Editor’s note: The south central area of Elkhart — one of the poorest and most racially diverse areas of the county — is often viewed only through the lens of crimes that happen in the area. This project attempts to tell a more complex story through the people who call the neighborhood home.
“The drinking down here is such a problem,” Victor Burson says, nudging an empty bottle of Patron with his foot off of the sidewalk and into the grass.
Gun activity in Elkhart
A review of Elkhart Truth archives dating to late 2012 shows there were 21 incidents in and around Elkhart involving guns that led to death or injury, excluding accidents.
Of those, 10 occurred in south central Elkhart, roughly the area bounded by the Norfolk Southern Railroad line to the north and east, Lusher Avenue to the south and Oakland Avenue to the west. Five people died in five of the incidents and five people were injured in the five others.
The 11 others in the rest of the Elkhart area include seven incidents that resulted in the deaths of 10 and four more that resulted in the injury of four people.
Burson stands at the mouth of an alleyway that opens to Benham Court. His family home stands in front of him. Burson is a pastor at Northside Church of the Nazarene and a longtime resident of Elkhart. He looks up, squinting down the gravel side street south of downtown Elkhart and points.
“My mother used to stand right there and watch us come home from school,” he said recalling his youth. “And Edith Pasley used to stand on that corner down there.”
Burson, now 67, attended Roosevelt School, now the Roosevelt Center, on Indiana Avenue and graduated from Elkhart High in 1964. What he remembers most vividly from from growing up in the ’50s and ’60s was always having a neighbor, like Pasley, looking out for him and other kids as they walked home.
Over the past 50 to 60 years, things have changed dramatically in the south central Elkhart neighborhood, which is bounded roughly by the Norfolk Southern lines to the north and east, Lusher Avenue to the south and Oakland Avenue to the west. It is a totally different place, with fewer homeowners and a decreased sense of community.
A July 3 incident on south central’s West Garfield Avenue where a Chicago man and an Elkhart police officer got into a fight brought renewed attention to the neighborhood — particularly the violence that sometimes occurs there and the sense of marginalization felt by some in the area.
The attack left the officer with a broken eye socket and the fight prompted a spike in policing in the neighborhood. Residents say authorities were unfairly cracking down on the zone.
But some say the shifts in the area since the 1950s and the July 3 incident are only parts of the puzzle. Many call it home, and for them, there’s so much more to the story.
A train thunders past as Burson walks over to the nearby city water tower and points at a tree tucked into the southern corner of an open, grassy area.
“That used to be home base,” says Burson. “And this corner where we are was first.”
But now neighborhood ball games are a thing of the past.
Many of the houses used to be occupied by homeowners but are now filled with renters, whom some say are less apt to care for the property, much less the neighborhood.
Lately, south central has been the site of some of the most violent crimes in the city, including the 2013 shooting deaths of Braxton Barham, 16, Devonte Patrick, 18, and Eddie Johnson, 34. Rightly or wrongly, the area has been painted as dangerous, creating a communal and cultural divide in the heart of Elkhart.
“There is a degree of hesitancy to come into this neighborhood,” Burson said. He explained that many of his friends from other areas of the city will drive down Benham Avenue without considering a stop.
The Cozy Corner was a bar in south central Elkhart. This image was provided by the Time Was Museum and Paul Thomas. The date this was taken is unknown.
ROLE OF RACE
Cliche as it sounds, “the other side of the tracks” represents a significant racial divide that’s been present in Elkhart for decades.
“Blacks were on one side of the tracks and Italians were north of the tracks,” said Paul Thomas, Elkhart’s 91-year-old historian.
He went on to say the negative stereotypes regarding the neighborhood today did not exist in first half of the 20th century, at least from his perspective.
That’s not to say there wasn’t segregation and oppression during Burson’s youth.
Burson remembers the area being referred to as “Color Town.” The south central area was tethered off as one of the only areas where African American families could buy a house.
“Elkhart was gradually changing as far as race relations,” says Bonnie R. Clark in her book entitled “703 Wagner,” where she details growing up in south central during the 1940s. “Of course, we were still predominantly racist and prejudice, but black youth were starting to excel … Times for the black race were getting a little better in terms of places we were now allowed to live. We were now allowed to branch out a little further like to the upper part of Hickory Street, Chapman Avenue, Maryland Avenue, Park Avenue, and Benham Avenue. On Sixth Street to Indiana Avenue, there was a dairy called Wambaugh Dairy and a few houses were available for us to purchase.”
Although housing segregation faded with time, the harm done by racism hardly has.
“My sister and I were kicked out of Ideal Beach because of our color,” Burson said. Eventually, Burson said his neighbor and local civil rights activist Edith Pasley led a group of children onto the beach, located north of Elkhart, after she was told that no white person would want to swim in the same water as an African American.
The prejudice blacks here felt came to a head, notably, in May 1971, when black and white Elkhart High School students clashed, forcing the school to close for 4½ days. A series of tense face-offs occurred after a group of white students from Elkhart chased off a group of black Elkhart students during a post-prom visit to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan the weekend before, according to the 1971 Elkhart High School yearbook, archived at Thomas’ Time Was museum.
In the unrest that followed, a warehouse in south central Elkhart was heavily damaged in a fire blamed on arson and a Molotov cocktail was tossed at a house in the 1000 block of West Garfield Avenue, according to a May 19, 1971, Elkhart Truth article. Separate groups massed just blocks apart on May 18, 1971 — blacks on Benham Avenue, whites near the downtown U.S. Post Office — though police helped keep the two sides apart.
LOWER HOME VALUES, LESS INCOME
Although race is a large factor in the area, it is by no means the only one.
Today, home values, among other things, distinguish the south central neighborhood, and not necessarily in a good way.
Even in the last few years, the trend line, although following the rate of change consistent with home values in the rest of Elkhart County, is drastically lower than surrounding areas.
According to Gary Decker, the former president of the Elkhart County Board of Realtors, a home in south central is going to sell for a fraction what it should. He regularly sees $40,000 houses selling for $25,000.
“It doesn’t take rocket science to determine that area isn’t great,” says Decker. He cites negative perceptions of crime and drugs in the area as the leading factor. Lower incomes are also to blame.
The average household income in the area is nearly half of the county average, $23,898 compared to $46,712, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Many middle and upper class individuals moved out of the neighborhood starting between 1960 and 1970, according to city councilman Brent Curry Sr., an advocate of the Pierre Moran Neighborhood Association.
More recently, the recession hit Elkhart County harder than almost anywhere in the country. The south central neighborhood was no exception.
Leighton Johnson, a 22-year-old organizer with the Community Roundtable and south central native, recalls a spike in this trend during the recession. Many of the homes that were once owned in his neighborhood he saw being sold.
“People are less committed to houses if they are renting,” says Johnson. “A lot of houses were lost in recession. The houses of passed away elderly aren’t being passed down either, and renters are coming in instead. The tradition is lost and respect for neighborhood is lost.”
He sees the homes now filled with temporary renters instead of homeowners and with it the sense of pride and place fades.
The amount of homeowners is not an issue for Rick Newbill, a 38-year-resident of Elkhart. Though he admits to the neighborhood hardly being exempt from the housing market declines that came with the recession, he also has noted more homeowners than renters surrounding his home near Hawthorne Elementary School. Newbill feels that the area is a great spot for first-time homeowners.
First-time homeowners Hope and Antonio Varela have considered selling their home in south central several times, especially after being robbed twice. The Varelas have owned their home in south central for 15 years.
The corner of Stevens and Cleveland in south central Elkhart (Emily Taylor/The Elkhart Truth)
“It is kind of scary even if you walk out and see things happening,” says Hope. The couple noticed an uptick in the crime over the last two years.
“You could go outside and not be afraid that something would go down [when we first moved in],” says Hope. They explain how they have considered selling their home and moving out of the neighborhood several times.
Other neighbors also noted an increase in crime over the last two to three years. A review of Elkhart Truth archives dating to late 2012 shows there were 21 incidents in and around Elkhart involving guns that led to death or injury, excluding accidents, and 10 of those occurred in south central Elkhart.
Gary Johnson, Leighton’s father, notes that the amount of crime today plays a huge role in his daily life compared to 30 or 40 years ago.
“I didn’t have to watch my back like I do today,” says Johnson. “There are a lot of people in my neighborhood that are good, hard-working people who want to see things get better, then you have people who just don’t care. A lot of people just think about how I am going to survive?”
‘IT DOESN’T SHOW THE RICHNESS’
The derailment of safety and neighborhood pride is a recurring theme with many throughout south central. However, there are those like Burson who will always pick up the empty bottles from their sidewalk and believe that relationships are the means to mending.
Rod Roberson, an Elkhart city councilman and a longtime resident, sees only the negative being highlighted in the community.
“People judge the neighborhood by the data point of a gunshot or robbery,” says Roberson. “The perception is larger than the reality of it. It doesn’t show the richness of living in that area that is outside of the crime.”
Like many longtime residents, Roberson recalls the neighborhood not simply being houses and lawns, but strong relationships that once existed between each facet of life.
“When I’m there I feel like I can’t help but harken back to the days when I went to school at Roosevelt,” says Roberson. Like Burson, Roberson recalls seeing teachers, pastors, police and firefighters as his neighbors, bidding him hello during afternoon walks home from school. Roberson sees these as points of contact that are vital to a community’s success. These now missing points of contact are pivotal differences between south central in 1950 and south central today.
For community leaders and concerned neighbors, the question remains how to deepen the connection between people, and create positive encounters that ring louder than the negative bursts of violence.
“You can build all of the Lerner Theaters that you want,” says Gary Johnson. “But unless you deal with the people problems, Elkhart isn’t going to get better.”
The area outlined in black is Census Tract 26, a very close area to what is considered “south central Elkhart.” The data below is drawn from Census data and American Community Survey data.