ELKHART — Antonio and Hope Varela are torn.
They’ve lived 15 years in their home on Stevens Avenue in the south central part of Elkhart. They have many fond memories there.
But it seems like the violent crime in the area keeps edging up. Their home, a neat two-story structure, has been robbed twice and the police presence, while welcome, can sometimes be disconcerting. Hope remembers once when officers pulled their guns on a suspect, right outside the house.
"It makes you think, should I sell the house? Should I move to a different area?“ said Antonio.
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.
For now, the Varelas are staying put, but their doubts underscore the mixed feelings some have about life in the south central neighborhood. The median household income there, just less than $24,000, is about half that of Elkhart County overall, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The zone is one of the city’s most racially diverse, with blacks and Hispanics accounting for 76 percent of the population.
It’s also been the site of a fair share of the most violent crimes here over the past two years, according to Elkhart Truth archives (see the sidebar), including the shooting deaths of a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old last year.
At the same time, though, many say the area is stereotyped into something it isn’t — a place to be avoided, where crime is out of control, where you run a risk by just visiting. Even if crime is higher, that hardly means it’s an everyday occurrence.
"Ain’t nothing around here dangerous,” said Abdul Wasu, originally from Chicago, now living at a home on Frances Avenue, within sight of the Roosevelt Center.
He gestured to the homes around his own house, older but generally in good condition, fronted with neat yards. Some kids nearby were eating ice cream bought from a passing ice cream truck. “This is what you see all day,” he said.
Tonda Hines, a member of the Elkhart City Council who represents part of the south central area, said it’s all about getting to know the people in the racially diverse zone, where blacks and Latinos constitute the majority, census numbers show. It could seem like a tough, intimidating place for someone who just passes through each day without stopping, heading to work or somewhere else, but not for someone who takes the time to get to know the people.
"Am I scared to knock on a door in the 100 block of Garfield? No,“ she said, alluding to the site of a July 3 attack on a police officer by a man there, an incident that sparked stepped up policing and, in turn, charges from many in the black community of heavy-handed action.
She stops, talks to people in the neighborhood, visits their homes. She doesn’t just drive through the south central area, going from point A to point B.
“I’m engaged,” she said.
Linda Conner, who lives on Cleveland Avenue near Ullery Park, has no problem living in south central Elkhart.
"I have yet to experience anything. I don’t have no problems,” Conner said, sitting on her front stoop. She previously lived in Chicago and “whatever happens down here don’t compare to what happens up there.”
She works the second shift at a cabinet-making factory, in fact, arriving home late at night. Even that hasn’t posed an issue.
"Kids don’t have to duck and dodge,“ she said, several grandchildren playing in her yard and riding their bikes on the adjacent sidewalk. “They do what kids do.”
Still, some, while managing, say they’d be elsewhere if they had the money. Home prices are much lower in south central Elkhart, on average, than in Elkhart County overall, according to Gary Decker, an Elkhart real estate agent who tracks home values.
That’s the view of Cassania Knight, who shares her Cleveland Avenue home with four of her five kids. She was sitting on the porch one afternoon, safety glasses from her $9-an-hour factory job still perched on the top of her head.
"I like the area. I stay to myself and I work and I go home,” she said.
Nonetheless, she hears gunshots at times, people “shooting their guns for fun,” and worries about her kids getting mixed up with the wrong people. Some teens in the area emulate being in gangs, though they don’t actually seem to be members.
“This is the bad part of Elkhart right here,” said Erica Johnson, a friend drinking Pepsi with Knight on her porch.
“I think this here is the tough part of town,” added Knight, who is planning to start the search for a second job to help with family expenses.
'WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO BE’
Back east a few blocks to the Varela home, Hope Varela echoes Knight’s attitude about keeping to herself. “If you kind of mind your own business, you’re fine, for the most part,” she said.
Still, that’s of limited consolation for her sister-in-law, Julieta Varela. She notes that a stray bullet won’t always respect innocent bystanders, however discreet they are.
"We can just be walking out to our car and we can be scared we’ll get shot,“ Julieta said.
Others say it’s all about attitude.
"You make the neighborhood out to be whatever you want it to be,” said Miguel Peredia, sitting outside his friend’s home on Park Avenue, north of the Tolson Youth and Community Center. “If you’re respectful to your neighbors, they’ll be respectful to you.”