While some community organizers have publicly criticized the city of Charleston’s involvement, or lack thereof, on its West Side, city officials say they have been invested in the neighborhood.
Earlier this month, the Rev. Matthew Watts, of HOPE Community Development Corp., said during a regional meeting of West Virginia University’s diversity committee that he felt the city could only be moved to action on its West Side if it saw the neighborhood as economically valuable.
“What moves this town, what moves every town in America, is money,” Watts said during the meeting.
The Gazette also reported Watts said, “it’s not popular to take a very strong and strident stand for the West Side of Charleston,” because of the city’s “indifference.”
But City Council members representing the West Side and Mayor Danny Jones say otherwise.
“No, I completely disagree,” said Councilman Joe Deneault, who represents Ward 3, in response to Watts’ statement. “I’ve never asked the city administration and my fellow councilmen for any help that hasn’t been given.”
Deneault, who said his ward has the most vacant houses of any other in the city, said requests he has made haven’t gone unanswered. Jones said between 800 and 900 vacant and dilapidated structures have been demolished on the West Side since he came into office in 2003.
“[Watts is] entitled to his opinion,” Jones said. “The West Side gets more city resources than any other part of the city. The reason they get the resources is because they need them.”
Rod Blackstone, assistant to the mayor, said Watts’ “assumption is flawed.”
“His assumption is … because not enough city leaders have embraced his particular cause that there’s not enough investment on the West Side, and that’s not true,” Blackstone said.
Citing funding (more than $40 million, according to Jones) of the Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority’s redevelopment projects in public housing on the West Side, Blackstone said those improvements are “absolutely, positively a legacy of this mayor and this administration.”
Blackstone also listed Jones’ involvement in the Staats Hospital building project, funding for various West Side Main Street projects and work with the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s West Side grant initiative as examples of the city’s dedication to the West Side.
Watts has been critical of the city’s work on the West Side before. Watts told the Gazette in December he didn’t think the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority was putting enough focus on the area and that redevelopment wasn’t happening quickly enough.
The geographic and economic diversity of the West Side is a challenge, and the area is “too large to lump into one piece,” said Ward 7 Councilman Adam Knauff. He said he’d like to see Watts’ West Side Revive campaign “better define what the scope of that project is going to be.”
“My primary concern here with their program is it seems designed for Mary C. Snow [Elementary School] solely. And I think that the problems that Edgewood Elementary may have is likely to be very different than what Mary C. Snow’s are.”
Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary ranked 398th out of West Virginia’s 494 elementary schools last year, according to standardized test scores. Watts Elementary, J.E. Robbins Elementary (both of which have been consolidated and whose students will attend Edgewood Elementary in the fall) and Grandview Elementary School had similar low scores.
The Legislature approved last year a Community School project for four schools on the West Side to connect schools with social services and implement innovative teaching methods.
More than 90 percent of students at Mary C. Snow come from low-income families, and the school is located in the middle of a Drug Market Intervention Zone — identified by law enforcement as the most crime-ridden part of Charleston.
Knauff said he doesn’t agree with media reports that define the West Side as a largely urban area.
“A small percentage of the kids may come from an urban area, but the majority of these kids I wouldn’t consider to be urban at all,” Knauff said of Edgewood students. “My concern is that if you were to lift the program directly as it’s designed for Mary C. Snow and apply that to Edgewood Elementary or Stonewall Jackson, I don’t think that would work, because the problems are too different.”
While at-large Councilman Andy Richardson, who also serves on the West Side Neighborhood Association, said he doesn’t find it unpopular to support the West Side, he also acknowledged areas where he wished more progress was made. Richardson spoke specifically about the city’s West Side Plan and “addressing the dilapidated housing and making it livable.”
“The housing problem is a serious problem,” Richardson said. “We’re working on that, but … that’s private property, and there are significant issues associated with how to get that fixed.”
Councilman Bill Kirk, who represents the part of the West Side and the Sugar Creek area of Charleston, said he wanted to see someone from the mayor’s office at West Side Neighborhood Association meetings. Kirk also sits on the organization’s board.
“This sounds negative, but nothing gets done unless Danny wants it done,” Kirk said.
Kirk said trying to be a liaison to Jones’ office “doesn’t do any good,” because Jones “won’t listen to me.”
Jones acknowledged his contentious relationship with Kirk and said his office is “not involved too much” with Kirk.
“We’re involved in a lot of activities on the West Side, but we haven’t done that well with Kirk,” Jones said. “He’s lashed out at me at a few meetings, just disrespectful, and it doesn’t work out very well.”
Blackstone attends West Side Main Street meetings, while city planner Geoffrey Plagemann is at neighborhood association meetings every month.
“Just having the mayor personally at a meeting doesn’t really get anything done,” Deneault said. “What does get something done [is] when his departments act in the interest of the West Side, that’s getting something done.”
Deneault and several other council members spoke of the Charleston Police Department’s efforts to curb crime on the West Side as a sign of the city’s dedication to the area.
“I think I’d be remiss not to talk about crime, because obviously the stereotype the West Side has is that it’s crime ridden. The efforts of Chief [Brent] Webster are exemplary,” Deneault said.
Richardson said he is “encouraged that the West Side is moving forward with positive energy and positive change,” but that its success is up to more than government or community organizations.
“It’s up to the people of that community to become engaged and committed to making it a better place to live,” Richardson said.