of the house debt-free. She and her ex had bought it as an investment home in 2001 while they were building another one on Shoreline Drive in North Augusta.

More importantly, she got a letter from a man on Tuttle Street named Butch Palmer, who sent out a mass mailing urging residents to band together to fight crime with a goal of gentrification -- a controversial term describing the influx of affluent homeowners into a deteriorating area, often displacing poorer residents.

Mrs. Davis and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Roger realized they weren't alone.

"We were frustrated at that point," Mr. Davis said. "We felt isolated until the letter came."

She started attending meetings of the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association. Dissatisfied with its direction, she joined Mr. Palmer's splinter group, Harrisburg Organization Networking for Gentrification to Keep Our Neighborhood from becoming a Ghetto, or HONGKONG, in 2007. Mr. Palmer garnered media attention with his vitriolic verbal attacks on Mercy Ministries homeless outreach, neighborhood churches and Section 8 tenants.

Though he became a controversial personality himself, Mr. Palmer rallied enough people to his cause for the HONGKONG crowd to take control of the neighborhood association earlier this year, replacing former president Iain Crawford with Denice Traina, naming Mrs. Davis vice president and putting Mr. Palmer and HONGKONG member Phil Williams on the board of directors.

Last month, Mrs. Davis and Mr. Palmer were the principal organizers of a march through Harrisburg protesting absentee landlords and drug-dealing tenants. Calling themselves "concerned citizens of Harrisburg," they targeted three properties, with Mrs. Davis pounding handmade "nuisance property" signs into the dirt in front of each.

It wasn't an easy thing to do, she said. The 20 people who demonstrated that morning all knew there was -- and still is -- a threat of physical harm or litigation.

Of the three owners, one landlord immediately vowed to change his ways. Another, John B. Weigle Jr., agreed to come to the negotiating table last week after the "concerned citizens" voted to protest in front of his Forest Hills home. Now, Mrs. Davis is planning to picket the owners of the third property, Emory and Rachel Rabitsch, who own 1841 Watkins Street and live in Evans.

Mrs. Davis, who has lived both on the North Augusta riverfront and in Waters Edge on the Augusta riverfront, said she envisions Harrisburg remaining a neighborhood where people are free to be who they are, yet free from the fear of crime.

This isn't about running out the poor, she said.

"It's drug dealers," Mrs. Davis said. "Drug dealers aren't poor. All we want are people who get up and go to work. I mean, honestly."

She and her husband, a cabinetmaker and part-time musician as lead singer of the Beatles cover band Ed Turner and Number 9, are happy to show off exactly what they're trying to hold onto.

Around the time she joined HONGKONG, Mrs. Davis solidified her decision to stay by spending $30,000 installing a pool. It's one of only three in Harrisburg, and it's surrounded by holly trees, Leyland cypresses, a tomato and pepper plant garden, a grill, a fire pit, a See Rock City birdhouse and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.

Though the Davises feel the need to keep a loaded .38 in their kitchen, and they've had a pet-sitter refuse to work in their neighborhood, they say they're not going anywhere.

"I'm hard-headed, dadgummit!" Mrs. Davis said. "They're not gonna' run me out of here. I'm gonna' run them out of here."

"We're fighting a good fight, man," her husband said. "You've got to fight the good fight."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

LORI DAVIS

AGE: 48

OCCUPATION: Office manager for Birth Control Source on Walton Way

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Vice president of the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood association; landlord liaison for the neighborhood association; leading member of the informal "concerned citizens of Harrisburg" group that staged the July 4 protest march against deadbeat landlords and drug peddling.

FAMILY: Husband, Roger; eight cats (four indoor, four outdoor)

QUOTE: "I like law and order, and I like people to obey the law. And when the law is being broken flagrantly in front of everybody -- people peeing in the street in front of everybody -- where one person's freedom begins is where another one's ends."